Thursday, September 23, 2010

Proper 23 Year C

Proper 23 C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Jeremiah 19:1,4-7; Psalm 66:1-11; OR II Kings 5:1-3,7-15a; Psalm 111; II Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Inserted into the text of the Book of Jeremiah is this "letter" sent to God's people living in exile in Babylon.  The message is unexpected.  Even in this alien place and in your humiliating circumstances, "Build houses and live in them;" plant gardens and eat what they produce.   Have children and grandchildren; "multiply there and do not decrease."  Promote the welfare of this foreign place because "in its welfare you will find your welfare."

The psalmist summons "all the earth" to sing God's praise for the "awesome works among all humankind."  The psalmist then recalls God's great act of salvation, turning "the sea to dry land...."  God pays close attention to all nations.  Therefore, all peoples "bless our God..." who tested God's people and refined them.


A highly successful military man in Syria, Naaman, who also enjoyed the King's favor, suffered with leprosy.  In his household was a young Israelite woman, taken captive in some prior raid, who served his wife.  She tells her mistress that there is a "prophet who is in Samaria" who "would cure him of his leprosy."  Naaman takes a letter from the King of Syria to the King of Israel demanding a cure for the commander of his army.  The King of Israel panics at this impossible demand: "Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of leprosy?"  But when the prophet Elisha hears of these developments, he sends word to send Naaman to him.  The powerful military man, who is accustomed to dealing with kings, arrives at the cave with his horses and chariots where Elisha lived.  Elisha himself does not respond, but sends a message telling Naaman to go wash in the Jordan river seven times "and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean."  Naaman is insulted.  He expected some spectacular display of the prophet's prowess and certainly some gesture more dignified than washing in a river, which, compared to those in Syria, could hardly be called a river.  Naaman was ready to leave when his aides presented him with an intriguing argument.  They reasoned: "if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you have done it?"  But all he has said was, "Wash and be clean."  So, Naaman followed through on the prophet's single, simple, direct instruction and "his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean."  He returned to Elisha and announced: "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel."

The psalmist declares her praise of the Lord, whose great deeds are "discovered by all who desire them."  The Lord's traits are distinctive and consistent-- bounty, sustenance, trustworthiness, "truth and justice...."  The Lord's wisdom is available to all who honor the Lord and "perform...."

In an episode unique to Luke's narrative, Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem when ten lepers approach him and shout, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"  Jesus responds, "Go and show yourselves to the priests."  He continues on his way, but the ten lepers "were made clean."  Only one chased after him to give thanks, "praising God with a loud voice."  In true Lucan irony, the zinger is, "And he was a Samaritan."  Jesus asks where are the other nine.  "Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?"

Expectations work until they do not; expectations save time until they make things more complicated than they need to be.  The prophet Jeremiah had to disabuse God's people living in exile and as second-class citizens of their assumption that their only alternative was to languish while in exile.  Build, buy, have children, support this foreign government that is holding you hostage because its welfare is linked to yours.  Although God's people will never forget that singular act of salvation when just-freed salves walked to freedom on the dry bottom bed of the Red Sea, they have also come to realize that it was not just for them, the psalmist acknowledges.  Naaman almost misses getting his heart's desire because he just cannot imagine, from his lofty position in life, such a humble, simple, direct solution.  The psalmist understands that God's ways are open to any ad all "who desire them," regardless of past experiences, loyalties and expectations.  Because the Word of God cannot be retrained ("chained") by any human intervention, Timothy's mentor writes, do not waste time nor complicate matters wrangling over words; just do God's work now.  Leave it to Luke to make the least likely person -- "this foreigner"--the hero in this encounter of ten lepers with Jesus  These biblical texts, along with many, many others, unsettle, destabilize, uncomplicate and even dismantle expectations and open direct, clear invitation to any "who desire them."

Among those who find in the work of writers regarded as postmodern an affinity with this recurring biblical theme is Graham Ward.  In a short, but very productive essay entitled "Postmodern Theology" for the collection Modern Theologians Ward writes: "Postmodernism has been thought by some to be profoundly anti-religious."  Instead, "With Marion and Certeau [as two examples he offers] postmodern theology portrays how religious questions are opened up (not closed down or annihilated) by postmodern thought.  The postmodern God is emphatically the God of love, and the economy of love is kenotic.  Desire, only possible through difference, alterity, and distance, is the substructure of creation."  "Postmodernism, read theologically, is not the erasure of the divine.  Rather, it defines the space within which the divine demands to be taken into account."  (p598) 

 This "Word," this declaration that justice trumps everything and the insistence that this God cannot be "chained" upends every expectation.  And, it uncomplicates what we had come to just assume was complicated and even esoteric.  God shows up in expected places, people and ways when that works but but skips in a heartbeat to the totally unexpected when that works just as well or better.  Is God just capricious?  It seems more likely that God is driven.  God stops at nothing to find partners in justice, whether expected or unexpected.  Now that we know God's priority, ought it not be ours, too?  Now that we know exactly what God wants and what also happens to be in our best interest, is it really necessary to keep making things more complicated than they have to be?