Sunday, October 13, 2013

Help me, Help me, Help me

Luke 17:11-19; II Timothy 2:11-13

As a child and then later as a parent, the Andrews’ household observes more than a few time honored tradition on Christmas morning. First, no one enters the living room until the parents are up. Once everyone is present, the children are allowed to open their stockings filled with goodies from Santa. Then preparations are made for breakfast. As a child, I was served oyster stew, slices of salt cured Virginia ham, homemade biscuits, and a cup of fruit cocktail. Deb later added a Moravian pastry. She finds it questionable to eat oyster stew any time of the day.  Before the feast is served, the Christmas story is always read from either Luke or Matthew.
After the meal, we return to the living room to open our treasures. One person is designated to hand out the presents, one gift at a time. Then we all watch and pretend to be delighted as someone else opens their gift. When the kids were younger, Deb frantically wrote down names of the givers of each gift. As our kids got older this became their responsibility. In the afternoon, through thank you notes and phone calls, the kids offered thanks to the givers, acknowledging their generosity.
I am certain each of you have equally memorable Christmas traditions. And I suspect each of you acknowledges thank you notes as a critical component to our festive celebrations. It is a wonderful way to offer appreciation during this glorious season.
But offerings of appreciation can extend beyond family thank-you notes. Some of you come from churches a little more liturgical than ours. If so, you know the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving which is used during communion.
        Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right to give our thanks and praise. Eternal God, holy and mighty it is truly right and our greatest joy to give you thanks and praise and to worship you in every place your glory abides.
Is it not our Christian duty to be grateful not only to others but also to God? This is certainly the question addressed in our gospel reading this morning. Jesus and the disciples were entering a village near Samaria.  This was foreign territory to the disciples and I suspect they were a bit suspicious. To make matters worse, 10 men appear before them, each infected with leprosy.  In the last 100 years we have made some remarkable discoveries concerning this dreaded disease, including the fact that it is really hard to catch. But in the time of Jesus the disease was treated like a plague. Because leprosy was believed to be highly contagious, lepers were placed in colonies with little or no contact with others. Any kind of skin disorder could be diagnosed as leprosy. In the time of Jesus, a simple rash could become a death sentence.
Keeping their distance the lepers called out, “Jesus have mercy on us.”  Are these lepers so different from any of us? Often the burdens of life seem to separate us from the rest of our family and community.  We each have difficulties and troubles. While folks attempt to respond to our dilemma, they have no idea what we are going through.  We might have an illness which exposes our invincibility. Perhaps we are paralyzed by the deteriorating health of a family member. Maybe there is difficulty at work. Perhaps it is trouble with a neighbor. Sometimes we just feel worn out by a combination of all of the above. Just getting up in the morning becomes more and more difficult. Anne Lamott, a kindred soul of those reduced to lament writes, “Each morning my prayer is quite simple. I pray ‘Help me, help me, help me’, because nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.”
        I believe Lamott intentionally referred to that old spiritual which goes,
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,
Nobody knows like Jesus,
Nobody knows he trouble I’ve seen,
Glory Hallelujah.

