Archive for October 2013
Reformation Sunday, October 27, 2013 St. Paul’s Vallejo, CA
Jeremiah 31:31-34 Psalm 46 Romans 3: 19-28 John 8: 31-36
Forgiveness Spells Freedom
I was struggling to write another play about Luther for you this morning. Then I thought, I could write all about the new study that shows how Luther thought you could proclaim the gospel with music, even when you did not sing with words. He placed music right up there with theology. But then, our gospel lesson says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.” We need to always make room for the Word of God and continue learning, hearing, and living in that word in order to know the truth and because the truth can set us free.
So I just went back to the lessons chosen for today, and will try to understand them and help you understand them and take them to heart. I might have studied Luther and even earned a PhD and I could go into my new understanding of the Reformation, but the point is to continue with God’s Word, Jesus Christ. “Come into our hearts, Lord Jesus. There’s room in our hearts for you.” So speak to us, dear Lord Jesus, and we will hear you and we will learn, hear, and continue to live in your word. Amen.
Jesus spoke to the Jews who had believed in him. Jesus was completely among Jews and he himself was a Jew of course, so we have to read “people.” Jesus spoke to the people that had believed in him. Oops. It seems that their faith was flagging and they stopped believing. So Jesus tells them, start opening your Bibles again and learning the Word of God. Hey, start going to church again and listening to what the scripture readings say. A woman in another church always reads the lessons and then hits me with questions about them the week before. She stumped me by asking, “Did Abraham divorce or separate from Sarah after she made Hagar leave them?” She thought Abraham was elsewhere when Sarah died! (I have to study that issue further.) But she hears what Jesus is saying. Make room in your heart for the Word of God, learn it, hear it, and continue to live in it, should you want to uncover the reality of your lives, know the truth, and become free. Lies cover up reality, while the truth reveals it.
We say, “We are free. This is a free country. How can you say we are not? We live in the land of the brave and the free!” I wonder how true that is. Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Thomas Jefferson said that eternal vigilance was the price of freedom and right now the NSA can not only read our emails, like Big Brother, but even Angela Merkel’s and – is she mad! We are free in an external kind of way, but not at heart. The wonderful comedian Victor Borge was a great piano player and accompanist. He was told by a singer, a soloist, to accompany him, to follow him closely. As the singer moved over the stage, Victor Borge and his page-turner pushed and moved the grand piano following behind the singer wherever the singer went on the stage. That is following someone in an external way instead of listening to his singing and playing the piano in the same heart-beat as the singer’s voice.
So like that joke, we can have an external kind of freedom but not be free when, for example, we are addicted to a drug or alcohol or to pain-killers, which are making so many of us die because of overdoses. Are we really free if the government shuts down, and we go to Point Reyes and we are stopped by the police, who said, “Sorry this National Park is closed.”
“What about Limantour Beach?”
“Sorry. It’s closed.” So we went to Stinson Beach. Sorry, it was closed, too. Thank God, Mt. Tamalpais was a state park and we went hiking up there. (We were merely denied recreation on Columbus Day, but Native Americans have had many of their funds cut.) Are we really free when over two million of us are incarcerated and many prisoners are in the isolation cells, in solitary confinement, in the prisons inside our prisons? Are we really free when 25 million of us cannot find jobs and our employers say, “We don’t owe you a living!”?
So Jesus says, really when you commit sin, then you are slaves to sin. When you realize that you are sinning and you can’t stop, you are enslaved, and that, whether you realize it or not. Here’s the Gospel: The forgiveness received in the Word makes us free, emancipates us from evil and the destructive power that death has over us. If you cannot master yourself, you will be the slave of another. If you get completely out of control, they put you in a cage like an animal, called a jail. You need to have external constraints until you can make them internal and realize your limits, the places beyond which you should not go. My father used to say, “The battle that you fight with yourself, is the most difficult one you will ever fight, but the sweetest victory you will ever win.” I myself discovered that making Jesus my Master, made winning that battle a possibility. In Christ we become more than victorious.
And remaining in Christ and continuing in God’s Word is more than just an individual thing. The House of God is greater than our White House; the latter stands for our United States, while we remain in the House of the Lord forever. The name Pharaoh meant the House of the King, the king of Egypt. So entering God’s House, meaning the kingdom of heaven, is being freed from the slavery of sin, from the House of Bondage, and entering into the freedom of the children of God. With Jesus in our hearts we are the sons and daughters who have a permanent place in the household of God, and it is slavery when we stay in the bondage of sin.
