Sermon for Oct. 31, 2010 All Saints, Reformation Sunday Habakkuk and Luke 19:1-10

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Luke 19:1-10

The Little Prophet and the Little Profiteer 

Geneva Reformers

Two special celebrations meet on this Sunday: All Saints Day and Reformation Sunday.  On All Saints Day we honor the memory of those who have gone before us; those with whom we will be reunited in the resurrection.  I believe we honor them best by doing what they would want us to be doing in our generation: faithfully hearing the scriptures read, reflecting on their application to our lives, and letting the ancient words become modern mandates for us, as Jesus’ disciples.

We celebrate the Reformation no better than to read a verse from Habakkuk that was so influential to Martin Luther, has he encountered it the book of Romans (1:17) where Paul quotes it.  Luther made a note in his bible, beside the words, “ the righteous live by their faith.” He wrote, in Latin, the word, “sola” or “alone:” “faith alone” became one of the three central slogans of the Reformation to which we Reformed Christians are heir.   (source: Texts for Preaching C, W/JK, p. 578)

Habakkuk’s Dialogue – and ours

Let us begin there, with the text from the prophet Habakkuk.  We read a portion of the back and forth dialogue between the prophet and the Lord that is so characteristic of the book of Habakkuk.  The prophet makes his complaint and waits for God’s answer.  He complains that things have gone wrong in every measurable category;

3       Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4   So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—

His words, echoing down to us from six centuries before Christ, have an uncanny  modern ring to them; he complains and waits for a reply.  The reply comes:

2 Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.

Use the largest font size your printer will produce – large enough for people on the run to read as they whizz by; it’s that important!

3 …If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.

The suspense builds as we wait for the message.  What will the Lord say about such a time, such a mess-up time?  The message begins with a call to make an observation:

4  Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,

In messed-up times, if there is any hope on offer, we are not its source.  If there is any reason to believe things will be better, it is not anything we will be able to manage; there is no cause for pride; the self-sufficient spirit of “the proud” is “not right.”  So now we are ready for the requested reply from the Lord:

“the righteous live by their faith.”

Hope, if there is any on offer in messed-up times of violence, injustice, and strife, times like these, comes to those who live by faith; those who look at the messed-up conditions around and say that there is a reality deeper than the one seen by the naked eye.  Despite appearances, God is in control; that is our faith.  God’s purposes are being fulfilled; we will live by that faith even in times such as these.

It is the person who lives by faith that can say, along with Habakkuk, these powerfully hopeful words from the conclusion of his book:

3:17  Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
18   yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
19  GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

In messed-up times, “the righteous live by faith” and are therefore, people of hope.

Zacchaeus in the tree

If the sense of living in messed-up times links us with Habakkuk, how much more does it link us with Jesus and his times.  In the generation before Jesus, Rome, which had been a republic had devolved into an empire, often run by mad-men.  Israel which had been an independent nation, was now just a peripheral province under the Roman boot.

Oppression took all kinds of forms, none the least of which was the toll-collection system which sanctioned extortion.  Toll collectors, like Zacchaeus, got rich fleecing the defenseless populations of their districts – and were deeply resented for it.

In messed-up times, not everybody suffers equally.  I just heard a finding from a survey of millionaires – as a group they doing fine.  I hope that makes you feel better about these times.  The financial wizards who sold worthless securities and at the same time bet against them did quite well when they brought down the economy on our heads.

I guess we could put Zacchaeus in the same category as a modern, unscrupulous hedge-fund manager, enriching himself on the backs of the misery of others.   But something was going on that was invisible to the naked eye.  Something sent Zacchaeus out his door and down the streets of Jericho to see Jesus that day.  Something sent that ridiculous little rich man scampering up a tree.  He may have checked the box indicating “very satisfied” on the survey of millionaires, but his perch, up there with the squirrels, told another story.

The story of Zacchaeus is artfully told, even elegantly, but frustratingly spare.  When he looked up and saw him in the tree, how did Jesus know his name?  Perhaps that is the question we are all meant to ask ourselves as well; how does he know my name?

As we think about this story we have other questions:  How could Jesus have offered to share table fellowship with, and hence full acceptance of, a person who had spent his life luxuriating in an economic system that caused so much suffering and pain to others?  The people who grumbled about it had reasons – good ones.

