Monthly Archives: October 2010

10-31-10 LEARNING FROM LUKE: TRANSFORMATION




LEARNING FROM LUKE: TRANSFORMATIONLuke 19: 1-10


Transformation is a big concept, one that some havedemonstrated with their lives. Like the toy Transformers that change their boththeir appearance and their purpose, transformed people may look different, butthey also have a change of heart, an awakening of the mind, a new purpose inlife, or all of the above. Further, transformation is not, by definition, justa change in life because of circumstances, which might simply be calledchanging or adapting. No, transformation is something that—for the purposesdescribed in the Bible, in the lives of faithful people, and perhaps in yourlife—is a change that moves people toward God and others in new ways.  Let’strace some texts, some stories, and some people today.


Last week we recalled how Jesus often uses contrastingcharacters in his parables and lets us see them through the eyes of the Kingdomof God. Last week we got a bad impression about a righteous man called a Pharisee.By contrast, last week a man despised by those in his community because he wasa sellout tax collector who collaborated with and profited from the crushingRoman Empire, was described in appreciative terms by Jesus.  What made Jesus portray one person oneway and one another? It wasn’t their lot in life or their profession; it wastheir attitude and their actions.  Attitudes and actions really matter;they are a good test of a transformed person.  Today we visit Jericho. According to some historians,Jericho is the oldest known city on the planet. The headline-grabbing frontcover of a recent issue of the Presbyterian Outlook said 10/10/10/10,000. Translation: on October 10, 2010, estimates are thatthe city of Jericho was 10,000 years old! Imagine that when America was formedjust 234 years ago! I had heard that Jericho dated back to 3000 BCE but neverhad I heard this new figure. It is staggering to think of all that the walls ofJericho have seen.  Sycamore treeshave grown there for years as well and still are there today. Jesus enteredthat city, not to stay, but to pass through. In verse two we are introduced toZacchaeus, the only man in the Bible ever identified as a “Chief TaxCollector.”  Although oftendespised because they were tax men for the Romans, there was no reason to thinkthat this Tax Collector was dishonest other than from innuendo. Did peoplethink: “He has money, I wonder if he skims a little extra for himself?” Buteven honest ones would have been wealthy just from doing their job. Thequestion is, why was Zacchaeus interested in Jesus? Was he having a crisis ofconscience? Was he just curious (curious enough to climb a tree for a betterview?) Was he looking for more out of life than money? Was he searching for amore meaningful existence?  All weknow is that he chose to not stay in his house or office; he risked coming out amongpossibly hostile crowds to find himself unabashedly climbing a tree to see!Jesus calls him by name not because he knows him by supernatural powers; it islikely he notice this man up a tree and asked about him. “That’s Zacchaeus, thechief tax collector around here” someone could have told him. Could Jesus havethen sized up the situation? Might he have wondered what was going on in a taxcollector’s life that he would want to see the healer and teacher Jesus? Hespots him and calls him with his famous “The Price is Right” invitation:“Zacchaeus, come on down! I’m coming to your house today!” If Jesus were a candidate in his day,he would have lost some votes over that choice. “Out of all the people in town”some murmured in verse 7, “he chooses to stay with a sinner!”  Wasit the thrill of Jesus’ presence that got Zacchaeus to save less money and givemore away? Or was there a series of events leading up to that fateful day thattransformed this little unpopular man into one who became a very differentperson? We don’t know all the back story, but then again, we rarely do. All weknow is that Zacchaeus was changed after meeting Jesus. He was not the first,and he would not be the last who would be transformed by meeting Jesus.


