Thursday, October 17, 2019

In the Middle-Of: Sermon for Proper 23, Year C

Preached October 13, 2019, at St. Raphael's Episcopal Church, Crossville, Tennessee.

So, the story we have today of Naaman is one of my favorite stories in scripture. I've worked with it a lot. That shouldn't surprise you. Many of you will remember that what I retired from was nearly 40 years as a hospital chaplain. And so, it's an interesting healing story to me. I wish they had told you more. That is, they cut off some things in the lectionary selection that I think are very interesting and relevant to today's lessons. You heard that the King of Israel got la etter, but you have no knowledge about where that came from. They clipped those verses. Basically, Naaman was really important, and so the King of Aram sent an introduction letter from one King to another. But when the King of Israel read, “I'm sending Naaman to you to be healed of his leprosy,” then you see the King of Israel reads the letter. “Am I one to give life or take it away,” et cetera.

The other thing they cut off is what happens after the healing; because Naaman comes up, he proclaims that there's only God in Israel. And then he offers great gifts to Elisha who refuses them. And then he says, “Okay, but I want to tell you something. First I need two mule loads of dirt from here to take back with me to Syria because from now on I'm going to do all my praying in Israel. And the way to do that is to take some of Israel's dirt and that's what I'm going to stand on in kneel on as I pray. The only exception is I'm a big public figure. Once a year I’ve got to take the king in as he says his prayers and I want the God of Israel not to think I'm reneging on anything, because my regular prayers are going to be on this dirt from Israel.”

Now part of the reason I like this story is it is a great example of modern healthcare.Let me retell this story. There's an important official and he has a chronic wasting disease - can't get shed of it; but he gets a verbal referral. He gets a word of mouth referral. And so based on this word of mouth referral, he goes and he tries out a new practitioner. Now he gets to this new practitioner and the new practitioner says, “Okay, we're going to start with a very conservative treatment.” And the patient is really unhappy: “I'm too important. Shouldn't I have the latest medication? Shouldn't I have the latest procedure? Shouldn't we be going through about $1,200 worth of tests?”

But the family says, “You know, it's not a big deal. And if he'd ask you for a big deal, you'd have done it. Try this conservative procedure.” So he goes in, he tries just some basic self skin care and he's healed. And he comes back and he thanks the practitioner and then he goes and he says, “Okay, I'm going to need a new insurer to fit with this practitioner.” So he sets up his new insurance plan (that's the two mule loads of dirt). He sets up his new insurance plan, and he negotiates with his caregiver for ongoing after care and lifestyle change to deal with his disease. Doesn't that sound like modern medicine? 

But it also tells us something about how people saw one's relationship to God. You see, a god had to do with a place. And if you're in a different place, you're dealing with a different god. Zion is the Hill of God and all these other gods - you know, the gods are Tyre and Sidon -  you don't bring them here. It’s a constant refrain in the Books of Kings. And so Naaman says, “Well, if I'm going to be worshiping Israel's God, I need a piece of Israel,” and he takes two mule loads of Israel back with him.

So now we get to the gospel. Jesus is going through no man's land. Well not exactly, but he's on the boundary between Samaria to the West and the Galilee to the East, an interesting conjunction of places. It's sort of in the Jordan river Valley; and it's sort of culturally different. The Galilee was basically settled by Greek-speaking, folks. Now, a lot of them were now Jews. There were Jews in the Galilee, but it was traditionally a Greek kind of cultural area. 

And Samaria: well, we've all heard about Samaria, but let me remind you about Samaria because it'll also make sense of something else Jesus said. You’ll remember that Israel for a while did fine. And then after Solomon things sort of fell apart, and we find them divided into two kingdoms, Israel to the North and Judah to the South. And they don't agree on things. And one of the things they decide not to agree on is that Israel said, “We can't go down to Jerusalem anymore in Judah to worship. We've got to have our own place.” And so they set up worship according to the Torah, but on a different mountain, Mount Gerizim. And if you read through the Books of the Kings, you'll see the things that happened in Israel and you'll see the things that happened in Judah. And you'll find, for example, that Amos and his prophecy was primarily in Israel. They tell him, “We're not interested in you here. Why don't you talk to the folks in Judah?” Other prophets are much the same. And Elisha spends a good deal of time up in Samaria.

But the Samaritans are problematic. First of all, the folks who have Jerusalem think the Samaritans have gone too far by setting up their own altar and their own temple. And then when Israel falls to the Assyrians, the Assyrians have this relocation program. They take a lot of the population of Israel, and they move them and instead they import a lot of other folks. The idea is that, you take people away from the land they know and you give them land, and now they are not dependent on what they've known. They are now dependent on the empire. They're now dependent on the person who put them there and gave them land to live on. Honestly, it's kind of a lot like what China does in its Western territories these days. They keep trying to say everything is part of the Han culture and they keep moving more Han folks in.

And so that's what the Assyrians did. So now for the folks in Judah, that's a double problem. You've got these folks who claim to live by Torah and the new folks come in - and remember you go with the God of the locality. So, they begin to pick up with the God of the Torah, but now there’s an intermingling of bloodlines and of cultures. And as far as the Judeans are concerned - the Judah-ites and ultimately the Judeans, the Jerusalem folks, - as far as they’re concerned the Samaritans are impure. They are not right.  And, they make not right worse by trying to be faithful when they've already fallen too far away.

