United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds October 13 2019

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23)

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Worship resources for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C, 18th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23) are at Worship Ways

Lectionary citations:
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 with Psalm 66:1-12 or
2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c with Psalm 111 and
2 Timothy 2:8-15 and
Luke 17:11-19


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Luke 17:11-19
Additional reflection on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Focus Theme:
Get Up and Go

Reflection:
by Kathryn Matthews

Borders are places of danger and drama. Wars begin on borders, and armies cross them on their way to conquest or defeat; we know this not only from our historical memories of World War I and II, but also from recent events like the conflicts in the Middle East. Think, for example, of the refugee camps across the borders of Syria, in nations that struggle to accommodate a dramatic influx of foreigners running for their lives.

Or consider the intense and divisive controversies swirling through the political scene in the United States, with questions of immigration and "border security" uppermost in media coverage and campaign rhetoric.

Borders and barriers

On our borders, we feel vulnerable, exposed, so we put up all sorts of barriers--walls, guards, and surveillance cameras to keep people out who, we fear, "need" to be kept out. In fact, one of the major issues that divides us is whether to build a stupendously expensive wall on the southern border of the United States, to protect the most powerful nation on earth from those who are seen as threats to its existence. Such "protection" comes with a price, including the cost of many other, pressing needs.

Maybe it's human nature to draw lines, to separate ourselves from others, and at least some of the time our motives are reasonable--the world, after all, is a dangerous place. But then, it so easily becomes "Us and Them," and "Them" are perceived as neither desirable nor good.

Knowing one's place

In our story from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is somewhere "between Samaria and Galilee." The only place scarier than a border is an in-between place, where boundaries and borders aren't clear.

The ten lepers in this story from the Gospel of Luke call out to Jesus across a line, the distance prescribed by the Law because of their ritual impurity. They don't approach him, for they know their place, and their people: the other outcasts, united by their suffering and their exclusion from the wider, fearful community.

Religion and government in those days didn't help unfortunate folks afflicted with skin diseases, who had to live as beggars, dependent on the kindness of people passing by--at a safe distance, of course. (One of the most heart-breakingly memorable scenes from the classic movie, Ben-Hur, is set in the terrible place where the lepers had to live, away from their families and the rest of society.)

Crossing the border

As Jesus crosses that border between Galilee and Samaria, maybe he and his disciples are remembering the Samaritan town earlier in the story that refused to welcome him (a "border" closed to him), and maybe they wonder if this village will reject him, too, on his way to Jerusalem and his death.

As he enters the town, he encounters this little band of ten lepers, but they don't come close, and he doesn't touch them, as he often does when healing the sick. Just a word, a command, sends them on their way in anticipation of what will happen on the road--healing!

Fulfilling their obligations

They hurry to do what lepers are supposed to do when they're healed: go show themselves to the priest, as Jesus instructed them, and get him to stamp the certificate that says they're safe to re-enter society, a double experience of healing. (They have to make sure their paperwork is in order, and they're properly documented.)

While they're still on the road, they look at one another, and each one at himself, and--wonder of wonders--they see that they're already healed. One of them, a despised Samaritan, turns around, then, and goes back.

A heart full of gratitude

That's what is so interesting about this story. We hear that only one former leper turns back, praising God and thanking Jesus. He's so full of joy and gratitude that he throws himself on the ground at Jesus' feet, and he's talking too loud, and really making a spectacle of himself.

We can only imagine the disciples standing around, feeling awkward, uncomfortable at the display. I mean, it's okay to feel grateful and all, but he doesn't need to get carried away, right?

Meanwhile, back at the Temple

Meanwhile, back on the road to the Temple, the nine lepers are obediently doing what Jesus told them to do and what they know the Law requires of them. They're being good, observant, faithful Jews. Jesus wonders where they are, but we know, and we assume he knows, that they're at the Temple, getting their certificates so they can go back to their lives, the sooner the better.

This outsider, this Samaritan, this "them," may be so seized by gratitude and joy that he turns back to Jesus, but on the other hand, the Temple isn't a place he'd be welcome even if he is cured of his leprosy.

There's no cure for being a Samaritan, a big-time outsider. There's no certification by the priest that can make him acceptable, and there's no ex-Samaritan program he can enter to change that, that can "rehabilitate" his otherness. Of all of them, he has plenty of time to say thank you to Jesus.

Who's in, who's out

Of course, as Charles B. Cousar reminds us, this isn't a story about the importance of thank-you notes; rather, it's a lesson in who's really an insider, and who's out (Texts for Preaching Year C).