Let’s look at some other examples of transformedlives.  I don’t know exactly whatkind of man the Apostle Paul was before he saw and heard Jesus in his Damascusroad vision, but reading between the lines makes me think he was self-absorbed,handicapped in more ways than one, and obsessed with hateful actions that hethought honored God. There have been plenty of misguided organizations thathave hated and persecuted others supposedly with God’s blessing, because oftheir race, creed, or color. Paul, when he was Saul, sounded like he could havebeen in that group; he destroyed Christians. I hope you get the feeling of howawful he was. Saul, it could be said, was one who tried to curtail wrongbelievers. In our terminology, he was one trying to snuff out infidels. And yetthis anger-filled man became a transformed man! As passionate as he was about persecuting Christand his followers, once he met him, his actions and his attitudes changed. Hespent the rest of his life writing over half of our New Testament and startingchurches. What a change. Among the words he wrote, were these in his Letter tothe Romans: “The righteous shall live by faith.” Paul didn’t make those wordsup; he got them from a great Jewish prophet that he had studied: Habakkuk. As aboy, Paul, then Saul, must have read about his people being persecuted byBabylonians. He must have heard the story of Habakkuk’s question of God “How long?How long will you permit this to happen?” And as he wrestled with God inprayer, he came to the conclusion that Paul quoted: the righteous shall live byfaith. People who are right in the eyes of God do not achieve it by theirworks alone, but by their transformed lives and transformed ways of thinkingthat produces good works. Habakkukmight be surprised how quoted he became; perhaps Paul would be surprised howquoted he has become too. One man who quoted Paul and Habakkuk was MartinLuther. As a priest in the German city of Wittenberg, Luther went to the townblog of his day—the door of the Castle Church—and he posted 95 points he wishedto debate with others, particular other church people. He did that on thisdate, Halloween, in 1517. And he became a transformed man, largely from reading those words in Romans: “Therighteous shall live by faith.”  Inhis study of the Bible and in his prayer life, Luther met Jesus in a way he neverhad before. And his life was transformed.


There are so many others who have been transformed byChrist over the years: John Newton was a shipper and persecutor of slavesbefore he met Jesus in his prayers and penned the words to “Amazing Grace.”  Lee Strobel had a brilliantnon-believing mind before, in trying to disprove and discredit Christianity,Christ transformed his life. Jesus Christ became his passion. He is the authorof the book THE CASE FOR CHRIST being studied in one of our adult classes. Andit is my pleasure to credit Jesus Christ for giving the vision to a Methodist Bishopfrom Arkansas named Richard Wilke who created and wrote the materials for ourDISCIPLE Bible Studies. Bishop Wilke had scanned countless Bible studymaterials and chose to call his a “transformational” Bible study. It was hishope that those who went through that program would have lives transformed bythe encounter with the living God in fervent, prayerful, and relational small groupministry. We have many faithful followers of Jesus in this congregation becauseof DISCIPLE.


The list could go on of people, like Zacchaeus, whohad their lives transformed by Jesus Christ.  But lists don’t change people; Jesus Christ changes people;God’s Holy Spirit changes people: people like a woman who has messed up herlife royally, or a man who is at the end of his rope; or the person you knowwho once hit rock bottom; or, perhaps Jesus Christ has changed you. Like Zacchaeus, have you already celebrated yourrelease from bondage? Others can also choose to look up and see his face; theycan choose to put their self-led life aside and to make it Christ-led. They canchoose to bump self out of the throne of their heart and put Christ there. No,lists won’t change people; but if trying to run your own life has gone on longenough; or if you have terrorized others with your actions, or if you are nowtruly sorry for the things you have done wrong in your past, then there isdifferent choice. Choose Christ; he has been watching you and waiting for youto notice him. He is right beside, and above you, and around you. All it takesis your choice, and you too can be … transformed.


Jeffrey A. SumnerOctober 31, 2010 

10-24-10 LEARNING FROM LUKE: HUMILITY




LEARNING FROM LUKE: HUMILITY


Luke 18: 9-14


 


Humility takes many forms.  When I have traveled between major airline hubs, I felthumbled as I boarded wide bodied planes. I remember one time I came through theplane door and looked to the left: there was First Class: leather seats,well-spaced, with a lay down flat feature; plugs for laptops, cup holders, horsd’oeuvre trays; and a flight attendant ready to take drink orders. I made myway to the right instead where my assigned seat was, taking the half mile trektoward the back of the plane. Coach; wasn’t that what kings and queens once calledtheir royal transportation? Wasn’t that what Cinderella had, with horses infront, to carry her to the ball? Boy, words certainly had lost their meaning.  I passed Business Class seats that hadwhat seemed to be passable leg room; then as I got closer to seat numberssomewhere in the 40s, I knew the difference between the haves and the havenots: I saw no leg room; no cup holders; and received a cup of lukewarm coffeeand a bag of six mini pretzels. Yes, boarding planes in coach can be humblingand frustrating experiences. In Junior High PE when I was growing up, kidsoften played dodge ball, kickball or softball. Do kids still play those inschool?  That is a sports ritualthat can really test a boy’s or girl’s self esteem: choosing teams. Peter,Paul, and Mary once recorded a song with this first verse:


“Saturdaysummers, when I was a kid
We’d run to the schoolyard and here’s what we did
We’d pick out the captains and we’d choose up the teams
It was always a measure of my self esteem
Cuz the fastest, the strongest, played shortstop and first
The last ones they picked were the worst
I never needed to ask, it was sealed,
I just took up my place in right field.”