And what in the world did Jesus say to Zacchaeus that motivated that miraculous response?  Why is nothing recorded – no “turn or burn” speech by Jesus, no “repent or perish” words – not even a suggestion of turning a new leaf?   It was as if the mere fact of accepting Zacchaeus as a part of God’s family, the mere willingness to call him a “child of Abraham,” the singular offer to come to his home and eat with him was enough all by itself to provoke that response.

And what a response!

8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

Most of us are emotionally attached to our money in ways that are even deeper than we understand.  It would take a work of God in our hearts to change us.  It would be a miracle.

9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Habakkuk said that “the proud” are “not right” in their spirits.  Some of them know it, and it feels empty. It is that restless emptiness that sends them out the door, down the street, and scampering up trees.  It is Jesus’ willingness to embrace them – yes, even them – as children of Abraham, in other words, as sons and daughters of the promise, as people accepted and loved by God that brings salvation.

Gratitude as Response to Love

Gratitude to God for his unlikely, unlimited embrace is our link with this story.  We, who like Zacchaeus, have been named by God have been called as well to make room for him in our homes, at our tables.  He comes, and like Zacchaeus we are filled with joy.

Like Zacchaeus, our gratitude to God for his unearned embrace shows itself in the radical dis-attachment of our hearts from our money.  Suddenly we see poor people whom we never noticed before, and we give.  Suddenly we see injustice, and we fix it.  Suddenly everything we have looks different – looks like gifts, waiting to be re-gifted.

This is why we give.  When the pledge cards (or, faith-promise cards) arrive in the mail, we do not fill them out because anyone is watching; we do not promise to give because we need to pay church bills, we do not wait for the cajoling speech about budgets and duty, we respond out of gratitude to God.

Gratitude to God for his gift of accepting us, for his gift of hope, even in messed up times, enables us to sing with Habakkuk:

3:17 Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
19 GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

We who live in messed-up times are here to say what Zacchaeus learned:

“the righteous live by their faith.”

Sermon for Stewardship Consecration Sunday, 2010, 2 Corinthians 8-9

2 Cor. 8:1-15; 9:6-12

worship service/mass grave at Vukovar, Croatia


8:1 We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia;  2 for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.  3 For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means,  4 begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—  5 and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us,  6 so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you.  7 Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.

8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.  9 For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.  10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something—  11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.  12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have.  13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.  15 As it is written,

“The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”

9:6  The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.  9 As it is written,

“He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;

his righteousness endures forever.”

10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.  11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us;  12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.

Explaining a Miracle

How do you explain a miracle?  Silly question, isn’t it?  If you could explain it, it would cease to be a miracle, right?  And yet, that’s what I want to do today.  Okay, I do not not exactly want to explain how the miracle happened, but rather, what the miracle was and why it happened.  Because it’s going to happen again today, and we best be ready for it.

What was the miracle?

Ethnic Animosity

First, I want to start with some background.  I spent a dozen  years in Eastern and Central Europe as a missionary.   I arrived in time to watch the birthday parties of the newly born free states of former Yugoslavia become a funeral procession for hundreds of thousands.

The people of those newly independent nations became inhumane nationalists overnight, ready, willing and all too frequently able to throw neighbors into mass graves.

We have racism here in America – I grew up with that – but over there, I learned about the demonic power of ethnic animosity.  It’s still going on in Bosnia today; it would take a miracle to stop it.

An Easter text?

And that brings us to our text.  I want to call this an Easter text.  I have heard smart people give lectures about proof of the resurrection at the empty tomb.  This text before us may be just as much proof.  It’s a miracle text.

Here is the point: something happened that made people who were from different ethnic groups, groups that had despised one another, every bit as much as Serbs and Croats did, not only stop hating each other, but pull out their wallets and give money from one to the other.  That, my friends, is a miracle!

anti-Semitism and the gospel



Here is what happened.  Jesus was Jewish – lived, taught, healed, was killed and rose from the dead as a Jew among Jewish people in the land of Judea.

Paul was Jewish too.  Please do not think for a moment that anti-Semitism is a modern or even a European phenomenon.  Greeks and Romans were famously anti-Semitic.

But Paul believed that the gospel of the resurrection of Jesus really is “the power of God for salvation” of Jews, like him, and non-Jews as well.  He became an apostle to the gentiles.

Paul’s 2 Problems

He had two problems.  1.  How was he going to get non-Jewish people to listen to him preach the gospel?; and 2.  if they listened and believed it, how would he ever convince the Jewish-Christian leaders back in Jerusalem, where it all started, that these gentiles had actually become Christians?  It would take a miracle.