The ticket of entry into freedom is God’s forgiveness, our forgiveness of others and their forgiveness of us. Say we could have forgiven those evil terrorists for 9/11, the way those Amish people forgave the killer of seven of their children in that schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. They went to the serial killer’s funeral! But we had to declare war on a country not even involved and lose 4,000 soldiers there on top of the 3,000 lost in 9/11 and I think we have already lost over 2,000 in Afghanistan and we will not even mention a hundred thousand Iraqis, I don’t know how many Afghans, and then right now Iraq is again sliding into the abyss of further bloodshed, 5 to 600 killed by suicide bombers a month. Revenge enslaves us. We have to live by forgiveness, even though our worldly power seems to make it impossible. With drones we are killing those who threaten us, and whole new groups have joined El Qaeda and those who hate us are multiplying and not going away.
We have to keep proclaiming Christ, the Lamb of God, and remaining sons and daughters of the kingdom of heaven, in the freedom of the children of God, who have eternal life promised to us, because continuing in the Word of God gives us a permanent place in the household of God. The doorway is the forgiveness attained by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who shed his blood for us, so that we are forgiven and set free from our sin.
And you know the hard part. We have to forgive others. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” It would be nice if Jesus said everybody had to forgive us, but we didn’t have to forgive others the rot and dirt and hurt, all the evil they did to us.
You say, “Now you’re meddling, Pastor.”
Being forgiven by others is really wonderful and freeing. “Okay, you stole that money, but Jesus paid it for you, so you are free. Take three steps and go out into that lovely world God created for you.” But someone steals money from you. Now that’s a different story. William Blake wrote a poem about someone stealing an apple which illustrates this problem well, while it really also makes the point about bringing things up to resolve our anger as well:
“A Poison Tree”
I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I water’d it with fears, night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles, and with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine and he knew that it was mine,
And into my garden stole when the night had veil’d the pole:
In the morning glad I see my foe outstretch’d beneath the tree.
This hatred of an enemy, this lack of forgiveness and this exacting of revenge not only make you become as bad as your enemy, but even worse. He merely stole an apple from you and you became his murderer, to address the speaker in the poem.
Blake writes about the extreme case. But not being able to forgive makes anger fester inside you; you wake up at night, enraged. You say, “After all you did for him!” You get a head ache, and you take the person to court and pay huge legal fees to the lawyer – and you just could have forgiven the person the way Christ forgave you.
It’s not easy. Forgiveness is a process. It requires some real suffering we have to go through. But it is the doorway to heaven. “For freedom Christ has set you free. Stand fast therefore and do not submit to the yoke of slavery again.” That’s St. Paul.
Having a permanent place in the household of God means that we have eternal life hereafter as well as having abundant life even here and now. When Luther realized that God was not a wrathful judge waiting for him to sin one more time and swatting him dead like we would do a fly and realized that God was in love with him, and wanted to pour integrity and righteousness into him, and free him up in thankfulness by forgiving his sin, then Martin Luther of old felt like the gates of paradise had opened for him again and he was entering heaven. He called himself “Eleutherus” for a while thereafter, because in Greek in this text it means “to be made free” and Christ, in truth, had made him free. He was a professor, but like a child he wanted to sing about it. He had a fine voice and played the lute, much like guitar players today singing while playing chords for self-accompaniment. That is impossible with a trumpet. You have to play or sing; you can’t do both at the same time. Luther proclaimed the wonderful freedom he experienced by writing songs about it and singing many songs to share the sweet message of the Gospel with all people. “Keep us steadfast in your word! From Heaven Above to Earth I come. Out of the Depths I cry to Thee, O Lord. A Mighty Fortress is our God.” Those are just some of his many songs.
We too will find that continuing in God’s word, Christ will free us from our sin, and the kingdom of heaven, will set our country on the straight and narrow path that leads to abundant life and true freedom, the internal one as well as the external one. (I realize how important the external freedom of religion, speech, the press, and assembly are.) But how can we feel free when at any moment someone takes a gun and starts shooting us? We have to forgive that evil festering in our midst so it comes to light and we overcome it. Evil can only be overcome by goodness. When we return evil for evil it multiplies. That Norwegian who shot 46 young people: they gave him 21 years. I can’t be that free I’ll tell you. He complained that he could not have a computer in his jail cell! But has executing so many people in our country stopped all the killing? Honestly, it seems to have gone into high gear.