Experiences with humility (and sometimes humiliation)occur in our schools, on our sports fields, and they can even happen inChristian families if we let them. With bullying as such a front and centerissue, parents and teachers would do well to listen for the words of boys orgirls who try to build themselves up at the cost of cutting comments made aboutothers.


 


Last week we heard Jesus’ story of a woman who was nottoo proud to beg for justice; in fact she was desperate as she again and againasked a judge for help. As Jesus so often does, he tells parables withcontrasting characters. The woman was humble, possessing very little, and heractions showed it. Now we can almost hear the tone that our narrator, Luke,takes with this description. Luke must a have been a wonderful man to meet:perhaps humble and caring, perhaps a Christian physician, certainly one who hadmercy on women, children, poor people, and the downtrodden. Luke now says afterthe story about the woman and the judge: “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves, (read herethat they were arrogant), those who trusted in who–God? NO! Trusted in themselves. “They were righteous (read here self-righteous- not righteous by God’s declaration) and they regardedother people with contempt.” Contempt; does that word take you to the glanceyou have seen in others to make you feel distinctly lower class because of theprice range of clothes you wear, or the location of your home, or where youseat is on a plane? Does it take you to the scorn you received from a captain whowas choosing a team? Does it take you to the glance you got when someone elsesaid something cutting about your figure, or the way you talk, or your athleticabilities? Jesus’ condemnation of such attitudes is unmistakable. His commentsare aimed at those who arrogant. Do those who bully, or show disgust, or acthaughty claim to be Christian?Then they fail the “What would Jesus do?” test. They are being Christianin name only so Jesus is talking to them! He picked two people in his parable whowere, by usual accounts, perceived very differently. First he picked aPharisee; Pharisee, like people living in churches and communities andsynagogues even in our days.Normally they are people of faith. They are lay people; they could beelders or just faithful attendees. Elders: people who are expected to knowsomething about God and to exhibit some of the compassion-like qualities ofjustice, mercy, and steadfast love. In this story, however, Jesus foreverpoisoned our picture of Pharisees, who were the ones trying to do the rightthing in synagogue services. I am convinced Jesus did not just make up thiscaricature; he gleaned it from watching Pharisees act this way. Notice thePharisee in Jesus’ parable: he stands by himself, not with others; he prays outloud for all to hear; and he prays words in public that show him to be anarrogant, self-righteous and bullying man. He trumpets his righteousliving—fasting and tithing—but we don’t really know if he’s telling the truth,do we? We don’t really know if he’s padding his case! And who would be in aposition to condemn him? The one who has the power to do so even today: onlyChrist, and the one later called Christ publicly makes an example of him.


 


Let’s turn our attention to the tax collector. Likebeing called into an IRS office, people no more wanted a tax collector around themthan they wanted a toothache. There again, because of the way Jesus treatsthem—he called one tax collector to be an apostle (Matthew) and he ate dinnerat one’s house named Zacchaeus, we sometimes think they were liked; theyweren’t. Just as the usual respected man—the Pharisee—is here despised in theparable, the usual despised man—the tax collector—is respected in Jesus’ world;and his world is the Kingdom of God. In Jesus’ picture of the Kingdom,bullies and taunters are brought down from their self-made thrones, and thosehurt by words and attitude are raised up to have a modicum of self-esteem andself-respect. The tax collector stoodfar off because he was deemed offensive and could have been brutalized if hegot too close; he felt unworthy to look up to heaven; and when he beat hischest, it was a sign of self-effacement. “God” he said with head bowed low, “bemerciful to me, a sinner!” Yes; Jesus had done it again; he had done what hismother predicted he would do as she proclaimed the Magnificat in Luke chapterone: “he has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful from their[self-made] thrones, and he has lifted up the lowly.”


 


We don’t really need to read Jesus’ concluding wordsdo we—“all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselveswill be exalted”—we get it; his audience gets it; readers over the ages got it.But we close the book on this parable one question must be asked: with whomdo you identify the most: the despised; the self-assured; the religious person;the outcast? Have you noticed how parables are like mirrors? Imagine a ministeropening up a big worship Bible like a two-sided mirror filling the front of thechancel, stretching from lectern to pulpit! In it you would you self-righteouspeople, or would you see insecure or derided people? Which group are you in? Nomatter which group you are in, this parable reminds us that Jesus has strong orcomforting words to say to you, and to me.


