by Joseph Connolly
“Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten made whole? Where are the other nine? Was there no one to return and give praise to God other than this foreigner?’ Then Jesus said to the Samaritan, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has saved you.’” — Luke 17:17-19.
Last month Bonnie and I celebrated a wedding anniversary, our twenty-eighth to be precise. Bonnie will tell you she made only one mistake when she agreed to marry me. She did not marry a golfer. I had no experience playing the game of golf.
Bonnie has been playing the game since she was a teen. And she is good at it. In fact, anyone with any knowledge about the game will tell you when a golfer scores less than 100 for 18 holes— breaks 100 is the term used— they are doing well. Bonnie breaks 100 with some regularity. So yes, she is good.
Now, quite a while after we got married, indeed after we moved to Norwich, Bonnie convinced me to take up golf. And, much to Bonnie’s surprise, I love the game. And much to Bonnie’s bewilderment, I am really, really terrible at it.
That I am at best a duffer, does not faze me in the least. I just like wacking the ball around the course.
Well, there’s a commercial currently running on television that features golf and my guess is many of you have seen it. The commercial shows an old fellow and I label this guy as old because the commercial labels this guy as old.
On the other hand, I suspect that, in terms of age, I am not that far behind this guy. Those of you facile at math have already figured out how old I am since a couple of minutes ago I told you how long I’ve been married and at what age that marriage happened, which was 40. I think I cut that 40 out of this script. So now you know, right? O.K.
Now, I need to note I do not think of myself as old, but that’s all perspective. I am sure to a twenty something I am old.
In any case, this old fellow in the commercial is a golfer— an old golfer. The commercial shows him standing on a golf course. He looks into the camera and with great sincerity states he is really, really bad at golf— I can relate to that. And then with equal sincerity he insists he wants to continue being really, really bad at golf as long as he possibly can— and I can relate to that also.
At that point the commercial tries to pitch the rejuvenating elixir it’s peddling. I have two basic personal reactions to that pitch.
I do not think of myself as old; why do I need that stuff the commercial is selling? But if I expect to continue being really, really bad a golf as long as I possibly can, maybe I should try it.
Needless to say, what the commercial is really trying to sell is not the product, the elixir. What that commercial is really trying to sell is well-ness, wholeness. And somewhere along the way our society concocted the idea that an elixir or some magic formula can get you there— can get you to well-ness, wholeness. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the Gospel commonly called Luke: “Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten made whole? Where are the other nine? Was there no one to return and give praise to God other than this foreigner?’ Then Jesus said to the Samaritan, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has saved you.’” (Slight pause.)
Every month I write a column in the Newsletter of this church. In the October issue I started my thoughts this way: “Happy Christmas! No. Wait. It’s too early for that.”
I went on to address the Nativity stories in my letter in Scripture and said among the four Gospels there are only two Nativity stories. That’s because it’s unlikely the birth of the Messiah was as important to the culture when the New Testament was recorded as it seems to be to our culture today.
I then said in Luke you will not find any star or any Magi. You will find angels, a manger and the lowly, the outcast— the shepherds.
Also, check out the words of the angels in Luke carefully. It says they speak. Nowhere does it say the angels sing. To be clear, I think it’s probable the angels sing. But that’s not what’s written in Scripture.
Now, if you turn to Matthew you find the Magi. In secular culture the Magi are sometimes called the “Three Wise Men.” But there is no reference to either their number or their gender.
Furthermore, based on the story being told in Matthew it seems pretty clear the Magi would have arrived in Bethlehem quite a bit after the birth of the Messiah. While nothing is stated directly, Jesus may have already been a toddler.
So, where does all this that we often see as the Nativity story come from? Three Magi, all gathered at the manger, a star overhead, singing angels, shepherds— shepherds who are never pictured as lowly and outcast, but are pictured as peaceful, pastoral— all these crammed into one version of the story when these details are not from the same version of the story. Why do we see this all in one place when they are from unrelated stories?