Let the forgiveness of Christ set us free. Let it lift us up into the place where Luther experienced the river of grace that makes glad the city of God; the river of strength that streams to us from God. Let it place us under the heaven of grace, where God’s steadfast love and faithfulness endure forever; the heaven of grace, much greater and more beautiful than our heaven, that heaven full of grace, God’s forgiveness and faithfulness which endures forever. Let’s really become “the land of the brave and the free” through the only way, the straight and narrow way, the way of God’s Word, who is the truth, who is Jesus Christ, the real emancipator, the heavenly “Eleutherus!” who sets us free. Amen.
 Miikka Anttila, Luther’s Theology of Music: Spiritual Beauty and Pleasure, (Berlin/ Boston: Walter de Gruyter, GmbH, 2013).
 Martin Luther versus Hildebrand, who became Pope Gregory VII and launched the Catholic revolution in the eleventh century that Luther overturned in the sixteenth. Gregory made 3,000 priests in Germany divorce, while Luther opened the way to their marriage again. Gregory launched the system of ecclesiastical, episcopal courts and placed the canon law over the civil law, while Luther made the civil law the law of the land and threw the canon law into the flames on December 10th 1520. Luther replaced the legislation of the church with the proclamation of the Gospel.
 Peter and Philip Krey, Luther’s Spirituality, (Classics in Western Spirituality) (Mahwah, NJ: The Paulist Press, 2007), pages 138-140.
“Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria: Has the Age of Antibiotics Come to an End?” “More formally known as CREs, these ‘superbugs’ resist most antibiotics, spread resistance to other germs and kill roughly half of the people they infect.” See PBS Newhour Frontline.
Watching Frontline last night, we watched with horror as a crisis is silently unfolding for our society. New infections caused by bacteria that have become immune to all our antibiotics are leaving doctors and our hospitals feeling helpless. There is no way of knowing how many people have already died from these superbugs, because hospitals tend to cover up the issue, which is certainly bad for their business. Thus no one is counting. Who wants to go to a hospital with one illness, only to catch an untreatable infection that will kill you? To over-exaggerate: banks have been robbing us and now hospitals are killing us.
One hospital openly presented the crisis and confessed the number of patients, who died, not from their illnesses, but from the untreatable infections they caught in the hospital. It did not seem that they ever discovered how the infections spread.
Doctors feel helpless as they try one powerful antibiotic after another and find that the bacteria have developed immunity to them all. Surgical removal of the infections was the last resort.
Two things are necessary to overcome this crisis, further development of antibiotics to overcome these lethal bacteria and better stewardship of all antibiotics, because their wasteful overuse and misuse, has made it possible for bacteria to develop immunity to them.
Turning to the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, the investigative journalist discovered that the research department that had developed antibiotics for 70 years had been closed because it was unprofitable. The CEO said it was an investment portfolio decision, because other drugs that could be used in much greater volume justified the billion dollar cost of the research and production of a drug. When an antibiotic is produced, it becomes most effective when it is used least or at least with very responsible stewardship, making the further development of antibiotics unprofitable.
What becomes completely clear from this issue is that private enterprise and the markets will not be of any help against this silent killer. What other institution of our society can be of help except the government? It alone could fund that Pfizer research facility that was closed in order to save our lives and develop the antibiotics that are a basic pillar of modern medicine. Without effective antibiotics even surgery, especially transplants, will soon become impossible and we will be dying of simple infections as in the time before the discovery of penicillin.
Government intervention is obviously necessary and a market fundamentalism is completely misguided in this case. “That government is best which governs least” is the principle we learned in elementary school. But it presupposes responsible self-government and it is obvious that our overuse and misuse of antibiotics needs regulation until we have internalized their responsible use. We do not yet know whether or not feeding antibiotics to livestock in factory farms is also part of the problem, but it seems a rather unnatural thing to do.
To just take issue with big government versus small government is inadequate, because our thinking has to become far more nuanced. Where is government completely necessary to watch out over the welfare of the public when private profit cannot be made? Secondly, where is it inappropriate, for example, in squelching a new business by means of over-regulation? The de-regulation of telephones brought about wonderful developments. I wonder about the de-regulation of the airlines. The luxury service formerly associated with them has definitely been lost. It was obvious that the de-regulation of electricity in California made it possible for the ENRON in Texas to game the system, bilking taxpayers of billions, and giving very low prices to corporations while charging private citizens $3,000 monthly electric bills. De-regulation did not work.