Long story, short, problem no. 1 was solved: Paul was successful at planting Christian communities among gentiles throughout the Roman Empire.  Gentiles experienced the miracle of new birth in Jesus Christ.

Now, problem 2: getting the Jewish Christians to accept the genuineness of these gentile Christians, Paul believed, would happen if those Jewish Christians witnessed an undeniable miracle taking place among the gentile Christians.

The Money miracle

Question: what miracle would do it?  What would be big enough evidence of God at work in an undeniable way that would convince the Jewish Christians that the gentiles had converted?  Answer:  money.

Paul reasoned this way: money, for almost everybody in the world, is god.  Money means food on the table, a roof overhead, clothes on our backs, and wellbeing for our families.  It is not a light matter.

Emotional Attachment



Everybody is and always has been  emotionally attached to their money.  They are nervous about getting it, and cagy about how much they have.  They let go of it only by necessity, and with hesitation, and never without getting something for it.  To change this basic fact of life would take a miracle.

But this is exactly the miracle that our text from 2 Cor. is all about.  Paul reports to the Corinthians that their fellow gentiles in Macedonia had already contributed in a generous way to this collection that he was organizing for the poor in Jerusalem.

He would add to it what the Corinthian gentiles gave and then take it as proof positive to Jerusalem that God had miraculously brought gentiles into the family of faith.

Only God could pry coins out of human fists with nothing but love in return, for the sake of people who were not related.  It happened.

And this is the same miracle that is happening today, on this consecration Sunday, as we offer to God our response to his call to giving.

What can we learn from that miracle?

Motives for Giving:


First that the motive for giving is and always has been simple: gratitude to God for his lavish gift to us of Jesus Christ.

Listen again to how Paul framed the motivation for giving:

8  I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.  9  For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

We too give, not because of any law, but out of hearts overflowing with gratitude to God for his remarkable gift to us.

Spiritual Relationship with God

MistyDays / CB


Similarly, the Corinthian Christians understood that giving was a part of their spiritual relationship with God.  Listen again:

3  For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means,  4  begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—  5  and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us,

It was because the “they gave themselves first to the Lord,” because of their relationship to him that they gave.  This is also why we give.  It is part of our journey of growing trust in God who supplies all our needs that we open our hearts and our hands in generous giving.

Privilege to Serve

We can learn another motivation from the Corinthians: they understood that it was their privilege to serve.  They were not missionaries like Paul, they did not preach sermons or start churches, but they had a role to play in his missionary ministry that was deep and profound.  They counted it a privilege to participate in his ministry by giving.

In the same way, we have the privilege of participating in the total ministry of this church – here locally, and in this Presbytery and this region, and even in  places like Haiti and Turkey and around the world.  I am making a difference;  you are making a difference!  This is our joy; our privilege.

Thoughtful, Proportional Giving

We learn from this text that giving is not just a spontaneous gush in response to an emotional appeal.  Rather biblical giving is thought through and proportional.  Let us hear again:

10 …it is appropriate for you who began last year… 11 to finish doing it, …by completing it according to your means.  12 For …the gift is acceptable according to what one has

Notice that they began the collection an entire  year before Paul arrived – not on a momentary whim, but they were disciplined and reflective about it.  And notice that the giving was to be proportional, according to their means.

We believe that God calls each of us to give proportionally, a percentage of our means, and to decide that percentage as a result of conscious, prayerful reflection.

What percentage is right?

This is what we all must decide as responsible people, before God.  The biblical standard is 10%, which is what a “tithe” means.  God gives us everything we have, and allows us to spend a full 90% on ourselves if we wish.  But 10% is for him, the firstfruits, off the top at the start of every month, the first check written.

I can tell you that I tithe 10% of my income every month.  I have a mortgage, a child in college and one who will be there soon, and I can tell you that God provides for us, just as we heard he would, as the text we read affirms.

Grow One Step

Katarina 2353


Now perhaps you have not made proportional giving a life-habit and your current giving is below 10%.  Then hear this challenge: whatever proportion of your means that you have given in the past, use it as a baseline from which to grow in faith.  Ask God to give you the faith to increase that percentage this year, and every year until you reach the biblical 10%.  Grow one step this year.

If you are retired and living on a fixed income,  then my suggestion is to look at your annual expenses, including discretionary spending on restaurants, travel, gifts, and determine  your giving as a proportion of your total spending.

