Saturday, October 12, 2013

Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Proper 23C

Over the past few weeks we have had a series of readings from the Hebrew scripture that tell the story of the Babylonian Exile.  In 596 BCE the nation of Babylon (now Iraq) invaded Jerusalem and enslaved the majority of the upper echelons of Judean  society just as the Assyrians had done to the Northern Kingdom of Israel some 200 years before. 

The loss of their freedom and their mass deportation to Babylon savaged the people of Judah, but they learned that if they did not keep their faith, they would never be a nation again.  It was clear that to be faithful they had to maintain their ethic ties and customs.  That is what the first lesson is describing.  They recognized their sinfulness and in order to continue to be the chosen people of God, they had to be willing to survive as a people.  Finally in around 539 when Babylon was defeated by the Persians, the people of Judah were allowed to return to Jerusalem.  Not all returned, but those who did would become the Pharisees, those who found Mosaic Law the center of their faith rather than the sacrifices of the Temple. 

It is interesting that since 596 BCE there have been Jews in Iraq.  It has only been in the past 20 years
or so that those Babylonian Jews have been forced out of that very Muslim nation.

  One of them was J’s doctor.  It was very interesting to talk to him about the Babylonian Jewish community.  Their customs differ a bit from those of other Jewish groups, but their centrality on the Law is just as fierce as it was during the enslavement 2,500 years ago.  I find this fascinating and helpful to my Christian faith.  Such ethic identity did preserve the faith that Jesus would further some 500 years later.
The story we have in the Gospel is usually preached as if it is a reminder to be grateful to God for healing.  But I think that the purpose of the story is really about the Samaritan leper who returned thanks to Jesus for the cleansing that Jesus had performed.  

Samaritans were those people, some lower class Jews and some were non-Semetics who inhabited the area around Jerusalem and the areas in the ancient part of the nation that once was part of Israel, the   They worshiped God, the same God that the Judeans worshiped but not in the Temple in Jerusalem.  They worshiped God in the ‘high places’.  They made sacrifices as the Judeans had done.  But they had not had the experience of the ‘exile’.   However, with the return of the Babylonian exiles, they were not accepted as ‘Jews’.  They were considered unclean.  

When we realize that most of Hebrew scripture was codified during the time of the Exile and in Babylon, it is easy to see how the Samaritans would be loath to find the returning exiles as being the 'traditionalists' that the returnees thought they were.  In the minds of the returnees from Babylon, those who had been exiled and who followed the Laws that were codified there were the righteous ones, the Pharisees.  And even though they began rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, it was not until Jesus’ time that the Temple was really rebuilt by the half-breed Jew, Herod, who was made king by the Romans.

This Gospel story is about returning thanks, but then Jesus makes his dig:
               “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to                return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

It was the Samaritan who returned to thank Jesus for his cleansing.  And although he worshiped the same God as did the Jews, it was he who understood the meaning of the gratitude that the Law of Moses.  It was the Samaritan who understood the purpose of the Law, the meaning of righteousness better than those who were supposed to know—the Pharisees.  

All too often we use pigeon holes to describe people’s faith.  Those who make great show of being observers of the rules and regulations of faith are often the ones who don’t really get it.  Even in our own denomination and even in our own diocese.  I am always amused when people are willing to point at others who don’t observe the same customs that they do.  They are ‘wrong’ or not ‘really Christian’ or Episcopalian or whatever.  Here in my area   That I don’t observe the evangelical arm of Anglicanism either makes me suspect. 
Because I don’t observe all the high church pomp and circumstance that the people in this part of the country are used to, I am considered ‘not really Episcopalian, you know’.  Even though we Episcopalians like to think we are so broad minded.
I know that ritual is very important in faith matters.  It is the way that we remember.  It is the way that we touch those incredible holy moments of our lives.  For those whose experience of God is tied up in such rituals those rituals are the way that they can access the Holy.  But if their experience of the Holy can ONLY be accessed through a particular ritual, then we have done the faithful a tremendous disservice if we clergy have not taught them how to gain access the Divine in more than one way.  The purpose of ritual is to open people to splendor of God.  And I would hope that people can find God in much more than the services of the Church.  

Yes, we priests are given the ‘good housekeeping seal of approval’ to guarantee the validity of sacramental worship, but if people are not experiencing God in their daily lives, what I do at the altar may not be enough to open them to how God works.  Yes, the sacrament is efficacious.  But it may not be the gateway to that incredible experience of the Holy that transforms us, molds us, and creates that new being that the sacrament promises. 