So let’s think about government and the private market place in a much more nuanced way. When profit is the basic principle, then we need the government as the basic principle to watch over our common welfare.
The government principle, that is, watching out for the common good should not be marginalized to give the markets free rein or an even more intensified collectivization of cost and privatization of profit will result.
22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 20th, 2013
Immanuel Lutheran Church in Alameda, CA
Genesis 32:22-31 Psalm 121 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 Luke 18:1-8
Persistence in Prayer
All three lessons today are about persistence in prayer, a stick-to-it-ness that finally brings about personal as well as social blessings. Jacob struggles with the angel. His prayer is more than just verbal; he’s like totally involved in his prayer, even physically all night. His prayer is a wrestling match. He is actually wrestling with God the whole night, until the day is breaking and the frustration of the man makes him hit the socket of Jacob’s hip and put it out of joint. That stops Jacob, but he still won’t let the man go. “I’ll not let you go unless you bless me.” That prayer of Jacob used to be in every liturgy just before the blessing at the end of the service. In German, “Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn.” Jacob got the blessing out of his father by cheating his brother out of it. Now he wrestles his blessing from God, who does not tell Jacob his name, but changes Jacob’s name to Israel, the one who wrestled with God: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and you have prevailed!” He becomes crucial in God’s whole plan of salvation, because his twelve sons become the twelve tribes of Israel and they go down with Joseph to Egypt into slavery and come back
with Moses through the wilderness into the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey.
The letter to Timothy we read, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is judge of the living and the dead, and in view of the appearing of his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable, convince, rebuke, and encourage, with utmost patience in teaching.” The writer of that letter is encouraging teachers, evangelists, and pastors to keep at it, to stick to it with patience. How long does it take to teach a little child how to read? Every little step along the way we have to have patience and the child needs much encouragement. In a new program, new teachers become the apprentices of tried and true outstanding teachers and now their teaching is experiencing new break-throughs. New teachers should not be thrown into a classroom and always have to reinvent the wheel alone and by themselves again. The teaching art and skill has to be mastered with apprenticeships, journeying for new skills, – like into the marvelous schools in Finland, doing that in order to master the art and craft of teaching once again. In the old days you had to master a craft by first becoming an apprentice and then a journeyman. That training is now being used for teachers. It should also be introduced for pastors, don’t you think?
In the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, who does not fear God nor have reverence for people, her prayer requires persistent pestering of that judge, because like an uncaring and impersonal system, he does not respond because he cares about her person, but because she does not stop pestering him for justice. So you see how all three lessons are about persistence in prayer, so that personal and social blessings result.
Martin Luther advised us that prayer is the hardest of all work. I have a book of his prayers and in reading them I’ve gotten a glimpse into his soul. No matter how many obstacles were stacked up against him, no matter that he also knew that he himself was a sinner, he kept on praying and God rolled up the sleeves of that divine shirt and reformed a church in head and members that had been struggling for centuries to do so and could not prevail. Prayer brought the accomplishment, when it was humanly impossible, while for God all things are possible.
Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened unto you for the work of the divine, involving what the strong arms of God can do, (“It is no secret what God can do!) bringing about our transformation because of our access to the miracles of God’s omniscient mind and miraculously mature and perfect personhood.
Prayer makes a way for us where there is no way. Like John the Baptist, God makes a way for us, changing us as we march on that royal highway, so that we become new, more and more mature persons through prayer, so that our congregation receives growth and renewal, so that our society gets a taste of heaven. Because we pray: “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” These are not empty words, when we are persistent pestering God with our prayers. We will only attain a foretaste, of course. I like to say that concerning heaven, we can’t get the feature presentation, but we can see the previews of the coming attractions! On the other hand, some places on earth, like Syria, are getting pretty much a feature presentation of hell. We need to pray for the people there.
Max Weber said that bringing about a new policy in the government for the common wealth of the people was like trying to drill a hole through a board made of very hard wood. It took persistence in drilling and drilling and drilling until you broke through that thick hard wood board for the people’s benefit. I used to say that the only way through it is to get through it. Weber wrote about the vocation of politics and said it required persistent drilling as the only way to accomplish good things for the people. In Germany Otto von Bismarck introduced universal health coverage in 1883, unemployment insurance for workers in 1884, and old age and disability insurance in 1889. We holler socialism for such legislation over here. Bismarck did it there to prevent socialism from spreading and to prevent so many Germans from emigrating from Germany to America. When Bismarck would introduce this controversial legislation, the House would erupt into disorder with all the representatives shouting in anger. He would take out a newspaper and read it until they calmed down once more and continue reading his legislation.