And now Jesus is well out of Judea, well away for Jerusalem. He's up between Samaria and Galilee and he encounters 10 lepers, 10 lepers, who are aware of what's going on and aware of something about Jesus.

Now we know actually remarkably, literally little about leprosy in the Bible. We think of Hansen's disease. We think of what puts people in leper colonies in a few places, even today, although now it's very treatable. But actually the old Testament describes a whole bunch of skin symptoms that are leprosy. So we didn't know what exactly was afflicting these ten medically. We do know what was afflicting them socially and culturally. Luke said they kept their distance, but they called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” They kept their distance because that's what lepers did. They also were impure. They were not quite right. They weren't fit company for man nor beast, as we say, and they had to keep their distance from anybody. They were cursed, and their curse was very visible. It was on their skin. It was affecting their bodies. 

So they keep their distance and Jesus, he doesn't even get close. He just says, “Go show yourselves to the priests;” and they go. And they are all ten healed.

I found myself wondering who these 10 were. They're between Samaria and Galilee. That would make you a long way from Jerusalem. Likely they're Jews, although there wouldn't exactly be priests in the Galilee or in Samaria; except for this one, because he's a Samaritan. He's close to Samaria, and as far as he is concerned, there are priests that Mount Gerizim to go see. For all we know, they were all ten Samaritans.

But they are all ten healed; and one then comes back and gives praise, and says, “God did this.” Jesus says (we presume the entourage was there. It doesn't say that, but who else is he talking to?) -  Jesus says, “Wait a minute. Did 10 get healed? Only one comes back. And as far as my people are concerned, he's a - a foreigner! Go on your way,” he says. “Your faith has made you well.”

Think about how different and understanding this is from what I was talking about with Naaman. We are a long way from God's Holy Hill in Zion, and ten were healed. Only onr saw God in that, but ten were healed; and we are a long way from Jerusalem. And suddenly it looks like God is going to do things we don't expect and God is going to be where we don't expect.

Some of you may know that one of the things that complicates the lives of preachers in this season of the year is that, in fact, in the lectionary they give us two choices of Old Testament readings; and I read both of them. The second one is from Jeremiah and it's very interesting. This is after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. They also remove people, but they just remove the elite: most of the court, most of the professional class. They put their own puppet king in place, and they remove everybody above a certain income to Babylon. And by the same token, the Babylon community of Jews writes to Jeremiah the prophet - who they didn't listen to and now they realize a little too late was telling the truth -  they write and they say, “What do we do now? As the Psalm says, ‘How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?’” And Jeremiah says, “Plant trees, plant vineyards, establish lives for yourselves. Have children, have families, have a future. And also, pray for the larger culture around you because they're prospering will lead to your prospering.”

Well, how could we do that? How could we do that, unless the God of Jerusalem continues to be God in Babylon; unless the God of Jerusalem continues to be God in the wasteland between Samaria and Galilee; unless God continues to be God in the wasteland that is illness. I spent all that time working in hospitals and also in nursing homes, and I came to the realization that being a patient in an institution is like foreign travel. It really is. It's like traveling abroad. The people speak a strange language that you don't understand. They have strange customs that you don't understand. They have a strange wardrobe that you don't participate in. They have really strange rituals that you do participate in; and your money's no good. It's like foreign travel and the God of Jerusalem is in the midst of that strangeness.

We need to hold onto that because, you know, being sick is one example, but all of us have some experience of having to take what we are to another place. I don't know how many others of you around here grew up in Crossville. I don't need to show of hands, but I know most of us moved here from somewhere else. I grew up in Knoxville and yet I moved here from Kansas City. And we brought some things, but some things we found. And all of us had that experience in different ways and in different times of our lives. And, when those experiences are tough enough, they can bring us even to despair. 

And the God of Jerusalem is in the midst of those places. Why? Because as the author of Second Timothy says, “You know, we can fall away. But God is always faithful because God can't deny God's Godness.“God cannot deny God's Godness, and God's Godness, as we human beings are slow to learn. embraces all of it. In the midst of it, God is there,

I was watching a YouTube video. And part of what it says is, is that Elon Musk is offering hope about going to Mars (some people hope Elon Musk goes to Mars), and about what that could mean for us as human beings. But, of course, going to Mars is going to mean some people take something with them to a very strange place; and the God of Jerusalem is there. It is important sometimes that we take our two loads of earth with us to get started. It is important that we have our new insurance plan in place; but in the face of the stresses and the troubles of being in that “middle-of,” of being caught between this territory and that, between this life and that - with the lepers, literally between life and death - the God of Jerusalem, God in Christ is there. Sometimes we'll notice. Maybe 10% of the time we'll stop and see that we’re healed and we'll turn and we'll say “We give thanks for what God has done for us.” That gratitude is the appropriate response, but it's not an appropriate response in a vacuum. It's not a discipline that we learn just to remember to say it. It is the appropriate response to the fact that between Samaria and Galilee, between Kansas City and Crossville, literally between life and death, God, God’s self is there: there with us; there for us.

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