Jesus recognized that it was the Samaritan whose life had been transformed by the healing that God had done.  It was the foreigner, not one of the ‘in crowd.’  Jesus’ message is not about healing, but that the Law was being misused.  Jesus’ message was that God is free, you don’t have to be a member, you don’t have to be a card-carrier, you don’t have to follow all the rules.  Jesus’ message is that God is God and no church, no law, no words of humans can keep one away from the meaning of that which is so far beyond us.  

Over the years I have taught the canon law of our church because it was expected of me.  But I no longer think it is necessary.  There are too many who have misused those canons, those rules, to make   We have made ritual more and more arcane so that the real meaning of living in the embrace of God gets lost in the translation.  I don’t care what people think when they come to the communion rail; I just want them to come.  They don’t have to believe in anything special.  God will teach them what they need to know.  I only want them to know that they are welcome to experience what I hold to be holy.  If they come to know it is holy too, then I have done my job as a priest. 
the sacraments more difficult to access.

We need to have more people in the world who are aware of the Holy that is both outside of them and within them.  We need to be able to identify that feeling that one has when he holds his first child, or that incredible experience of when she knows that someone really understands her and loves us just the way she is, or that sense of complete surrender that come when he recognizes that he isn’t the ruler of his universe.  We must be willing to not only experience this, but recognize how others embrace that moment of healing, liberation, total acceptance, source of love, etc.  It is the only way that we can truly share what it means to be a part of Creation with others who share in that wonder. 

In 1991 I had the privilege of going to Cabo San Lucas for the total eclipse of the sun.  We went with a Smithsonian museum tour.  We all knew what happens when there is an eclipse.  We understood the science.  I had heard stories of others who had witnessed this phenomenon before.  But until I experienced this astrological event, I could not understand just how much power such events have.  It is impossible to really explain and it happens in a very short time.  Bands of light precede the total eclipse, and then there are spectacular visions of the ring of fire around the sun.  It put so much into perspective of just how small my experience of the world is.  I had much the same experience when I witnessed the damage following Katrina along the Mississippi coast in 2003.  God’s might is so much more than we can ask or imagine.

I would imagine that the Samaritan leper had a similar sensation at being cured of his malady.  The heavens opened, the intimacy of the touch of God’s liberation cleansed him.  He understood at a level   It would be his faith—his embrace of all the goodness of the universe that was the healing of the leper.  We call it miraculous; we call it marvelous.  But both Jesus and the Samaritan knew it as the beginning of the conversation of faith.
that Jesus recognized as that moment when the soul comes into conversation with God.

It is this conversation that all ritual is supposed to assist.  But ritual pales in the light of the real thing. The conversation of faith only happens when we are ready to embrace that which we don’t know—embrace the unfathomable love that is both within us and without us.    Faith is a dialog with all of Creation and the Uncreated.  It is an exchange of the singular with the whole, a colloquy of the heart.  

The Samaritan went away healed in ways that the others didn’t.  The others were made clean—but it was the 'unclean one' 
who knew the secret of the Universe. The Divine had touched him.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Faith: Uprooting the Mulberry tree Proper 22C

This is a strange set of lessons.  The first lesson from Lamentations is a lament over Jerusalem after their defeat at the hands of the Babylonians in 597 BCE.  The city is left desolate, the cream of Judah have been led off in slavery to walk to Iran.  Psalm 137 is also a lament of those who have been displaced to Babylon.  They have been told to sing the songs of Judah, but the psalms are all in praise of the God of Jacob.  In those days it was not believed that the god of a nation could translate to another place.  So singing the songs of Zion—the name of the Mount of the Temple would remind them of the God who was powerless in Babylon.  But they were to find out that the God of Abraham was not powerless in Iran and would lead the people out of Babylon and back to Jerusalem.

The Epistle is from the 2nd letter to Timothy.  He speaks of faith handed down in families.  It is interesting that the writer of the letter (ostensibly Paul) is speaking to young Timothy as he takes on leadership in the nascent church.  But Paul speaks of
worship that was translated to him by his ancestors.  But wait!  Isn’t Paul of the first generation of Christians?  How can he have known faith in Jesus before?  First of all, Paul was not creating a new religion.  Paul was passing on a way of worshiping the One God as a Jew in the light of the new leadership of Christ Jesus.  It is through the revelation of Jesus Christ that ‘abolished death and brought immortality to light.’ 
But it is the Gospel in the Lukan form that makes us say, “Huh?”  We have heard this saying before in Matthew.  But this saying of Jesus has been combined with another saying that has to do with doing what one has been called to do without expecting reward.  I am not sure that these two verses really go together, but our post-abolitionist psyches sometimes give us a problem with understanding these stories.   