 


Jeffrey A. SumnerOctober 24, 2010


 

10-17-10 LEARNING FROM LUKE: PRAYING




At first glance persistence seemsto be the key to this passage. After all, persistence may be the best way for aperson to get what they really want. Harpo Marx once experienced this truth,and ended up feeling about as much sympathy as the judge in Jesus’ famousparable. Marx was spending time in a New York hotel when a woman, who wantedhim to appear at a charity event, found out where he was. She phoned him twelveseparate times in the space of 48 hours, always with the same request.


 


 Eventually, Harpo relented and agreed to appear. To assure hewouldn’t duck out at the last minute, she showed up to personally escort him tothe benefit. On their way out of his room, the phone rang. He ignored it. Shequeried, “Aren’t you going to answer your phone?” Quipped Harpo,”Why bother? It’s undoubtedly you again.”

Now the widow knew how to be persistent. She houndedthe judge day and night to try to get her justice. Where it says “that shemay not wear me out” the Greek is almost closer to “that she will notstrike me” The judge was worried he’d get a black eye she was sopersistent with her pleas. I’d say that was persistent!

Yet, this passage is very much a Yes, but no passagefor me. It’s a passage where it is easy to grasp part of the meaning but if wedon’t keep working with it, we’ll miss some of the more important parts. Yes itis about being persistent in your praying. That is important. Over and overagain we are told to pray unceasingly. To knock and the door will be opened. ToAsk and you will receive. But no, that is not all of what the passage is about.

The problem with that way of reading it is that wecan fall into the trap of thinking of God as a vending machine. If you insertthe right amount of faith and pull the lever of prayer the right number oftimes, you will get what you want. Simple is that. Haven’t gotten what you wantyet? Keep pulling the lever.

Yes, but what about all those people who didn’t getwhat they prayed for? The ones who still lost their jobs. The ones whose lovedones stilled died. The ones who are still estranged from their families. Whatabout them? Did they just not pray hard enough or often enough? Did they nothave enough faith to insert? Why weren’t their prayers answered?

The vending machine god isn’t a source of divine loveand grace so much as a grownup version of Santa Claus. That idea of God is onethat makes God our wishing machine. Now, I believe that God is alwayslistening. And that God does always answer our prayers. It’s just the answerGod gives is sometimes “No.” or “Not yet” or “I have abetter plan”

Rob Bell tells a story of going to the mall with hisyoung son. As they pass one of those kiosks in the walk way his son sees a toythat is a ball attached to a piece of elastic that you tie around his wrist. Hisson decides that he must have this toy and begs his father, PLEASE give it tome. I want it! And Rob tells his son “No, that’s not a good toy, it willbounce back and hit you in the face and everything will get tangled up, comeon. Let’s go.” And his son cries. “But I want it!” And Rob andhis wife are starting to walk away and the child calls “But I thought yousaid you loved me!” Rob has to go back down the mall and pick up hiscrying son and carry him out to the car.

And you might think, it’s just a silly toy, whydidn’t he just get it for his son? Well, because Rob knew something his son didnot. From the mall they were headed to the sports store across the street toget his son a kickball. You see, they had started playing kickball in the parktogether the week before and his son loved it. He had something better in mindfor his son than a crappy toy that would bounce into his face and hurt him.

We are like his son. We constantly ask God for thingsthat aren’t good for us. That aren’t right for us. And God says no. And we cryout to God, But I thought you said you loved me!! And God does love us. But Godhas something better in mind for us sometimes.

But still. We are called to pray without ceasing. Weare called to be as persistent as that widow, bothering the judge day andnight. Have you ever watched a child who is very determined to receivesomething? That is the sort of praying we are called to do, even if God mightsay no. It looks exhausting! We are called to pray even in the face of silence.

And if the parable addresses itself to prayer, thisis where it does so. The parable teaches us that prayer is work, because ourprayers for the things we most deeply need are often met with long periods ofsilence from God. Fred Craddock writes that prayer is hard work because thehuman experience is often an experience of waiting in the face of delay. Hetells of a gathering of a group of people concerned with injustice andoppression in our society. An elderly black minister at that gathering read thisparable, and in one sentence summarized the whole thing. “Until you havestood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do notreally know what prayer is.”

To listen to some in the world today, prayer is easy.To listen to some, prayer is the way we get our spiritual goodies. Or to listento others, prayer is the way we get our material goodies. Or for others, prayeris the answer place, where God clearly addresses all of our questions andplaces our souls forever at ease. This goes back to the whole idea of a vendingmachine God.

