Kids these days…

Sermon on Luke 17:11-19 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Over the last few years, what one might call the “kids these days” genre has proliferated on the internet. It seems that every few weeks, there is a new article, video, or blog post that decries the entitlement, ingratitude, or laziness of the younger generations. While some of these raise legitimate concerns about how young people are interacting with the world, the vast majority have a tedious and scolding quality. For one, these manifestos often fail to describe reality. The best example of this is the frequent complaint that “kids these days don’t read anymore,” when the younger generations actually read more words more frequently than anyone in human history. Moreover, these complaints about the self-centeredness of “kids these days” are, ironically, awfully self-centered. The fact that individuals armed with nothing but an internet connection and an opinion can presume to lecture an entire generation of people for their perceived failures is a sure sign of narcissism. Of course, it’s not the inaccuracy or the egotism of these complaints that make them problematic. It is their assumption that any shift in the way we experience the world is automatically wrong. While we may rightly remember the “good old days” with fondness, nostalgia is often a way of avoiding the uncomfortable truth that we are called to conversion. Indeed, our eagerness to criticize “kids these days” may well be a sign of our refusal to do the work of self-examination.

It would appear that Jesus has adopted a “kids these days” attitude in today’s gospel reading. After only one of the ten lepers he heals returns to give thanks, Jesus complains, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?” Jesus seems to be channeling Miss Manners, or Emily Post, or a parent dutifully encouraging her child to write a thank you note to his great aunt. “Kids these days never say thank you anymore,” we might imagine him writing on his Facebook page. It seems that Jesus has a clear expectation of what one should do when one is cleansed from leprosy.


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As a matter of fact, the Jewish Law had a clear expectation of what one should do when one was cleansed from leprosy, which was to be examined by a priest at the Temple and make an offering to God. Under the Law, a priest was the only person with the authority to declare that a person no longer had leprosy. So when these ten lepers go to show themselves to the priest, they are headed off to get their clean bill of health. This was much more than a formality. According to Leviticus, those who had leprosy were required to wear torn clothes, let their hair be disheveled, live outside the city walls, and cry out, “Unclean, unclean” as people walked by. People with leprosy were utterly excluded from society. The only way they could be reintegrated into the community is if an agent of the Temple pronounced that they no longer had the skin disease. It’s no wonder that the lepers whom Jesus healed made a beeline for the Temple; they were thrilled that they were all about to get their lives back and return to the community.

Well, almost all. Luke tells us that the leper who prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him was a Samaritan. This is not an insignificant detail. We all know that Jews and Samaritans have a long history of not getting along. To the Jewish people, Samaritans were covenant outsiders: they did not share the promise Abraham and were not numbered among God’s chosen people. In practical terms, this meant that Samaritans were discouraged from having table fellowship with Jews, and, more importantly, were not allowed in the Temple. As the other nine lepers trot off to receive their clean bill of health and return to society, in other words, this Samaritan realizes that he will remain excluded from the community. Since he is unable to show himself to the priest, he returns to Jesus to thank him for making him clean, even though he can never be considered clean according to the Temple tradition.

The Samaritan’s quandary makes Jesus’ concluding declaration profoundly resonant: “Your faith has made you well.” Versions of this statement are repeated so often in the gospels that it is easy to lose sight of its impact. But it is important for us to recognize how revolutionary this proclamation is. In this statement, Jesus fundamentally rejects the authority of the Temple system. Jesus implies that belonging to the people of God is not contingent on the accident of our birth or our adherence to a tradition or the mediation of a religious authority. Instead, Jesus insists that we belong to God on the basis of faith.

We tend to misunderstand what this means. In the popular imagination, “faith” is usually synonymous with “belief.” If “faith” is just “belief,” however, it assumes that our membership in the community is somehow predicated on our affirmation of God’s existence. This doesn’t seem to be what is happening in the passage we heard from Luke’s gospel. The lepers do not make a statement of belief before they are cleansed. When the Samaritan returns to Jesus, it is not to say, “I see now that you are the Messiah.” Rather, it is to offer thanksgiving and, more importantly, to recognize what God has done in his life. There are many places in the New Testament where faith refers not to belief, but to what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ. In fact, Paul suggests that it is Christ’s faith, his faithful obedience to God’s purpose, that saves us. When Jesus tells this Samaritan, “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus is referring to the Samaritan’s recognition that he had been transformed by God. This moment of recognition is nothing less than conversion. While the other lepers went off to be declared clean according to society’s standards, the Samaritan realized that he was defined, no longer by what society valued, but by the grace of God made known in Jesus Christ.

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Life is about more than this.

This invites us to do the hard and important work of self-examination and conversion. It’s awfully easy to assume that our faith is portable, a tool that we can pull out when we need encouragement, but can otherwise keep in storage. When faith is relegated to this utilitarian status, we can continue to live as though we are defined by what society values: how much money we make or how many degrees we have or how many people follow us on Facebook. When we understand faith as something that informs and enlivens everything we do, however, we experience the same conversion the Samaritan experiences. More than anything else, conversion is a shift in our perspective. It is a recognition that we are defined not by what society values, but by the grace of God, not by what we have done, but by what God has done for us. This recognition empowers us to change the way we experience the world: to put away resentment and entitlement, to give up our nostalgic desire to go back to the “good old days,” and to live our lives animated by a profound sense of gratitude, a faithful acknowledgement that everything in our life is a gift from God.

