Sermon: “Unrestrained”

October 9, 2016: Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

This is an unlikely story – and I don’t mean because of the presence of a miraculous healing. It’s just that there were so many obstacles to these events even taking place. There were boundaries, borders, and barriers at play that could easily have kept this group of sick men from the healing power of Jesus.

I wrote “sick men,” and then realized that there’s nothing at all in the Greek text that says they couldn’t have been a mixed group of sick men and women. It’s actually somewhat likely, I think, that women would have been there, among those afflicted by the various skin diseases feared for centuries by cultures all over the globe.

The term “leprosy” in those days described a number of skin conditions, some of them truly dangerous and disfiguring like Hansen’s disease or various cancers, some of them far less damaging or infectious, but they couldn’t distinguish one from the other in their early stages.

The reality of illness, however, was the very first barrier between these people and Jesus. The law of Israel was clear about what happened to people diagnosed with leprosy: They had to leave their homes and live separately from the community. They were physically separated from others. We know that story from these islands, through the history of Kalaupapa.

These companions in exile broke down another boundary. They lived on the border between Galilee and Samaria, between two cousin cultures who bitterly kept up a centuries-old feud. Among these people cast out from both societies for leprosy, the ancient walls came down.

They remained constrained by the rules for lepers. Luke says they stayed at a distance and called out – which was right up to the boundaries set for them. They called out, in fact, as Jesus was entering a village, which was probably closer than any of the inhabitants wanted them. Even the fact of calling was unusual. Most of the time, they’d only speak to others to warn them away.

They pushed right up the boundaries that restrained them, because they were desperate for healing.

In these days of furor over immigration, in these days of a tragically inadequate welcome to those fleeing from war in Syria, in a week when citizens in Colombia voted down a peace treaty which would have ended their decades-long civil war, these words from Christian Century writer Debie Thomas strike deep:

“This is a story about the Kingdom of God – about who is welcome, who belongs, and who stays. As a daughter of immigrants, I feel those questions in my bones. They’re not intellectual or abstract; they’re emotional and urgent. What does it mean to belong, and what is my identity?”

The cry of those sick people was not just a cry for healing of a disease. It was a plea for inclusion. For incorporation – to become part of the body. For community. For home.

Their exile won them a curious freedom. Beyond the boundaries of their society, they could call out their need unrestrained by the other limitations of their society. They didn’t have to pretend to be richer, or happier, or healthier than they really were. They could know and express their basic need.

And they did, right up at the boundaries that confined them. In doing so, they found the healing and restoration they sought in Jesus.

Nine of them followed Jesus’ instructions to the letter. “Go and show yourselves to the priests,” he told them, and they did. They set off to get restored to the community.

It’s funny how they also settled right back into the order, and the authority, and the procedures of their society as they prepared to re-enter it. In and of itself, that wasn’t problem, except that it prevented all but one of them from expressing their real joy at their restoration, at least expressing it to the one who inspired it.

Only the foreigner was unrestrained enough to come back to Jesus and give thanks.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews recently retired from being Dean of Amistad Chapel, the worshiping community at the UCC’s national headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s cold there, of course, and her northern experiences are somewhat obvious in this quote:

“When did our faith become something so subdued and contained? Why did we have to learn to be so quiet in church, so still, so reserved? How did we earn that awful name, ‘The Frozen Chosen’?”

(That is, incidentally, what a lot of New England old-fashioned Congregationalists tend to call themselves – yes, these are my people.)

“Most folks I know are uncomfortable when someone just talks about their faith outside church, or even in church if they show their feelings or, God forbid, if they get carried away, like that tenth leper.”

We may not be frozen northerners – I’m working on thawing out – but I think we may know something about holding things inside. About staying carefully back from the boundary lest we even slightly overstep, about leaving both our needs unheard and our joys unshared.

The how of unrestraint is less important than the fact of unrestraint, and for that matter the kind of unrestraint. Think for a moment about music, different varieties and styles of music. Kanako Okita’s recital last weekend gave us a great illustration of how many different sounds can be described by the term “classical” music. She chose some truly amazing pieces that demonstrate the different musical flights that can be taken, all of them sounding very different.

Each Sunday morning Kayleen Yuda has shown us that the 18th century hymns of Isaac Watts, the 19th century revival hymns of Fannie Crosby or the reflective hymns of Queen Liliuokalani, or the 20th century hymns of Brian Wren can be sung with energy and integrity and life accompanied by organ. So I’m not suggesting we trade the organ for a rock combo.

For one thing, that’s no guarantee. We’ve all heard music groups in some style – probably more than one style – play so woodenly, so formulaically, that it ceased to be music at all. And I’m now demonstrating an appropriate (and rather difficult) restraint by not listing a few of my not-at-all favorites.

Unrestraint in music is the soft, slow song that grabs the heart. Unrestraint in music is the quick song that gets you swaying or dancing. Unrestraint in music is the breath of silence between notes that has you quivering in anticipation. Unrestraint in music is the polished soprano dancing in the clouds, the warm alto whose voice lifts your shoulders, the sparkling tenor skipping from note to note, the deep bass rumbling in your chest. Unrestraint in music is the crashing majestic final chord, the lingering note that trails into silence, and the whispering scale that vanishes away before it’s complete, leaving you aching for resolution.

That’s unrestraint in music. What would unrestraint look like in me? Would would unrestraint look like in you? What would it look like in us?

What restrains you from stating your needs, from sharing your joy, or from extending your giving? What needless boundaries keep you away from the help you require, from the declaration of your thanks, or the act of contributing? What restrains you?

Martin Luther said of this Scripture story: “In the leper it teaches us faith, in Christ it teaches us love.”

I may encourage the restraint of my tongue on musicians that I don’t admire, but I would have your faith and your love unrestrained. I would have your need and your thanks unrestrained. I would have your generosity and your depth of spirit unrestrained. I would not have your joy restrained by anything at all.

Exercise your freedom as you will – as with styles of music, so with styles of faith. But let your welcome, let your healing, let your rejoicing, let your love, let your giving, let your thanksgiving be as unrestrained as the varieties of music which have been heard around the world, and the varieties of music yet unheard except in the imagination of God.


Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on October 9, 2016

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