If we can put ourselves into the shoes of the first century slave, they are a bit more understandable.  Jesus is trying to help the people to understand their faith as being a relationship with the God who loves them more than life.

Faith is not something we can manufacture on our own any more than we can have friends that we never connect with.  Faith is a gift from God.  We cannot add to faith or detract from it because it is a relationship with the Holy One who has given us the capacity to embrace that which is so far beyond us that we can only imagine.  It sounds like Jesus is saying that you need to conjure up more faith and then you could move mountains.  I am not sure that is what he is saying.  I think he was saying that with the small faith the size of a mustard seed we have been given, we can do extraordinary things.  We can move mountains if we but have small faith.  And I think of the earth movers that have been changing the face of North Texas over the past few years.  Someone has had a vision about how we can travel for the future.  It is the hope and the vision that we are invited to in faith.

Last night I was watching something on Smithsonian channel about the pyramids.  Faith built those mountains—yes, there was slave labor and perhaps the Hebrew people were part of that, but it the willingness to ‘think outside the box’ is part of
faith.  Certainly the ancient pharaohs thought out of their box of desert and brought the mountains to the Nile to memorialize their lives.  

For those of us who have been gifted with faith we know that it is the relationship we have with the Holy that makes our lives worth living.  It makes our lives worth serving.  Because the Holy One of Israel who is manifested in the life of Jesus and spread abroad by the Spirit allows for a richness of life that cannot be obtained in any other way.  Faith is the gift of knowing God both ‘out there’ and ‘in here’.  The God, who is totally ‘Other’ and totally ‘Within’, constantly reveals how to embrace more of Creation.  

I understand why Plato came up with the ‘image’ of the perfect in his philosophy.  There is something within humanity that wants things to be better.  It is a drive that calls us to be more, want more.  In some cases it can be perverted into gluttony or avarice.  But more often it is the call to demand more of ourselves.  I believe that it is part of faith—this call to emulate the God that we know in that relationship of faith.  Part of the problem is that God has often been described as a god of no mercy, or a god of war in Scripture.  But also we hear the stories of those who had faith who told stories of the God of love, the God who called people to their best selves.  The God of the Burning
Bush that told Moses to lead his people even when he felt he didn’t have the ability; Jeremiah who thought that just because he was a boy he couldn’t proclaim God’s oracle to the people of Judah; or Esther who saved her people even though she was afraid.  

It is faith that makes our lives work.  When I taught in Roman Catholic schools I used to say that faith is a gift like a baseball glove.  If one puts it on a shelf and does not use it, it never provides the
giftee with the protection it was designed for.  And a baseball glove is almost useless if it is not used, broken in, oiled and practiced with.  Our faith must be practiced.  And I think that that is what Jesus is saying in his mustard seed analogy.  That if we do not think out of the box then our faith never really gets used.  We must be willing to trust that we can move mountains.  Granted, we must be willing to use the tools that God has given to make that happen.  We must be willing to work for the coming of the ‘kingdom’ or whatever we want to call a ‘better tomorrow.’    We need to do the work that we have been given to do whether it is within the ‘system’ or not.  Whether we get remunerated or praised for it.  We need to be willing to live our faith outside of the various constraints that we have often allowed to be placed upon it.  Faith isn’t just for church anymore (not that it ever was).  Faith is for the world to know and see.  

The mustard seed is not the smallest seed in creation, but the plant was ubiquitous in the Middle East.  Today, faith can be as ubiquitous if we but live it.  If we are willing to live within the God we know, our lives will be different.  Moving the mulberry tree is not hard when we have the help of faith.  It is the faith that gives us the vision.  And the work work we have before us is trying to live into the life that God has illumined for us in Jesus.  I may even be a miserable example, but at least I am constantly trying to make that the model.  I know that I would be totally vile if I didn’t have Christ ever before me in prayer, Scripture and the faith community.

Each of us lives into the life of Christ in different ways.  We can and do move
mulberry trees or mountains every day.  But it is not we who do it;  it is the faith in the Holy One that is working within us that allows us to be a part of that goodness.  I can’t think of anywhere else I would want to be.