Return To Sender

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana
October 10, 2010 – Ordinary 28C
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 2
Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

I remember, as a child, going on trips to my grandparent’s cabin in North Carolina. There were barely three channels on the TV, but we did not care. God provided so much more entertainment than the human mind could fathom. The tin roof would serenade us when it rained, and we would pull out the old board games. On the inside of the lid to the scrabble box one can still find in my mother’s adolescent scrawl, “Jailhouse Rock”, and “Return to Sender.” These were words written into the ether with the idea that they had intrinsic value for all eternity. And maybe they do.

“Return to Sender” was a song about rejection and ambiguity (Lyrics, Listen). Why would his love tell the postal service to return his letter? I mean, this is Elvis Presley we’re talking about here. No such person? No such zone? This ambiguity left Elvis with the resolve to deliver the letter himself. If it comes back, then fine, they’re done. This may seem entirely unrelated to the Gospel, but I submit to you that we all have times when we feel like we are unsure of God’s presence and activity. Sometimes we wonder if we are just supposed to do it ourselves.

Sometimes we may feel like James Stewart in the famous prayer scene in the film “Shenandoah.” His character is a Virginia farmer during the Civil War. He’s a recent widower trying to honor his wife’s request to raise children in the faith. At dinner he prays, “Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here, and we wouldn’t be eatin’ it, if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel. But we thank you just the same for this food we’re about to eat. Amen.”

One commentary suggests that we imagine offering the same type of prayer at a church potluck. It might go something like, “Lord, we cleared this land, we built this church, we gathered the money and the people, and we worshiped. It would not be here; we would not be worshiping you if we had not done it all ourselves. We are dog-tired and not nearly ready for another program year and stewardship campaign and outreach emphasis, but we thank you just the same, Lord, for this church and the food we are about to eat. Amen.”

It is hard not to become anxious about our faith when we have invested our very lives in it and the results do not match our expectations. That is why Paul begins his claim with, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead…” and continues with the claim that even though he may suffer, and we may suffer too, the love of God cannot be contained, restrained, or chained.

You know, I don’t remember who called me first, but Paul's words remind me of the time I spent with Allison and her family when her boyfriend, John Bruner, died at the age of 19 while running a road race that included his father and other family members. John was a premier athlete, a good student, a faithful catholic, an eagle scout, and a good son. He died of a pulmonary anomaly that occurs in 0.01 to 0.05 percent of the population. The response within the community was massive, and the mourning of loved ones resulted in an annual race that raises thousands every year. What is interesting is that the money does not go to cardiac research or care. It goes to scholarships for young athletes and college students. Their communal response to loss is not an attempt to stop the loss of someone else. It is simply to encourage others to be like John.

Perhaps that was part of God’s message in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiled Jews. God’s instructions were more than simply, “Bloom where you are planted.” God was literally telling them to look the source of death and destruction in the face and find ways to support and benefit their captors. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you…pray on its behalf…in its welfare you will find yours.”

It makes me wonder, who are we in this scenario? Are we the ones left in the city longing for the return of the Diaspora, or are we, in some way, experiencing a sort of exile from the city we once lived in? Have we become aliens in a foreign culture, needing a rising tide to lift us with it? The beauty of a metaphor is that either can be used to illustrate our common need, but I imagine that we will go further if we have a shared sense of identity. So, let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that we choose to describe ourselves as exiles.

Let’s say that we have bound together as a band of misfits because this culture does not provide a place where we feel that we belong. Somewhere along the way we realize that there is a man who can offer healing and wholeness, and his name is Jesus. That was the experience of the lepers, living on the outskirts of society. They lived in between Galilee and Samaria. They lived in a place that people passed by, and today it was Jesus who came their way.

Now, it was customary in Levitical code that lepers announce themselves as “unclean”. This was to protect others, but it also served as an announcement of their need. Approaching a caravan and announcing themselves would be fairly normal, but this group was more concerned with announcing Jesus and crying out for mercy. “Master,” they cried, “have mercy on us.” Jesus was traveling with a group of pilgrims to Jerusalem. We have no idea how many or if he was in the middle or the front. Most likely, someone in the group of lepers had a family member who knew Jesus was coming that way.