The Promise and the Challenge

The promise of scripture is this:

6  the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.   7  Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.

We are either emotionally attached to our money or to God; this is a spiritual issue that is vital to our spiritual growth as people of faith.   We are here out of the joy and privilege of knowing God through Jesus Christ; our attachment will be to God through whom all blessings flow!


Lectionary Sermon for 28th Ordinary, C on Jeremiah 29:1, 4 –7

Jeremiah 29:1, 4 –7

Luke 17:11-19

The Shape of S

One thing is for sure: if someone is telling you to “make yourself at home” you are not at home.  And probably even though your host wants you to feel as relaxed at her house as you do in your own, that is simply not going to happen.  You don’t have to travel to the land of Oz to know how true Dorothy’s words were: “There’s no place like home.”

Where is Home?

Where is home?  How long do you have to spend in one place until it feels like  home?  Some of you have moved around a lot in your life; you have had to make a lot of places feel like home.  Almost none of us is native to Gulf Shores; we live here now – is this our real “home?”

Do we ever feel completely at home?  Or isn’t there a deep restlessness in us for a destination we were made for but have never been to (C. S. Lewis’ “island in the West)?  It is part of our human condition to both need to make a place “home” and yet at the same time, to feel that no place fits our ideal concept of home.  Perhaps the womb was the only home in which we were ever perfectly content; but having left it, no one is able to return.

Exiles, all

dai oni


So, in some sense, we are all exiles.  This is our point of contact with today’s scriptures.  The text from Jeremiah was a letter written by the prophet to his community in literal exile, far away from home, in Babylon.  The text from Luke is finally about a single man giving thanks to God for healing him of leprosy – and he was a foreigner; a person not-at-home; an exile.

So we enter these texts as fellow exiles, with two questions: how did we get here, and how should we get-on here?

Israel in exile asked the same questions – she had to; exile was a crisis.  Far away from Jerusalem’s temple, without a king, outside the land of promise,  she asked, how did we get here, and how should we get-on here?

How did we get here?

The question of how we got here was not simple; it was not finally answered “Well the Babylonian army came and conquered us and marched us off to their land.”  It was much deeper.  It had to include God’s role in the story.  How did we, the people of God, the people of the promise to Abraham, wind up as the losers, the victims, the exiles?

There was one explanation that made sense that Israel began to tell in exile, in Babylon.  It started as a story of origins.  God made a good world, he blessed the world.  It was a beautiful, bountiful, fertile world that supplied everything necessary for life.

God made humans and put them in this good world – male and female, made in his image, made free, and good.  God made them uniquely human – able to know and love him, able to know and love each other.  God made a perfect setting for total well-being, in Hebrew, “shalom.”  Peace, contentment, harmony, satisfaction, that is what shalom means; total welfare.

Choices and exile

But, the story that Israel in exile told continued.  We humans used our freedom to make choices which we knew were contrary to God’s good will.  So we broke the shalom of the Garden, our first home, our real home; we have been exiles ever since.

Being an exile is about knowing that you were made for a place different from the one in which you find yourself.  We were made for the Garden – to walk with God in the cool of the evening, to know one another, and feel no shame.

Israel in exile reviewed her long history as a nation of repeatedly making the same mistake, choosing wrongly, going against God’s good guidance, drooling like Adam and Eve over the nearest apple of delight, swallowing the bitter fruit, ending in agony.

So how did we get here?  Israel in exile answered the question: “we got ourselves here.”


We were not made for this, but here we are.   Israel’s answer is our answer.  How did we end up as people who feel exiled from a home we were made for but have never seen?


St. Augustine put it this way: “You have made us for Yourself oh Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” (Confessions Lib 1,1-2,2.5,5: CSEL 33, 1-5)

Restlessness is knowing something is missing.  It is the opposite of the well-being of “shalom.”

How do we get-on here?

So here we are in the exile of our own design; how do we get-on here?  How do we live in exile?  Is there any hope of finding shalom in exile?

Israel in exile received Jeremiah’s letter which provides hope to exiles everywhere.   Let us walk through it carefully.  The letter begins,

4  Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:

Hope starts from the first line: exile is not a place from which the community cannot hear the word of the Lord.  No, Babylon is not Eden; it is not so easy to have a relationship with God anymore; but it is not impossible.  The word of the Lord reaches all the way to exile.

