Sunday, October 9, 2016

Lepers and Thin Places

“On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.  As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him…”       — Luke 17 
 Farnoosh Brock, a blogger, writes about standing right at the edge of the ocean:
"My schedule and agenda fell by the way side and my whole body and mind fell into a reverie.  This is why I don’t live near the ocean, I told myself, because I would get nothing done… The ocean wins every time and like every other soul on the planet, I dream of a day that I can commune daily with the ocean."
I've lived in Nevada most of my life, and when I think of going on vacation, I think just like this writer.  All I can think about is going somewhere near the ocean.  People I've known who live by the ocean, when they think of going on vacation, they often think of going up to the mountains, to Tahoe.  As human beings we seem to be drawn to places where earth meets water or earth meets sky... borderlands, edges, doorways, what the ancient Celtic Christians called "thin" places.  Places where heaven and earth meet, where this world and the next are touching. 

The Gaelic name for these thin places was Caol Áit (pronounced “keel awtch".) In Celtic folklore, a thin place was always about being in that boundary between the two elements. Riverbanks, lakeshores, bogs, ocean and the shore, turning points of the seasons, all were considered thin places.  The Celts believed amazing things happened when you set foot in a thin place.

If you look sharp, you can see that today's Gospel is filled with thin places, borders, edges between our world and the next.  It is filled with both true thin places where earth and heaven meet — true doorways — and also false boundaries; those edges and borders and walls that only humans seem to love to create.

In the very first verse of the passage, Luke sets this entire story in a thin place, on a border.  In verse 11 it says: "On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee."  Jesus is on the border, the first Caol Áit, the first thin place. 

And then immediately in the next verse, we come to the second thin place.  Jesus is halfway between the countryside and the city. It states:  "As he entered a village…" — Not even in the village, partway in, at the threshold.  In that strange in-between place, Jesus encounters ten people who have been forced to live their lives in a thin place: They were Lepers.  They were trapped in that place between life and death because of their disease. 

And they physically lived in an in-between place, on the border: They could neither enter the city nor go too far from it.  Biblical law required these “unclean” souls to live near the town dump (Lev 13:46).   Yet, they had to live close enough to cities to receive charity.  What torture!  To be rejected and yet have to stay close to the people who reject you so you could survive!  The passage goes on: "… ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, 'Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!'”  Biblical law demanded that they announce their sickness to all passersby (Lev 13:45).  Their skin disease was potentially contagious and was considered to be God’s judgment; lepers were shunned and treated as invisible people.

That was the amazing thing in this passage:  Not that they had this dread disease, not that they had the courage to beg healing from Jesus, but that Jesus “saw” them.  While the rest of the world treated them as invisible, Jesus in a great act of compassion stood in the thin place with those ten human beings whose skin was being eaten away by leprosy, and he actually saw them.

And Jesus does an amazing thing: In other healing miracles he touches a person, or speaks words of healing, here, he simply tells them to move into another thin place, "Go show yourselves to the priest…"  That was the only way, according to Levitical Law you could go from being a leper, outcast, and reenter society, you showed yourself as healed to the priest.  And so they moved off into that new thin place, and as they went, their lives as lepers and outcasts came to an end, and healing began.

I have to be honest, if I were a leper, my instinct would be to keep running into that thin place away from Jesus, because as I ran, the skin sores and huge, disfiguring lumps under my skin would begin to soften and heal and disappear.  And the nerve damage of leprosy in my feet would slowly vanish, and I could actually feel the dust of the road between my toes once again.  As I kept running away from Jesus, the almost total blindness of leprosy's attack on the nerves in my eyes would withdraw, and all of a sudden, the colors of the leaves on the trees and the searing blue of the sky would be so beautiful it would break my heart.  But most of all, as the constant muscle fatigue of leprosy left me, and I could run like I was sixteen again, every step, every stride, every yard, every mile, would bring me closer to a home I had not seen in many years, and loved ones who would welcome me.  I do not know that I would have the willpower to stop, and turn, go back, and fall to my knees to thank Jesus, like the Samaritan did.

The guy who stopped his race toward life, turned and fell in gratitude before Jesus' feet was a person who lived on the margins his whole life, he was one of the quasi-Jews that true Jews hated; he was a Samaritan.  It was more than a trivial act of gratitude; it was an act of supreme self-denial.   In essence, he was saying, "Health can wait, the green leaves and the sky can wait, my beloved family can wait, those children I never got to see growing up can wait, my life can wait, right now, nothing is as important as giving thanks to God." 

People like me who probably would've kept running, were apparently the good Jews.