When Luke wrote his Gospel, he shaped the stories about Jesus that he had heard into one great big story that helped an early Christian community to understand the gospel in their own situation, to hear God speaking good news to them where they were, to shine a light on the problems their community was facing, just as we do today, as people of faith.

The problem of Gentiles

One of the things early Christians wrestled with was how to relate to the Jewish roots of their faith, and what they should do about all these Gentiles coming into their churches. (The challenges of church growth, it seems, are in every age; I have actually heard church members express hesitation about their church becoming "too black" or "too gay.")

Many of the gospel stories, then, reflect the early Christian community, working out the problem of who they were, and why all of the Jewish people didn't follow Jesus, as they had. They would have heard this story with these questions in their minds, and presumably they would have thought, "Wow, the outsider was the one who recognized Jesus for who he was. Not the nine from his own people."

Who are the "Us" and "Them" today?

Today, our churches are not struggling with the Jewish-Gentile question, although we do carry an awful history of two thousand years of persecuting the Jews through misinterpretations of the Gospels. Still, we listen to this story for what God has to say to us, here and now, about the things that we face and the struggles and questions we have in our journey of faith.

One way to approach this text is to find our place in the story. Maybe we're the disciples, watching all this and wanting to get back on the road and not wanting this Samaritan to hold things up. After all, we're on a mission from God. Or maybe we're in the crowd watching it all happen and wondering, "Who is this fellow, anyway, who can cure lepers with a word?"

Maybe we're one of the nine lepers, and hey, we're trying to be good lepers and good religious folks who obey the religious authorities and Laws…and we feel so happy to be healed that we just can't wait to get to the Temple to be examined by the priest and then hurry back to our families and friends and have a big party and get on with our lives. Even if that means that we, uh, forget to thank the one who made it all happen.

Are we ever the tenth leper?

And maybe, just maybe, at least once or twice in our lives, we know what it feels like to be the tenth leper. The one who has nothing to lose in turning away from the path to the Temple--sometimes we feel that institutional religion has nothing to offer us, really--nothing to lose in going back to the man who made it possible for him to just be a human being again. A healthy and whole human being.

He may be an outsider here; a "them" to the crowd around Jesus, but a word from Jesus, spoken in compassionate concern, gives him salvation, that is, healing, because it tears down the wall that has kept him from being a member of any community except that of the lepers, on the edge of society.

We can assume he returns to his own people, once he finishes that little display there, at the feet of Jesus. We can also assume his life will never be the same.

Are we dutiful, or in love?

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her sermon on this text, agrees that the nine were fulfilling expectations and doing their duty by obeying the Law. She writes that "Ten behaved like good lepers, good Jews; only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love."

She thinks then about how hard she tries to fulfill expectations and obey rules and be a good church-going person, like so many of us. "I know how to be obedient," she writes, "but I do not know how to be in love" (The Preaching Life).

What does it mean to love God?

We're commanded to "love God," and our efforts to do so are usually expressed in faithful actions and regular prayer. Not that that's a bad thing…but how often does anyone in our churches really act as if we're in love? Our decorum matches our obedience, quiet, subdued, more internal than external.

It seems, for example, that in the United Church of Christ, most folks (though not all) are rather contained during worship. We get a little nervous when people talk too energetically or passionately about their faith, or pray with "too much" enthusiasm. Would it be possible to explore that boundary, between obedience and "in love," and find a way to have (to do, to be) both?

Why are we so reserved?

When did our faith become something so subdued and contained? Why did we have to learn to be so quiet in church, so still, so reserved? How did we earn that awful name, "The Frozen Chosen"?

Most folks I know are uncomfortable when someone just talks about their faith outside church, or even in church if they show their feelings or, God forbid, if they get "carried away," like that tenth leper.

An uncomfortable faith

I confess that I sometimes get uncomfortable, too. Whenever I'm out in public or in a social situation and someone tells me they're a Christian, my first response is to tense up, because the people I meet who talk about being Christians outside church are most often fundamentalists and evangelicals, and I have all sorts of preconceptions about how "they" are.

They're not like me. And to be honest, I figure that if they knew who I am, they wouldn't be too happy about it, and they wouldn't think I was a Christian like they are. "Us" and "Them": the lines are certainly drawn today just as they were then. They're just drawn in different places.

Truth from the outside and unexpected source

Sometimes it takes someone else, unexpected, to open our eyes to blessings and wonders in our lives. A person on the margins, on the outside, may have a better vantage point to look inside and see the heart of the matter. When has someone else, unexpectedly, helped you to see something important?