Hope continues:

4  Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:

Israel was conquered; God was not.  Even exile is within his control.  He sent us into exile because of our own fault, the Babylonians were his means.  Hope in exile is understanding that God is still in control.

No, it doesn’t appear as such, does it?  In exile, we think of loss; the housing market, cancer, the kids, the grandkids, recession, debt, danger.  But the prophet asserts a fundamentally contrary perspective.  God is still in control.  God is speaking to the exiles.  What does he say

5  Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they

Habitat for Humanity

produce.  6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 

Let us hear the final summarizing line again in a way that is more true to what Jeremiah wrote:

7  But seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom.

A Mandate and Hope

Israel in exile was given a mandate and a hope.  The  mandate came in two strong verbs of action: seek and pray.  Exile is not a time for resignation or despair.  It is not a time to be paralyzed by fear or immobilized by depression.

Seek the shalom of the city of  your exile.  Seek the peace, the well-being, the wholeness, the creational-fruitfulness of your city of exile.

In your seeking for shalom, pray to the Lord on behalf of the city.  The Lord who is able to speak his word to you in exile is also able to hear your voice from exile.  Pray to the Lord on behalf of the people of your city.  Pray for their well-being, their shalom.  Pray to be given daily strength and daily wisdom to go out and seek the shalom of your city.

Why?  Because God has so ordered the world that we will find our shalom in the shalom of our community of exile.

Here the word of the Lord again:

7  But seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom.

Our shalom, our well being is not achieved by hoarding and hiding behind secure walls.  Our shalom is found in the vulnerable, risk-taking of active involvement.  Our shalom is not achieved by cursing the condition of exile, but in praying for the Lord’s shalom to be experienced by the entire city.

Here for a reason

This is our mission mandate and the promise that provides hope.  We are here for a reason.  God has put us here to be vehicles of his shalom to Gulf Shores, to Baldwin County, to Alabama and the Gulf Coast, even to our country, and even to the world.

We start where we are.  Here is our hope: that in seeking the shalom of the people who need the ministry of the Christian Service Center, we find our shalom.  That in  providing winter jackets for school kids of of the region, we experience shalom.  In donating blood, we find shalom.  In every opportunity to minister to others, we receive shalom, well-being in return.

The Cure



Are you anxious about the future?  Are you down about your health?  Do you struggle with loneliness?  All of these experiences of exile could be substantially ameliorated, for example, by giving yourself to an elementary student who needs a tutor two days a week and praying for them the other five days of the week.

The principle is this: shalom functions in the shape its first letter, the shape of an  S – the circle that starts at the center and moves out becomes the circle that doubles back around and returns.  We are made by our Creator to find our well-being in seeking the well-being of others; to find our shalom in seeking shalom for our city.

As St. Francis said, “Lord make me an instrument of your peace (your shalom)… for it is in giving that we receive.”

We are living in the age of the abundant curse.  “Curse the government, curse the politicians, curse the bankers, curse the Muslims, gays, and everyone different.”  No one will find the well-being we are seeking in the curse.  We find shalom by actively seeking the shalom of our world.  We will not be people of the curse: we will be exiles of hope, bearing God’s shalom as we actively, persistently, hope-fully seek after and pray for the shalom of the city that today we call home.


Lectionary Sermon for 28th Ordinary C on Luke 17:11-19

Ordinary  28 C October 10, 2007
Luke 17:11-19

Healing Beneath the Skin

by lhglhFlickr

If you want a “good read,” you find a novel – a good story to take your mind to another place for awhile – maybe a scary place, or a suspenseful place – perhaps a place of romance, whatever your pleasure.

But if you want to win the Nobel Prize for literature, you have to write about “the human condition.”

That phrase, all by itself, suggests a problem.  The question “What condition is she in?” is the one you ask just before the question,  “Will she make it?”

If you are in a “condition” you are probably not well.  It is universally understood that  “the human condition” is a state of not-wellness.

Of all the things that Jesus may have said or done, stories of people he healed were treasured and saved for us.  People in the “human condition” have a vested interest in stories of people becoming well.

This healing story, with its precise numbers, provokes questions: How many sick people are there really in this story?  How many people are healed by the end?  Are there any people left out of the healing?  Where are we, in this story?

Children often hear this story the incident of “the one thankful leper;” as a lesson in being polite: saying “thank you.”  If that’s the point, I’m not sure it’s enough to get me out of bed on a Sunday morning. Say “Thank you” OK.