Put another way and to drive home this point, it should be clear that the concept that all these are gathered in one story is not a Biblical idea. You will not find the story told in Scripture that way. (Slight pause.)
Well, just Friday I spoke with an old friend in New York City who reads the Newsletter online. My friend asked me, “Why did you write about the Christmas story in the October Newsletter? Why didn’t you wait until December to write about that?” I said I was not writing about the Christmas story, per se. Rather, I was writing about cultural fantasies. (Slight pause.)
Recently a very conservative, very well known pastor, Andy Stanley, found himself enmeshed in a theological controversy after a sermon. In that talk he said he grew up in a church where the subtitle for everything was, ‘If the Bible says it, that settles it.’
Many of us, he noted, were brought up to believe ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’ He then had the audacity to point out the obvious. Saying you believe because it says so in the Bible places a belief in Scripture above a belief in God. That approach insists the Bible is more important than God.
I want to suggest that, probably from different directions, both Pastor Stanley and I are addressing the same issue. It is a mistake to allow cultural fantasies to get in the way of serious, thoughtful theology.
I would also note that insisting on theological truth and, thereby, violating a cultural fantasy, a cultural belief, can be a daunting project. It seems to me, as pastor Stanley discovered, that many would much rather cling to a cultural belief than engage in serious, thoughtful theology.
All that beings me back to the healing of the lepers. You see, after the obvious first definition of the word leper— one who has leprosy— the second definition is quite revealing.
The second definition: a leper is someone who has been rejected or ostracized. A leper is an outcast. And my bet is that was the definition in New Testament times. (Slight pause.)
We have a cultural fantasy about this story. The cultural fantasy says one of two things. Either this story is about healing or this story is about offering gratitude.
I want to suggest these readings, these understandings of the story, one which says it’s about healing and one which says it’s about gratitude, are cultural fantasies. Yes, it is wonderful to be grateful, to be thankful. I agree. I approve of being grateful— not an issue.
And yes, I want to play golf as long as I can. So it would probably be wise to use that elixir. But I would be foolish to think it might impart wholeness.
Equally, I think a serious, thoughtful theological understanding of this story would not take Scripture literally, relegating it to simply be about either gratitude or healing. A serious, thoughtful theological understanding of this story would say it’s about two other things. First and obviously, this story is about those who are outcast— in this case not just a leper but a Samaritan, someone outcast in multiple ways.
But on top of that, this story is about the outcast who can be and is made whole. For me, wholeness— not healing— especially since this is wholeness for an outcast— is central to the story.
In short, God wants us to be whole. God loves us so much that the healing God seeks for us is not simply healing, physical— but what God seeks for us is wholeness, completeness— a larger idea.
And of course then, then… God also takes an extra step. God does not want just wholeness for just some. God wants wholeness for everyone, even for the outcast.
God’s love extends to everyone, all people, the poor, the outcast, those who have no power. Imagine that: a world in which those who have no power are made whole. Amen.
United Church of Christ First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “The Thought for Meditation today comes from St. John Chrysostom in the Fourth Century of the Common Era. (Quote:) ‘Christ, in sending the people to the scriptures, sent them, not merely to read them, but carefully to search and ponder them. And did Christ not say, ‘Read the Scriptures,’ but ‘Search the Scriptures.’ The meaning of the Scriptures is not expressed superficially or set forth in their literal sense, but, like a treasure, lies buried at a great depth. And those who seek for hidden things will not be able to find the object of the search if they do not seek carefully and painstakingly.’ Which is to say the Scriptures were not taken literally in the Fourth Century. Why should they be taken literally now?”
BENEDICTION: When we trust, we have faith. When we trust God and one another, we are faithful. When we act, trusting God and one another, we proclaim our faith. Let us rejoice that we may abide in God’s covenant of faith. Let us rejoice that God provides for us in all things. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be in awe of no one and nothing else because we are so in awe of God. Amen.