21 Pentecost - Doing what is faithful

Down The Barle
"Down the Barle" by Mark Robinson, on Flickr

2 Kings 5:1-3, 9-15c
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.” 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.”

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.”

We have an almost-three-year-old kid living in our house, one who is rapidly forming and defending his own opinions on everything from food choices to the right way to do bedtime routine. He is demonstrating to his parents that stubbornness does, indeed, appear to be genetic. And this means that these days, we talk a lot in our household about making good choices. As an adult, I sometimes forget that it takes a lot of work in life to learn how to make choices, and especially how to make good choices.

Both Naaman in our first reading and the ten lepers in our gospel are confronted with a similar challenge: to figure out how to make a good choice, and how to make a faithful choice, even when acting by faith looks ridiculous, silly, or otherwise unwise.

When we encounter the ten lepers in our gospel today, we encounter them from a distance. They call out to Jesus from afar. This is because, according to the law, leprosy was not just an illness, but an illness that made you unclean. Being unclean means that that no one is supposed to touch you, you aren’t supposed to come near people who are clean, and you can’t function as a regular person in the social order.

That’s the bane of leprosy and other similar illnesses. When you’re unclean, it’s not enough to be cured or healed of your disease, whether by natural or supernatural forces. If you are to be truly healed and restored to your place in the community, you have to go and show your newly-healed self to the priests, who could make the final determination about whether you were fit to return to society, and what sorts of rituals or sacrifices you needed to do to accomplish that return.

So in today’s gospel, Jesus, intending to heal these lepers, sends them off to the priests. It is a sign that he wants to heal not just their bodies, but also their souls and their spirits. He wants their bodies to be whole, and he wants them to be restored to the community. According to the law, and according to all common sense, sending the ten to the priests is the right thing to do.

Which is why it is surprising when one of the ten turns back to thank Jesus instead of continuing to the priests. And why it is surprising when Jesus applauds the one and grumbles about the other nine who did exactly what he had instructed.

From an objective standpoint, the nine who continued on to the priest were doing everything right. They were following the purity laws for how you are restored to the community after being unclean. But the Samaritan who turned back shows us that sometimes, being faithful is far more important than being right.

I suspect that there are plenty of people in our world and in our churches these days that want faith and the Bible to be a set of rules and instructions; clear guidance on what is right and what is wrong. But if you spend any amount of time with Jesus, you will see that he consistently subverts categories of "right" and "wrong," whether that means eating with the the "wrong" people (tax collectors and sinners) or talking to and defending the "wrong" people (the Samaritan woman at the well or the woman caught in adultery) or doing the "right" thing at the "wrong" time (healing the bent-over woman on the Sabbath day).

Today's gospel reveals for us that Jesus doesn't merely ask us to choose between right and wrong in this world. Jesus often asks us to make a more difficult choice: the choice between doing what is "right" and doing what is "faithful."

This is why he praises the Samaritan and laments the other nine. Because the Samaritan put a gesture of faithfulness ahead of doing an act of righteousness. And Jesus is faithful to the Samaritan, proclaiming to him a word of restoration and wholeness, which is exactly what the other nine are seeking from the priests.

Jesus knows our human nature very well. He knows the honest truth: sometimes we get so hung up worrying about doing the right thing in the right way that we don't ever get around to doing the faithful thing, no matter how grand our intentions are.

This is where Naaman gets hung up. He wants to be healed from his leprosy, but he wants to be healed in the "right way," which includes having Elisha come to him and wave his hands over him and make a grand declaration of healing for all to see, or at least involves washing in a noble and ceremonious river. When Elisha merely sends a messenger to tell Naaman to wash in the inferior Jordan river, Naaman gets angry and would rather stay ill than give up his stubbornness, his pride, and his devotion to the "right way" to do things. When his servants finally convince him to give Elisha's method a try, Naaman pouts, and goes off by himself, and reluctantly does the faithful thing, and dips himself into the Jordan. And what happens? God heals him. The "right way" and the "wrong way" to be healed don't matter in the presence of a God who is faithful.