Maybe I’ve missed something, but I’ve neverexperienced prayer in that way. Prayer has always cost me more than it’s given.And, to my knowledge, prayer has never yielded me a car or a wad of bills or aparking place at the mall. And call me crazy, but prayer has always generatedfor me more questions than answers. I’ve never quite grasped the notion ofprayer as the divine vending machine.


 


 Prayer for me has always felt more like wrestling. In prayer,I have often felt like Jacob, who wrestled with God, struggled with God,through the long night until the break of day. That’s why the people in my lifewho have taught me most about prayer aren’t the ones who have all the answers.The people in my life who have taught me the most about prayer are the ones whohave practiced hopeful and confident prayer in the face of God’s silence.

And in the face of that silence, there is stillinjustice in the world. People still suffer.

The dilemma for me in this passage is that nearly twomillennia after its telling the poor and oppressed are still calling out forrelief. Yet they don’t seem to be appreciably closer to a world of justice andcompassion than they were when Jesus told the parable. If one reads this parableas it has always been read, as a counsel to relentless prayer, there willalways seem to be some lack of evidence that such prayer really makes adifference. Always those people whose prayers go unanswered no matter how hardthey’ve prayed. Unless Jesus is talking about deferred compensation – the kindof “pie in the sky by and by” thought – then, frankly, the claim forpersistence isn’t very convincing…or at least not always


Don’t get me wrong. I believepersistent prayer is very important, even when such prayers are not answered inthe ways we think best. Even when God has a kickball in mind for us instead, itis important to be unrelenting in our prayers. Not only because of the changesour prayers may elicit in God’s mind, but for the changes such prayers can workin our own hearts and minds. As Frederick Buechner said years ago, persistenceis a key, “not because you have to beat a path to God’s door before Godwill open it, but because until you beat the path, maybe there’s no way ofgetting to your door.”

Buechner’s comment set me to thinking that maybethere’s more to this parable than we have sometimes seen. What if Jesus offeredthis parable not only as a call to prayerful persistence but also as a reminderto the church of the importance of securing justice for the poor and theoppressed in their midst? Alan Culpepper says, “To those who have it intheir power to relieve the distress of the widow, the orphan and the strangerbut do not do so, the call to pray day and night is a command to let thepriorities of God’s compassion reorder the priorities of their lives.”

What if we stand this parable on its head and hear itas a testimony to the persistence of God, who wants us to grant justice toGod’s chosen ones who cry out day and night? Might this parable speak to theresolute, persistent, unrelenting, determined One who keeps knocking on ourdoor, challenging us to respond, pressing us to accept God’s claims, urging usto work for the good of neighbors in need?

So, I wonder: if this parable offers a mirror for ourlives, then maybe the face many of us will see when we peer into that mirror isthe face of the judge who, as Jesus said, “neither feared God nor hadrespect for people.” Is that not who we are in this story? We are not toidentify with the widow, pressing our claims and pleas upon God. We are thejudge, ignoring the persistent cries of the widow in our midst.

Oh, it’s not very flattering to read the parable thatway, to be sure. Who wants to be characterized as the hard hearted one? But,then, in the parable the judge does eventually reach the tipping point, andeven if not for the best of motives and more from self-interest, does grant thewidow what she wants. What she wants, of course, is justice and a fair shake.It’s what the outcasts of the world most often want and we know – because wehave heard it over and over again from the Torah and the prophets and Jesus -it is what God wants for them as well.

Maybe the good news in this story for thenon-outcasts – for the rest of us – is that God is like the widow -unrelenting, persistent, and assertive. God hasn’t given up on us, even when wehave acted as though we “neither feared God nor had respect forpeople.” So maybe there’s hope, not only for the widows and orphans andsojourners of this world, but for us. Maybe there is hope that we will tend tothe shame we feel and allow it to break through our resistance and press us toopen doors to those who knock persistently.


 


Maybe there is hope that we willhear their pleas at last and use our voices and our power to help shape reliefand reconciliation and fairness in this world. Maybe there is hope for us. Ibelieve there is. More importantly, I believe God believes there is.

“Behold,” says Christ, “I stand at thedoor and knock.” Maybe today we’ll open the door. And what a good day thatwould be…for everyone!