Germany had been made of hundreds of little principalities and free imperial cities and with his single-minded persistence Bismarck put them together under Prussia as one empire. That Germany became so powerful in the heart of Europe was problematic, we know two world wars resulted, but now in the center of the European Union it can hopefully play a more positive role.
Persistence in prayer brings the human break-throughs we need. Shutting God out brings us nothing. God will only provide the blessings we seek though prayer. I think that the unjust judge stands for a society whose leaders don’t fear God or care about the people and the widow stands for all those suffering injustice. In the online commentary, Brian Stoffregen writes:
In a large gathering of persons concerned about certain unfair and oppressive conditions in our society, an elderly black minister read this parable [about the unjust judge and the persistent widow]and gave a one-sentence interpretation: “Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is.” …
Now a Black Senator Cory Booker was elected representing New Jersey, joining the other 98 White senators (Mo Cowan was appointed by the Governor of Massachusetts for John Kerry is the other) and he is only the fourth African American who has ever been elected to the United States Senate. The prayers of that old Black minister brought Barach Obama and his lovely wife, Michelle and his two daughters into the White House. The fact that he has such a lovely family is completely ignored by many who have always championed family values. We have to be aware that much of his opposition comes merely because he is Black. We Whites love the delusion that we’re superior. The Affordable Health Care Act was a Republican idea and first implemented by the Republican Governor Mitch Romney in Massachusetts. While doing everything to destroy this new initiative, the argument is that it doesn’t work. That’s like breaking somebody’s legs and blaming him for not being able to walk, let alone work.
Being persistent in prayer is the point of this parable and it does not only represent the good things God can do for us on a social and political level, but also on a personal level. Prayer is speaking with God and allowing God to speak with us. Imagine speaking with the president of the United States? What an incredible honor that would be. Well, that does not hold a candle to speaking with God. If you could speak with someone whom you consider the greatest person that ever lived, who would it be? (ask for names) Well, speaking with God is someone greater. Imagine speaking with Jesus Christ! Well he taught us how to pray and helped us by saying, pray this way: “Our Father, who art in heaven.” So we can come before God and speak with God like God’s children. We can come to God’s table and eat God’s bread and drink God’s wine, which becomes the body and blood of Jesus. We are changed because his body becomes our body and his divine blood starts to flow through our veins. We become bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, his sisters and brothers, children of the living God.
So keep on praying so you keep having faith so that Jesus comes back and finds you full of faith, while moving among us here on earth and continuing God’s creation. We should not only take time during the day to pray, but also say prayers inside ourselves whenever we have meetings or need to have an important conversation with someone or have to face anything crucial. Like before writing this sermon, I prayed, “O God, put the words in my sermon that Immanuel people need to hear! Words that will comfort, help, and sustain them and words that will also challenge them.” Or when I go to a Bible study. “O Lord, I know I’m a talker and I talk way too much. Guard the gate of my lips. Help me be a good listener!” When someone is working something through, it is always possible to pray for them in our hearts, so God can give them a break-through.
I’ll end with Luther again. His barber, Master Peter wanted Luther to teach him how to pray. So Luther wrote a long pamphlet explaining for him how he prayed. He would pray the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, the whole catechism in different ways. He always tried to get into the mood to pray and he always tried to pray in his own words. He would pray out loud just like a child and pour his heart out to God. Say he was going through all the petitions and their explanations from the Lord’s Prayer in the catechism. Let me read you his own words:
You should know that I do not intend for you to recite all these words in your prayer… Instead I want you to be stimulated and instructed as to what thoughts should be grasped in the Lord’s Prayer. When the heart has become warm and longingly in the mood for prayer, you can express these thoughts well in many different ways, with a whole lot of words or just a few. I do not bind myself to such words and syllables; I speak the words one way today and another way tomorrow, according to my feelings and what mood I’m in. Nevertheless, I stay as close as I possibly can to the same thoughts and ideas. Often it happens that, in one part or petition, I lose myself in such rich thoughts that I let the other six petitions go. And when such rich, good thoughts come, then one should forgo the other prayers and give room to those thoughts and listen in silence. Then by all means, make no hindrance, because the Holy Spirit’s divine self is preaching to you, and when the Spirit preaches, one word is better than a thousand of our prayers. In this way I have sometimes learned more in one prayer than I could ever have gotten from much reading and thinking.
