Let me begin by thanking my dear friend, Max, for the privilege and joy of preaching in this pulpit and, later, presiding at that altar. Some of you know a bit about me – that I’m on sabbatical leave from my sleepy little suburban church in Chatham, NJ; that in January, I’ll be Proctor Fellow at EDS – my seminary and Max’s, and where, I am quite certain, Jesus went to seminary – that I live on Long Neck and that I am contemplating early retirement sometime the end of next year.
Those are the facts. What you may not know about me, however, and what I’ve already shared with the Wednesday night Marcus Borg Adult Ed group, is that I am a bone fide ‘Jesus Freak’. Indeed, I was a ‘Jesus Freak’ long before Sara Miles’ book brought the term back into fashion.
That’s a fact – and a warning.
Perhaps this is because when I was a child, my family lived in a tenement apartment above my grandparents. I was the oldest of four children – all carefully planned two years apart – so my mother was more than happy to have me creep downstairs in the early morning to be with my grandmother.
We’d say prayers together, my grandmother and I, while she combed and braided her waist length hair, and then mine, and then, right after breakfast, off we’d go to walk the lovely mile daily, through the city streets, to early morning Mass.
I loved to hear the stories of Jesus and his mother and his disciples and the things he taught and the people he healed. And, I love the Eucharist. I also learned that they were inextricably bound together – Word and Sacrament – and that neither meant very much if you didn’t put what you heard – and what you discovered about your faith – into action.
If you didn’t take the nourishment you got from the Lord’s Table and make sure that others were safe and warm and well fed, well, as my grandmother would ask, what was the point?
Elizabeth Gilbert titled her book, “Eat. Pray. Love.”
My grandmother’s book would be titled, “Listen. Eat. Share.”
My grandmother made certain that I understood that it wasn’t just about ‘me’. That God’s justice isn’t about ‘just us’, as Civil Rights leader Fanny Lou Hammer used to say. The justice Jesus preached has to do with community.
As we hear God say to Jeremiah in this morning’s first lesson, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
“. . . .for in it’s welfare you will find your welfare.” Our own welfare lies in the welfare of the community – the ‘commonwealth’ of health and healing , wholeness and salvation.
While other kids were reading and collecting Superman Comic Books, I had my very own bible and prayer book. My grandmother had even written my name on the inside cover.
Oh, I’d read comic books, too – a kid learns how to fit in so as not to be tormented – but I’d be thinking, “Yeah, well, if Jesus were there, nobody would have to worry about no kryptonite.”
There’s still a place in my head and in my heart where Jesus is ‘Superman’. Sometimes, my images of God and Jesus are the ones I carry with me from my childhood. I’ve grown up, but sometimes, my faith hasn’t kept pace. I’ll at least cop to having moments of serious regression.
Sometimes, I wonder why God doesn’t do something about the mess that our world has become. Why not send ‘Jesus to the rescue’ to fix the economy, stop unemployment, end world hunger, secure a living wage for everyone who is employed, find jobs for everyone looking for meaningful employment, end the deficit, reduce taxes, stop the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, while he’s at it, improve our educational system and, oh yes, bring affordable health care for everyone. (Oh, wait. That’s not Jesus. That’s the President’s job, right? Messiah-in-Chief.)
I mean, is Jesus a “Savior or is he not? If he is, he’s been slacking off lately, don’t you think? I jest, of course, but sometimes there is hidden truth in humor.
Some of us believe – and I can fall back into it from time to time – that there’s not much we can do for ourselves or others except bow our heads or look up to the sky and pray to a disembodied spirit.
We can convince ourselves that Jesus was once alive but now he’s gone and, until he returns, we’re left with nothing more powerful than a piece of jewelry fashioned into a cross, or lovely stained glass windows and beautiful music, or (God help us!) church committees. With Jesus safely tucked away in heaven, we’re off the hook to take any action or responsibility.
Except that Jesus is still present – breathing in us and through us.
As our second lesson (2 Timothy 2:8-15) reminds us, “the saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful-- for he cannot deny himself.”
Because I knew how to fit in, I fell away from the church in my late teens and early 20s. You know, the prerequisite years of “young adult rebellion from church,” poking my head in when the kids needed baptism or it was Christmas or Easter and guilt about going to church would overcome my need to wrap one more present or fix one more casserole.
I was young and the world was my oyster. I had a husband and children and a lovely home and my work. I didn’t need no stinkin’ church with all of its archaic, rigid rules and regulations which had absolutely no relevance in my life.
Church was so much more meaningful when I was a child, with my grandmother to talk with before and during and after our walk to church. But then, I grew up and “Superman Jesus” was put away with my Superman Comics. I knew that Jesus was there, if I needed Him, but I didn’t need a childhood hero when I had a very grown up, adult life.
The day soon came, as it often does for so many of us, when my perfect little world all fell apart. Everything – everything - in my life seemed to be coming undone. The perfect little life I had woven for myself was unraveling.
Everything I thought I knew about myself and God had changed. And, I found myself on my knees, sobbing like a child, and calling out to Jesus. And, lo and behold! He was there! Had been there. Waiting for me the whole time.
See, I had been looking for Superman in church. What I found was an old waitress in a broken down diner called “Goodnow’s” with the gospel printed on the back of a menu. This, interestingly enough, led me back, eventually, to church. Let me explain.
In one of my worst moments – one of those times when the clock ticks so loud you think your head is going to explode and, even though it’s Very Late and your mother told you nothing good ever happens after midnight, you just have to get out of the house. Like that. I thought my life would – probably should – come to an end. That I was unloved and unlovable , anyway, so how was I suppose to love? I was confused and hurt and afraid and alone. Very, very alone.