10-10-10 LEARNING FROM LUKE: GRATITUDE




LEARNING FROM LUKE: GRATITUDE


Luke 17: 11-19


 


A woman named Marion Doolan once wrote about twochildren who, in the cold of winter, opened the storm door of her house andknocked rather incessantly on the wood one. Marion opened the door to see twochildren in ragged and outgrown coats. “Any old papers, lady?” they asked. Theylived in an area where a small amount of money was paid for recyclednewspapers. Marion says, “I was busy and wanted to say no [as they were lettingall the cold into my warm house. Then] I looked down at their feet. Thin littlesandals, sopped with sleet. ‘Come in’ she relented. ‘I’ll make you some cocoa.’There was no conversation. In they came, leaving wet tracks on the floor. Shegave them the cocoa and a piece of toast and jelly each. As they ate, the boysaid, “Lady, are you rich?”  “Am Irich?” she replied. “Mercy no!” as she looked at the shabby slip covers on hersofa. The girl responded quietly, “We just thought … well, your cups match yourplates.”  Your cups match yourplates. The children left.  “‘Theyhadn’t said thank you,’ she thought. ‘They didn’t need to’ she said to herself.They had done more than that with something they said. Plain blue pottery cupsand plates; but they matched.” … She said “I moved the chairs back from thefire and tidied the living room. The muddy prints of small sandals were stillwet upon my hearth. I let them be. I want them there in case I ever forgetagain how very rich I am.”  [A 3RDSERVING OF CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL, JackCanfield and Mark Victor Hansen, Health Communications, 1996, pp. 205-206.]


 


Not only is it a touching story, it is a story aboutboundaries and opening them: few people open their door to strangers and invitethem in. It is a story of someone who has something, and someone who has less. Andit is a story about gratitude even without a “thank you.” Likewise we arelooking at a Biblical story today that also has those points. Let’s rememberthat story: The Bible says that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem through theregion between Samaria and Galilee. Those regions abut each other. The firstboundary that is broken is that Jews and Samaritans were crying out togetherabout their state of uncleanness. Jews and Samaritans had nothing to do witheach other in normal circumstances because the Samaritans were rituallyunclean, even before they had leprosy. Isn’t it ironic that having a diseasemakes people forget about other boundaries and they begin to stand by neighborswho also are suffering from their illnesses? In the 1980s those who were HIVpositive were often quarantined both by doctors and the public, off in theirown separate area. Years ago those with tuberculosis were quarantined. Contagiouspeople are often quarantined. And sometimes in our day we emotionally quarantinepeople who are different from ourselves.Even without illness, during free time at schools, students oftencongregate with groups of like-minded students. They are sometimes known bynames, names like jocks, or geeks, or gleeks.  Some families put up boundaries too, don’t they? Some don’twant children playing with others from that school or from that family. And as adults we don’t always grow out ofthat. But medical reasons – like running a fever – still exist for ill peopleto stay away from others. In Jesus’ day those with the skin disease calledleprosy were considered unclean by priests. Priests were kind of the “custom’sagents” that let men or woman approach the temple or not. The Levitical prieststook their jobs very seriously! Women couldn’t approach the temple at certaintimes in their lives; men other than Jews could only come to the Court of theGentiles. And Samaritans could never go to the temple according to them. Hmm,so if everyone in our story was well, a Samaritan would never been seen with 9Jews. But because all ten of those who approached Jesus were consideredcontagious, one Samaritan and nine Jews approached Jesus without apparently anyreaction to one another! Notice that the text says they kept their distancefrom Jesus, not wanting to offend (read infect) him. Although this text doesnot record them letting Jesus know they were lepers, by Levitical law they hadto cry out “Unclean, unclean!” to any approaching people. So it was after identifying themselves that they used a most subservientterm. Instead of calling Jesus by a title, like Rabbi, they called him“Master.” Master! And they said“Have mercy on us!”  In this group of lepers, they realize that there is noI in TEAM! One or more are calling out for the sake of the others! Like thechildren who were just knocking on doors asking for newspapers, the lepers intheir shabbiness were trying to find a hint of hope in the eyes of passer-bys.The children found it in Marion Doolan; those with leprosy found it in the eyesof Jesus. He had healed others; wrapped in both pathetic appearance and inwardfaith, they asked for help!  Thosewho had less in that society were knocking on the door of the one man who mighthave more. Their choice, coupled with their faith, changed their outcome.Marion Doolan opened the door for two cold children; Jesus opened the door for10 miserable men with leprosy.


