Sunday, October 13, 2013

Faith: Response To the Impossible

Put yourself into the situation described in the first reading from Jeremiah (29:1; 4-7). You’re among a people who’ve been thrown out of their sacred city and homes, and sent off to Babylon in 597 BCE about 500 miles away, as the crow flies, approximately the distance from here to San Diego. After your arrival, the elders/leaders, priests and prophets have received a letter from Jeremiah, the prophet back in Jerusalem, whom some of those same distinguished men loved to hate, as seen in previous chapters. Among the people’s many instances of criticizing, harassing and rejecting this bothersome prophet for calling them to account for their continual unfaithfulness to God, one of the priests, Pashur, assaults Jeremiah and locks him up in the stocks. (Chapter 20) That’s just a prelude to further persecution and King Zedekiah’s throwing Jeremiah into prison, then turning him over to Shephatiah, son of Pashur, and his gang of thugs to be thrown into a cistern, where, according to the writer of Jeremiah...Jeremiah sank in the mud.” 

Jeremiah, of all people, knew about spiritual depression and what it means to feel God’s absence. After being put into the stocks, he cries to God: “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock...everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out...‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, “I won’t mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot...
So this Jeremiah now sends a letter asking your leaders to pass this message on to your people. As if rubbing it in, he says: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I’ve sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon...stay where you are, in exile, until you’re told otherwise. Build houses, plant gardens, find yourselves spouses and marry, beget children and arrange for spouses for your children...multiply.” Obviously, you think, this is going to be for the long haul! And the kicker is, God’s honest truth, that you’re to “seek the welfare” of Babylon, not just resign yourself to exile there; you’re to pray to God on its behalf, not curse the Babylonians or hate them...because, God says, if their land prospers, so will you; if its business is good, so will yours be; if Babylon and its people live, so will you.
What, do you think, would be your reponse to Jeremiah’s letter? Do you see in your current life-situation anything similar, whether in terms of your self, family, Church, or world? How do you and I, in times of crisis, avoid false hope, especially when perpetuated by false prophets and diviners around us? What does it mean for you and me to, symbolically, keep faith in a message like the one which God conveys through the prophet, Jeremiah, four verses after today’s passage: “For surely I know the plans I have for you,...plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope...
In the 2nd Letter to Timothy (2:8-15) an unknown mentor who knew St. Paul writes to Timothy, probably not long after Paul’s death around the summer of 64 CE. Like Paul who’d faced many hopeless and thankless situations, some life-threatening, so this writer encourages his younger colleague, Timothy, to imitate his endurance while pastorally ministering, to “do your best” as a  “worker” approved by God, unashamedly “explaining the word of truth”, even if it’s what folks don’t want to hear. The foundation for that, he says, is “Jesus Christ, raised from the dead... -- that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained...
What’s the quality of our faith? Is it a passive gift from God which you and I stow away to gather dust until we put it on display for special occasions? Or is it a gift which makes us perceptive in all situations and actively engages us, much like the soldier, the athlete, the farmer of whom the writer of 2nd Timothy speaks in the verses just before this passage?
Luke, in the Gospel (17:11-19), portrays 10 men, lepers, people afflicted with skin disease who were required by Leviticus to keep their distance, wear torn clothes, dishevel their hair, cover their upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean!” They encounter Jesus at a village on the border of Samara and Galilee, “on the way to Jerusalem.” This place was a no-man’s land, neither fully Jewish territory nor fully outside of it. Here where rival religious groups had butted heads for centuries, this company of the miserable had likely, because of their disease, finally accepted separation from their kinsfolk and adjusted to living side-by-side with the “enemy”. 
Frequently after Chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel, Luke depicts Jesus as making his way to the City of Peace, where he’ll eventually be arrested and executed by crucifixion. It could be that this wasn’t the group’s first contact with Jesus, since they simply cry out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”, Master being a common term used by Jesus’ disciples. Note that in responding to them, Jesus speaks no healing formula nor uses any healing gesture. He simply directs them to go and have the priests examine them, as provided for in Leviticus 13-14, probably but not necessarily in Jerusalem. 
On the way, showing trust in Jesus’ instructions, but still with no assurances, the lepers suddenly realize that they’ve been cleansed, a remarkably surprising discovery in their situation. After the initial shock, nine of the lepers continue their journey, but the other one “saw that he was healed”, “turned back”, “[praised] God with a  loud voice”, then “prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” Luke immediately notes, “And he was a Samaritan”, a person doubly despised in that area for both his leprosy and his religious loyalty. Imagine also his feelings if, indeed, it was to the priests in Jerusalem that Jesus directed him and his companions, a place where he’d be totally an outcast!
Jesus promptly wonders aloud why only one from the group returned. Where were the others? “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” In Jesus’ mind only one thing really mattered: that this man’s faith, in contrast to the other nine who probably ran off excitedly to try and reunite with their family and friends, brought him, in the midst of a truly impossible situation, to humbly acknowledge and to glorify God. This outsider’s faith, recognizing God’s power in Jesus, just as in the time of the prophet Elisha, Naaman the Aramean, his counterpart in the Hebrew Scriptures (2 Kings 5:1-19) had done, makes the cleansed leper well, establishes his true identity, saves him.
Can we accept that God’s healing through Christ is an unconditional gift, no strings attached, to the grateful and ungrateful alike even among us today? This story seems to hint that the familiar hymn lyric is really true: “There is a wideness in God’s mercy.” Can we appreciate that God’s healing isn’t a gimmick, a sort of dramatic flourish which we can somehow pressure God into doing in order to make ourselves or others feel good? In the end, do we realize that the story isn’t about “miracles”, but rather about the “seeing” that makes one well by drawing us, whether insiders or outsiders, no matter how challenging the situation, into a surprising and saving relationship with a loving God?
If we are faithless, God remains faithful...” “For surely I know” says the Lord God, the plans I have for you,...plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope...

1 comment:

John-Julian, OJN said...

Goodness, you've covered the territory—all three readings in one sermon! You continue to amaze!

A note: when I was developing propers for a votive Mass of Gratitude for the Order, I could find no proper Gospel reading about gratitude except this one about the grateful leper!

John-Julian, OJN