* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on October 9, 2016 *
Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.
Texts for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost:
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c + Psalm 111 + 2 Timothy 2:8-15 + Luke 17:11-19
Please pray with me this morning:
Be here among us.
Turn our eyes, our hearts, our selves to you.
Root us in you.
So that we might be made whole in you.
As we sit here this morning, I’m keenly aware that just about 1,000 miles to our east, the worst storm to hit the Caribbean and the southeastern United States in many years has just turned away from the coast. Scrolling through photos on NPR, the devastation is striking. Hundreds of people lost their lives in Haiti. Over a million people have been impacted in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Bahamas, and the US.
There were photos of people boarding up their homes in preparation for Matthew, photos of massive trees brought down, people digging out of the rubble, entire cities leveled, photos of neighbors helping each other, providing aid and rescue, carrying each other through flooded streets… There’s a kind of community that seems to come together almost organically around disastrous events.
We know about the before and after around devastating storms, don’t we, church? We know about the boarding up, the stocking up, the packing up, and the cleaning up. We know about extending our hands out to help because we’re all in this together. We know about that kind of community.
Some communities form around tragedy, others around shared values or ideals, some communities come together around a shared love of brunch, or a common interest in the outdoors…but not all communities self-select.
In our Gospel today, we hear of Jesus and his followers walking into a town and encountering a group of lepers. The thing about leprosy in the ancient world was that not only did any skin abnormality qualify you as a leper, but you were also sent away, outside of the city, to live and be with others who had any manner of skin irregularity. You were ostracized from whatever community you used to identify with and forced to be part of this new community of undesirables, untouchables… Seen as unclean…
Not the kind of community one self-selects to be a part of.
And it’s important to understand that to grasp the weight of what Jesus actually did in this story. See if lepers, deemed unclean and unworthy, were some the most ostracized and vulnerable in that society, then by curing someone of their leprosy, Jesus wasn’t just restoring physical health, Jesus was restoring these 10 people to their community. The point really isn’t the physical healing, but rather the restoration—the making whole—of broken and severed relationships to something complete and life-giving.
Church, I want to challenge you a little bit this morning.
Yes, of course we should be reaching out to alleviate whatever suffering we can. Our Christian vocation should absolutely be that of healing, mercy, compassion, of repairing brokenness.
But I want to suggest to you that we, in fact, are the lepers in this story.
We are the ones longing to be restored into community. And if you’re wondering if that’s true, think about the last time you felt sad or disappointed or angry or dissatisfied or distant from this community, from New Hope Lutheran Church.
Think deeply. Was it in the last month? The last 6 months? The past year?
I know I have, and I just got here…
And here’s where Pastor Chris is going to be a little bit vulnerable with you. Change is hard. It’s difficult and it can be messy and despite our attempts for smoothness, things rarely go exactly according to plan. I know, because those feelings that I’ve heard from many of you about newness and difference and anxiousness, are some of the same feelings that I have. It’s scary for me too. I wake up at night wondering if the sermon hit just the way I intended, or if something I’ve said or done caused undue stress on an already stressed system.
I feel it, church. I do.
It feels like it could all come down at any moment. Like we’re standing in the midst of 120 mile per hour winds, buffeted by rain and debris, that the storm is ripping the roof off, knocking walls down.
It can feel like a hurricane. I feel it.
Because here’s the thing about communities, and specifically about churches: we’re made up of people. People who are imperfect and broken and sinful and rough around the edges and scarred… Your pastor, is imperfect, and broken, and sinful, and rough around the edges, and scarred.
And church, we will let you down.
We won’t do it on purpose, but we are human, so we’ll mess up. We sin, despite all our attempts not to, we separate ourselves from God and each other, and we fall short. And for that, for inevitably letting you down, I ask your forgiveness.
But here’s the other thing about churches: we trust that even in the midst of our mess ups—especially in the midst of our mess ups—that God is there.
We trust that we can cling to the strong and sure faithfulness of God, and hang on for dear life, and that by trusting God’s promises, God restores us to community, to relationship with one another and with God.
We trust that God comes among our imperfection and roughness as an infant, and in the broken, scarred, and crucified Christ takes our sin upon himself. And through Christ’s resurrection, God redeems and restores us.
Scars and ugly parts and all, God call us redeemed…beloved…saved…child…
In Jesus, God speaks a word of love to a world that shouts hate.
It’s a love that I felt viscerally on Wednesday night. As I was leaving the church after Confirmation, I swung through the sanctuary to listen to the choir practicing. And they were practicing an anthem that they’ll be performing at my Installation. (Which, by the way, is next Sunday, October 16th, at 2pm right here in this very sanctuary…) And it wasn’t so much the text of the piece, which is beautiful, but for maybe the first time in 3 weeks, I allowed myself to settle and reflect. And as I listened, goosebumps ran up and down both of my arms, and I thought, “These are my people. These are the people that God has called me to. You are the people that God has entrusted me to care for. You are my people. We are the people that God has called to be in relationship together.”
And when understood that way, how can my response to God be anything but exultant praise and thanksgiving? What words do I have other than thanks to God for forming us into community?
Like the Samaritan leper, how can I help but give thanks to God for this gift?
As unlikely as it might seem.
Just like the Samaritan leper, the double-outsider, not only ostracized for his physical appearance, but also not part of the Jewish believers that the author of Luke was writing to, healing and restoration and thanksgiving come from the most unlikely of places.
Church, our worship is an act of gratitude. Worship is not for us, but is an offering of thanksgiving to God for everything God has done for us.
And in worship, we are re-centered and re-focused to God. The God who is steadfast, and sure, and gracious, and faithful. Who is our refuge and our strength. Which is consolation when it feels like hurricane-force winds might blow us over.
Here is refuge. Here is a safe place from the storm.
In these waters of baptism and in this meal are promises you can trust.