For our people, who want quick fixes, whose horizons are embarrassingly short, we need as best we’re able as preachers to introduce the long view, not minutes or hours or days but decades, even centuries. God’s work is long-term, not American-ish quick stuff. Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a single lifetime; therefore we are saved by hope.” How does the preacher invite people into a time sequence beyond their own fantasies or even lifetimes?
Where I live we have a coalition of churches called “Jeremiah 29:7” – alluding to “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile; pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” I like that. At one level, it’s just common sense. If the city you’re in thrives, you’ll thrive – and that surely applies to work God calls us to in affordable housing, educational equity and more.
But it’s more than that, isn’t it? It’s the work for the city, for us as what Hauerwas and Willimon called Resident Aliens, that is our welfare. This is big, Gospel-stuff, inviting people into work that roams beyond their personal existence, that is our labor for God in the place that has forgotten about God. How can the preacher not nag but invite into such life-giving ministry? What does this look like where you are?
2 Timothy 2:8-15. Paul is chained, but the Word is not. How many prison experiences (Bonhoeffer with the Nazis, Paul and Silas in Philippi, Nelson Mandela at Robben Island, Martin Luther King in the Birmingham jail?) illuminate this truth? Paul’s poetic riffs in this text are startling, eloquent, and best repeated, recited, not explained: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will reign.. if we are faithless, he remains faithful – this last one being huge, our only real hope. We indeed are faithless, even the church’s best faithful, even the holiest among us, and surely the rest of us as well! – and yet it is God’s faithfulness, not ours, on which the future hinges. This is the fulcrum of Karl Barth’s remarkable Epistle to the Romans. Faith, faithfulness in Romans is God’s not ours! – thankfully!
Luke 17:11-19. I love the observations of Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington: “Illness does not stop at political borders; neither need healing stop at the borders.” The whole translated image of “ten lepers” misses the nuance: leproi andres means leprous men: “Their humanity is not swallowed up by their diseases” (at least to Luke, and to us Christians).
I love this: these ten are ostracized, as so many are (who are they where you minister and preach??) – and yet they have one another! Ten are together – and maybe we think of the function of gay bars, or deaf bars, where those who don’t collude easily with others find good company. In such a group, Samaritans and Jews were totally fine being together! How often do the broken figure out how to be together when the allegedly “together” religious people can’t? AA meetings?
Joe Fitzmyer (in his Anchor Bible Luke commentary) reminds us here that Jesus “lavishes his bounty on those who need him most.” The text opens up a vapid, disastrous option for the preacher. I once heard a sermon on the virtues of gratitude (which are many!) – with the illustration of one who, in the hospital, groused and complained versus the other patient who was grateful. This isn’t Miss Manners on how gratitude, writing thank-you notes and saying Thanks! incessantly forges a better path.
The text intrigues. Jesus heals these guys – but they don’t or can’t notice until they are on their way to the priest (as they have until then been excluded from worship in the temple!). They are grateful: the Greek is eucharisteo – implying to early Christian readers the Lord’s Supper!!! Only one turned back – but we dare not divert into “exceptionalism,” the way people who speak of race talk of the one African-American who did well, implying the others didn’t but could have! No moralism here – as if, could we only be grateful, Jesus would heal and be pleased with us! Jesus heals the unhealable, and the Gospel is about realization of that healing and then joining in the Eucharistic table of love and the extension of this healing power to others.