Thursday, January 14, 2016

Our Ark Is on the Fritz

homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
Thursday, January 14, 2016

The satirical newspaper The Onion once printed a story with the attention-grabbing headline: “Jesus Christ Implicated in Game-Fixing Scandal.” It seems that at the conclusion of a recent football game, one of the all-star players had told the press, “There’s only one man who’s responsible for this victory, and that’s my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!” Further investigation showed that similar attributions of power had been made to the same man all over the country, thus necessitating an investigation of the Almighty Son of God, who is pictured in the inset holding what was then still a rare piece of technology: a cell phone. You know, as Seahawks fever begins to boil over again in the lead-up to the Super Bowl, we should probably keep an eye on Jesus and make sure that everything this year is above board.

It seems that the urge to count on divine intervention in our victories has always been with us, far more in wartime than in sports. The Israelites counted on having God on their side. After their rout by the Philistines in today’s reading, the elders figure they can guarantee a victory by trotting out the Ark of the Covenant. After all, it worked many times in the past! And does it not represent God’s very presence among the people? It intimidates the Philistines, all right, but when battle is joined, the Israelites are crushed—30,000 soldiers killed! What has gone wrong this time? Why is our Ark on the fritz?

Of course, all sorts of people
would still love to get their hands on that Ark ...
The emphasis on the death of the priests Hophni and Phineas ties the story to its greater context: Samuel, as a little boy, has already relayed a message that God intended to punish these two priests for their flagrant abuses of power. This is the fulfillment of that prophecy. No amount of hiding behind the Ark of the Covenant will change God’s mind, because the Ark is not a magical talisman, and humans have no magical ability to control God.

I notice that there is no suggestion that perhaps God is not involved in this military action. Of course God always takes the side of the winner in a fight, because God gets what God wants. If your people are on God’s bad side, you can expect things to go badly for you. The modern idea that God might not have a dog in this fight was one that I don’t believe would have occurred to anyone in that time and place. Everything worked together in God’s plan at all times.

So Israel is defeated, and in today’s psalm we read of a much later occasion, the defeat of Jerusalem that led to the Jews’ exile in Babylon. But the outcome is the same: feelings of rejection, humiliation, helplessness, injustice, waste. We all wish that we could magically make God help us. I once heard someone pray, “What can we do to attract God’s presence here?” That struck me as magical thinking, and not true to a mature understanding of God’s nature.

Yet it’s an honest human feeling, and God honors our honest human feelings. God hears us when we call, “See me! Remember me! Save me!” And the psalmist provides an argument intended to appeal to God’s actual nature. Why should God save? “For the sake of your steadfast love.” The Hebrew word is chesed. This is where Israelites place their trust: God’s steadfast love, God’s chesed, is the thing about God that it is always safest to assume. And if that’s the case, then what have we to fear in the long run?

Christ Cleansing a Leper
by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864
(from Wikipedia)
Now let’s look at the gospel. Here is a leper coming to Jesus and begging him, “See me! (Most people treat me like I’m invisible.) Remember me! (Most people would rather forget me.) Save me! (Because that’s what God does, and you are to be equated with God.) If you choose, you can make me clean.” The leper knows that Jesus has the power to heal him, but he understands that he must not assume Jesus will decide to use that power. The leper knows he has no magical talismans, but he clearly identifies Jesus with God’s chesed. Why would God not choose to save him? And indeed, Jesus does choose, and the leper is healed.

Well, this seems like a tidy enough ending. Whereas the priests and elders of Israel failed to see that they couldn’t control God and were punished for their arrogance, the leper saw clearly, and he was rewarded for his humility. Now we might expect Jesus to say to those around him, “See? You don’t need religion. You just need me.” Yet he doesn’t do that. He tells the leper, “Let’s keep the source of your healing between you and me. Go through the appropriate ritual. Show a priest that your disease has passed, and make the thank-offering that our tradition prescribes for such a joyous occasion.”

Rather than see the priestly office as a con job or an ineffective attempt to control God, Jesus honors it. We might imagine this as Jesus telling the leper, “Humor the priests, because they need to feel useful.” But I think it’s more than that. Jesus sees the value that communal ritual plays in keeping people in relationship with God. The leper’s healing is to be a testimony to God’s goodness, not just a promotional tool for this itinerant miracle-worker. The leper doesn’t need to make a sacrificial gift in order to keep his healing. But such an offering will be appropriate, and God will honor it just like God honors the newly healed man. Jesus urges the leper to make his ritual behavior match the reality of his relationship with God.

Now, there’s no indication in the story that the leper actually does this. In fact, he seems to disobey Jesus directly by spreading the Good News everywhere that Jesus has healed him. This makes life difficult for Jesus: suddenly he can’t go about openly in the towns without being mobbed.

I wonder how all this sat with Jesus. Was he angry? Frustrated? Mildly sad that the leper had missed the point? Or did he ever really expect the leper to follow his instructions? Have you ever felt so overjoyed at a surprising turn of events that you completely forgot to thank God for it? This happens to me all the time: I’m quick to pray when I’m in trouble, but I’m slow to pray when everything is going well. The college student is quick to call home when the money runs low, but otherwise, you might not hear from her. Such are we human beings, and God knows that. And God loves us anyway. Joy is more important than due ritual process, and it should always be celebrated.

And God loves us anyway when we wheedle God, and needle God, and pester God to help us with little things that don’t matter much in the scheme of things. I’m sure many people are praying that God will help the Seahawks win the Super Bowl. And it’s silly, yes. Would that we would pray as fervently for situations of actual suffering and pain in the world … yet sometimes we do. And God loves us, and God loves us. Amen.

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