Besides, the Roman statesmen Cicero already said “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all virtues.”  We do not need Jesus to teach us what every Roman knew about the virtue of saying “thank you” 100 years BC.

There must be something more going on here.

There is, and it is indeed about the human condition and about healing.  We need to hear this text, we people in the “human condition.”

The story opens in a place.  The place is hard to identify on a geographic map: between Samaria and Galilee – so perhaps Luke is trying to set the story, not spatially, but ideologically.  This story happens between two groups of people; people that despise each other: Samaritans and Galileans, that is, Jews.

In this space appear 10 people – not a dozen,  not “several” but 10.  Why the precise number?  What does 10 mean to an Israelite?  Are we supposed to be reminded of the 10 tribes of Israel that were conquered by the Assyrians, lost, and never heard from again?

These 10 are lepers – they are not what we identify as lepers today, but people with a skin disease.  They were ostracized from the community by their affliction, which made them religiously “unclean”; they had to stand “far off”.

“Far off” was an important term for the prophets. Are we supposed to be reminded of the prophecy in Isaiah that the Lord would gather all the exiles, the ones who were “far off” and bring them back to their home land, a healing of the national wound?

If so, and if we are good Jews reading this story, we remember that when our people returned from exile, when the one remaining tribe of Judah returned, the land was not empty, it had Samaritans living in it – and they were not ready to be pushed aside.  There was ethnic trouble.  It’s only natural; part of the human condition.

These 10 lepers call out from afar off, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  Have mercy?  It sounds more like a prayer to God than a plea for healing.  It is indeed a plea, from people who know they are ill, who know that their condition is not what it was created to be; who know that they are in need of mercy from the Master.

The master is characteristically responsive to people who are willing to acknowledge that their condition is not-well, and in need of mercy.  The master was often dogged by people who pretended to have no need of mercy, to be whole; but these  10 knew their condition was not well.

Jesus responds oddly: no words of healing, no gesture, no touch; only a directive to go do what Torah teaches: “go show yourselves to the priests,” he says, and they go.

The narrator is holding out on us.  He knows something that we do not yet – and since we are not told of it, we do not know if Jesus knows it yet either – that one of those ten is now in a very uncomfortable position.

To which priests does a Samaritan leper go?  Not to the ones in Jerusalem; Samaritans do not acknowledge them as legitimate. They worship on Mt. Gerizim – which the Jews do not acknowledge as legitimate.

To whichever priests this one leper heads, in this nether-region between Samaritan space and Jewish space, he and the other 9 are all healed; literally, “made clean.”  Everyone who asked for mercy from the master was restored to a healthy condition.  Story over?

The story is not at all over. There is a plot twist.  Ten go away, just like the 10 tribes of Israel went away into exile, but now, just like the one tribe of Judah, one leper returns.

He does not return, like Judah, to find Samaritans on his land, he IS a Samaritan on the land.  Listen to how Luke describes his return: “He prostrated himself at Jesus feet and he thanked him.  And he was a Samaritan.”

There are a variety of  words that we translate “thanks.”  This one is the word from which we get “Eucharist.”  The great meal of thanksgiving for God’s mercy, given to us by Jesus, is Eucharist – thanksgiving.   Thanksgiving, Eucharist, is the response of those who have been healed, made clean of their un-well condition by the mercy of the Master.  This Eucharistic thanks is offered by a non-Israelite – and accepted by Jesus in the name of God.

Three rhetorical questions follow:

1) Jesus asked, were not 10 made clean?

2) Where are the other 9?

3) And finally, the stinger: Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this person of another race?

Was none of them found?  The lost coin was found.  The lost sheep was found.  Even the lost son was found and welcomed home; if all were healed, were the others en route to the priests still lost?  Perhaps their illness was deeper than the skin.

Only one was found to return.  Return is what the people in exile longed for.  Return was what the prophets promised.  Return happened, and along with it, bitter ethnic strife.

One returned, but he was, literally, “of a different race.”

And yet he was there at the Master’s feet, having Eucharist.

Go, Jesus said, your faith in the mercy of God, given to you through Jesus Christ has “saved you.”  Not just “healed you” but “saved you” – way below “skin-deep.”

This serious, deeply complex story sits comfortably here in Gulf Shores among us today.
We are here not because we claim to be in a well-condition.  We are here acknowledging, like the lepers, that we are all caught up in the human condition – and it is an un-well state.  This is step number one for receiving the mercy of healing: knowing ourselves as sick people, calling out for mercy.