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Remembering we have been Redeemed

Sermon on Romans 7:15-25a offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on July 6, 2014.

At Quarterman Ranch in Amarillo, our former diocesan camp and conference center, there is a sidewalk covered in names that leads to nowhere.  During Quarterman’s final years, each camp session ended with the addition of another slab to the woebegone sidewalk.  Campers, counselors, staff, and clergy would sign their names in the wet concrete, leaving a permanent reminder that they had been present in that place.  imgresSome campers acted as though they were outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood; they would leave their handprints and sign their names with the flourish of budding movie stars.  Others would immortalize the romance that they had kindled that week by writing that so and so and what’s his name would be together forever.  Still others would correct the professions of eternal love and devotion that they had made in previous years and indicate that what’s his name was, in fact, a jerk.  I always loved this moment in the week.  In spite of the self-indulgence of some of the contributions to the sidewalk, the act of gathering together and writing our names was an opportunity to recognize that we had been in that place together.  As we mixed concrete in the hot panhandle sun, we were reminded for a moment that we were more than individuals floating through life alone, that for the past week or so, we had been a community.  Each of those slabs of concrete was a sacramental reminder that we were called to be in each other’s lives, that we were called to love one another.

Today, we heard one of the stranger passages from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Out of context, this passage looks more like an entry from the diary of a teenager with low self-esteem rather than an excerpt from the letter of a self-possessed apostle who writes letters of advice to people he’s never met.  Normally, Paul’s letters are dripping with self-confidence, so much so that one New Testament scholar says that Paul’s most obvious attribute is his “robust conscience.”  This is, after all, the same guy who, in the letter to the Philippians, tells his audience that he was “blameless” in regards to righteousness under the law.  In other words, this vacillating, uncertain passage from Romans is out of character for its author.  It is unusual to see  Paul saying things like “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” or “I know that nothing good dwells within me” or “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”  What is the reason for this change?  Why is it that Paul focuses so thoroughly on his struggles with being a sinful person?  On one hand, it could be that Paul is saying that all of us, including him, can fall victim to the power of sin, that we must remain vigilant at all times and not allow sin to exercise dominion in our bodies.  On the other hand, there could be something very different happening in this passage.  Before we delve directly into that possibility, it would probably be helpful for us to remind ourselves what Paul has been doing so far in this letter to the Romans.

Romans begins with Paul addressing a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles he has never met.  Immediately after he dispenses with the traditional pleasantries at the beginning of the letter, Paul apparently lays into the Gentiles, saying that the wrath of God is being revealed against those who disobey the Law of Moses.  Rhetorically, this is meant to encourage the Law-abiding, Jewish members of the congregation to think, “You tell ’em Paul!  Tell those Gentiles just how sinful they are.”  But, just when it seems like Paul is going to say the Gentiles in the Roman church are destined for perdition, Paul turns it around, saying at the beginning of chapter two: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are…because you… are doing the very same things.”  Paul explains what he means by this when he comes to the crux of his argument, asserting that, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Paul is saying to this congregation: no matter who you are, Jew or Gentile, all of you have fallen short of God’s commandments.

The good news, however, is that even though we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, Jesus Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been justified, or made righteous, apart from the law, in spite of the fact that we have failed to honor God and God’s commandments.  Through the redeeming action of God through Jesus Christ, we have been empowered to live a new life of righteousness and peace.

This is Paul’s main purpose in the first chapters of Romans: to tell the congregation that regardless of who they are, they have been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But Paul has another purpose in these first chapters.  He wants to explain that while the law is valuable, it is no longer necessary to follow the strictures of the law.  One of Paul’s biggest rhetorical challenges in all of his letters is to make this case, the argument that the law, which he believes was ordained by God, is good, but no longer necessary.  In the first part of chapter seven, he does this by saying that sin used the law to bring death into the world.  But in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God destroyed the power of sin.  In other words, the law no longer applies, not because God nullified the law, but because God defeated the power of sin.

