Time after Pentecost – Lectionary 28C
Preached at Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church, Indianapolis, IN.
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
2 Timothy 2:8-15
It has been a long time since I asked myself that question. And an even longer time since someone else asked me, and I had to defend my identity as a Christian. Sometimes they’ll ask me, “Why a pastor?”, usually with a mix of confusion and disbelief, but not, “Why Christian?”
I suppose there are a number of easy answers to that question. I am Christian because when I was two months old, my parents, with the support of my family and the community of Lebanon Lutheran Church in Hegewisch, Chicago, IL, witnessed with the Reverend Bob Klonowski God calling me to be Christian in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. That act of God marked me as a child of God and a sibling of Christ Jesus, giving me a particular mission and vocation that would take me a couple of decades to sort out.
I am Christian because I was raised in a family that did its best to take seriously the calls that they each received in their baptisms. We were enveloped in the faith, active in our local congregation on multiple levels, attending Christian schools that sought, with varying degrees of success, to instill in us a love of Christ Jesus, an understanding of the grace of God, and a commitment to the morals and ethics of the Christian life that faith in Christ Jesus naturally cultivated.
I am Christian because, except for those two months immediately following my birth, I have always been Christian. I grew up in a society and culture that, on the surface, was equated with Christianity. I daily pledged my allegiance to my country with rote words that included “under God”, a country that invoked God’s name at its founding. I bought my snacks with a piece of paper that said “In God We Trust”. I sang “God Bless the USA” and “God Bless America” at Independence Day celebrations. I didn’t have to go to school around the Principal Festivals of the Nativity of Our Lord or the Resurrection of Our Lord. For all appearances, to be American was to be Christian (and to be non-Christian meant to be un-American).
I am Christian because I have always spent my time with other Christians who looked and thought and spoke like me, and therefore never had the majority of my beliefs and systems challenged to any serious degree when I was growing up. “An object in motion tends to stay in motion”, so says Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, and therefore, so long as nothing challenged my Christianity, I was bound to remain Christian.
Those are easy answers to the question, “Why Christian?” But they are no longer sufficient. Not for me. Not even close.
They are no longer sufficient to justify my Christian identity because I have wrestled with the treatment my family and I received from the first Christian school my sister, cousins, and I attended—treatment that betrayed how shallow their dedication to the grace and love of God really was, and why my mother swore we would never ever attend the church connected to the school, even though many of the teachers I had were good and honest people who loved and cared for me while I was a student.
I have struggled with the problem of evil, with how the classical conception of God as all-knowing, all-present, all-powerful, and all-good could be true while evil continues to hold so much sway over life as I know and perceive it.
I have watched in bewilderment as congregations have dwindled not only as numerically-based organizations but also in their zeal for the Gospel, abdicating their missions for the short-term comfort of keeping a useless building open just long enough so they could hopefully die and be buried before their beloved building closed down, and treating that event as the worst possible fate to befall Christianity.
I have cringed as a frighteningly high number of prominent Christian leaders abandoned the values they so viciously defended in decades past and exchanged them for power and favor, rationalizing their change of heart with the language of fear-mongering and frantically trying to build an idol big enough to replace the God they used to worship.
I have confronted the vapid pseudo-Christianity of society, a culture:
- that lavishes the rich with priority and privilege in defiance of Christ Jesus’s command to care for the poor;
- that is committed completely to war and the death of human beings it deems undesirable and ignores Christ Jesus’s command for mercy and peace;
- that imprisons people for profit and openly practices retribution of gross magnitude rather than engaging in the difficult task of restorative justice in which Christ Jesus engaged;
- that was built from the ground up on the sins of racism and sexism and continues, over two hundred years later, to cling to that rotting identity in the face of Christ Jesus’s new reality in which the barriers between race and sex were broken down, only for us to rebuild them;
- that worships money and political power, sacrificing people on the altars of Mammon and Molech, in direct contradiction to the command it claims to cherish, “You shall have no other gods”.
There are no easy answers for these challenges, because easy answers just don’t cut it when faced with challenges like these. And because there are no easy answers, it makes the question all that more important, and all that more dangerous to answer.