Charles B. Cousar notes that in this story we encounter yet another unlikely teacher, "an outsider whose unrestrained and spontaneous appreciation…dramatizes the essence of faith and who disrupts an otherwise easy perception that we know who the real insiders are (Texts for Preaching Year C).

Finding ourselves in the story

Where do you find yourself in this story? What are divisive problems that we wrestle with in the church today, and where are the borders that we draw, visible or invisible, but keenly felt?

Why do you think the Samaritan was the only one who returned to thank Jesus? What are "borders" in your own life, where you feel perhaps vulnerable or uncertain rather than secure and safe?

A very interesting conversation

We might imagine the conversation among this group of ten lepers as they made the decision to ask Jesus for mercy. Did they all agree that it was a good idea, or did some cynically claim that it wouldn't work?

And we can wonder what they did afterward; did they have reunions and remember when they were together, back on the other side of the line? Had they grown to depend on one another during the time they were outcasts, to identify with themselves solely by a skin condition rather than as father, brother, son, or friend?

What do the outcasts do?

I wonder, too, why the Samaritan was allowed to be part of their group, when Samaritans themselves were outcast by the Jewish community. Once they were healed, would the nine have accepted the tenth back again as an equal?

And what was the conversation like when they looked at one another and saw that they had been healed? Would they have said, "It must have been that man, Jesus?" We can only imagine, and pray for open eyes and open hearts so that we, too, might know healing, and rejoice and give thanks when we do.

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The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Maya Angelou, 21st century
"As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal somebody else."
and
"Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good."

Elizabeth Gilbert, in Eat, Pray, Love, 21st century
"In the end, though, maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. In the end, maybe it's wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices."

Eckhart Tolle, 21st century
"Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance."

A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh, 20th century
"Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude."

Meister Eckhart, 14th century
"If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough."

Haruki Murakami, 20th century
"What happens when people open their hearts?"
"They get better."

Wendell Berry, 21st century
"Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing. To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation."

Erin Hunter, 21st century
"The only true borders lie between day and night, between life and death, between hope and loss."

Anonymous
"Man made borders not to limit himself, but to have something to cross."

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, 20th century
"What is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one's country; is it hate of one's uncountry?"

Marcus Tullius Cicero, 1st century B.C.E.
"Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others."

Voltaire, 18th century
"Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well."

Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, 20th century
"You pray in your distress and in your need; would that you might pray also in the fullness of your joy and in your days of abundance."

John F. Kennedy, 20th century
"As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them."

Additional reflection on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7:
by Kathryn Matthews

They say that many of us, despite the much-touted "recovery," continue to experience something called "economic dislocation," a good term to describe the way so many of us feel "dis-placed"--whether we're no longer in our homes, or in our jobs, or perhaps no longer in a place of confidence about the future.

Every night the news tells us about one after another discouraging development, whether it's economic or political: accidents caused by our failing infrastructure or human error; natural disasters caused by environmental degradation; updates on the deaths and destruction in faraway places and the suffering of those who flee that violence, along with reports on mass shootings and everyday street violence in our own cities and neighborhoods; reports about corruption in one level of government or another; and the worrisome state of our educational system (all before the first commercial break).

What's happening to our world? What's happening to our families, our communities, our churches, the fabric of our society? And who's responsible for the mess we're in? What can we count on now? Can anyone blame us for hungering for a little bit of good news?

A letter from Jeremiah

The Jewish people, six hundred years before our current era (B.C.E.) must have struggled with similar questions. Our studies of Old Testament texts often focus on the terrible experience of their Exile in Babylon, and this week's passage from the prophet Jeremiah is no exception.

We take an even closer look at one point in the history of that crisis when we read from a letter Jeremiah wrote to the first wave of exiles who were taken into captivity, along with their king, after the first time the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar struck out at the little kingdom of Judah and its great city, Jerusalem, in 597 B.C.E.

Addressing the leaders

This first group, Jeremiah tells us, included not only the king but the leaders of society, including priests and prophets (Ezekiel, but not Jeremiah)--and "the artisans and the smiths," that is, the skilled workers who would have been sorely needed back home. In other words, those who could be of use to the Empire.