I wonder, maybe when you've lived your life on the margins, in the thin places, maybe it's easier to show gratitude, maybe it comes more naturally.  I know over the years, I've seen many people come to Trinity who would not be welcomed elsewhere, me included, who were overwhelmed with gratitude at the acceptance and welcome they found here.  We don't always do it perfectly, unlike Jesus, we don't always see everyone we should see, those hurting folks on the margins who feel invisible.  But we're still pretty good at it, radical welcome is part of our DNA here in this thin place.

There are real thin places, Caol Áit, and they appear in different locations, and moments, in relationships, and in different seasons of our lives.  Holy moments and places where you suddenly realize you're in a place where heaven and earth are touching.  Something is going on, something wonderful and mysterious and tingling with the healing power of God.

But there are other in-between places that are artificial, human made, and they don't cause wonder and joy, they cause fear and despair.  We don't call them Caol Áit, we call them fences, and borders, and walls… and we call them "those" people.  It's where we keep our lepers, the people we don't want to see, but over and over in Scripture God refuses to recognize the boundaries we draw between each other.  It is running rampant in America todayAnd, it saddens me to admit that it is even the tendency in the church to confine the boundaries of God’s kingdom to the church.

I can imagine those twelve disciples thinking, “We’re special. Jesus has called us to follow him. We are his first friends, his best friends, his only friends, judging by some of the resistance Jesus has received. We’ve left everything and followed him on his way. Surely Jesus ought to be pleased with what he’s achieved with us.”  But then Jesus leads them outside their comfort zone, out into foreign territory, out to the borderland of Samaria.  There he doesn’t even go into the safe confines of town; he stops because he recognizes a thin place at the edge of town, and engages ten poor souls who, because of their sickness, have been thrown out.

And Jesus is going to lead us there too.

I don't get down to the ocean very often, but that first moment I stand on the shore and look out, the seagulls crying overhead, I know I am in a thin place.  Maybe that's why we touch the holy water in the font and cross ourselves, it reminds us when we stood on that vast shore of the ocean of our baptism, and we are drawn back again and again to that thin place where we hear the words again, “You are my beloved child;” that place where miracles happen.

“Heaven and earth,” the Celtic saying goes, “are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.”

When we trust, and step into that thin place of faith, the longer we keep walking with Jesus, the more we will see the function of faith as crossing human made boundaries and breaking down human walls.  Not just the ones we construct to keep other people out, but also those terrible walls we build inside ourselves.  Those ugly walls that convince us we aren't worth much, walls that separate us from others, walls that keep us from giving to others, walls that make us afraid be the people we can be.

The amazing thing about what Jesus did in this Gospel today is right from the start, he saw those lepers as they truly were: already healed, the walls had already been broken down, and they were free to go on their way and live their lives in joy as Children of God.

And you know what?  If you step into this thin place of faith, you'll realize Jesus has seen you that same way all along.  Amen.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Gospel of Fred the Fig

“Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none…’”    — Luke 13

Once upon a time… a time not so long ago, in a small valley in Nevada not too far from here, there was a beautiful vineyard.   And it did well in Nevada’s sandy soil.  It was not just a vineyard that produced wine, but one that produced champagne.  You have to grow three kinds of grapes to make champagne.  Two of them are black with white juice, the Pinot Noir and the Pinot Meunier.  The other one is a white grape with white juice, the Chardonnay.  But this is not a story about the grapes.

There was a fig tree planted in one corner, and his name was Fred.  He wasn’t beautiful and delicate like the vines.  He had flat, broad leaves, and stalks going everywhere.  Sometimes he was jealous of the grapes that people gathered with such care and praised.  You see, Fred had no fruit.  He also knew he wasn’t as important because he was stuck in the corner.  Secretly, he wished he could be a grapevine.

Fred had two friends: God and the Gardener.  God sent the sunshine, and water, and gentle breezes.  And the Gardener?  Well, Fred loved him.  He would come out some days and sit in Fred’s shade and have lunch.  Sometimes they would talk . . . well, mostly the Gardner would talk, or he would read to Fred after lunch.  You may already know that fig trees are very good listeners because they rarely interrupt you.  Just every now and then, Fred would say, “Is that so,” or “How interesting,” or “Tell me more.”  All those nice things friends say when they’re really listening to you and want to help you tell your stories.  The Gardener never seemed to tire of Fred’s company, and never said a mean thing to him about not growing any fruit.  Still, Fred never confided his sense of failure or secret wish to his friend, the Gardener.

