Saturday, October 12, 2019

Year C, Pentecost 18, 2 Kings 5.1-3, 7-15c, Luke 17.11-19, Grace without borders.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Grace. . .
“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’?”
Grace. . .
We have a problem with grace, and that is our ego.
A commander of an Aramian army.
One powerful enough that the King of Israel was frightened and intimidated by him.
A foreigner.
But most importantly, a leper.
A couple of things we know about lepers:
·         Leprosy was a dreaded infectious disease;
·         It was often considered a curse from God brought about by our sin and the decay brought into the world by the fall;
·         Lepers were shunned.  Fear of contracting the disease led to people being ostracized and isolated from their communities and families;
·         And finally, there was no known cure.
All of this meant that lepers were considered some of the lowest of the low, cursed by God and man alike, and with little or no standing in the community.
Which makes Naaman an interesting case.
Leprosy actually shows no favorites.
It’s not just a disease of the weak and the poor.
Naaman was a man of great power, and probably, wealth.
And yet he suffered from this disease.
And he was desperate.
So desperate that he took the advice of a young slave girl and sought help from an enemy and a foreign nation’s God.
Naaman was so desperate that he was willing to do anything to be cured.
What he didn’t expect was grace. . .
Elisha sent word to him, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”
Naaman expected something different.
“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?”
Wash and be made clean.
And he was enraged.
·         Well, for one thing, to be told to wash probably offended him because of the belief that leprosy was a result of filth. 
·         And secondly, Naaman was still proud enough that he felt he deserved the personal attention of Elisha.
·         And finally, he expected more of a ‘show’.
Instead, what he got was just a simple word of instruction.
Wash.  Be clean.  Be healed.
And he was.
In the Gospel lesson we hear the story of the ten lepers that Jesus cured.
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.
The focus then shifts to one of those lepers, a foreigner, a Samaritan, who alone returned to Jesus to thank him.
One of the directions we could go at this point is to say that these two lessons are about gratitude.
The story of the ten lepers used to always be assigned for Thanksgiving.
The message was sort of a shaming.
Shame on you for being ungrateful.  Even the foreigners returned to give thanks.  You should too.
That’s a little morality lesson.
We learned that from our parents.
Say “Please.”  And say “Thank you.”
OK, point well taken.

Another point we could make today, is about grace.
For starters, though we might want to judge the nine lepers who didn’t return to give thanks to Jesus, the fact is that Jesus healed all of them.
Their being healed was pure grace.
Likewise, Naaman, though he was enraged was also healed.
Wash, be clean.
Show yourself to the priests, be healed.
Another point well taken.

There is another dimension of these Bible stories that spoke to me this week.
That’s the matter of borders.
These were foreigners that were healed.
From Aram.  From Samaria. 
As we study the scriptures, one thing that we learn is that in the beginning there was an understanding that God was the God of the Israelites, and that other nations had their own gods.  It was the God of Israel against the gods of the other nations.
And through much of the Old Testament there was an understanding that God was Israel’s champion, defeating Israel’s enemies and always on Israel’s side.
God was a national God.
What happens as we move through scripture, over the ages, is that more and more God is understood as the God of all nations, not just Israel.  This culminates with the Great Commission where the disciples are sent out to the nations.
But the tendency remains for us, even to this day, to believe that God is “our God”, and by implication, not “their God”. 
There are two ways we draw borders and boundaries in order to claim God as our own.
The first is when we declare ourselves to be a “Christian Nation”.  Implied in that is the understanding that there are other nations that are not “Christian”. 
Now part of that is just fact.
We consider ourselves to be Christian.
Arabs most often are Muslim.
India is predominantly Hindu.
Israel, Jewish.
But there is a line that we cross at times wherein we understand that God is on our side, as opposed to all those other nations.  And sometimes, our American exceptionalism, is so great that we believe God is more on our side than even that of other Christian Nations. 
For example, there are many other nations that are as Christian, if not even more Christian than us, yet we tend to see ourselves as being better than, for example, Tanzania.
And even stronger border that we draw is the religious border. 
Historically, it is the Nicene Creed which defined that border.
If you believe the Nicene Creed you are part of the Christian Church, and if you don’t, you aren’t.
That’s a border.
An interesting part of our history is that the Nicene Creed was written and adopted in response to an order from the Emperor Constantine.
A ruler of nations mandating that the Church define its borders.
Once the Nicene Creed was adopted there were insiders and outsiders.
And grace was reserved for the insiders.
Fast forward to today and the question of borders continues to shape our understanding.
First of all, God is not confined within any of our human borders.
God is not a United States citizen.
And God is not a Democrat or a Republican even though sometimes we act as though he is.
God’s grace extends to all people, regardless of their citizenship or political affiliation. 
And secondly, is an even more divisive question.
Naaman would not have been a Jew, yet the God of Israel healed him.
The Samaritan leper was not considered to be an orthodox Jew, yet he was cured as well.
The question is:  Is God’s grace and mercy an exclusive gift to those who adhere to the Nicene Creed or any other definition we have of the “Christian faith”?
Is baptism necessary for salvation?
Does one have to make a particular confession of faith in Christ Jesus in order to ‘merit’ God’s mercy and forgiveness?
Our historical way of answering those questions was to say “Yes, grace is restricted to those within the Church.  Our Christian faith, our receiving the sacraments of baptism and communion, and our accepting Jesus are the basis of our salvation.”
That’s been our understanding.
That’s how we understand Jesus’ words "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Historically, that not only meant believing in Jesus, but being a member in good standing in the Church.
But over and against this very exclusive claim is another theme in the Bible, namely that God’s prerogative is to show mercy and grace to whomever he pleases:
In Romans Paul writes:
For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion."  So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.”
The bottom line:  If God wants to be merciful and gracious, God can to whomever he chooses and none of the boundaries that we would make and adhere to matter.  Amen

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