Those are words Luther used to teach his barber how to pray, but they also encourage and help us. Of course, Jesus, next to whom Luther can’t even hold a candle, Yes, Jesus taught us even more and reminds us to be persistent. So keep on keeping on. Take time to pray. Let’s live in an envelope of prayer even wrestling with it in the night even physically like Jacob; and keep on praying inside ourselves. If we envelope ourselves in prayer, then inside that envelope, let’s have a letter, and let that letter also contain a prayer. Let’s live not only a continual, but even a constant and continuous prayer, so that the real presence of Christ completely surrounds us, who become living prayers. Amen. Amen. Let’s keep on keeping on praying, until the light of God floods our path and all the people around us fill us with love and we finally see the way. Amen.
The Tenth Leper
Spoken: Wow, I feel better!
Hey, I’m healed.
Now I’ll be fine.
Thank you, Jesus,
For making me shine.
I was so sick
Life was a drag
My body felt
Like a wet paper bag.
But you healed me
Through and through
And now I’m healthy
Because of you.
Wow, it’s great
To feel so fine.
Thank you, Jesus,
For making me shine.
Hallelujah, I’m healed.
Hallelujah, Oh God of mine.
Thank you, Jesus,
I feel so fine,
You’re the light of my sunshine.
peterkrey with Mark’s help on the melody. 10/12/2013: if you leave a comment, I’ll send you the melody.
Immanuel Lutheran Church in Alameda, CA
Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, October 13, 2013, 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c Psalm 111 2 Tim 2:8-15 Luke 17:11-19
Leprosy of the Soul
Why were Jesus and his disciples walking between Samaria and Galilee? The online commentary wanted to know and others have asked that question. When two groups of people are hostile to one another, the area between them is dangerous and few people want to take the risk of getting caught in there. Before 1492, when Native American tribes had dense populations in North America, and where Indian tribes were hostile and fought each other, it was too dangerous for the Indians of either side to hunt there, so that is where the big game and other wild animals could find safety and refuge. Perhaps that is why these ten lepers found refuge there between Samaria and Galilee, and most likely why the Master, as Jesus is called here, and his twelve disciples were also there.
Ordinarily Lepers were out-castes, who lived outside the city walls and had to yell, “Unclean, unclean” so that people would not come close to them. People ostracized them, much the way we recently did with those suffering from HIV and Aids. That was cruel and insensitive today, as much as the people were cruel and insensitive to the lepers of that day. It’s one thing to have physical leprosy; it’s quite another to have leprosy of the soul. Lepers died alone and rejected. Now we call it the Hansen’s Disease and we know that a leprosy bacillus spreading little tubercles is the culprit. But they did not know that at the time.
What that disease does is kill off the nerve endings so that victims cannot feel anything or even feel pain. A Doctor Brand was in India trying to study the disease and on one occasion he was trying to turn the key to a rusty old lock and couldn’t do it. (There in India one hears stories of the incredible strength of lepers.) Dr. Brand asked for help. The little leper boy accompanying him said, “Let me help.” To the doctor’s surprise, he turned the key and opened the lock. When Dr. Brand examined the boy’s hand to see how he could have all that strength, to his dismay he discovered that the boy had mangled three of his fingers, but had not felt it. His nerve ending did not feel the pain and stop him from hurting himself and losing his fingers.
This story comes from Norman Cousin’s book, The Anatomy of an Illness. Let me jump to another one of his points:
What is not generally understood is that many of the vaunted pain-killing drugs conceal the pain without correcting the underlying condition. They deaden the mechanism in the body that alerts the brain to the fact that something is wrong. The body can pay a high price for the suppression of pain without regard to its basic cause.
(As an aside: I just went to a doctor about my arthritis and what did he do but prescribe Aleve and Ibuprofen, the pain-killers.)
It is easy to see how much not feeling the pain cost the little leper boy, who was completely unaware what was happening to his fingers when he turned the key in that rusty lock. But something that we need to grapple with is the social meaning of a disease. Often we do not want to correct what is wrong and needs changing, we merely take pain pills or perhaps let others feel the pain, while protecting ourselves from it. I have often felt that middle class White people have used the poor and the Black people for a cushion between us and the pain cause by the inhuman conditions of our society. They are often the last hired and the first fired. And then the very poor are also used as our scapegoats. We can’t get at the big shots, who have gotten us into the Great Recession, so we blame it on the immigrants, the most vulnerable people in our society.
