Monday, October 11, 2010

A Spacious Place

Sermon for 10.10.10

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From today’s Psalm: “Come and see what God has done.…Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard….We went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.”

Recently, I heard a letter sent by a nurse in a mission orphanage in Africa. A young mother had given birth. Shortly after, she died, leaving her infant and a little girl. Utterly without equipment, the staff had to try to keep the newborn sufficiently warm. One of the children in the orphanage knew that Jesus could help. She prayed to Jesus to send a hot water bottle for the baby and a doll to comfort the sister. The nurse confessed a reluctance in saying “amen” to the prayer since she didn’t see how Jesus could do what the child had asked. But that very afternoon, a package arrived from her former Sunday School students in the states, mailed five months earlier. It was the first package she had received from home. In it were brightly colored T-shirts for all the children, and—needless to say—a hot water bottle and a lovely rag doll. How could God have known, five months before, that those last two items were so needed!

That letter was not only an act of praise for the Lord who hears before we call, but an act of remembrance for a mercy received and an act of profound gratitude to the Lord who knows before we ask. These are the powerful messages of our Scripture this morning. Our Call to Worship, Psalm 66, insists on God’s grace to us and urges us not only to accept grace but to accept the possibility of grace, for us, and for all the earth. We are not alone even when we in some remote settlement in Africa or wrestling with a problem on our own laptop or waiting for a specialist to read our x-rays. We are, all of us, saved from our own human misery by the ever-presence of God’s grace.

There are examples every single day. But it’s also worth remembering those times in our lives when something wonderful occurs at just the right time—improbably, impossibly: a letter, a phone call, a chance meeting, a reconciliation, an outpouring of generosity and effort in time of need. Suddenly things open up before us. We can stretch and breathe again. We tend to speak of “coincidences” and “the miracle of human kindness,” when in fact these are blessings of God’s love at work in this world through us. Who would have expected a simple Carpenter to be our Redeemer? God’s love always has the last word and God is always up to something greater than we can imagine. As the Psalm tells us, God has “brought us [and is bringing us] out to a spacious place.”

But once there, it is essential to mark that moment, to say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!” and then recount, as does Psalm 66, the delivery from Egypt, the later crossing over the Jordan River to the spacious Promised Land, and anything else for which we owe God thanks. So Timothy is told, “Remember Jesus Christ.” “Remind” people that even “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” Again and again, Scripture tells us to remember: There is the commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” At the Eucharist, Jesus urges us to eat and drink “in remembrance of me.” In this way, no matter what else is happening, we will become more Christ-like, workers who need not be ashamed.

Aren’t we sometimes like the nine lepers this morning, a story that only Luke remembers? They cry for healing and then go rushing off to resume normal lives. Not that anyone can blame them. It’s so tempting to put the bad memories behind us and enjoy normalcy again. These lepers were social outcasts, banished from their homes and families. They were appalling to look at and their condition was associated with sexual misconduct, like someone with syphilis or AIDS. No one would touch them and even their shadows were thought to carry infection. No wonder they want to return to human touch and society.

But one, the Samaritan, is willing to put off that precious moment of return. He seems willing to transform normalcy and keep some of the sacred within it. He turns back, praising God and thanking Jesus. He remembers to stop, to praise, and to thank. This remembering and this gratitude cause Jesus to say, “Your faith has made you whole.” It wasn’t that this particular man deserved to be healed because of an extraordinary record of faithful belief. Simply by giving thanks, he was acknowledging God and therefore living out faithfulness, putting it into practice. He stopped his own urgent business of being declared clean by the priests in order to mark his personal encounter with a saving God.

Jesus’ farewell to him, “Your faith has made you whole,” has tied some Christians up into guilty knots. They fear they have not been healed because of their own lack of belief. But what Jesus is honoring is the man’s deep gratitude. Jesus defines that as faith, for gratitude is life affirming and life giving and acknowledges the source of life. C.S. Lewis has written, “Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.”[1]

The grateful Samaritan was, in fact, a man at worship, remembering not only praise to God but thanksgiving to someone from another culture—an outsider in fact—Jesus, a Galilean. In these acts, the Samaritan was doing what Jeremiah urged the children of Israel to do in exile. In a sense, Jeremiah is telling them to shape up and accept the new conditions of their lives with good grace and as normally as possible: plant gardens, marry, have children. But he’s also telling them to pray. To pray their way through the lives they must now live, rather than pining for the good old days. He tells them to pray for the city in which they now live and in its welfare to seek their own.

Jeremiah was writing long before Jesus told us to love our enemies and to bless them that curse us. But this powerful prophet also knew that worship has the power to heal and that worship right where we are, right here, right now, opens up spacious and healing places for ourselves and, quite surprisingly, for those around us.

Our encounters with a saving God may be monumental, truly miraculous, or quite personal and seemingly modest. But acknowledging any of these encounters, remembering and treasuring them, is the faith work and the worship that God asks from us. This practice of gratitude, not only inside but outside these doors, even in the present-day Babylon that assaults us in so many ways—subtle and not—is unexpected news, but it will lead us to the “Good News,” the spacious place of the kingdom of God.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, we are blessed to be able to praise you this morning and in this place for all that you have given and are giving, known and unknown by us. We thank you for our life and for this earth on which you have placed us. Let us not forget even your smallest mercies and, through them, help us to grow more like the one who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

[1] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: G. Bles, 1958), 78-81.

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