Welcome Home! (Too Bad You Can’t Stay)

Luke 17:11-19 NRSV

On this exciting Homecoming Sunday morning, it is an honor and it gives me great joy to say to you: “Welcome home!”

We have been expecting you. In fact, we have been eagerly anticipating your arrival for weeks as we have pulled out all the stops!  You will notice we’ve moved benches to the breezeway to make the grand, cordial statement: “Welcome! Sit down, make yourselves comfortable, and stay awhile!”

The brick pavers have been pressure washed, which is our way of rolling out the red carpet! Fresh pine straw has been spread, the bushes have been trimmed, mums have been planted, and the doors have been painted. The planter out front looks like autumn. The sign outside is so clean, you could eat off it!  And speaking of eating, a pig is ready to be picked, the beef is tender, the chickens are fried, the casseroles are plentiful and the tea is sweet! Countless deserts are ready to be sampled! All of this to say to you this day, “Welcome home! Here you will find a most hospitable grace and an extravagant, unconditional love.”

But now that you are here, now that you are seated comfortably with your friends and neighbors, I need to give you a word of warning, and with all of the extravagant hospitality that is going on here this morning, this cautionary word may sound a bit strange, if not inhospitable. Here it goes: “Welcome Home! Too bad you can’t stay.”

LoiteringSit down and make yourself comfortable, but don’t get too comfortable.  Appreciate the budding flowers and the fresh pine straw, but don’t fall in love with it. Enjoy the sumptuous feast. Eat and drink until you are satisfied, but afterwards don’t expect to find a place around here to sprawl out and take a nap! Welcome home! But don’t make yourself at home. Because the One we worship this day, the One we have chosen to follow is always on the move!

Jesus certainly never made himself at home. Earlier, in Luke’s gospel we read Jesus saying: ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’” (Luke 9:58).

Jesus was on a journey and the first words of our scripture lesson this morning remind us what type of journey that was: “On the way to Jerusalem…”  Jesus was following a way of self-denial, self-giving, and sacrifice. He was on the way to the cross. The world, of course, calls this way a foolish way. Jesus called it the only way.

On the way to Jerusalem, Luke tells us that “Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” Talk about foolish. First of all, every good Jew knew when you traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem it is always best to take the Samaria-Bypass to avoid the unfriendly Samaritans. And Jesus, who had already been turned away from the Samaritans because, “his face was set towards Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53) knew going down any other road was considered to be very unwise.

Secondly, because the two countries bordered one another, going through a region between Samaria and Galilee makes about as much sense as going into a region between North Carolina and Virginia. Not only does Jesus take the road less traveled, Jesus takes it to some in-between place. Perhaps it was like some place outside of Fountain. Hang a left off of 258 and who knows what county you’re in! Wilson? Pitt? Edgecombe? Or somewhere in between?

And it is in this in-between pace, where boundary lines are blurred, Jesus starts to enter a village. Is it in Samaria or Galilee? Who knows? And it is there, at the edge of this village, where he is approached by ten lepers. Some from Galilee; others Samaria.

Leprosy is described by Leviticus 13 as a white rash or swelling on the skin. Leprosy may or may not itch and is not contagious. What made the disease so horrible was not so much the physical pain as it was the spiritual pain. Lepers were considered to be unclean like none other, thus forced to live outside of villages away from the general population. The ten lepers are living somewhere out on the edge of town when they see Jesus entering the village and cry out, “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.”

Jesus orders them to go show themselves to a priest so they could be restored immediately and welcomed back home to life within their communities. As they went, Luke says that they all were made clean. Then one of them, just one out of ten, one who just happened to be a foreigner, a Samaritan, returned praising God and thanking Jesus.

So you see? As welcomed as we are here in this place, as warm and as comfortable we may feel here, as sweet as the tea and the pecan pie tastes, Jesus wants all of us to get out of here!

Jesus wants us to get out here, leave home, to share the good news of God’s hospitable grace and the unconditional love we experience here with all people. And the gospel is specifically calling us to venture out, to leave our comfort zones, this place we call home, to minister to folks who feel very far from home. And the irony is that we do not have to go far from home to find them.

Our church has been invited to minister to the residents at the Heritage Nursing Home in Farmville each Sunday morning in November. When we go, guess who we will find?

We will find men and women who have lost track of time and space. Sometimes they have trouble discerning whether it is day or night, the weekend or a weekday, even discerning their current whereabouts. And there are folks like these are everywhere. They are in nursing homes and hospitals and some are at home, but are they far from home: countless people living somewhere in-between. Lines blurred; time and space, fuzzy.

No, you do not have to travel far to find people everywhere who have lost track of time and space due to depression, overwhelming grief, all types of sickness and pain, anguish, anxiety, addictions, financial stress, dementia, or the side effects of medication. They are lost and alone, grieving, suffering, despairing—living on the edge. Some may be incarcerated, imprisoned by the state, while others reside at in a perpetual imprisoned state. Some feel abandoned by family. Some feel abandoned by the church, and some even feel abandoned by God. Some are not sure if God is for them or against them. For a myriad of reasons, within their souls they are drifting, roaming far from home barely getting by in a foreign state of mind and spirit.