The writer of this song believes regardless where we are in life, God is not only present but God has already been there. In other words our troubles need not have the last word.
This becomes rather obvious in Jesus’ encounter with the lepers. He responded to their plea for mercy by saying, “Go show yourself to the priest.” This is an amazing moment that we should not miss. I would have spoken up and said, “Are you kidding me? The priests were the first one to throw me in the wilderness. No one else is left but you. If you can’t help, just say so. But don’t just send me back where I have already been.”
Evidently the lepers had a lot more faith than I. They didn’t confer with each other. They did not engage Jesus in theological discourse. Not a word was spoken. They  heard the words of Jesus, turned and headed toward the local synagogue. Their faith had made them well. What other explanation could there be? They followed instructions, a cure appeared. End of story, or so it would seem.
Verse 15 reads, “Then one of them, when he knew he was well, turned back, praising God.” Let me begin by suggesting there is a lot of information missing between the end of verse 14 and the beginning of verse 15. Here are ten lepers, ten outcast, ten folks who have not seen their families for years, ten people who are walking miracles.  Every day of their life began with a prayer for some normalcy, “Help me, Help me, Help me.” They would have given anything to have argued with their children over curfew, or put in long hours at work, or had a misunderstanding with their spouse.  They wanted to share life not just dream about it. They wanted to be reunited with their community. They wanted to go home. Then suddenly, miraculously, the road home was available. What would you have done? Exactly what they did. They did not pass GO. They did not collect $200 dollars. They just went directly home.
When I was younger, I led a lot of youth events. Often my preparation for the events would begin six months in advance. I would come up with a theme and then start to create. At the appropriate time I would gather a team and together we would put our creative energies into my design. A lot of work took place before the Friday afternoon when my youth group would jump into the church bus and head across the state to a destination where over a hundred kids would gather. Once there, it often seemed bedlam ruled. Slowly but surely each piece fell into place. By worship on Sunday morning I knew all the work had been worth it. After cleaning up the mess that only teenagers can make, we got back on the bus and headed home. As we pulled into the parking lot, the kids would wake up and make their zombie like walk to a parent’s car. I would stand in the middle of the parking lot, shamelessly looking for a word of thanks for all the work I had done. Usually all I got was one of my children saying, “Dad I am exhausted, can we go home?” Once home, they would immediately fall into bed. Deb would enter their room to say goodnight and often stay for an hour as my children talked about how great the event had been. I would sit outside the room and beam.
Everyone wants to be thanked, even God. And it seems one of the lepers, a Samaritan, an outsider, remembered that. He returned to the parking lot where Jesus stood waiting. Jesus hid his surprise and joy by sarcastically saying, “Didn’t I heal ten people?” Trust me, Jesus was delighted. His work had been recognized. Someone took the time to say thank-you. I imagine Jesus gave the young man a pat on the back and said, “Get out of here; go see your family; your faith made you well.”
“Your faith made you well.” I often wish Jesus had phrased that differently. Each Sunday we share joys and concerns. We give thanks when a crisis or illness has been averted. But not every person shares a joy. We hear of folks suffering, folks dying and folks with friends and relatives struggling with personal problems.  Is the faith of some folks greater than others? Without a doubt. But does God answer prayer based on the level of our faith. I suspect you don’t believe that anymore than I. So what is going on here?
A correct reading of the book of Job portrays an increasingly impatient man asking some very serious questions of God. The answer Job received is not what Job wanted to hear. God has a plan which will be compassionate and just, but no one has earned the right to know when this will happen. That stinks, but the longer I am in ministry the more I agree with those words from the writer of God.
I can not to explain to you why some folks receive a miracle and others don’t. In fact if I did, I would suggest you go find another minister because I have crossed that dangerous line of declaring I perfectly understand the mind of God.  So what do we do with these finals word of Jesus?
Ten lepers asked for mercy. Ten lepers were made clean. One praised God for his healing, and the praise made the healed man whole. Perhaps Luke wants us to understand what happens when the faithful are able to demonstrate thankfulness.
A number of years ago I went to a concert offered by two master story tellers, Guy Clark and John Prine. They sat on stage by themselves, only armed with guitars and swapped songs. Sometimes they would play together. Often one would simply become a member of the audience. After one of Prine’s offerings, Clark started laughing uncontrollably. He had probably heard the song a hundred times before but on that particular night the gospel of John Prine seemed to heal his soul. When he stopped laughing, Guy offered the greatest praise one artist can give to another.  He said, “That song was so good it straightened the wrinkles in this old face.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Praise seems to be inner health made audible.”  I’m no doctor but I bet there is an amazing link between being grateful and mental/physical health. I might even suggest if you want to be made whole, laugh more, be grateful more, and write a few thank-you cards on days other than Christmas. What would Anne Lamont say to all this? She writes, “While I begin everyday saying ‘Help me, help me, help me’, I always end it saying ‘thank you, thank you, thank you’.”
Perhaps another way is the ritual we partake in a few moments when we sing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”  May I suggest we sing it loud, we sing it from the bottom of our hearts, and we sing like it will make us whole. 
Who knows, perhaps it will.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Remembering Forward

