Monday, October 11, 2010
Crossing the line
Psalm 111; Luke 17: 11-19
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
October 10, 2010
Two weeks ago, when rain was pounding the eastern seaboard and storm drains were flooding, an elderly woman and her great-grandson were driving down Rhode Island Avenue in Washington, D.C. The water was so high and rising so fast that it suddenly stopped the car and surged into where Bernice and Davonte were sitting. The boy opened his door and got of the car amidst the cold, raging water. But his great-grandmother was stuck in the car. As he tried to reach her, the water kept pushing him back. Because of the increasing water pressure, Bernice couldn’t open her door. When the water level reached the steering wheel, she thought she was a goner.
One of the passersby at the scene, a Hispanic man by appearance, stripped off his clothes and swam over to the car through the trash-ridden, fast-moving, unseasonably-cold water. He opened the car door, pulled Bernice out and helped her to safety. He didn’t hesitate or keep his safe distance. He didn’t take a picture or make a video. He didn’t even call 911. Instead he risked his life to save a complete stranger from drowning.
He also didn’t stick around to be thanked or to even introduce himself. Speculation is that he may have been an undocumented immigrant who didn’t wish to be questioned by the police when they arrived at the scene. Even though many undocumented immigrants may seem invisible to us, this man crossed that invisible line between citizen and foreigner and blurred that line so much that we couldn’t tell one from the other.
Boundaries and rules are important and should be respected. They keep us safe and healthy and whole. Usually when we break those limits, some sort of trouble or disease or injury ensues. We see the sense of them and we learn to keep them.
But we all know there are other restrictions intended to control or exclude or inflict harm on others. Many of us have known what that is like. Most, if not all, of you would cross such a line to set free, include and offer healing to one such as this anonymous rescuer.
So, isn’t it strange that in the gospel lesson from Luke, Jesus does not bridge the prescribed distance between himself and this small community of lepers? Jesus was known to be not only a rule-bender but a rule-breaker when it came to healing, forgiveness and the kingdom of God. These lepers are obeying the Levitical laws of purity by keeping their distance, but that’s never stopped Jesus before. In fact, it is in the obedience to those laws that these men are healed, as they are going to show themselves to the priests. And it is the lepers who bridge the gap by initiating conversation between themselves and Jesus.
Jesus is walking the line between Galilee and Samaria, between homeland and ghetto-land, doing his high-wire act on his way to Jerusalem. On his way Jesus encounters all sorts of people: a man with many demons, a girl on the edge of death, a woman with a hemorrhage, these ten lepers. Through these people Luke shows us what kind of person shows faith, what kind of person responds to Jesus and his message of forgiveness. It was not the leaders, the in-crowd, the longtime believers who were showing faith, but outsiders who were responding to Jesus’ message with shouts of praise and gratitude.
But only one healed man returns to give thanks and praise, and he is a double outcast: he is also a Samaritan, a foreigner. He is outside the covenant and thus, not even bound to go show himself to the priests. Yet he obeys anyway, and when he sees he has been healed, turns back, falls at Jesus’ feet and thanks him profusely.
Yes, the other nine did as they were told and were also healed, but it was the faith of the Samaritan that saved him. In other translations the word ‘whole’ is used in place of ‘well’: “Your faith has made you whole”, implying more than physical healing. Here we have the difference between being healed and being saved, between obedient faith and faith that has the power to save us and transform us.
Jesus wants to know what kind of faith we have. Are we obedient to God and the limits God has placed on us, such as the Ten Commandments? There is certainly nothing wrong with that kind of faith, but for Jesus, obedient faith is a place to start. Jesus wants to know if we’re willing to cross the line from homeland into ghetto-land, to join him in his high-wire act on the way to Jerusalem. And we all know what’s waiting in Jerusalem.
Keeping to the rules may heal the open wounds we human beings have made in this world but the rules won’t save us. And as we all know, sometimes we have to go beyond the rules and our self-imposed limits for mercy and compassion to have their way.
The difference is joyful, jubilant gratitude. The Samaritan crossed the line of obedience to the law into the fearless expression of gratitude. Jesus offered him not only healing but the opportunity to be saved by grace. To one who was unclean and outside the covenant, this was good news indeed! It would be like not only winning the lottery but also being given the chance to change someone else’s life for the better.
When I had that dream that saved my life some thirty years ago (!), I felt like I had to give something back, that I had to ‘pay it forward’ to someone else who needed God’s transforming grace. I came across two verses in the gospel of Matthew that became a scripture reading at my ordination: “…those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”
And so by entering the ministry I thought I was giving my life in return for the new life that had been given to me. But the giving in gratitude for my life didn’t end there. When I was in seminary, I racked up some debts. I had tuition, books, room and board, a car payment, and a credit card: American Express: no carrying the balance forward. I had gotten in over my head. Any income I had went out to pay bills. I can remember being on my knees crying and fervently praying to God because I was so scared of being in debt. I called a friend in my home church and shared my troubles.
Not long after that I received a money order for $1200 from an anonymous donor from my church, mailed to me by the church secretary. To this day, I have no idea who saved me. But in gratitude for that saving grace, I have been a pledging giver ever since.
I pledge to this church as a measure of my joy and thankfulness for what God is doing through you and through our time together. Each month I make out a check for $400—about 8% of my total salary. I know I’m crossing a line by telling you that, but if I am asking you to move beyond the comfort of home into a place none of us have been before, then I should be the first to cross that line.
I also plan to increase my pledge to $450 a month in 2011, for as long as I am here. You are searching for a settled pastor and you want to be able to pay that person well enough that they will be a good giver and pledge to this church. I want to be a part of that, to be a part of not only the healing but the saving grace and jubilant thanks that often comes with a new pastor.
Even though the stewardship season has not quite begun, I want you to start thinking about it and praying about it. I invite you to increase your pledge this year, even if it’s only by a dollar a week. If you give but don’t pledge, I encourage you to pledge whatever you can. In order to welcome the future with joy and deep gratitude, I ask you to make that transition, to go beyond where you are now, and cross that line of fear to get to a place of magic, that place where Jesus waits for us with not only healing but with soul-saving, life-transforming grace. That place is this church, Woodmont United Church of Christ, daring to reveal God’s unconditional love by welcoming and accepting all people, through joyful and creative worship, faithful service and spiritual growth. Amen.