Historians tell us that, ten years later, in 587, Babylon would return to devastate Jerusalem and carry off even more of the population, and then a third group would be taken in 581 (Christine Pilkington, The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

Finding someone to blame

When a calamity happens, there are always those with opinions about who's at fault--like televangelists blaming Hurricane Katrina or the terror attacks of September 11 on feminists and gay people. In that in-between time, the ten years between the first deportation and the utter destruction of Jerusalem, there was a lot of speculation about who was responsible for bringing upon the people of God such a disaster.

Some people, back in Jerusalem, found comfort in the thought that they had escaped the judgment of God, assuming God was punishing those who were carried off but not those who were left behind.

A special disaster

While there have been countless conquests, wars, and terrifying destruction brought upon many different nations and peoples in history, there is something special about this particular disaster. James Newsome finds it significant for all of us--not just the Jewish people themselves--that they survived the Babylonian exile.

Newsome reminds us that the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been carried off by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E., leaving behind only a remnant, the people we have come to know as the Samaritans, but otherwise disappearing from history.

The power of prophets

Why, in contrast, did the people of the Southern Kingdom, Judah, survive their time of exile in Babylon, and eventually return to their homeland? Of course, we can say it was the hand and will of God, but, Newsome insists that we must also credit the prophet Jeremiah and his powerful words of inspiration and hope for helping to carry his people through their time of trial (Texts for Preaching Year C).

(Note that we are in chapter 29 of Jeremiah and will soon begin the Book of Comfort in the following chapters.)

An in-between time

While words like "tragedy" and "calamity" and "disaster" are not inappropriate to describe the ordeal of the people of Judah, at this point, when Jeremiah is writing during that little window of time between the first and second wave of deportations, he's addressing a group that is not exactly suffering in the way we might imagine.

We know, for example, that their conditions in Babylon were not so bad: Gene Tucker tells us that, instead of being sold off into slavery, they were allowed to keep their families, their communities, their public gatherings and their worship services. In other words, they could still be who they were, still experience themselves as a community, although, without their temple, they had to be creative and flexible in their religious practices (Preaching through the Christian Year C).

True prophecy v. false prophecy

No doubt, in those gatherings and in their private prayers, there were questions nevertheless about why they had been carried off. And there were plenty of folks were who willing to provide answers.

Many scholars say that this text is at least partly about the conflict between true and false prophecy. As always, the lectionary gives us just a little snapshot of the larger picture, and all we get this week is a beautiful, if brief, instruction from the prophet about how the people should respond to their plight.

What we don't know from this short passage, however, is that other prophets are also providing their (ill-informed) opinions, and Jeremiah has no use for them, as we learn if we continue reading past this week's last verse, when he calls them deceivers and liars. What Hananiah (in the previous chapter) and other prophets are saying is that Babylon is about to collapse and that the whole nightmare will be over in as little as two years.

Give us good news, please

Again, who can blame folks for hungering for a piece of good news? If we're only here in Babylon, in exile, for two years, we can bear that, and we hardly have to unpack. Let's just count the days and prepare for quick deliverance.

Jeremiah, the prophet of God, however, throws cold water on that kind of false optimism. He calls the people to a deeper kind of hope, a deeper faith, and takes the much longer view of things. This isn't going to be over in two years, he says, but will take seventy years (see verse 10).

Christine Pilkington writes about these false prophets who are still tied to Jerusalem and the temple, who want to get back to the way things used to be, and get there fast. Whether the term "seventy years" is literal or just a way of saying a very long time, she writes, Jeremiah is telling the people that God is at work in this ordeal, and God still intends good for the people (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

God's promises are true

Seventy years instead of two may sound like bad news, Jeremiah says, but the good news is that God knows what God is doing, and God keeps promises, and God has promised us a future, and a hope.

In fact, one of the most beautiful and beloved verses in the Bible follows this passage and reverberates back to it, and probably should have been included by the lectionary, in my humble opinion: "For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope" (29:11).

With hope in their hearts

With such a future, and such a hope, in their hearts and minds, the people, then, are instructed by Jeremiah to live in a kind of extended "in-between" time, not just sitting around and waiting for something to happen, not rising up and trying to escape or overthrow their captors, and not letting themselves be dragged down into depression and complaining.

No, Jeremiah instead speaks poetically about houses, and gardens, and families that go on and on, even in a strange and inhospitable land, surrounded by pagans but flourishing nevertheless.

Living in the in-between time

Audrey West says that "the people of God can bloom where they are planted," and she echoes something we're hearing a lot these days, after many years of living under the threat of terrorism, and too many years of economic "adjustments": Jeremiah, she says, instructs the people, and us, to "create a new 'normal' as they learn to live into this reality, making it their home."