 


Most of the time we lift up the one leper who cameback to thank Jesus while the others kept going.  Yes, it is right to lift up a person who is grateful!Expressed gratitude does not always happen, does it? How many times has Godblessed you with the answer to your prayers? And did you return thanks? How manytimes did you forget? “Thank you” is one of the most overused and underusedsentiments in English. I hear people say, “Thanks so much” because an employeehanded them their fast food order through a drive-through window! By contrast,I remember in my grandfather’s men’s clothing store, when a sale was made the employeewould say “Thank you for yourbusiness!” These days I even find myself thanking a cashier when she hands memy receipt! Shouldn’t she be thanking me? But thanks, appropriately offered, iswritten or at least thoughtfully expressed, less often than appropriate.


 


The Samaritan came back and 1) praised God, 2) fell atJesus’ feat as if in worship, and 3) verbally thanked him. It was good. Buthere is the part we forget: the other nine were not only following Jesus’direction to the letter, they had the right to approach a priest outside of thetemple, and, if declared clean, could enter the temple to thank God! Fewrealize the Samaritan had no such right. The collegiality that he shared as adiseased patient went away when he returned to society. He was once again aSamaritan, one who could never be declared clean enough to enter the temple.The other nine were just doing as directed; and as faithful Jews they wouldhave longed to be in good stead with God again. They would absolutely have beenglad to say, after being declared clean by the priest, “Let us go into thehouse of the Lord!” But the Samaritan had no temple to go to. Or did he? Didthe Samaritan return to treat Jesus as a human temple, a vessel of God? Jesushad shown him compassion, grace, and mercy; if he were to follow protocol, hisclean pronouncement could not come from Jewish priests; he had to assume he wasclean only by the words of the one he called Master. To show his worshipfulapproach, he put his head to the ground. No one would do that except to honorGod. And then, through Jesus, he gave thanks to God.


 


The outsider behaved more gratefully than the insiders! It’s not so unusual. When our children were growing upthey would rarely clear their plate or help with dishes at their own house unlessasked. They were insiders in our family. It was only as an “outsider” that is,a guest in the home of a friend, that they found their manners! The parentswould call us and say “What well-mannered children you have! They joined us inprayers, were so polite, thanked us for the meal, cleared their plate, andhelped with the dishes!”


 


 Nineinsiders forgot to say thank you, or show gratitude. And Jesus noticed. Yourown children may fail to thank you or show you gratitude. And parents notice.Workers notice any lack of gratitude from bosses; bosses notice it fromworkers; friends notice it from friends. Gratitude is a huge step away from anattitude of entitlement; but a bigger step is turning gratitude into anattitude that leads to actions ofthankfulness. Many people are willing to offer gifts, or blessings, or go theextra mile once, but few will do it again for an ungrateful person.


 


The temple in Jerusalem no longer stands. But we areChristians, and Jesus let us know that his new temple is his resurrected self,and he lives in the hearts of believers. It is through him that we praise, andthrough him that we show our thankfulness. Have you remembered to demonstrate your thankfulness to Jesus? to family members? togift givers? Gratitude so pleases gift-givers. Today it took the actions of agrateful outsider to remind us of how grateful even insiders can be.


 


Jeffrey A. SumnerOctober 10, 2010

10-03-10 LEARNING FROM LUKE: FAITH




LEARNING FROM LUKE: FAITH


Luke 17: 1-10


 


After several weeks of three act plays that we callparables, today we find Jesus’ brief advice in four areas in just 10 verses (ifwe start with verse 1) These short, staccato sayings remind me of “The CountryCommandments” that I received in an e-mail from Cecil Rice who was proud tohave shared them! Instead of the usual sentences that make up the more wordyregular version of the Ten Commandments, the Country Commandments are these:


One God; No hankerin’ for other’s stuff; no cussin’,Sunday go to meetin’, no killin’; mind your ma and pa; no cheatin’; nostealin’, no gossipin’; no idols. It’s plain and simple, ain’t it? J Today we get four short sentences of wisdom fromJesus; they are not apparently connected to each other, yet each claim buildson the last one.  Let’s begin.


