2 Kings 5:1-15c; Luke 17:11-19
It’s good to be back with you. Ann and I were away for several days to see our kids in New York, which was great. Then, as soon as we were back in town, I had a two-day diocesan clergy conference to attend.
And now, I must admit to you a sin: I typically don’t look forward to diocesan clergy gatherings.
Why might that be? Well, some of it is busy-ness, in that I’m always further behind when the conference is over. Some of it is the complaining that can accompany clergy gatherings, as people vent their frustrations about congregational or diocesan life. But more than that: I haven’t looked forward to our clergy gatherings because of the anxiety that always seems to accompany them.
As most of you know, mainline denominations have been losing attendance and membership for years, and that trend has played out for many of our congregations in West Missouri. In fact, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Maryville has just closed. So, when we come together as clergy colleagues, many priests and deacons bring anxiety about a future whose outlines we can’t quite see.
In addition, over the past few years, we’ve been through a complicated and confusing process of mediation with our bishop. That came to an end a year ago, when Bishop Marty announced his retirement in 2021. But that mediation process reflects deeper divisions among our congregations and clergy, conflict that’s been present here for generations.
So, take all that together, and going to a diocesan clergy conference wasn’t exactly at the top of my list this week. But, as it turned out, the time there was stunningly good, maybe even marking a turning point in our journey toward health and well-being as a diocese.
The speaker – a priest, former monk, spiritual director, and author – went to the heart of our anxiety by helping us to see our relationship to it differently. It comes down to a theme we’ve worked on here at St. Andrew’s for several years now – collaboration with one another, and with God, in creating the future. God invites us not just to follow orders, or to solve some secret code of discernment, but to join with the Holy Trinity in creating the future God longs to see.
In fact, the speaker was arguing, God goes so far as to regard us in a way many of us have trouble wrapping our hearts and minds around. God doesn’t see us as worker bees or foot soldiers in ministry that’s basically looked the same for centuries. God sees us as friends invited to join in bringing God’s future to life in the particular here and now that we inhabit. As Jesus said to the disciples in John’s Gospel, while they shared the Last Supper, “I do not call you servants any longer because a servant doesn’t know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends” (15:15).
Understanding ourselves as friends of God and collaborators in bringing about God’s future helped us clergy to see how we might address our persistent conflict and anxiety, the water in which we’ve been swimming for so long that we usually aren’t aware of it. The way forward for our diocese isn’t sprinkling the fairy dust of the latest church innovation on congregations that are stuck. It’s the journey of building relationships with each other – we who are co-workers with God, together creating the future of what our Episcopal Church can be in this time and place. To see and create that future, clergy and congregations will have to engage more intentionally with one another – sharing our experience and hopes and fears, learning from each other, holding each other up, and living out the truth that in the brave new world of a changing Church, we’re all in this together.
All that may be more than you ever wanted to know about the well-being of the diocese of West Missouri. But I think it matters for us at St. Andrew’s, for a couple of reasons. First, the diocese is our church, too – our larger church family, the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement on the ground in this part of God’s world. Because of St. Andrew’s leadership position among our 47 congregations, we provide significant time, talent, and treasure for God’s mission in this diocese; so, we’re literally invested in our extended family’s health and well-being. All that means you need to know when things are challenging – and, even better, when we can see ourselves turning a corner.
But all this matters for us in a deeper sense, too. Go back to the readings we heard today from Second Kings and from Luke. Both of them are about healing that nobody saw coming.
First was the story of Naaman, commander of the army of Aram, present-day Syria, which was an enemy of Israel from time to time over the centuries. Though Naaman was successful and powerful, he was also afflicted with a painful, disfiguring skin condition. Well, he learns that a prophet in Israel has the power to cure him, but he thinks he’ll have to go through royal channels to authorize it. Eventually, Namaan comes to the house of the prophet Elisha with great pomp and circumstance, expecting the prophet to perform complicated rituals of divine magic to make his skin condition disappear. Elisha tells him simply to go wash in the local river, and he’ll be fine. And Naaman gets mad, thinking he’s being disrespected – but when he follows Elisha’s simple direction, God heals him and brings him into the family. It’s a great story because it shows God’s desire to bring healing to all – even an outsider, even an enemy of Israel – and it shows that finding God’s healing and wholeness isn’t nearly as complicated as we tend to make it.
Then we have the story of Jesus healing 10 people with leprosy. Now, as with the story of Naaman, these 10 people don’t particularly deserve to be healed. But they’ve heard about Jesus’ power and his love, so they take the risk to put themselves out there, coming to Jesus as he passes through and asking for his help.
The story says the 10 lepers keep their distance from him, observing Jewish law so they wouldn’t make Jesus ritually unclean. But maybe their distance goes deeper than that. Maybe they’re keeping their distance from healing itself. Maybe they don’t even know what to ask for, what the new reality of being healed would even look like, given that they’ve lived for so long with this condition that cuts them off from relationship with their wider community. Or maybe they’re afraid of being disappointed by asking for too much, afraid of the pain of failure or rejection if Jesus can’t or won’t help them.
But still, though they keep all that distance, they take the risk to step out and ask Jesus for his help. And he cures them all, taking away their skin condition, making them ritually clean, and allowing them to join the society that’s excluded them. That’s pretty amazing, a great blessing.
But their cure is only the first step in what Jesus wants to give them. One of the lepers comes back, praising God, and thanking Jesus, and honoring him as the provider of this great gift. Jesus wonders out loud where the other nine are, why only one of the 10 people he cured came back to say thank you and offer God praise. Because the thing is, Jesus was just getting started when he cleansed the 10 of them from their leprosy. The real gift came when the one came back, recognizing God’s life-giving power and aligning himself with it completely. When this leper comes back – and a Samaritan at that, a mistrusted outsider – when this leper comes back, he’s giving himself fully to God’s desire to work in his life. He’s giving himself to collaborate in living a future he couldn’t have imagined the day before. He’s trusting in God, through Jesus, to open the door for him into life made new.
So, Jesus comes alongside him, not just granting his wish to be free of leprosy but giving him more than he even knew to wish for. Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19). Not just made you clean. Not just made you able to participate in your community and your religious practices. But your faith has made you well in the deep sense of shalom, the oddly energizing peace and freedom and wholeness that comes to us when we join in with God’s project of blessing, of creating and re-creating, of making all things new.
Being made well may not look the way we imagine it. For the congregations of our diocese, it won’t look like returning to the glory days of the 1950s and ’60s. It also probably won’t look like copying the hipster churches with pastors who preach in their skinny jeans, with a Bible in one hand and a latté in the other. As we’re learning here at St. Andrew’s, we’ll have to experiment, seeing what works and what doesn’t. We’ll have to trust that we are co-creating the future with our God who dares to trust us, and come alongside us, and work with us as friends.
And, you know, the same truth holds about the future God desires for each one of us. As you reflect on these stories of unexpected healing, I invite you to give some thought and prayer this week to some questions that might just open your heart to healing and wholeness and delight. You might ask: Where is my anxiety? How am I holding myself back from God’s oddly energizing peace and wholeness, the true wellness God longs for us to know? What conditions am I putting on God’s desire to bring me healing? How am I distancing myself from the future God wants to open up – not just for me but with me in blessing to the world? Am I willing to step out in trust, into a future I can’t quite see, and collaborate with Jesus in being made well?