Things may not be great right now, West writes, but "the news doesn't have to be good in order for us to live out the good news and…to be blessed ourselves and be a blessing to those around us" (New Proclamation Year C 2010).

Living under today's empires

These words fit the situation of a people living under the thumb of an ancient empire just as they fit our situation today, mired in different kinds of empires, including fear, and materialism, and militarism, and consumerism, to mention only a few.

If faith, at its heart, is trust in God, then Jeremiah is telling the people to have faith in God and in the promises of God. Of course, things may look bad now, which Jeremiah interprets as God's judgment on the people: Christine Pilkington says that Jeremiah tells the exiles to obey the powers that be in Babylon because all of this is happening according to God's plan--that is, Babylon is the instrument of God, just as Cyrus of Persia will later be God's instrument in releasing the people from captivity when he conquers the Babylonians (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

God is in charge

What Jeremiah is doing is interpreting current events theologically, and, Pilkington writes, reassuring the people that God is still in charge. This must have been a source of great comfort to them, as they hungered for an understanding of their situation that would go "beyond a sort of whistling in the dark." But Jeremiah goes even further: he tells them to "seek the welfare" of Babylon, and to pray for it as well!

Now he may have gone too far, telling the people of God to tie their own good to that of a pagan empire. Pilkington says that "against the white heat of bitter disappointment and ethnic animosity which marks any deportation, it is surely remarkable" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

A familiar instruction

"Remarkable" sounds a bit understated, in fact. Jeremiah's instruction is familiar-sounding, though, to followers of Jesus who have also been instructed to pray for our enemies. We like to think that Jesus' teaching was revolutionary, but here we see just how deep the roots of our tradition are, for Jesus is in a prophetic line that stretches back to Jeremiah, and he shares that expansive vision in which, John Bracke writes, "God's imagination is not bound by the dividing walls of hostility constructed by human conflicts."

If Jeremiah tells the people of God to pray for the Babylonians, their pagan conquerors, and Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies, then our Judeo-Christian tradition, Bracke writes, "presses us to ask, in God's global vision, whose welfare God calls us to seek and with whom God is inviting us to live in peace" (Jeremiah 1-29, Westminster Bible Companion).

Are we paying attention?

If this instruction of Jeremiah does not at least jar us, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention to the words of Jesus either. After all, like the ancient Jewish people, we are being told to change our attitude, to live in a whole new way, loving our enemies rather than hating them and praying for their destruction.

We may like to think that Jesus taught something entirely new, but here we see Israel learning the same hard lesson that we need to learn, if we truly want to taste the Reign of God on earth.

Perhaps that's no accident, because the experience of being carried off to a foreign land, with people who speak another language and have a different worldview, whose religion and gods are strange and whose aspirations are not shared by the Jewish people themselves, was a huge learning experience. Not having the temple or their established synagogues for worship and learning meant that, in a way, they had to start over again, but only after adjusting their assumptions.

A more expansive understanding of God

Praying for Babylon, W. Hulitt Gloer writes, necessitated a different understanding of God, a more expansive, inclusive understanding of a God who cares for all of the people on earth, not just Israel. Gloer brings this home for us whenever we're immersed in patriotic fervor undergirded by religion: we, too, need to expand our understanding of God beyond One we can own and ask for special blessing (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 4).

Such a view may call into question American exceptionalism, for example, especially in relation to God, and would not be popular in an election season, in particular, if anyone had the courage to claim it.

But it also calls us to examine our religious claims as well, and be open to the ways God speaks through other faiths (see Barbara Brown Taylor's recent book, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others). This expansive vision should only make sense to a people who preach a gospel that is good news not just for some people but for all of God's children, and not just for those who believe as we do.

God cares about our whole lives

There are several themes within the text that a preacher might touch on as well, including Terence Fretheim’s observation that God cares not only about the spiritual welfare of the people but their physical and material welfare, too (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 4). They are to work and eat the fruit of their work, to marry and have children and grandchildren, to survive and flourish even in a strange land.

At the same time, they have to let go of what is gone, what is in the past that will not be part of their lives anymore. The ones who were carried off into exile will not live to see its end, so they need not only to learn a "new normal" but also to see a new future for themselves, to accept that what is in the past is gone, and something new is being born.

Churches that die to give new life

Isn't this a word for us today, as well, especially in the church? For example, in the life of a congregation, the time may come to accept the need to "die" to an old way of being that particular congregation, to sow the seeds of new life so that ministry and mission continue in that corner of God's world, but in ways the earliest founders of the congregation might never have imagined.

