Thursday, October 10, 2013

October 13, Proper 23, Contradictions 7: Dirty Water, Faithful Denial

2 Kings 5:1-3; 7-15c, Psalm 111, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19

We have four contradictions today. The first one is in the gospel lesson, when the Lord Jesus speaks contrarily. First, he tells the ten lepers to go to a priest to get certified as healed, which they do. On the way, they realize they are healed, but they keep following the Lord’s instructions, except that one of them turns around and comes back to him. The Lord gives him credit for this, which is fine — but the problem is that he questions the other nine for doing what he had told them to do.

Unless his questions are not rhetorical but real. That is, the Samaritan leper had surprised him. There was a surplus in the Samaritan’s response, a surplus which surprised Our Lord, and then, having seen it, Jesus says, “Hey, I wonder why this one is the only one who did this?” We can allow the Lord Jesus to have his surprise and wonder too.

The second contradiction is the standing one we saw again last week, the contradiction between God’s promises and our experience. If it was his faith that made him well, then why am I still sick? I have faith, I've prayed, and I’m still sick. The answer of conventional religion is that there must be a  problem with my faith, that it isn't great enough. But Jesus contradicted that last week: he said your faith should be the size of a mustard seed, so the greatness or smallness of your faith is immaterial.

I have to tell you that our English translation of what Jesus said doesn't help. He doesn't say, “Your faith has made you well.” He actually says, “Your faith has saved you,” which is more than a little different. Think about the story: all ten of them were made well, all ten of them were healed, and not by their faith, but by the free and invisible action of Jesus as they walked away from him. It’s only the tenth one who was both healed and saved. And getting saved — what it means to get “saved,” in the Gospel of Luke, is to accept and enjoy the Lordship of Jesus, to get saved is to enter the Realm of God, right then and there, to get saved is to receive the Kingdom of God. Which is what only the tenth one did when he turned around and returned to Jesus.

So from Luke’s point of view, you are saved. You here. You came here today to say, Lord, have mercy on us, and then also to offer up your thanks to God, so you are within the Kingdom of God right now. You are saved, you are safe, even in whatever you are suffering. You are within God’s sovereignty, and God will keep you safe.

In the case of our first lesson, the prophet Elisha did more than make General Naaman well, he also saved him — he made him receive the Kingdom of God. That’s why Elisha told him to bathe himself in the dirty waters of the Jordan. To Naaman it sounded contradictory — our third today — and at first he wouldn’t do it. You wouldn’t either. Go wash in the Gowanus, and you’ll be healed.

The story is intentionally comic. It’s a joke on the king of Israel, who thinks it’s a set up. It’s a joke on Naaman, when he shows up at Elisha’s door with his horses and chariots and all his retinue, and the prophet doesn’t even get up from his crossword puzzle, but sends out his servant with the message. Then, at the edge of the river Naaman has to endure the shame of getting undressed and exposing his nakedness, not to mention his awful skin, before the eyes of his lessers.

It’s comic that he has to go seven times into the water. Once, still leprous. Twice, still leprous. Three times, everyone is looking to see if there is any change. Four times, Naaman is humiliated by the show, but he can’t stop now. Five times, any hope? Six times, what if this doesn’t work, what a fool he’s been, but he goes in the seventh time, and then, the laughter of relief, and maybe tears as well.

The reason for this whole show, and why Elisha did not just heal him while he stood outside his door, is that Naaman had to get baptized. The water was symbolic. Just as the Israelites had to cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land, so did this foreigner, this enemy of Israel. He had to brave the boundary waters, seven times to test his faith, like marching seven times around the walls of Jericho. He had to enter the Kingdom of God and receive the Kingdom of God. He’s been saved. So he doesn’t go straight home. Like the Samaritan he returns to the man of God to confess his faith.

Naaman confessed his faith, and the Samaritan offered thanksgiving. To practice gratitude is to practice your faith. That’s a take home for today. If you want to live by your faith, then practice thanksgiving. Thanksgiving to God is the best way to express your faith and the best way to rehearse your faith and the best way to maintain your faith. To practice gratitude is to practice your faith. For does it not take faith to do it — to be grateful to God even when you are suffering, even when you keep on waiting to be made well. That you still return to God, that you still worship God, that you still give thanks to God, that you still keep wanting to live within the Kingdom of God—that’s what faith does and what it takes faith to do.

It is challenging. You need encouragement. Your faith runs thin. You have your doubts, and you know you have your weaknesses. The Bible is full of positive characters who stumbled in their faith, or failed in faith, or even lost their faith. From our Second Lesson it looks like Reverend Timothy was facing that and he needed encouragement. His church was small and struggling. His mentor was in jail, and the whole Christian movement looked very weak indeed.

St. Paul reminds him of one of their early Christian hymns. It's a poem with four lines. The first two lines are fine: “If we’ve died with him we’ll also live with him, if we endure with him we’ll also reign with him.” So far so good. Not just for the future. Living right now, reigning somehow right now. Often it doesn’t feel like it, but see your life that way, like Malala Yousafzai, for example.

The third line is the hard part: “If we deny him he’ll also deny us.” Uh oh. Does that mean eternally? Does that mean that even though God says Yes to you, your No to God can overturn that Yes? That contradicts the Reformed Church doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints, that doctrine of comfort and consolation, that if God has called you to salvation, nothing weak or sinful that you do or say can overturn God’s call on you, so that God, who began a good work in you, will see it through to completion, no matter how you stumble or fail from the sin which still lives on in you.

Could we make sense of this third line by saying that there’s a denial that comes from strength, when you just plain say No to God, and God will let you have your way, and there’s also a denial that comes from weakness, or fear, or shame, or guilt, and God will not let your No be the last word? Think about St. Peter and his denial of Jesus three times before the cock crowed on Good Friday, and yet Jesus did not deny him back. Do I dare say that what Jesus denies is your denial?

And is the fourth line not contrary to the third? "If we are faithless, he remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself.” Even when you break faith, he will not break faith. Well, there’s the promise, and that’s the promise you have to hold on to. Not that I can make these four lines add up nice and neat, but no matter what the third line says it’s not the last line.

Your faithless denial never gets to be the last word. The last word is always God’s. And God’s last word is always Yes. To you. I know you doubt God, you look away from God, you strike out at God, you rage at God, you even say No to God, but God gets the last word, and God’s last word to you is always Yes. Because God’s love is as eternal and unfathomable and unending as God’s own self.

It’s hard to believe. And so you have to rehearse the thanksgiving. Which is why our liturgy is set up the way it is, it’s designed to help you rehearse each week the process of believing. We go from the promise in the sermon, to the “Okay, I believe it” of the Creed, which then leads you to the “Lord have mercy,” which then leads you to the intercessory prayers for all the suffering — for all the people who still need in one way or another to experience that Yes — which then leads you to the Great Thanksgiving.

We do that Great Thanksgiving every week in order for you to keep your faith alive, because how you practice having faith in God is to rehearse your Thanksgiving to God. And what God gives back to you is more than just faithfulness — what God gives back to you is love. For God cannot deny God’s self, and God is love.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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