And though we are not even yet fully healed of that condition, we are here because we have received the first-fruits of that healing.  We have opened our hearts to the mercy of God, and he has been merciful to us.  He has forgiven us.  He has found us.

But the ambiguity at the end of the story with its 3 questions forces us to keep the story open-ended.  It’s not over.  Mercy has been extended; all 10 healed; now what about our response?

In this fuzzy story-space between Samaria and Galilee, between people whom we acknowledge as like us and those that are of a different kind, we have choices to make.
When the healing we have experienced is more than skin deep, if it is truly salvation, then we are ready to gather to have Eucharist, thanksgiving, at a common table with everyone that has been found by the master’s mercy.

Those to whom making distinctions is still relevant, that is, identifying the outsiders and excluding them, may indeed be cozy with the priests at the national shrine, but they have not been found, they have not returned, they do not know the power of Eucharistic Thanksgiving that follows deep salvation.

The human condition is deep; our need for healing is deep.  It goes to our very souls.  We are the ones who need mercy every day.

And having received mercy, having responded with Eucharistic thanksgiving, we are renewed with faith to go back out into the world of us-and-them as agents of mercy which rejects such distinctions.

It is our mission to extend the reach of the master’s mercy – right across the street, up the road, and to the world.




Sermon for World Communion Sunday 2010

1 Cor. 12:12-13

John 17:20-23

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, One Mission


We all hate it when there is an awkward silence around the table.  There we are with people we know well, and no one is speaking.  You hear the forks touch the plates, you notice when someone clears their throat.  You avoid random eye-contact, exchange furtive glances at allies.  It’s embarrassing.  There is an elephant in the room that no one can talk about.  His weight squashes small talk.

Awkward silence around the table is not how we picture heaven, is it?  How could we?  There is supposed to be joy around the table at the banquet hosted by Messiah, where we all feast on rich delicacies together, right?  Wasn’t that Isaiah’s vision?

Who else will be there?

But I’m wondering how that’s going to work out.  What if Jovan is there (name changed since this is posted on the internet).  If he is there, sitting near me, how can there be anything but an awkward silence?  I’ll come back to Jovan in a minute to explain.

Wouldn’t there be an awkward silence around the table if Northern Irish Catholics had to

sit near Protestants?  What if Rwanda’s Christian Hutus were seated next to Tootsies?  What if the World War II vets were all in the same area, Christians from France and Germany, England, Italy and the United States – all mixed together like a tossed salad?

Germans and Christianity (my people)


Let’s think about this more deeply.  Let’s stay with WWII for a moment.  My ancestors were German.  I want to ask them some questions.  I want to ask those that have been Catholics since the conversion of the Germanic tribes what it meant for them to call themselves Christians?

I want to ask those who have been Lutherans since the 16th Century and Reformed (Presbyterian) for all that time too, what did it mean to be Protestant Christians?  What did it mean to affirm the great slogans of the reformation: “sola gratia,  sola fide, sola scriptura” (grace alone, faith alone, scriptures alone)?  What did it mean to proclaim “ad fontes” (back to the fountainhead – the sources, the origin)?

Here is my question: if after hundreds of years of catechisms and sermons, how was it that so many of us were so easily and completely seduced by the demonic doctrines of Hitler’s fascism?

Could it happen again?

This is World Communion Sunday: these questions have to be asked.  One of the most frightening questions that refuses to leave the background chatter in my head is “Why should this not happen again?  What is to prevent it?  If hundreds of years of Christianity failed, what is to prevent it now, when there is even less general Christian education, less Bible reading, less church involvement, less of a Christian consensus?”

As you know, our family spent a decade in Croatia, one of the republics that had been part of the former Yugoslavia. Most of the citizens of that federation wore the name “Christian.”  The vast majority were either Catholic or Orthodox Christians.  Muslims, mostly in Bosnia, accounted for about 17% of the population.  They all fought each other at various times and places during the war, but in the end, especially in Bosnia, the Croatian Catholics were in alliance with the Bosnian Muslims against the Orthodox Serbs.  Or we could put it this way: Christians plus Muslims against other Christians.


In Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, the scene of a horrible siege and numerous atrocities,  a Catholic priest said this: “If merely 10% of my people were really genuine Christians, this war could not have happened.”  Well, it happened.

Would there be an awkward silence around the table if Serbs and Croats, Orthodox and Catholic Christians were seated near each other?