But Jesus, we like it…here!  We’re home and we’re comfortable. And not only does it make us uncomfortable to be around the lost, it discourages us. Jesus, we have gone out before. We have visited the hospitals. We have been to the nursing home. We have stood in line at the funeral home. We have sat for hours with our lost neighbors, and we have served countless meals to those living on the edge at the Soup Kitchen. We have even visited the prisons. Each time we went, we extended your grace and shared your love. But, here’s the thing Jesus, very few ever seem to be receptive.

Jesus says, “Odds are: only about one out of ten. And yes, it’s discouraging, but here’s the good news, when you find that one who is receptive, they may have something wonderful to teach you about faith in God and salvation.”

After Jesus asked about the other nine, and pointed out that it was a “foreigner” who returned to give thanks, Jesus tells the foreigner that his faith had made him well, or more literally, his faith had saved him, thereby making this foreign, estranged outsider living in a fuzzy, blurred-lined, in-between kind of place a lesson of salvation for us all.

Last month I had the privilege to visit with a beautiful woman during her last days on this earth at the Hospice Home in Greenville. She was only 64 years old. One day, I arrived around 4 in the afternoon. She looked at the clock and asked me why I had come to see her so early in the morning. Her mind, clouded by morphine, did not know if it was day or night.

That same week, during a visit with her daughter, the dying woman, with tears in her eyes, asked a very familiar question. She asked: “Lord, Why me?” The daughter thought to herself, “Yes, mama, why you? Why do you have to have the stupid disease? Lord, Why you?

Her mother then surprised her daughter by finishing her question. She asked: “Why me, Lord? Why am I so lucky? Why have so many people come to visit me while I have been sick? Why do I have such a loving family, such good friends? Why do I have such a wonderful life?

Instead of being bitter about the years she would not have, she was grateful to God for the years that she did have. Instead of being angry that she was leaving her beloved family and dear friends, she was grateful that she had devoted friends and family. Even in a state where lines were blurred, time and space—fuzzy, she recognized that all of life is but a gift of God’s inexplicable grace. And there in a foreign place, living on the edge in-between life and death she turned, thanked Jesus and praised God.

And her daughter knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that her mother was saved.

I believe Jesus pointed out that it was a foreigner whose faith had saved him as way of saying to us: “Dare to leave your comfort zone to minster to those who are struggling somewhere in a foreign state, but when you go, it is important to realize that you do not go as if you are one with all of the answers, possessing all of the faith, going out as if on a crusade to save all those with less faith. Because oftentimes, says Jesus, it is the one living on the edge, the foreigner, who can teach us a thing or two about faith in God and salvation.

The table has been set, the grounds have been prepared and the feast is ready! We cannot welcome you more. But just remember, you cannot stay here. Enjoy your dinner, your sweet tea and pecan pie, but if you want to be the church and the people that God is calling you to be, you’ve got to get out of here. You have to leave this comfort zone to share the hope, grace, love, good news and hospitality you experience here at home with all those who are very far from home.

We’re Small, but We Can Do Some Big Things!

Mustard-Seed-Faith-by-CRILuke 17:3-6 NRSV

As Luke begins his gospel by addressing Theophilus, I want to begin the sermon this morning addressing Luke.

Dear Luke:

Thank you for your careful investigation and for the very orderly account you gave us so that we may know the truth concerning the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. However, on this World Communion Sunday, on the behalf of millions of Christians spread across this globe, and especially on the behalf of a handful of Christians here in Farmville, North Carolina, I would like to voice a concern that many of us have. (Sounds pretty tactful so far, don’t you think? Because here comes the boom!)

Luke, my dear brother in Christ, you are killing us. I mean, brother come on! For five weeks now you have been asking us to do some very big things! You have told us that if we want to be disciples of Jesus it is going to mean losing ourselves, denying ourselves, being a community that is always more concerned about others, about the outsider, than we are about ourselves.  It means having a strong passion for the poor, those we regard as “the least of these.” You have even told us that following Jesus involves a cross and we are going to have to carry it! Brother, come on!

Luke, during these five weeks, we have listened as you have shared some pretty outlandish parables of Jesus. And yes, although some revealed that there is nothing in this world that can separate us from the grace of God, which was rather comforting, they also re-emphasized that Jesus wants us to extend this same grace and to all people, which, quite frankly makes us rather uncomfortable. And last Sunday, you even had the audacity to bring Hell into it. You warned us that if we continued to believe that we were more blessed and favored than others, one day, we might find ourselves in flames begging one of those “others” for a sip of water!

So, come on Luke, enough already. We simply cannot take it anymore. We just can’t handle it. You are asking far too much from us! Being a community of love and forgiveness for all people is just too messy, too hard, too risky, and takes too much of our time. There’s just so much pride we can swallow at one time. And besides, we have enough of our own problems to worry about.