It really doesn’t matter how, but they recognized him for who he was. What’s interesting here is that he didn’t even touch them. There is no way to know if they even expected to be healed when they left to show themselves to the priests. Perhaps they all realized it at the same time. I like to think of them exploding with joy, skipping and jumping to go see the priests, doing whatever version of hi five’s existed in that time… all but one.

Now, we mustn’t look on the nine too harshly. They were doing what they were told. The priest was the key to rejoining society, and he had to declare them clean before they really were clean. But the Samaritan… well, he lived under a similar code. The rules of society for the Samaritan were much the same. He just did not have the same reverence for Jerusalem. But something else stopped him. Something else turned him and compelled him to look upon the one who had healed him.

Karl Barth is sometimes quoted as saying that the most basic human response to God is not fear and trembling, but rather it is gratitude, “What else can we say to what God gives us but to stammer praise?” Yet something in the religious tradition and ritual of the other nine kept them from seeing the source of their blessing. Maybe they had suffered for so long that they had become self-righteous and only thought, “Finally! It’s about time.”

Maybe they felt trapped by the rules and were simply trying to do the right thing. Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the priests. Was that not the right thing to do? Was he trying to trick them? No…no... Obviously the right thing to do was to praise and glorify the source of blessing. But instead they chose to glorify the rituals that acknowledge blessing. Jesus was not trying to trick them, but he was giving them the opportunity to respond to grace.

Landon Whitsitt, the Vice Moderator for the 218th General Assembly, told a story at our Presbytery meeting the other day about an elder who said he finally understood the meaning of grace. This elder said, “I finally get the meaning of grace. It is God’s action on my behalf, acting toward me in ways I do not deserve.” Landon affirmed him and the elder continued. “I finally get it and I can’t stand it. I can’t stand it because it’s messing up my life.” Landon responded, “How’s that?” The elder continued, “It’s messing up my life because now I’m responsible. Now I have to care about someone else.” God is funny like that, you know? God will mess up your life.

This same idea came through over and again in Presbytery, as we reflected on the last five years since the storms. Again and again stories rang out to affirm that healing and wholeness are made complete when gratitude is put into action and one person coming from a place of need meets another in his or hers.

So here we are, having weathered the storms. Here we are, waiting for the return of those that culture, or the wars of life, have taken away from us. Here we are in exile, struggling to maintain our integrity as a people of God. Here we are, suffering in our own way for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Here we are, calling out, “Master, come and heal us!” But even more importantly, here we are, facing the opportunity of running to the priest or turning to Jesus.

I do not know exactly what it will mean for us to be healed, except for the ways in which I see healing happening through our care for one another. I do not know exactly how we will be able to seek the welfare of the city around us, except for the ways in which we are already doing it through Family Promise, C.U.P.S., Meals on Wheels, and the UCO. What I do know that our future will not look like our past. What I do know is that we must seek God’s will together, earnestly and faithfully, for it to be revealed.

We have this letter in our hand from Paul that reminds us of the reality of the covenant God made with us in our baptism:
11The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 12if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; 13if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.
We have this letter in our hand from Jeremiah reminding us that our calling is not inside these walls but outside in the city “for in its welfare we will find our welfare.”

We have this letter from Luke, offering healing for our souls if we can just remember to turn to God again and again as the source of blessing to which we must respond.

Given the history of this congregation, I do not believe it is in our character to deny and return these hand delivered letters. It is instead our greatest joy to return to the one who has sent them and offer our thanks and praise while we look for new opportunities to respond to God’s grace. Today I want to invite you to join in a practice offered after the sermon at the Presbytery meeting. Landon calls it "Practicing the Presence of God." Join me in a few minutes of silence to consider how you intend to respond to what you’ve heard today (2min)…..Amen.
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