It was late fall in the New England town where I lived. I put on an old sweater and started walking. I had no idea where I was going. I just didn’t want to be wherever I had been. Suddenly, I found myself at the local diner – Goodnow’s – the place where all the losers in town hung out – and just as suddenly, I realized that I was cold. That, in fact, it had been snowing and I had no boots and my sweater was woefully inadequate.
I decided that I needed warmth more than a salve for my pride, so I opened the door and went in, saying to myself, “See how low you’ve sunk. This is exactly the kind of place mother said you should never frequent. And, here you are. See?
As mother always warned, ‘If you lay down with dogs, you’ll get up with fleas’.”
I was already starting to itch.
I sat myself down at the counter and started reading the menu, waiting for the waitress to stop talking to that man at the end of the counter with the red plaid jacket, full beard and no teeth. Both of them laughed the way people who have smoked too many cigarettes laugh.
The place smelled of burnt coffee, cooking grease, body odor and wet clothing and old work boots.
The menu was old and worn, stained with a drip of spaghetti sauce here and bacon cheeseburger fat there, covering some of the letters of some of the words. But, on the back of the menu, the words at the top of the page jumped out and popped at me like hot grease on a skillet. “G_odnow’s Diner. Where everyone is a friend.”
It was ‘Goodnow’s’, but a plop of food covered one of the ‘o’s’.
God. Now. Diner.
I could feel a wave of the tears I hadn’t been able to cry start to well up in my chest. I fought to hold them back, but when I looked again at the menu, my eyes fell hard on the words, “Where everyone is a friend.”
And, right then and there, just as the waitress came and stood in front of me, coffee pot in hand, I started crying – big, fat, wet, silent tears that flowed down my cheeks, off my chin and plopped unceremoniously onto the counter.
She quietly took a cup from under the counter, poured some steaming, hot coffee into it, took my hand in hers, smiled and said, “It’s okay, honey. Here, you look like you need some strong coffee and a few good friends. You’ve got plenty of both here. Good coffee and good friends you just haven’t met.”
Ordinarily, I would have rushed to wipe the tears from my eyes, but this time, I didn’t. There wasn’t any need to hide my pain. She could see it. She had experienced it. As I looked up and down that counter, I realized most of the people in that diner had, as well.
They were friends – that’s what the menu said, at least. Suddenly, I believed it to be true. And this, well, this was as close to church as I was going to get for now. It would lead me, eventually, to a path that led me here, to this pulpit.
My gratitude for that moment was overwhelming – when a hot cup of coffee and a few good friends became the vehicle by which I could save myself from myself. It led me to seek – indeed, to insist and demand – that from church. To model it in any church where I was the ordained leader.
I don’t know about you, but I want to be in a community which knows what Jeremiah knew: that if you want to improve your own welfare or that of others, pray and work for the welfare of the community.
I want to be in a community like this with a Thrift Shop and a Christmas Bazaar that raises money to make sure that the welfare of the community is understood to be our, individual and collective welfare. That has a prison ministry and enough well attended Adult Education opportunities as to be a wonder and a delight to the very heart of Jesus.
I want to be part of a community that has a sign out front that says, “A fully inclusive home” and gathers to share breakfast, after or – for some – before worship, because it understands itself to be, first and foremost, a community. That breaks bread together. And worships God together. And serves the community together.
A place where you can get a hot cup of coffee and a few good friends who are losers who have been lost and found in Jesus, and are now winning friends for Jesus. I suspect I’ve found one of those communities right here, at All Saints, Rehoboth. I have no doubt I’ll find more at St. George’s Chapel, Harbeson.
God and Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit surpass our human understanding. Hebrew scholar Walter Brueggeman writes: “Our capacity to know and understand, to decode and analyze bewitches us. We imagine that we can see our life whole and clear, and know how to act wisely. Such a capacity for clarity seduces us into being very sure. We end up knowing exactly who we are and who God is and what God wants. It makes us sure and often strident - frequently so sure as to be destructive...We act as though we know fully, too fully, the mind of Christ. Such a neat little morality does not allow for the largeness of God's hidden way, which is more generous and more merciful than we can imagine.”
I want to suggest to you that God’s hidden way of generosity and mercy can be discovered when we find ourselves, like the leper who returned to give thanks to Jesus, in a state of gratitude.
In my experience, gratitude is the deep, underground aquifer which feeds and nourishes the fertile ground of generosity and mercy. When we tap into the deep well of gratitude, all sorts of miraculous things can happen.
We find Jesus within us, who comes to heal us and inspire us to do things we never knew we could do. Like, go to church. Become involved in the welfare of the community. And, in so doing, find the pathway to our own salvation.
Jesus is present to us in the broken bread and wine poured out. So too is Jesus present when our hearts are broken open and our lives have become as empty as a poor man’s pocket.
And, not just once, but every time we find ourselves on our knees, weeping like a child who is frightened and lost, Jesus comes to heal and mend, to restore and make whole, to feed and nourish us back to health and wholeness and holiness of life. He comes to us in community – in and through the service of others – just as He comes through me and you when we care for others.
All we need do is to call out to Him, like the 10 lepers in this morning’s gospel story, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"
Or, sometimes, to put down our pride, pick up our gratitude, hold onto our faith, and simply ask for what we need – and, like the one, return to say, with a heart filled with gratitude, “Thank you.”
Here’s the good news for this morning: If you do that – if you return to Jesus with gratitude – you too, like me – along with the 10th leper – will become a bona fide, certifiable, qualifiable, undeniable, justifiable, Jesus Freak.
That’s a fact – and a warning.