We have our own kids to take care of. Luke, I am not sure if you know about these things, but we have these things called soccer, football, volleyball, cross country, cheerleading and dance. And some of our kids have special needs, and then on top of that, there are our parents who are getting on up there in age with their own special needs. And did we mention that we have full-time jobs?

Oh, yes, there are some of us who are retired, but we too have our own needs. The truth is some of us are just too tired and too old to keep doing all these things that Jesus demands. You ask us to deny ourselves and carry a cross, when just trying to survive each day is like carrying a cross.

And Luke, have you seen our church lately? Have you seen how small we have become these days? We just don’t have the resources that we once had. So many good people have passed away. We have lost too many hard workers, too many teachers, too many people with some deep pockets, if you know what I mean. And have you seen our building? It is over 100 years old! So many repairs, renovations are needed. It is about all we can just do to keep it up.

So Luke, with all due respect, if you really need us to do more than we are doing now, if you want us to be more that we already are, if you really want us to reach out to others, sacrifice, be a community of love and forgiveness for all, and on top of all of that carry a cross, then something is gonna have to give. You are going to have to find a way to give us some more faith, because there is just too little left here. Sincerely, your friend and brother in Christ, Jarrett Banks

After Jesus finished speaking about the need to forgive people who have wronged them not once, but seven times, the disciples, like a crowd of exasperated members of a small, struggling old church in a small town in Eastern North Carolina, said: “Come on Jesus. You are killing us. Enough already. We simply cannot take it anymore. We just can’t handle it. You are asking far too much from us! If you really want us to do more, you need to “increase our faith” (Luke 17:5).

It is then that Jesus responded with some very good news: “If you had the faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

And to really understand just how good this news is we need to understand something about the Greek language and the use of the word “if”. In the Greek, it is used two different ways. One is to express a condition contrary to a fact, “If I were you.” The second way is to express a condition according to the fact, “If God is for us, who can be against us.” Here, Jesus is using the latter. In the original Greek, Jesus was saying: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed,” (And you do have it) then you can do some very big and miraculous things!

When the exasperated disciples got to a point when something just had to give, when they just did not believe they had enough of what it takes to be the people Jesus was calling them to be, they said: “Then, Jesus, increase our faith!”

Jesus responded: “Here’s the good news! I don’t have to increase it, because it only takes a little to do some very big things. And since, by the grace of God, you have a little, (you would not be following me if you didn’t) although your numbers are small, although you have very little left in the tank, in fact, I know that some of you are currently running on fumes, I have already given you what you need to do some very big things. If fact, as small as you are, as frail as some of you are, as uneducated and misinformed some are, although you constantly misunderstand what I have been teaching you, although some of you will even betray me, others will deny me, and when the going gets tough all may desert me, I have given you all that you need to change the world!

Night is falling. Jesus has been teaching out on a hillside. And the crowd that showed up that day, well, they were getting hungry.

The disciples with a little panic in their voices insist: “Jesus, there’s a thousand hungry people out there. We need to send them back to town so they can buy something to eat.”

Jesus asks, “But tell me what do you have?”

“Jesus, something’s got to give because we have very little. Just a few loaves and two miserable little fish.”

Jesus takes what they have, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it.  And, the good news is: it is enough.

However, that is not the end of the story.  Although that would be enough, there is more.  We read where “all ate and all were filled.”  They were all fulfilled, all satisfied.  They just didn’t receive something to “tie them over” until they got back into town.  They ate until they were full and satisfied.

But the story doesn’t even in end there.  They took up what was left over and 12 baskets were filled. The truth is: there was not enough.  There was more than enough. There was not only fulfillment and satisfaction, but there was a surplus. The good news is: This is simply the way it is with Jesus.

All of ye of little faith, those of us who complain that we are just too small, too old, too tired, to transform this church, to transform this community, and to change our world, this good news that Jesus always gives us more than enough is not new news to us.

Let’s take just a few minutes now and think about it.  Let’s go back in time several years. Remember that time before the divorce or separation, before the diagnosis, before you lost your job, before the flood, before the tornado, before the miscarriage, before the accident, before your child was lost, before your spouse died.  During that time before the pain, before the grief, imagine that God came to you in a dream and revealed every hardship you would have to endure in your life.  How would you have responded?

I know how I would have responded. God, you are killing me. There is just no way. Come on God, enough already. Something will have to give. There’s just no way I can do it. I simply do not have what it takes. If you really want me to make it, Lord, you are going to have to increase my faith!

And Jesus would say, “I don’t have to. I have already given you what you need.” And guess what, the good news is, and we knew it all the while, Jesus is absolutely right.

On this World Communion Sunday, we have gathered with Christians all over the world around a very small but very holy table. From this table, we take into our hands what may be one of the smallest, tiniest pieces of bread that we have ever held, and we put what resembles a mere crumb into our mouths, and we eat it.. And then we take the smallest of cups, and sip the smallest amount of juice.  It is just a small taste really, but the good news is: it is enough. No, the good news is: it is more than enough. Amen.