“Occasions for stumbling are bound to come but woe toanyone by whom they come.” Translation: Do not cause someone else to sin. Howmight someone cause another to sin?Out of love, friendship or even coercion, a girl might turn her testpaper in such a way that her neighbor can copy off of it. That’s an example.Another example: a boy who normally is kind and caring is part of a group thatconvinces him to become a bully toward a new boy in order to fit in. That’s anexample. Adults do it as well. A male boss who tries to create a personalrelationship with one of his married female co-workers is trying to causesomeone else to sin. That warning of Jesus fits many life experiences. He thenwarns:


“It would be better for you if a millstone was hungaround your neck and you were thrown into the sea, than for you to cause one ofthese little ones to stumble.” Translation: the causer is in more trouble withGod than the sinner!” Little ones are not just children, they are all peoplewho are new to the faith. The breaking of commandments is the definition ofhuman sinfulness from the time of the Exodus on. It happens; but for those who causeor coax others to sin, theconsequences are most severe. Coax someone else into sinfulness at your owneternal peril.


Jesus intensifies the consequences: “If anotherdisciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, youmust forgive.” This is the “we’re all in this together” teaching. “If we knowof a sin, it is our heavenly responsibility to address it.  I really don’t like this proclamationof Jesus! It’s hard enough keeping my own life in order rather than beingresponsible if someone else sins!Because of this statement, gangs can be a cesspool of sins since oneperson will not “rat out” or tell on another. If friendships go that far anddon’t confront dark actions a friend is doing, the one who says nothing is anaccomplice in a cover-up. But God sees it! How many sins do you see a day? Doyou watch people take things that are not theirs? That’s stealing. Do you watchthem break things that are not theirs to break, and they tell you not to tell? Inall cases, being a witness gives us a burden that trumps our hope that we canjust forget what we saw.  To makeit doubly hard, in the climate of our workplaces and classrooms, no one likes asnitch. But this verse is not about telling an authority (although some caseswarrant that it’s about addressing the offender. This is extremely hard, isn’tit? And Jesus makes it even harder, even for the disciples: “If the same personsins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says,‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” You are in good company if you think thisrequest goes too far or asks too much. Although Jesus addresses his discipleswho are present, and us who are listening in, according to Luke it is his Ateam that says no matter how much faith they have, if they have to do that, then they need more of it! Verse 5: “The Apostles said to the Lord, ‘Give us more faith!’ And Jesus says, you don’t need more faith! You already have plenty of faith for whatI’ve just asked you to do! You just aren’t using the faith you have! That’sreally what verse six says with its words about the faith of a mustard seed anda mulberry tree. Even if you have the tiniest amount of faith, when it is addedto life, (like when concentrated cleaner is added to water) it goes a long way!Scientists tell us that we use a fraction of our available brainpower. Ourbrain can do so much more than we ask of it! Now let’s plug in the word faithinstead of brain. “Jesus reminds us that we use a fraction of our availablefaith. We do not need more faith; we need to draw on the faith we have; faith,like a mustard seed, is potent. A little can go a long way if we will engageit.


Then another saying of Jesus’ sayings follows: “Whoamong you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tendingsheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table!’ Wouldyou not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serveme while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink.” Country commandmenttranslation: No matter how hard you work in someone’s house, you are still a servantin the house and not the owner. Therefore no matter what good things you do inGod’s kingdom, you are still a childof God and not God. Today we do not have a concept of first century slavery. First,it was generally not harsh; second, you did not have to be wealthy to have one;and third it was accepted in the culture. Several people who have lived inLatin America in our day have told me that everyone has a maid or a housekeeperor yardman. When I told them that in our household we generally do that workourselves, they said it would be considered an insult to move to that cultureand not hire workers for tending children or the home or the yard. But Jesus’point is clear, no matter how well a slave works, he will not become themaster; he will just be a slave doing a great job doing what he was hired todo. Even with our best work, we are still sinners who stand in the need offorgiveness. There is no ability to be promoted into an “immunity” status whenit comes to sin. Jesus final words: “Do you thank the slave for doing what wascommanded? No; when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say I wasonly a servant doing my duty!”This one needs cultural translation. I am most grateful for workers whodo their job well because it is expected, not because it is consideredextraordinary. But sadly, in some cases fine work is in short supply. In Jesus’day, there is an expectation for disciples to pray, to be an example, and toshare the word about Jesus with others. Those are not extra credit assignments!They are part of what we take on when we commit to Jesus Christ.


 


Today you will be offered the blessing of the Master –Jesus hosts our communion meal; but because he always models what he wantsfollowers to do, he is also a servant, sharing with those around him. We willnever be the master, but in the company of the Lord, it is our task to serveone another. It is expected, and because he cares for others, it is the rightthing to do. Today, as we are fed in Jesus name, Jesus expects us to, in turn, serve others.


Blessing, and responsibility: they are both part ofthe Lord’s Supper.


 


Jeffrey A. SumnerOctober 3, 2010