In his sermon from two Sunday’s ago, Pastor Mike began his preaching in reference to our August congregational council meeting, in which the question was asked, “Is it difficult to be a pastor at St. James?”
He then described his response. That as the room became quiet, all eyes around the table slowly shifting towards him, (and after he regrouped following his excitement that the question was, finally after 12 years of being at St. James, being asked), that, yes, it’s hard being a pastor here at St. James, as it should be, not just at St. James but at any congregation. And while like everyone else in the room, I remained quiet and slowly looked to Pastor Mike, waiting in anticipation to hear how he would respond… should I have been prodded, I would have echoed his words.
The truth is, while my reasons for why may differ from those of Pastor Mike’s (like being in a first call pastor with just under 30 retired pastors and my seminary professors sitting in the pews), it is difficult being a pastor at St. James. But more importantly, as Pastor Mike went on to say, it is difficult to be pastor in every congregation, should the work be done appropriately. And equally as important, as should it be for all Christ followers regardless of profession, because of how Jesus calls us to live, in a world that tempts us daily to live completely differently.
In today’s Gospel, Luke draws our attention to the difficult realities of our world, and gives us an example of how, even in the most difficult of times we are called to respond to God’s blessings. Luke writes that as Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, he moves along the boarder between Samaria and Galilee. And as he does so, he enters into a village where is approached by a group of ten men with leprosy who ask him to have pity on them. In response, in following in accordance with Jewish tradition, Jesus tells the men to go and show themselves to the priests in order to be cleansed. In following Jesus’ command, as they turn on their journey, the ten men are made well, yet only one of the ten returns to Jesus in order to give him thanks.
Today’s Gospel is one of many layers, and one that could be interpreted in a variety of different ways. It is, without a doubt, a miracle story. Ten men, each with a life threatening illness, considered incurable, are with mere words, healed by Jesus and made well. It is a story about how Jesus expects us to live in community. These same ten men, once outcasts from their community because of their disease are cleansed and made whole, no longer forced to live “along the boarder” as Luke describes, but able to return home. As Jesus makes whole those who are broken, so too are we called embrace those who are vulnerable, providing them a place alongside of ours. But I think, more so than anything else, it is a story meant to serve as a reminder about how we as Christ followers, are called to live out our daily lives, everything we do, in thanksgiving to the many blessings God has freely given to us.
Historically, since the Church as an institution has existed, expressing this message, in one way or another, has been at it’s core. Yet, if we’re honest, most of us are often closer to the nine who go about their daily lives, receiving God’s blessings without giving thanks, than we are to the one who returns. Guilty! A reality increasing, as our secular world drifts further away from that of the church.
In more recent history, across the United States from 2003 to 2011, ELCA congregations suffered from an average drop in worship attendance of nearly 30 percent. Today, over 30 percent of ELCA congregations worship fewer than 50 people from week to week, and within the past ten years, well over 1,000 ELCA congregations have closed. Looking closer to home, according to the numbers, here, in our own lower Susquehanna Synod, 169 out of our 249 congregations were marked as being in a state of decline from 2005 to 2010.
So what’s my point, other than being overwhelming optimistic about the Church in today’s world? In looking back to the question, that began Pastor Mike’s sermon 2 weeks ago and mine today, “Is it hard being a pastor here at St. James?”, for me, it’s a much bigger question, that requires a much bigger answer.
The church at large isn’t what it was 30 years ago throughout the United States. Yet as the world around us appears to be increasingly indifferent to the message of Christ, the challenge for the faithful, for each of us, becomes all the greater.
We are blessed here at St. James. We have resources beyond what most congregations across the country could hope for. We offer ministries that reach just about whatever need your faith may draw you to. We do worship well, our music is gospel and prayer (thanks to Tim, Barbara, and the choir for all that you do!), we serve our local community, and we reach out to our global community as well. In all of these blessings and more, we’re left to ask ourselves the question; Are we the one who returns in thanksgiving or one of the nine who go about their way?
At our last Stewardship committee meeting, one of our committee members handed out copies of an annual stewardship publication, called “Giving Magazine”. Within its pages is an article entitled, “Clergy and Money”. As you could probably guess, as a clergy, the title grabbed my attention.
The author begins with the claim that “for thousands of years, money has been so important in the lives of God’s people that it is the second most frequently mentioned theme in the Bible. It drives our work choices, impacts our relationships, affects the health of our environment, shapes our self-image, and keeps us up at night. Yet, most church-goers hear little or nothing about money unless it’s budget season or time for a new capital campaign.”
Well… I’m not exactly sure how the author defines budget season, as it feels like we’re always in budget season in today’s world, and we’re not in a capital campaign, so far as I know, but here we are…
As the article goes on, one pastor responds to the claim of its opening, by attributing three things to the silence on money in churches, not just on behalf of pastors, but on behalf of those in the pews as well. They are 1) Fear, 2) shame, and 3) the lack of vulnerability. In my mind, three things usually connected with each other, and three things that often lead us to keep quiet. Fear, shame, and the lack of vulnerability.
As we look into today’s gospel a bit more closely, there are some interesting details worth lifting up. While our focus is drawn to the disease all ten men carry, the one who returns to give thanks has additional challenge that is easily overlooked. He is a gentile, one outside of the Jewish community, and because of this, we are to understand him as being even more secluded than the nine. That while they are all vulnerable when held in comparison to the rest of society, the one who returns to give thanks for Jesus’ gift of healing, is all the more vulnerable.
If we think about our own lives and experiences, it often takes us loosing absolutely everything before we realize how truly blessed we are. When a loved one passes away or is diagnosed with a terminal illness, when we loose a job, when a marriage or relationship comes to an end… Or, like so many congregations across our country, when the doors of the church close for the very last time. Today’s Gospel calls us to focus our lives on the blessings that God provides, and to respond in the here and now with shouts and praise of thanksgiving.
In our final verse, Jesus responds to the one who returns by saying, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” In the Greek text, we find the word, “Sozo”, literally translated into English as “save” where our text reads “made you well”. That his faith didn’t only serve him in this world, but on into the next. Puts an entirely different spin on today’s text… “Rise and go, your faith has saved you.”
Martin Luther once described faithful worship, what we do here in church, as a 10th Leper Moment. A time when we pause in the midst of a too often much too busy world to give thanks and praise to God. Where we come together in our differences, united as the Body of Christ, in order to reflect on how very much God has blessed us in thanksgiving. Where we answer the call, as the pastor from the article on “Clergy and Money” describes, of being vulnerable in our faith, of being vulnerable in how we respond to the gifts that God has given and continues to give.
With this, this 10th Leper Moment becomes the response, that through thanksgiving, our healing occurs, regardless of what we need healing from. It’s the awakening to new possibilities in life as it was for ten lepers but especially for one. And as it was for him, it is for us as well. Through the cross of Christ, we are brought from our knees and sent forth healed and renewed trusting in Him and his promise, called to be the 10th leper in all that we do and with all that we have. In our time, our money, and our talents with hearts of thanksgiving. For this we rejoice. For this we turn to God with thanks and praise. Thanks be to God.