Thus we may not have physical leprosy, but we may well have spiritual leprosy. We may be insensitive and hurt the people who are experiencing the most pain, because we don’t know how to correct what is wrong with our economy and society, and we cannot get at the powerful, because they can use the police to inflict a great deal of pain on us, should we want to change and correct the injustices in our society, which is doing quite well for the rich at the expense of the poor.
When in the minister’s Bible study, we discussed this social leprosy, and one of the pastors of the struggling mission congregations said that we have to preach about the leprosy of the church. Many congregations do not feel the pain other congregations are experiencing. Rather than have empathy with them, we reject them or because they are Asian, Latino, African American, and Native American, we refer to them as “them” and not as “us.” We are content to stay in our comfort zones and leave them in pain that is often way too difficult to bear.
You can see where Jesus and his disciples were – in that no-man’s land. They were among those who were suffering the rejection of that society and the ten lepers call to them, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When we are suffering in those kinds of straits, then we have to beg for help. And Jesus helps them. Somehow Jesus can turn on a divine power of healing. Like Norman Cousins whole book is about “reflections on healing and regeneration” and an honest doctor won’t immediately prescribe pain-killers, but will confess that healing is in God’s hands. They may be able to remove obstacles in the way, but the healing comes from God and God’s ability to make us whole again when we are sick. It is not either the doctor or spiritual healing, but the doctor is God’s instrument for healing, knowing that the process of healing is in God’s hands. So it takes some humility and then it takes gratitude and loud and vehement thanksgiving for our healing. When the one leper saw that he was healed, he turned back, praising God in a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus feet and thanked him. I don’t know about the others, but he was also cured of the leprosy of the soul.
Look at Naaman. He was a warrior and hero. But they listened to a little slave girl. Not the wise and powerful King that Naaman served, but the little slave girl showed the powerful the way. How often would we listen like that? We would usually just say, “Be quiet. What do you know?” Note that they had the sense to listen to a slave girl.
Now look at the powerlessness of the powerful. Naaman’s king writes to the king of Israel. His reaction would be humorous if it wasn’t so pathetic. He rants and raves. “Look how this Aramean king is trying to pick a fight with me? Am I a God to be able to cure leprosy, to give death and life?” But mind you those kings wanted to be considered gods in those days and even in Reformation times kings were considered “gods.” Here suddenly his majesty is tearing up his clothes, which makes the king be without any clothes: “Look the king is not wearing any clothes!” if you remember the voice of the child in the fable. The king is as human as everybody else and with humility he could have been helpful.
The prophet Elisha knows where healing comes from. “Why have you torn up your clothes? Let Naaman come to me that they may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” So with all his horsemen and chariots Naaman comes to the humble door of the prophet, who sends his messenger out to him. Elisha is consciously humiliating this great man and Naaman knows it and flies into a rage. But again his servants talk sense into him. The powerless are the powerful once again. He cools off and listens to them and finally gets healed. Then like the Samaritan, he comes back to the door of the Man of God and says, “Now I know there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”
God gives grace to the humble, but he can tell if you’re arrogant from afar off. So look how Jesus humbles the so-called “chosen people.” The only one of the ten healed lepers who comes back praising God in a loud voice and who falls down in gratitude at Jesus feet is a Samaritan. Where are the other nine? Where are the chosen people? Only this foreigner knows that one has to respond to God’s saving and healing grace with a heart-full of gratitude! Today Jesus would say, “Where are the nine Americans? Won’t any be found to come back and give praise to God but this immigrant?” “Where are the nine Lutherans? Will only a Mormon be found to come back praising God in a loud voice and have a heart over-flowing with gratitude?”
We have to identify with the lowly, those we discriminate against, if we want God to see us and turn on his amazing grace. We have to identify with the homeless, because we didn’t, and 10 million people have lost their homes by foreclosures to the banks. When we do not feel the pain of others in society, then we do not realize how much we ourselves will be getting hurt. Recently a Mexican mother, who was here illegally, drove her children to school. She was pulled over and because she didn’t have a license, meanwhile she was ineligible to get one, she was deported back to Mexico. They deported her separating her from her six children and husband. That is leprosy of the soul. Imagine not being able to feel the pain and suffering of all those children and that mother? That is cruel and unusual punishment to the extreme. Now hundreds of immigrants are dying in the desert trying to get around the fence we put up in the Southwest. Can you see a mother trying to get back to her children and dying there at the doorstep of a heartless and powerful and uncaring people? Remember, before God the powerful are powerless and God acts through the powerless.