Would there be an awkward silence if I had to sit near Jovan?  Jovan was a young man who finished the seminary where we taught.  He was from a different background but applied to become a pastor in the Reformed (Presbyterian) Church.  Most of our congregations were Hungarian-speaking, but Jovan was put in charge of one of our few Croatian-speaking congregations.

After the horrible ethnic war that broke up Yugoslavia the newly independent Reformed Church in Croatia had to organize itself.  During that process, Jovan led the people of his Croatian-speaking congregation into an anti-Hungarian furor.  They split away from the Reformed Church, and formed their own new denomination, undoing a unity that had been in place since the 16th century.

Bringing it close to home

I hope I am not boring you with stories of a situation that is over a decade old and from a little place far away that has nothing anymore to do with us.  I only do so because of how quickly our defensive walls would go up if I began by talking about whites like us sitting at that table with blacks or Mexicans or other immigrants.  And if I ventured to say that our Christianity had anything at all to do with our politics, or our social policies, some might want to tune me out if not fire me.  It’s much safer to talk about Nazi’s or Balkans.

But we must make it personal; this is at the very heart of our Christian faith and cannot be left standing silently like an elephant in the room.  It was our Lord Jesus himself who said that the very authenticity of our witness to the gospel was at stake in the question of our unity:

John 17:20-21

[Jesus, in prayer says:] “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,  21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

So that the world may believe” – the authenticity of our witness to the truth of the gospel is at stake.  Please tell me how this issue could be successfully avoided.


The joy of diversity

Listen; this not a bitter pill to swallow, this is a source of joy and delight.  How many of you enjoy French cuisine?  How about Italian sauces?  Do you like to eat Chinese?  How about Mexican food?  Doesn’t variety enrich us?  Isn’t it better that there is variety?  Yes of course.  When everything is monochrome we do not call it beautiful; the beauty is in the bouquet.  It is the variety of birds that makes watching them interesting.  It is the diversity of fish that makes the aquarium a pleasure.

The foundation of unity

It is not simply a matter of taking pleasure in diversity, it is that the truth is that underlying all of this diversity is unity.  There is only one God; he has only one Son.  His son has only one Body.  The Body of Christ is not a dismembered corpse, but a living single body.  There is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4-6).

There is not a body of Christ for blacks and one for whites; one for Mexicans and one for Caucasians; there is only One Body and we are all equally members of it. This was the lesson the apostle Paul was at pains to teach his ethnically mixed congregation in Corinth:

1Cor. 12:12-13

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Let us extend the banquet metaphor since Paul just brought up drinking: the wine in our glasses at the great banquet table will be the same wine: the wine of the Spirit.  We will share that same wine with Croats and Serbs, Hungarians and Romanians, Hutus and Tootsies, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, yes blacks, and yes, Mexicans of the illegal and the legal variety.

What should we do?

So what are we to do in the mean time?  Well, at  minimum, we are to live in such a way now that there will not be any causes for awkward silences around that table.   We are to live in such a way now that we do not deny our differences any more than we deny that there are dozens of ways to prepare fish.  Rather we celebrate our differences as the variety that gives life joy.

The body of Christ is One.  We Christians have One Lord, one faith, and one baptism. We have all been sent on the same mission: to declare that Jesus Christ is Lord.  Jesus Christ is not our tribal god, but the Lord of all!  There will be a day when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  “  No nation can claim him; no social group owns him; he is not the mascot for any political party.   Today, on World Communion Sunday, we gather around His table  proclaiming, not an idea, not a wish, but the truth: Jesus is Lord!

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

World Communion Sunday: Prayer of Confession

Merciful God, although You made all people in your image, we confess that we live with deep divisions.  Although you sent Jesus to be savior of the world, we confess that we treat him as our own tribal god.  Although you are One and the Body of Christ is One, we fail to display that unity in our worship, our mission, and our fellowship.  Forgive our pride and arrogance, heal our souls, and renew our vision, for the sake of your Son, our savior, the Lord, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

World Communion Sunday Call to Worship

The God of the universe is Lord of heaven and earth;

We join all creation in worship of the Living God!

He has made us in his image, male and female;

Let the peoples praise you, O God,

Let all the people praise you!

He has given us his Son for the redemption of the world;

We confess: Jesus Christ is Lord!

He has called us, He is our God, we are his people;

There is One Lord, one faith, one baptism!

All:  Glory be to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit