This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 14 October 2001. Because of how the church’s communion schedule was set up, this was also World Communion Sunday at Walker Valley. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 1: 1, 4 – 7; 2 Timothy 2: 8 – 15; Luke 17: 11 – 19.
There were two comments that I wanted to make about this particular sermon and its scriptures. First, a number of years ago I made some notes about wondering if the Israelites ever said thank you. It wasn’t in conjunction with these scriptures but it was one of those events in the Bible where the Israelites had been given something by God but they never seemed to acknowledge that gift. That seemed to be the case with the Gospel reading for today. Ten lepers came to Christ asking that He healed them of one of the most devastating diseases of its time, yet only one, the Samaritan, returned to say thank you.
We might never know if the other nine were truly healed of the disease but we can assume that they were.
The other comment, especially in light of the nature of the Gospel reading, is to find a way to connect the Gospel reading to the other two readings. I have probably made note of the fact that many pastors typically picked one of the three scripture readings as the basis for their sermon and leave the other two. Since I never have taken any formal learning in sermon preparation, I started off trying to find the link between the three and to use that link in the sermon. Sometimes the link is easy to find; sometimes it is not.
For me, the link today between the three readings is faith and service. Jeremiah speaks of what the Israelites exiled in Babylon should do while there; Paul reminds Timothy about why he serves God; and Luke asks us to consider the consequence of our service.
The Israelites are in exile in Babylon when Jeremiah wrote this letter to them. He had gathered from some of those with whom he was in contact that other prophets were telling the exiles to hold to the faith, for they would soon return to Jerusalem. But Jeremiah, instead of speaking and writing about the future, speaks to the present.
The other prophets were telling the people to wait for the future, to wait for the return before getting on with their lives. There is a certain amount of agreement in that thought. After all, when you are thousands of miles from your home, you should focus on getting back. Nothing you do should deter you from that goal.
But apparently those offering that hope of the future forgot that you must live in the present in order to have the future. While we may want a better future, it is better sometimes to work for it rather than waiting for it to happen. That is what Jeremiah reminded the people of Israel. If they waited for the future to happen, then the future would be rather bleak. Now was the time to prepare for the future.
Faith is never constructed or built on dreams. Life with God is built on our understanding the circumstances in which we live. To have a future means that we must enact our faith in the present. Dreaming about what we could be will never get us to what we can do.
Neither can we see the future in terms of what we once were. Just as life can never be what we dream it to be, nor can it be what we were. For sometimes we confuse the future with the past and think of what we could be in terms of what we were.
Life is lived with an understanding that "I am." And it is through living now that we are able to live for the future. If we cannot relate to God in the present, it is not very likely that we will be able to do so tomorrow. If we do not serve God or love other persons where we are today, then it is unlikely that we will be able to do so tomorrow.
Paul reminds us that we cannot place limitations on the Gospel. Paul points out that even when the speaker is confined or limited in his or her ability, the Word is not. Some of the greatest messages Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote during the Civil Rights struggle of the 60’s came when he was confined to the Birmingham jail. We know from history that every time governments have tried to prevent the spread of the Gospel, they have failed. But we must understand, and Paul reminds us, that it must be the Gospel message of peace and love. If we choose to trivialize the message by arguing over the nature of the words, then we are likely to fail.
We are, whether we acknowledge it publicly or not, all servants of God. It does not matter how we serve God but we must realize our actions speak to the nature of our servanthood. The other day I saw someone passing around some materials intended to describe what would happen to Afghanistan. Perhaps it was meant to be funny, but it described an infliction of pain and anguish on the Afghan people, not just the Taliban government that has chosen to abuse its power through its clear misinterpretation of the Koran. But the irony of this was that the person who was passing around these pictures wore a shirt saying "God Loves You." How can you preach a message of peace when your actions speak of war?
Some might say that it is well and good to speak of peace but I don’t have the ability or time to do so. Others might say that it is all well and good that you speaking of serving God in this world but the world does not want to hear of God’s peace. But when we allow the nature of the world to dictate the nature of God’s word, we fail. When we don’t allow God to be our primary force of life, then our dreams of the future get lost in our thoughts of the past.
The courage we have today comes from our confidence in tomorrow, in knowing that the promises of Christ are true. We are asked to serve in many ways. And the manner in which we serve speaks to our beliefs and our trust. We may see the world in the terms of what it once was and hope that it will again be that way. But it never will be that way.
When Robert Kennedy ran for President in 1968, he was found of quoting George Bernard Shaw, ‘You see things; and say "why?" But I dream of things that never were and say "why not?" We must see the world in terms of faith, in terms of God’s promise to us through His Son, Jesus Christ.
Ten lepers came to Christ seeking a cure. But only one came back to say thank you. It was the faith of that individual that saved him. Nothing was ever said about the other nine but I think that they were also cured. But their lives were probably never quite complete; they never had an assurance that the disease would not return.
Faith is very much a circle. And from time to time we must come back to the beginning. As we prepare today for Holy Communion we must understand that we are both coming to the table to remember the promise given to us and to say thank you for all that has been given to us. It is by our faith that we are able to come to this table today; it is through our faith that we say thank you.