This may mean a generous gift of time, talent, and treasure--of a building, an endowment, perhaps--to a new church start, a hunger center, a homeless shelter, global mission, a scholarship fund…the possibilities are endless, and they hold the same promise of God's presence and care in every circumstance.

In that way, we aren't just accepting whatever seems like a disaster at the time, but learning to flourish no matter where we are, and what the circumstances. That, of course, requires a deep and vibrant faith.

Sensitivity and reflection required

Donald Musser, however, reminds the preacher to be sensitive and self-reflective before preaching such a text, because of the questions that arise in the face of suffering, dislocation, and alienation. Should people feel that their suffering is punishment from God?

The question may have arisen in their minds, and they come to church to find answers, whether we have clear ones for them, or not. And that is where discernment and sensitivity come in.

Who sits before us on Sunday morning?

Like the prophets long ago, a preacher today has to weigh the circumstances of the people she or he faces every Sunday morning. Musser urges us to reflect, as all good preachers do, on who's sitting before us on Sunday morning, and what kind of bitter exile they may be experiencing: divorce, bankruptcy, illness, doubt and despair.

The task before us includes the responsibility to challenge our congregations when they need to be challenged, but calling them to new life as well, just as we ourselves need to be challenged and led to new life (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 4).

Afflicting the comfortable, comforting the afflicted

It reminds me of the great challenge of preaching on stewardship: how do we comfort those afflicted by economic dislocation whose "new normal" includes hardship, anxiety about the future, and even poverty itself, while we challenge ("afflict"?) the comfortable whose new normal is still marked by abundance and even excess?

It's not an easy task, but there is hardly one more important, and it's a good thing that, like the people of ancient Judah, we can trust that God is in charge, present and active in our lives and the life of the world. And we can trust that that God will never leave us to face such challenges alone.

For further reflection:

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen."

Richard Rohr, 20th century
"If we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it."

John of the Cross, 16th century
"Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be a better light, and safer than a known way."

The Nashville Banner
"Sometimes the best way to convince someone he is wrong is to let him have his way."

Catherine Aird, 20th century
"If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to serve as a horrible warning."

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 19th century
"What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love."
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
"Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart."

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 19th century
"Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape."

Kahlil Gibran, 20th century
"Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars."

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 20th century
"We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, 'Blessed are they that mourn,' and I accept it. I've got nothing that I hadn't bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination."


Lectionary texts

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

with

Psalm 66:1-12

Make a joyful noise to God,
   all the earth;
sing the glory of God's name;
   give to God glorious praise.

Say to God,
   "How awesome are your deeds!
Because of your power,
   your enemies cringe before you.

"All the earth worships you;
   they sing praises to you,
sing praises to your name."

Come and see
   what God has done:
God is awesome in deeds
   among mortals.

God turned the sea
   into dry land;
they passed through the river
  on foot.

There we rejoiced
   in God,
who rules by God's might
   forever,
whose eyes keep watch
   on the nations--
let the rebellious
   not exalt themselves.

Bless our God,
   O peoples,
let the sound of God's praise
   be heard,
who has kept us
   among the living,
and has not let our feet slip.

For you, O God,
   have tested us;
you have tried us
   as silver is tried.

You brought us
   into the net;
you laid burdens
   on our backs;
you let people ride
   over our heads;

we went through fire
   and through water;
yet you have brought us out
   to a spacious place.

or

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, "Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me."

But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, "Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel." So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha's house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean." But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?" So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant."

with

Psalm 111

Praise God!
I will give thanks to God
   with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright,
   in the congregation.

Great are the works of God,
   studied by all
who delight in them.

Full of honor and majesty
   is God's work,
and God's righteousness
   endures forever.

God has gained renown
   by God's wonderful deeds;
God is gracious
   and merciful.

God provides food
   for those who fear God;
God is ever mindful
   of God's covenant.

God has shown God's people
   the power of God's works,
in giving them the heritage
   of the nations.

The works of God's hands
   are faithful and just;
all God's precepts are trustworthy.

They are established
   forever and ever,
to be performed with faithfulness
   and uprightness.

God sent redemption
   to God's people;
God has commanded
   God's covenant forever.
Holy and awesome
   is God's name.

The fear of God
   is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it
   have a good understanding.
God's praise endures forever.

2 Timothy 2:8-15

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David--that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful--
for he cannot deny himself.

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, "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?" Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.

Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday" — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."