Because when confronted by ten people with a horrible skin disease, Christ Jesus did the impossible. From a distance, he told them to go show themselves to the priests, assuming rightly that they would be healed of their disease on the way.
Because as the ten people went away, before they even got to the priests, they were made clean, their bodies were healed.
And because when one returned, a Samaritan, an enemy of Jesus’s own people, to thank Jesus for what he had done, Jesus says that through trust and faith, he had been made well.
And lest you mistake me for someone easily lured in by the “ooh” and “aaah” factors of tricks (though I dearly love the art of illusion) or who clings to the faint hope of experiencing a miracle, that’s not what I’m getting at.
Because what Jesus did wasn’t just removing a disease from the body. Jesus was restoring them. Their disease removed them from their homes and families, because it was contagious and fatal. It removed them from their communal life, both in their town and in their ritual life, because their disease made them unclean and unfit.
Jesus not only removed their disease. He reconnected them to their families. He returned them to their homes. He gave them back their lives. He made them well.
Or, to translate the word a little differently: he saved them. Jesus gave them salvation.
Healing. Wholeness. Wellness. Rescue. Preservation. Freedom from demons. Salvation. It’s all the same word in the Bible, (if you’re curious, that word is sozo). And it’s what Jesus came to offer, and ultimately gave, and which I, and you, received.
Because I need healing. And wholeness. And wellness. And rescue. And preservation. And liberation. And salvation.
I need healing, because while the sertraline I take every night helps stabilize my brain chemistry and therapy helps me deal with the issues surrounding it, my sickness runs deeper, and neither I nor anyone else can break me out of it on my own.
I need wholeness, because society and culture have become, or more probably always were, so shallow and empty and greedy that its seeped into my soul and hollowed out spaces that need to be filled, spaces of despair and hopelessness that feed on me like parasites, chipping away at my humanity, against which I don’t have enough strength to fight.
I need wellness because like just about everybody I know I’m drowning in a sea of stress and anxiety and it makes me physically, emotionally, mentally, psychologically unwell, overwhelming my ability to respond.
I need rescue because I’m held hostage by my own self-deprecating thoughts and feelings, about my body, about my relationships, about my abilities as a father and husband and pastor, about my future, and I can’t escape.
I need preservation because I’m like a candle burning at both ends horizontally with eight other candles lined up to melt the rest all at once, and I’ll either burnout our melt away if the fires aren’t put out.
I need liberation because I’m trapped in a world that in too many ways and places abuses me because of my sexuality, that defines me based on my material wealth (which is never enough), that has brainwashed me to not think critically about the way it treats people and to only think of myself, that would sooner chew me up and spit me out than lift a finger to help me no matter how fervently I worship and give thanks to every idol it places in front of me.
I need salvation—I need all of that.
My survival depends on a God who works in and through and outside of and despite the best medicine we have available, whether or not I can be cured.
My survival depends on a God who conquers demons, especially those of my own making, and who has ultimate authority over them.
My survival depends on a God who has promised a transformation of a world without hope into a world defined by hope, so much so that it fills the empty places of my soul.
My survival depends on a God who can get even a physical, raging rainstorm to calm the hell down, so what is my own anxiety and worry compared to that?
My survival depends on a God who came in a body of flesh and blood just like mine to proclaim freedom to all those in captive, whether physically held captive by governments or prisons, or held captive by their own self-shaming and self-abuse, and proved that liberation in the life and body of Christ Jesus, the same body that we receive every week at the table of the sacrament of Holy Communion.
My survival depends on a God who halted the quick decay of the bodies of the ten lepers and gave them life when all seemed lost.
My survival depends on a God who freed the last sixty-six generations of Christians from the oppressive expectations of flawed and broken human communities and systems, who called them together to proclaim a new reality and a new way of living and acting and loving and accepting and welcoming and restoring and rebuilding and helping and speaking and being; the latest of which is us, drawing on the upswelling and surge of grace and faith left behind by the last sixty-five generations of children of God and siblings of Christ before us.
Because there is no other god, made or created or imagined by humanity, that loves me so deeply, so completely, so whole-ly; that can make me well; that can save me, from anyone else, and especially from myself.
I don’t have a choice. Because my survival depends it.