Recently we heard of several prisoners, probably because they were Black Panthers, who were kept in solitary confinement for over 40 years. Solitary confinement is a form of torture. We don’t seem to feel the pain of others. Better yet, I accuse myself and I have to ask God for forgiveness. I need to have empathy and the ability to care in this respect too. But in the words of the post-World War II Stuttgart German Declaration of Guilt, let us say, “We accuse ourselves that we don’t witness more courageously, pray more faithfully, believe more joyously, and love more ardently.” I invite you all to say this confession of guilt with me. “—” Yes, for our lack of empathy and compassion, we humbly ask God’s forgiveness, and pray for a heart that feels the pain and suffering of others, so that you and I too can get a heart like that of Jesus, throbbing with love and compassion for those who are suffering.
In a somewhat different vein, thinking about the sensitivity of appreciating the creation, Luther would say that we are surrounded by God’s miracles but because they are so common and so many, we take them all for granted, wanting to be entitled to them without thanking and praising God for them. Luther wrote, “How little we understand the way a seed becomes a plant, or how a human body grows, or … how the human tongue produces so many different sounds that can be heard and understood by so many people.” How does my voice from my mouth, for example, be able to get into all your ears and how do my words become understood? These are all miracles, but we take them for granted. Just now some physicists from the University of California in Berkeley, Stanford, and Yale received the Nobel Prize. Just imagine, the tiny cell, which is way too small to see without powerful microscopes, is like a whole city. These scientists discovered that a transit system for molecules even exists inside the cell that moves around and distributes hormones, antibodies, and enzymes inside and from one cell to another. The tiny cell like a whole city has an inner transit system that delivers its cargo to the right place at just the right time or otherwise a whole slew of diseases are the result. That is taking place in all the cells of our bodies all the time until we die and meanwhile we just take all that for granted. If we consider that God is taking care of all these life processes all the time for us, like that Samaritan we would be shouting out our praise to God with a loud voice and fall at Jesus’ feet and give our thanksgiving. Nothing we could do in our grateful response could possibly achieve the thankfulness we felt for what God has done for us in this life, let alone in the promise of the resurrection given us in Jesus Christ.
To get back to Norman Cousins: He was traveling and walking in front of a jet that just turned on its engine. The force of the air sucked into the jet engine went right through him and he became deathly sick. Doctors did all kinds of experiments on him with nothing helping. He asked one doctor if they knew how to help him. He was honest enough to say that they did not have the slightest idea what he had or how to help him. He checked himself out of the hospital and with a friend checked into a hotel room. There they rented one comedy after another and laughed and laughed. Laughing tends to exercise the internal organs and he got better. Perhaps that blast of air that went through him knocked that transit system inside all his cells off kilter and made him that sick. God really cured him, while his faith shown through all that laughter would have made Jesus say, “Go your way. Your faith has made you well.”
So let’s let this creation fill us with awe, with praise and thanksgiving. And let’s get down there with the lowly and share their suffering and pain where Jesus sees, encounters, and heals us and turns on his amazing grace for us and we participate in the healing processes of faith that make ourselves and our society whole once more. Amen.
 Norman Cousins, Anatomy of an Illness, (New York: Bantam Books, 1979), pages 98-99.
 Ibid., p. 92.
 Clyde L. Manschreck, A History of Christianity: Readings in the History of the Church from the Reformation to the Present, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964), p. 533. I put the words into the present tense.
 Miikka Anttila, Luther’s Theology of Music, (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), p. 91.
 That just refers to the microcosm. Meanwhile in the macrocosm we are a planet in a solar system in a galaxy swirling around a Black hole! We are surrounded by miracles!
When in a society a mother of six children is deported for driving her children to school without a license, when she is ineligible to get one, separating her from her husband and her children, it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Hundreds of desperate immigrants are now dying while trying to circumvent the fence in the Southwest, some most likely like this mother, who want to join their families once again.
From The Hidden History of a Substantial Minority: ‘Latino Americans,’ a Six-Hour PBS Documentary”
Then in the news Saturday a prisoner just died of cancer. See Herman Wallace, Held 41 Years in Solitary. He was kept in solitary confinement for over 40 years!
Are we trying to make God angry with us?