He ultimately did what was faithful instead of what he thought was right, and God responded in faith. This is a lesson that we all need to learn, especially those of us (like me!) who are seriously stubborn, competitive, Type A personalities.

Especially within the church as an institution, we often make an idol out of being right and doing the right thing and doing things the right way. Whether out of fear or out of habit, the church is sometimes the worst offender when it comes to letting our anxiety about being “right” obscure our calling to act boldly and faithfully in the world, especially when we are called to take risks.

Can you imagine what our gospel today would have looked like if the ten lepers, upon realizing that they had been healed, had immediately sat down for a church council or church committee or board of directors meeting to discuss what to do next?

The one leper bent on turning back might have proposed a motion to return to Jesus, which would have been seconded, and then followed by lots of discussion. Perhaps another member would have proposed continuing to the priests, but drafting a resolution of gratitude that they could all vote on, which Jesus probably wouldn't see until he got his next church newsletter. Or maybe they would have assembled a taskforce to investigate the law, to determine whether it was ever appropriate to take a gratitude detour on their way to the temple. Maybe they would have taken a step back and decided to write up a "what to do if you are healed by Jesus on the road" policy that could be voted on at the annual meeting. Or maybe the group would simply have told the Samaritan that he was an outsider and not an actual voting member of the group, and therefore his opinion didn’t really count.

I speak in jest, but you know as well as I do that we are always primed to resist when Christ calls us to this third way of doing what is faithful instead of getting hung up on doing what is right or wrong, or getting hung up on doing things the right way or the wrong way. Because the truth is that acting faithfully in our world sometimes looks like doing what is “right.” And sometimes it looks like doing what is “wrong.” And sometimes it looks like leaping before we look. And it is always risky, because faith, at its core, is always an act of rebellion and resistance.

Acting faithfully means resisting the urge to cling to our entitlement and instead showing lavish generosity and gratitude. Acting faithfully means working not merely for equality, but for justice. Acting faithfully means setting our pride aside and seeking good for others, especially outsiders, the struggling, the persecuted, the burdened, the hungry, the forgotten, and the unloveable. Acting faithfully means seeking the path of reconciliation and forgiveness instead of digging in our heels and winning. Acting faithfully means rebelling against all of the despicable and divisive political rhetoric that pummels us every time we turn on the news, and instead digging deep and being models of humility, graciousness, and hopefulness in a world on the cusp of panic. Acting faithfully means letting our hearts break as deeply for hurricane victims in Haiti as we do for hurricane victims in our own nation.

Because at the heart of our faith is the surprising and unfathomably good news that God in Christ is a God of resurrection, and that at all points in time, in big and small ways, God is bringing life out of death. Acting faithfully in the world, for us, means working with God to accomplish this holy work of bringing life to the world.

Today, as we remember the healing waters of the Jordan, in which Naaman was washed clean and, later, in which Jesus was baptized and declared the beloved son of God, we remember our own baptisms, which serve both as God's promise of faithfulness to us and our own charge to live faithfully in the world.

In baptism, we renounce the powers of sin, death, and the devil that draw us from God and we instead declare our intention to live by the faith that we profess. In baptism, we find our clear calling to faithful living: to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in the world.

It is in baptism that we are given a tangible, touch-able, watery reminder that we are called to faithfulness by a God who has already declared faithfulness to us. And God’s faithfulness doesn’t depend on how many times we make the right choice, or whether we get stuff done the right way, or anything like that. God saved us before we could do anything to earn it. And in response, Christ calls us - and empowers us! - to act boldly in faith in this world.

May Christ inspire us to be courageous, to take risks, and to make good choices. May we cling to the hope of God’s faithfulness and go out into the world, unashamed and without fear, to serve and worship Christ in all that we say and do, for the sake of the life of the world, to the eternal glory of God.