No, Fred tried to go it alone . . . grow it alone.  He had curious roots.   His soil in the corner was not as carefully tilled as the floor of the vineyard, but there was some chalky subsoil added, and he tried to break up the tough Nevada soil beneath, but it was hard.  Any of you who’ve tried to dig in your own back yard here know that mostly of what we grow in Nevada are rocks.  He knew he had to spread his roots if he was ever going to produce fruit, so he didn’t give up… but it wasn’t much good.  He actually grew quite large, although fig trees tend to spread out sideways, not get tall.  But still, there was no fruit.

Unfortunately, the kindhearted gardener wasn’t the only visitor.  There was a road on the other side of the vineyard.  Sometimes people would pass by after champagne tasting trips and stop for a rest.  Sometimes they would talk with each other of strange things: terrible accidents that had happened in the town, and even acts of violence in the news.  Sometimes they would attribute these terrible things to God.  Fred couldn’t understand that kind of thinking: God was his friend who sent the sun and the rain and the warm breezes.  The Good Gardener would shake his head sadly when Fred told him about these conversations.  He explained that good happens to the good and the bad; bad happens to the good and the bad.  God didn’t cause the accidents or violence, people did.  What God did was send help:  bystanders who stepped in; police and Firefighters to protect; doctors and nurses to heal; Friends and neighbors to pray and listen.  That made a lot more sense to Fred. 

Some of these strangers were looking for maybe a ripe fig or two for lunch.  When they found no fruit, they would get angry and say rude things to him, and that would discourage him more than ever.  A few people had gotten so upset with Fred they snapped a couple branches, and just to be even meaner, they didn’t break them cleanly off, and the broken branches dangled there, and it hurt.

One man in particular had stopped by only once a year during the three years of Fred’s young life.  Fred always trembled when he came close.  He knew he was important.  He had heard he was the owner of the vineyard.  The owner would look at him disapprovingly for a few moments, and then walk away to look at his prize-winning champagne grapes.  This year, however, after looking at him disapprovingly for a while, he muttered three words: “What a waste!”  Those three words were the final blow to Fred’s gentle figgy soul, and he wept.  It’s one thing to have others disapprove of you, but when someone who’s really important to you is disappointed it’s almost too painful to bear. 

The kind Gardener, passing by, heard Fred weeping, and asked, “Why are you weeping?”  Fred told him about what the owner had said.  The Gardener quietly said, “Yes, there are impatient people like that in the world.  Don’t worry, I’ll handle it.”  The Gardener went and talked to the owner.  Fred couldn’t quite hear what was said.  Finally, the owner walked away, and the Gardener returned to Fred and reassured him it was all handled.

While the Gardener sat down in Fred’s shade, took out his lunch and began to eat, Fred, for once, began to talk.  He told him of all the sadness in his heart because he had not grown any fruit.  He told him about people who had hurt him and broken off branches.  He even told him his darkest secret: that he was sometimes jealous of the grapes and wished he too could be a grapevine.

The only time the Gardener interrupted was when Fred mentioned he also knew he wasn’t important because he was planted in a corner.  The Gardener looked surprised, “Don’t you remember?  I planted you here.”  Fred didn’t… you must remember he was only a little twig at the time.
“Why?”  Fred asked
The Gardner said, “For a vine, the corner is wasted.  Only you could grow and produce fruit here.  Vines wouldn’t have even made it a season.  You’ve been here three years.  You’re right where I want you.”

They were quiet for a while, and then the Gardener asked, “Do you really want to produce fruit?” 
Fred whispered, “Yes!”
The Gardner continued, “I can help, but you have to let me do the work.”
“Oh, thank you!”  Fred exclaimed.
The Gardner added, “Your fruit won’t be like the grapes.” 
“That’s OK,” Fred said.
The Gardener warned, “Sometimes it’ll hurt.  I’ll have to do some deep digging, and some pruning.” 
Fred was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “I’m ready.”

So, the next day, the kind Gardener got to work.  It took a long time.  Sometimes it was
painful, and it smelled bad when the Gardener spread manure around him.  But Fred trusted the Good Gardner and time passed.  One day in early spring, Fred woke to a warm sun and a gentle breeze.  He yawned and looked down, and he gasped — he was covered in delicate yellow fig blossoms!  It had begun.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a champagne grape.  I’m more of a fig tree… I suspect most of us are.  Although I work to grow and bear fruit, it’s a great comfort to know that the Good Gardener is willing to take on most of the hard labor in my life: breaking up the hard, rocky soil of my heart to let the fresh air of the Spirit and the Water of Life get to my very roots.  He will give me everything I need to grow and bear fruit.  My fruits may not be champagne grapes, but figs are good too … yes, they’re good.

This is the Gospel of the Kind Gardener,
and the Gospel of Fred the Fig Tree,
and… the Gospel of the loving God who always gives you and me another chance.  Amen.