Sunday, October 9, 2016

Phil Kniss: Out of Empire, into gratitude

Between Exodus and Promised Land
Luke 17:11-19; Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

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Today, and the rest of October,
    we’ll use the same lectionary scripture readings
    that many other churches use.

But we will read them through a particular lens.
    Focusing on the Gospel reading each Sunday,
        we will seek to be formed by the teaching and ministry of Jesus,
        as we learn how to live in the “between time”—
            between Exodus and Promised Land.
    And we will name this between-time “wilderness.”
    And we will embrace it as a gift and grace of God.
        I say that as a statement of faith, and of hope.

Now, how did I decide to read the Gospels—these chapters from Luke—
    through the lens of wilderness?
    There is no specific mention of wilderness in them.

Part of it is just where my mind naturally went,
    as I thought about the space we inhabit right now,
        as a culture, as a church, as God’s people.
    To me, it feels a lot like wilderness.
        We are walking through uncharted territory,
            over unmapped terrain.
        We don’t know where the world is taking us,
            in terms of the global threats of terrorism, climate change,
                economic meltdowns, nuclear war.
        We don’t know what the church is going to look like, as a whole,
            how it will be functioning in five years,
            much less, a generation from now.
        And we are a few weeks away from a presidential election
            that is getting more bizarre, and more horrifying, by the day.

        The news these last two days compels me to comment,
            from my platform as a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
        My comment isn’t about politics, per se.
            But as followers of Jesus,
                we should all take stock of the public discourse
                    happening right now.

        My comment is this:
            A sizable portion of our country and culture
                idolizes someone who is grossly immoral
                    in more ways than we can count,
                and wants to elect him to the highest office in the land.

            How is it that someone who has
                encouraged personal violence,
                insulted and objectified women,
                used his power and wealth to harm other people,
                made public statements stereotyping and demeaning to
                    Muslims, Latinos, and African-Americans,
                and now—we have learned—
                    boasted about engaging in behavior
                    that can only be described as sexual abuse—
                how is it that such a person
                    has not been relegated to the margins of society—
                        ignored, humiliated, or facing punishment—
                    but instead, is lauded as the people’s hero?

        Well, for one thing, Trump’s morally offensive behavior
            is not unique to him.
        Let’s not pretend this is about one immoral person.
            He’s not mainstream, thank God.
            But he’s not an outlier, either.
            Misogyny, racism, religious bigotry, violence, greed,
                and yes, sexual abuse,
                all are prevalent in our culture,
                    and even present in the church,
                and well-meaning people, like us,
                    too often look the other way.

        Don’t forget—Trump’s sickening, abusive comments
            were made in the company of another man
                who should have objected,
                but laughed like it was funny.
            How often does that very thing get repeated
                in private conversations among men in our community,
                    that never get leaked to the press?

            I am encouraged that now leaders of both parties
                are finally coming out
                and vigorously condemning his behavior.

        And of course, none of us are morally pure.
            Not Hillary. Not me. Not you.
            But enough of this craziness!
            Can someone push the reset button on our culture?

        How did a supposedly civil society get to a sordid place like this?
            Some of us feel like exiles in our own country,
                like we are wandering in a wilderness.
                I’m emotionally spent . . .
                    just having to say what I’ve said.

Which brings me back to my opening comment,
    that now you may be wondering about . . .
    when I said that wilderness should be embraced;
        that it can be, in fact, a gift and grace of God.

Note that I did not say everything that happens in a wilderness
    is beautiful and good.
    What I just described is a case in point.
        Wilderness can be dark.
            Evil can lurk there.
            Navigating wilderness requires wisdom,
                caution, discernment, and the strength of community.
        But wilderness is also where God calls us to live. Here. Now.

We spend too much of our time trying to avoid wilderness.
    Wilderness is not a thing we naturally embrace.
        Wilderness is, by definition, wild.
        There is little room for control or management,
            or even, stability—something most of us appreciate,
                and need, in order to thrive.

So let me launch this series with a disturbing claim—
    at least it’s disturbing to me—
    that we need to make our home in the wilderness.
        Not just put up with the wilderness.
        But embrace it, and become at home in it.

And I begin my case with the Exodus.
    The Exodus is at the core of our Judeo-Christian understanding
        that God is about liberating us from whatever binds us.
    God’s design for humankind, since the dawn of Creation,
        is that we flourish on this earth,
            in a relationship with God and others,
            characterized by freedom and love.

    But God’s people were enslaved by an oppressive Egyptian Empire.
        By definition, Empire is management and control,
            by way of domination.
        God’s design, on the other hand, is the opposite of Empire.
            God’s design is for human freedom,
                defined and sustained by sacrificial love.

    The people of Israel,
        whom God had chosen to demonstrate God’s love for the world,
        were being crushed by the forces of Empire.
    Pharoah and his Empire robbed the people
        of their worth, and their identity as God’s beloved people.
    They knew not who they were.
    They knew not they were loved by God.

    So 40 years in the wilderness, post-Exodus,
        were not just punishment.
        Yes, we read in the biblical narrative
            that the 40 years were punishment for their lack of faith.
        And that’s true.

    But I think we can see more in it than that,
        as we read the narrative in the light of the whole of scripture.
    I think we can see that God had in mind
        that the wilderness would be a place of spiritual formation.

    In the wilderness they would rediscover something, spiritually,
        that they had lost back in Egypt.
    They would come to re-learn how dependent they were on God,
        and how faithful God is in providing for the people God loves.

    Only in the wilderness,
        where being able to control things is not even an option . . .
    Only in the wilderness,
        where we can never survive alone . . .
    Only in the wilderness,
        where we grow deeply aware of our fragility, and dependence . . .
    Only there can we break free of the oppressive powers of Empire,
        and take the first real steps toward the Promised Land.