All of this brings us to the passage we read today.  While it might appear that Paul’s purpose in this passage is to illustrate how difficult it is to be good, there is something much more important happening, something that is informed by where we’ve already been in Romans.  Paul has been saying that the power of sin has been destroyed and that the law has been rendered unnecessary, only to launch into this prolonged, self-loathing, legalistic complaint about how hard it is not to be sinful.  If this is all this passage is about, it doesn’t to jibe with where we’ve come in Romans (or where we’re going, for that matter).  But if we look at the very end of this passage, we see that Paul has a very different purpose.  After complaining tediously and self-indulgently about his struggles with sinful behavior, Paul melodramatically writes, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  Without missing a beat, he immediately answers the question by reminding himself of the redeeming work of God that he has been discussing for the last six chapters: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  You’ll notice that Paul’s rhetorical strategy in this passage is pretty similar to what he does at the beginning of the letter: he draws us in to the point that we also begin to wallow in self-loathing until he snaps us out of it, smacking us over the head with the gospel message of redemption and reconciliation.  This passage is not a meditation by Paul about his sinful behavior; it is a pointed and powerful reminder that we should not be distracted by our apparent failures, that we should not wallow in our supposed sinfulness.  Instead, Paul insists that should live our lives in assurance of the fact that we have been reconciled to God by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Why does this matter?  Why would Paul be concerned if people wallow in a sense of their sinfulness?  Isn’t there a certain nobility in trying to do everything right?  There are two problems with being preoccupied with our sinful behavior.  On one level, if we believe that the power of sin has indeed been destroyed by Christ’s death and resurrection, then focusing so intensely on our sinfulness devalues what God has done through Jesus Christ.  On another, even more significant level, focusing on our sinfulness means that we become completely and destructively self-centered.  Paul is trying to build relationships between the Jewish and Gentile members of the Roman church.  But if they are totally inwardly focused and completely self-centered about their behavior, there is no way that they are going to be able to recognize themselves in the other members of the community.  Did you notice how many times Paul used the word “I” in the passage we read this morning?  If we truly wish to be part of the Church, it is impossible to be that “I”-oriented.  If we value being part of a community, it is impossible for us to be entirely consumed with our own behavior.  If we truly trust that we have been redeemed through Jesus Christ, then we must look outside ourselves and reach out to those around us.

If you walk toward Heavenly Rest on the south side of Sixth Street, you will notice that someone has etched words into one of the paving stones on the sidewalk.  Unlike the concrete slabs that comprise the Quarterman sidewalk, however, this block doesn’t include petty recriminations, professions of eternal love, or Hollywood dreams.  Instead, written in block letters are two simple words: “Look Up.”  347914039_5954ef24c5_mWhen you do, you are greeted by the soaring majesty and beauty of the Heavenly Rest bell tower.  I have no idea who carved those words into the concrete, but it might as well have been Saint Paul.  Because those words are a pointed sacramental reminder to all of us.  Those words remind us to look up from our preoccupation with everything wrong in our lives and pay attention to the reality of beauty and possibility.  Those words remind us to look up from our assumption that must go through this life alone and recognize that we are part of a community that has been shaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Those words remind us to look up from our self-centered, self-indulgent perspective and remember that we worship a God who looked up at the world and redeemed creation through Jesus Christ.

Family

Freedom_from_want_1943-Norman_RockwellAt the beginning of the Second World War, Norman Rockwell created a series of illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post called “The Four Freedoms.”  Three of the original four images are no longer particularly recognizable, but one has stood the test of time.  Though originally created to  support the American war effort, the illustration called “Freedom from Want” has transcended its original purpose and has become an idealized image of American family life.  The illustration depicts a smiling family gathered at a Thanksgiving table and filled with gleeful anticipation as the matriarch sets an absurdly large turkey at the head of the table.  Everyone seems to be happy and there is no evidence of any animosity among the people seated at the table.  Anyone who has ever eaten Thanksgiving dinner with one’s family, however, knows that Norman Rockwell’s idealized depiction of that meal is far from accurate.  When families get together, the dynamics can be downright destructive.  Family gatherings can be filled with petty jealousies, old grudges, remembered betrayals, and heartbreak.  They can make us wish that we were part of a different family, yet the vast majority of us eventually embrace the fact that we are irrevocably connected to our families.  Our family meals become reminders that our connection to one another transcends all of the jealousies, grudges, and betrayals that break our hearts.

Tonight Christians around the world will observe Maundy Thursday.  It is the night that we remember the example of Jesus’ humility by washing each other’s feet.  It is the night when we recall and celebrate the institution of the Lord’s supper, when Jesus surrendered himself into the bread and wine before he was handed over.  It is the night that we prepare ourselves for the remembrance of Jesus’ passion and death.  Towards the conclusion of tonight’s service, we will hear this prayer:

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

The implications of this prayer are profound.  Remember that Jesus’ own disciples run away when he is arrested and brought before the authorities.  It is one of Jesus’ own disciples who denies ever knowing him.  It is one of Jesus’ own disciples who hands him over to death.  These were the people who were closest to Jesus, those who could be considered his family, and yet they betrayed him, handed him over to sinners, and allowed him to suffer death upon the cross.  The extraordinary thing is that they remained his family, that Jesus was willing to experience their betrayal, and offered them a forgiving love that passes understanding.

As we participate in the Eucharist this evening, we will participate in a family meal.  It is not the idealized gathering portrayed by Norman Rockwell, but a gathering of sinners, betrayers, and deniers.  It is a gathering of people who harbor petty jealousies and cling to old grudges.  It is a gathering that would break God’s heart.  And yet, we affirm that we are still a part of God’s family, that we are still irrevocably connected to a God who was willing to be betrayed for the sake of those who betrayed him.