II Timothy 1:3-14
A Communion Meditation

Paul, in writing to his dear friend Timothy remarks, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, in you.”
A few weeks ago in the Adult Sunday School class someone complimented me by saying. “Your face lights up when you teach us the Biblical stories. Where did you get such a love of the Bible?”  While I could pick the names of many teachers who thrilled me with their incredible love of scripture, like Timothy, I was blessed with parents and grandparents who adored the Bible.  Notice the word I picked. I could have said “they studied the Bible”, or “they revered the Bible” or “they honored, or obeyed”, or a lot of other appropriate words. But the one I chose was “adored”. What does it mean to adore? In the evening as I gaze upon Lake Monacan a phrase from Wordsworth comes to mind. “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free; a holy, quiet time, breathless with adoration.”
There is something holy in the idea of adoration. Perhaps that is why at Christmas one of our most beloved hymns breathes, “O come let us adore Him.” Adoration is beyond love. It inspires, it uplifts and even makes us a bit crazy. Romeo loved Juliet but Don Quixote adored Dulcinea. When I pick up my Bible, it comes alive with voices, speaking from their past, speaking from their experience, speaking from their faith, speaking from their fears, always urging me to wrap both my heart and mind around a story more improbable than an aging knight jousting with windmills. Faith, seen through the cold eyes of calculating reason, makes no sense. But faith, swayed, even manipulated by adoration, leaves critics wringing their hands in disbelief. To the critic, faith is a delusional misuse of our greatest gift, that being our intellect. I have never understood that argument. Based on the witness of those who have gone before us, faith gives one the courage to explore possibilities logic has deemed imprudent. The critic might suggest I believe in nothing but I know I have never had that kind of courage.
After wonderful praise aimed at Timothy’s linage, Paul uttered an odd statement, “Do not be ashamed of the Gospel.” What on earth was Paul talking about? Can you imagine Timothy being ashamed of his grandmother’s or his mother’s faith? Can you imagine Timothy looking on the accomplishments of Paul with anything other than pride? Don’t be too quick to answer that. Remember, Timothy was a novice and Paul knew this. Timothy had probably spent a couple of nights around the campfire singing, “Kum Bah Yah”. He probably attended a couple “Young Life” meetings, or went on tour with “Up with People”. Everything Timothy knew about the gospel was upbeat and positive. Everything Timothy knew about God was filled with hopeful anticipation. Timothy had not experienced “midnight in a cypress swamp”. Timothy had not been dragged off to jail. He had not dealt with the death of someone close to him. He had not been laughed at because he was bold enough to believe in the power of the resurrection. Last but not least, Timothy had not been disappointed by God. But Paul, writing from the confines of a jail in Rome, knew that all those doubts and fears and disappointments and disillusionments would soon be part of Timothy’s future. Paul knew not once, not twice but more than three times Timothy would stare into the deep abyss of his own soul and wrestle with his faith. Paul had been there, Peter had been there and I dare say Lois and Eunice had taken the same difficult journey.
I invite you to read “Come Be My Light”, the private writings of Mother Teresa. While we might question why she would choose to live the majority of her life among the poor in Calcutta, few would doubt the faith of this saint. Yet her prayers often reflected pain, doubt, disbelief and sorrow. Surely if Mother Teresa in her darkest moments could question the mercy of God then we can be forgiven for our lapses into doubt.  
The amazing part of the book was she received her courage from the faith of those who surrounded her. She spoke lovingly of her fellow sisters. She praised the priest with whom she worked. Most of all, she thanked God for never leaving her.
Sometimes it is the faith of a mother or a father. Sometimes it is the words of a dear friend. Sometimes it is the silence of a cherished companion. Sometimes it is the wisdom of one we never thought of as wise. Sometimes it is someone we hardly knew. But when needed, some particular person, in their own peculiar way, invites us to have an audience with God.
And in that holy moment God says, “Do not be ashamed of your doubt; do not be ashamed of your fear; do not be ashamed of your anger; do not be ashamed of your faith. Remember who you are and who you were. Remember those who came before you. Remember those who will come after you. Take the bread and remember. Take the cup, and remember. Today, as we celebrate World Wide Communion, I ask you to remember the living and the dead. Remember those who offered affirmation and those who raised questions. Remember those who brought you up and those who brought you down a notch. Remember those who were never ashamed of the gospel. Eat the bread. Drink the cup.  Remember……You are never alone.     Amen.