The Empire runs on what Walter Brueggemann calls
    the narrative of scarcity.
    That there is never enough for everyone,
        so those in power control access to resources,
        to make sure they get what they want.
    And access is controlled by violence, or the threat of violence.
        Empire is about management by domination.

The wilderness, at least the wilderness we encounter in scripture,
    runs by a different narrative.
    Ironically, in the wilderness—
        in the desert, a place of barrenness and nothingness—
        there God’s people learn the narrative of abundance.
        God provides what is needed.
            Manna. Bread. Sweet water.
        We can stop striving.
        We can enjoy Sabbath rest.
        We can open ourselves to God’s good gifts,
            and live in God’s good time.

    That’s the biblical story.
        It is told in the story of the Israelites,
            as they sojourned between Exodus and the Promised Land.

        It is told and retold,
            in the story of the prophets,
                who lived in the wilderness,
                depending on others for food.
            And it came to them.
                Sometimes from the hand of a poor widow.
                Sometimes from the beak of a raven.

        It is told in the story of Judah’s Exile to Babylon,
            which we heard today from Jeremiah,
            in which God’s people,
                carried away into the spiritual wilderness of Babylon,
                were urged to make themselves at home there.
            To open themselves to whatever God had for them there—
                homes, crops, families.
                They were urged to invest in life,
                    not waste away waiting for something to change.

        And the story is told again in the life of Jesus,
            who spent 40 days in the wilderness to prepare for ministry.
            There he learned to flourish in a state of dependence,
                not independence.
        At least in the case of the prophets, and of Jesus,
            we know God was not punishing them.
            God was helping to form them, spiritually.

    God does not want any of us bound by the powers of Empire.
        Because God hates bondage. Of all kinds.
            Physical. Political. Spiritual.
            Captivity is not God’s design.
        But sometimes—dare I say usually—
            the path that carries us
                from the captivity of Empire to the Land of Promise,
                passes through wilderness.
        In this wilderness, our task is to learn openness and gratitude.
        We need not strive, need not fear, need not be anxious,
            need not resort to violence to protect what we have,
                or to gain what we don’t have.

If we wish to be formed for a flourishing life in the wilderness,
    there are disciplines we are called to engage in,
        which give God something to work with.
    God is the loving potter working and shaping.
        God does the work of formation.
        But the disciplines soften the clay.

The discipline we focused on today,
    in scripture, song, and story . . .
        is gratitude.

We heard the story from the Gospel of Luke
    about Jesus healing ten lepers,
    one of whom was a Samaritan.

They were healed not immediately, but later, walking down the road.
    And the one who came back to thank Jesus was the Samaritan.

This is a remarkable story,
    one that I have heard my whole life,
    since I was old enough to listen to a Bible story.
When the story was told to us children,
    it was told as a lesson in saying “thank you.”
    We were encouraged to be like the one who came back to Jesus,
        and said “thank you.”
    And not like the other nine, the ungrateful wretches,
        who maybe—I sometimes wondered—
        got reinfected with leprosy
            because they failed to say “thank you.”

But this story isn’t really about the other nine.
    They may indeed have been grateful.
    We don’t know their motive, attitude, or circumstances.

The point Jesus makes, according to the Gospel writer,
    is that the only one who came back was the foreigner—
        the despised Samaritan.
    There was one in that group of ten,
        who, despite being doubly ostracized—
            as a leper, and as a Samaritan—
        lived with an open and receptive and appreciative spirit.

    Maybe this thing of being pushed to the margins,
        being forced, for years, to live in a wilderness,
        made him especially alert to God’s spiritual provisions.
    Perhaps he experienced the wilderness as a place of God’s grace,
        and instead of continually fighting against it,
        opened his heart to it.
    Maybe, as a Samaritan, he had the advantage
        of not going through life with a sense of entitlement,
        but of utter dependence.
    So when the gift came,
        his first response was gratitude.
    Rather than thinking, “Finally, the health I always deserved!”
        he may have thought instead, “Once again, God has provided.”

I can’t get inside the head of the Samaritan,
    any more than I can the other nine.
But the sheer fact that he stopped, turned around,
    went back,
    and fell face down in gratitude and praise to God,
        does tell us something about his spiritual formation.
    He was positively formed by his wilderness,
        I think it’s safe to say.
    He was formed to experience God as generous provider.
    And over the years,
        he cultivated of life of gratitude,
        by engaging in the practice of giving thanks.

This is not about finding some formula for a happy life.
    This isn’t about the power of positive thinking,
        although positive thinking can have powerful effects.
    This is about a choice to engage in a spiritually formative practice,
        while we are in the wilderness.
    It is about learning to live with an open heart,
        a receptive mind,
        an appreciative spirit,
        expecting God to be faithful,
        expecting God to show up in the wilderness.
    Whether the wilderness is personal, cultural, political, or spiritual.
    The spiritual practice of expressing gratitude
        can go a long way toward helping us thrive in our wilderness—
        whatever the cause of the wilderness may be.

Life is uncertain.
    Anywhere this side of the Promised Land—
        and to be sure, we are not there yet—
        we will, always, be unable to manage or control our lives.
    Management and control are the way things work back in Egypt,
        under the domination of Empire.
    Yieldedness and receptivity and vulnerability
        are the way life can flourish in the wilderness.

As we get closer to Election Day, and beyond,
    as the world keeps turning around and time passes,
    may the gift of gratitude be ours in abundance.

And may our prayer, our hope, our faith,
    be that God will meet us in the wilderness,
        in the very place of emptiness,
        and fill us with peace.

—Phil Kniss, October 9, 2016

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