Thursday, October 07, 2010

Sermon for October 10, Proper 23, Prayer is Praising God In This World

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Psalm 66:1-12, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19
Note: My intepretation turns on the correct translation of "foreigner" as "allogenes" meaning "other born" (used only here in the whole NT), meaning for Luke something like "born again," and also of the last phrase, "your faith has saved you," not "your faith has made you well." All ten were made well, but not all were saved, and what "saved" means is at issue here.

The disease of leprosy was incurable and a long, slow death. It was contagious, so it made you untouchable. You were cast out of your village and dead to your family; you were dead to the people of God and you could not worship; you were subhuman. And notice that while healthy Jews and Samaritans did not associate, but these ten lepers were together in their misery, for what did it matter now? They live outside the boundaries, they are dead to the world.

Jesus commanded them back to life, a resurrection of their bodies. They were not healed standing there, they had to go as he had said, they had to obey his command, and in their obedience they are made clean. They scattered, no doubt, each one to his own village priest for the ritual certification of being clean again. All ten of them were made well through their faith.

So what is it about this one? The other nine were doing what Jesus had told them, they kept on going to their priests. They figured the Messiah had done his job for them, he had restored them to Israel, they could go back to their normal lives now, they could "build their houses and live in them, they could plant their gardens and eat the produce, they could take their wives again and have their sons and daughters once again." (Jeremiah) They were back, they had returned to normalcy.

The nine were not so wrong, but the one was so right. What made him turn around was more than simple gratitude. He was praising God as he came back. And he came right up close to Jesus instead of keeping his distance as before. He has not yet been certified, but he acts as if he’s already been restored. What does this mean? Jesus was not authorized to certify him clean, but he recognized that Jesus was certainly authorized to make him clean. He read God into it.

So the difference seems to be while he is still on his way to the priest, he realizes that the real thing is not in front of him, but back there behind him. "Back there with that man Jesus is where God came into my life, God was there in Jesus, so I will go back there where Jesus is to thank both him and God." Now I am not saying that at this point the Samaritan believed in the Divinity of Christ, but he seems to have known by faith that God had come to him in Jesus.

And the other nine seem to have missed the remarkable surprise. They went right back to
religion as usual. They did accept the miracle, they did believe what Jesus said, but they missed the full meaning of what had been done to them. Who can blame them for being so eager to get back to their normal lives. But they miss a close encounter with God.

All ten had faith. All ten believed the first command of Jesus and acted on it. But faith has to become more than just believing that God's word is true. Faith is also vision and insight. Faith sees more than observation can. Faith can hear the word of God in the voice of a human being. Faith can see the hand of God in ordinary things. And this one out of ten had a faith that could see that though there was a village priest in front of him, there was a greater priest behind him.

I can imagine the other nine not turning around for fear that if they did so they might not be fully healed. The tenth one actually disobeyed what Jesus said. Doubtless he did go on to the priest eventually, but he interrupted his obedience. For praise and thanksgiving. As if praise and thanksgiving are the whole point of obedience. As if he’s already been restored to his full humanity before his return to his normal life in the village. As if returning to his normal life is not even really the point, but returning in praise and thanksgiving is the point.

So what does it mean to be a human being? To build houses and plant gardens and take our spouses and have children. What people do. The normal things. Or is that not enough? Is that only sub-human too. Not the miserable sub-humanity of the living death of leprosy, but the cheerful sub-humanity of houses and gardens and families and that’s all. Those things are all good, and what God wants for us, but to be a fully human being is to know when to turn from all of that and return to God in praise and thanksgiving.
That’s a fully human being. To be saved is to be made a fully human being. When your faith has saved you, that does mean healing and cleansing, it does mean restoration to the world, but it also means orientation to God. It’s only by your turning to God in praise and thanksgiving that you get the fulness of the world.

In this series of sermons on prayer, I am asking what each of the lessons might tell us about prayer. Well, in this passage there are three kinds of prayer. It opens with all ten of them praying for mercy, just as we do every week. "Jesus, Master, have mercy upon us." (We could sing it.) It is the prayer we pray from out of our misery, from our uncleanness, from our alienation from each other, from the world, and from God.

And it closes with a prayer of praise to God and then a prayer of thanksgiving to Jesus. What praises might he have shouted? "Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah. Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing great wonders? O praise the Lord." What might he have said to Jesus? "Thank you Jesus, thank you for cleansing me, thank you for restoring me to life. Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord."

There are many reasons that we pray, there are many things to pray for. The reason to pray that I put to you today is that we pray in order to be fully realized human beings. It’s not enough just to have houses and gather food and make love and have children to be fully realized human beings. Animals do all that too. But to be a fully realized human being is to be an animal who prays. Who consciously praises God with memory and understanding. Who consciously praises in the middle of both mercy and thanksgiving.
It isn’t enough just to praise God just for the normal things of life, but to see your life in terms of needing mercy and needing to return your thanks, that’s where you have to go in praise to God, and that’s what makes you a fully realized human being. Why do you come to church, why do you worship? To be a fully realized human being, you come to church to pray together with other human beings, you come to church to do together these three things, mercy, thanksgiving, and praise.
Praise is at the center, and mercy and thanksgiving are the frames. Mercy and thanksgiving are about yourself, mercy for your need, and thanksgiving for what you have received, and then praise is not about yourself, but all about God, and how you forget yourself. And the great thing is that this is how you become a fully human being. By losing yourself in praise.

But how can you praise God when the world is so full of sickness and suffering and cruelty and sin? And when you daily find yourself unclean? This is the sober truth of normalcy. But Jesus saves you from normalcy by making you a foreigner to normalcy. By saving you for God, Jesus saves you from the world but also for the world and so Jesus saves the world for you. It has to begin with receiving his mercy. And in his mercy you can enter the world and return from the world in thanksgiving. It is by praying every day for mercy, and by every day returning thanks that you are able to praise God, and that you are able to be a fully realized human being.

It might sound a little foreign, it doesn’t sound normal, but it’s a message of the gospel today. By your faith in Jesus you are saved to be a fully human being, which means to praise God in this real world. So then beloved, pray these things every day. Pray for mercy. Return your thanks. And then you can start to speak of the wonder and greatness of God.

Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.


Pamela Smitter-Baker said...

Mercy, praise, thanksgiving. What a great trinity of words to bookend an interaction with God. I'd like to think I am in the process of becoming a 'fully realized human being' although your depiction reminds me of the 'little bit lower than God' phrase. Seems daunting at the same time as being transparently simple.

I wish I could hear this sermon in person. Thank you for posting it.

Old First said...

Yes, simple and daunting. And I'm listening to your playing, but not in person.