Sunday, October 09, 2016

God Rejects Rejection

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 9, 2016

Year C, Proper 22: The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Psalm 66:1-11
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

God Rejects Rejection
            Believe it or not, we still have a bunch of baptisms coming up on the first two Sundays in November.
            By now, you may be getting sick of hearing me say how much I love Baptisms, but I do love them, and for lots of reasons.
            One reason is that Baptism reminds us of the great truth that, no matter what we do or don’t do, God has made a bond with us that can never be broken, a bond that can never be dissolved, a bond that is indissoluble.                                                           
            Or, to put it another way, God rejects rejection.
            God rejects rejection.
            That’s good, right?
            I borrowed that line from a British rabbi named Jonathan Sacks. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading a book he wrote about the tragic history of hatred and violence among the children of Abraham. The book is about how so often Jews, Christians, and Muslims have hated each other, competed with each other, and, yes, killed each other.
            The point that Rabbi Sacks makes in the book is that, of course, all of this hatred, competition, and violence, is not God’s way
            God rejects rejection.
            In fact, the rabbi points out that God never rejects God’s people, no matter how many times they mess up, now matter how many times they’re unfaithful, now matter how many times they disobey God.
            And, just as God doesn’t reject the people of Israel, throughout the Old Testament God calls on God’s people not to reject but to welcome the stranger and alien.
            And, on top of that, throughout the Scriptures, God chooses for the most special jobs the people we would surely reject.
            So, Jacob, the sneaky guy who stole his older brother’s birthright, becomes the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.
            Moses, with his speech impediment, is given the huge task of leading God’s people on a forty-year journey out of slavery.
            David, the youngest son, is chosen to be the greatest king, never losing God’s favor, even when he commits some really terrible sins.
            God rejects rejection.
            And, since God rejects rejection, of course, Jesus the Son of God rejects rejection, too.
            Over and over, Jesus doesn’t reject people but, instead, shares God’s love with all the “rejects,” shares God’s love with the sinners, the tax collectors, with the woman caught in adultery and about to be stoned, with the Samaritan woman at the well, and with his own unimpressive disciples of little faith, though they mess up and fail over and over again, and even abandon and deny him at the end.           
            So, of course, Jesus doesn’t reject lepers, either.
            In ancient Israel, “leprosy” referred to a variety of skin ailments, some of them contagious, some repulsive, diseases that made people ritually unclean and sometimes quite frightening.
            The lepers were rejected by society, forced to live together on the outskirts of towns, begging, depending on the kindness and mercy of others.
            It seems that lepers were rejected by just about everybody.
            In today’s gospel lesson, we’re told that ten lepers approach, calling out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
            Jesus rejects rejection and mysteriously sends them to the priests (who would probably be not too excited about having ten lepers come over to their place) but along the way the lepers are miraculously made clean. Their leprosy is healed, so they were on their way to the priests to have their healing verified.
            But, we’re told that only one of the lepers, realizing the amazing gift he had received, turned back, rejoicing, and worshiped and gave thanks at the feet of Jesus.
            Then Luke gives us one last important detail: the thankful leper was a Samaritan – and we know the Samaritans and Jews pretty much hated each other.
            So, this poor man had been a double-reject: a leper and a foreigner. He had probably known the terrible pain of rejection for years and yet that day he learned that God rejects rejection - and he gave thanks.
            God rejects rejection.
            I’m sure that we’ve all known the pain of rejection.
            I’m sure we’ve all felt, or even been told, things like that we’re not good enough, or smart enough, or good looking enough, or fast enough, or hard working enough, or talented enough, or loving enough, or courageous enough, or generous enough, or whatever.
            Or, we’ve all felt or been told that we’re too short or too tall, too fat or too skinny, that we have too much of an accent, or that our skin is the wrong color.
            We’ve all known the pain of rejection.
            And, I’m sure there are times that we feel like we deserve to be rejected, that maybe we’ve failed so badly or done something so wrong that we have it coming, that we’re going to be rejected and cast out.
            I’m sure there are times that we’ve messed up so badly that we think we even deserve to be rejected by God.
            Yet, the message of Scripture and the message of Baptism tells us something quite different and oh so wonderful:
            Everyone else may reject us, but God rejects rejection.
            Now, don’t you wonder what happened to our friend the Samaritan leper, that double-reject who was healed by Jesus?
            We know that he gave thanks to Jesus for not rejecting him, for healing him, for giving him new life.
            But then, what?
            Well, we don’t know, but I imagine, I hope, I expect, that for the rest of his life he held on to that gratitude and that he tried as best he could to be like God.
            I imagine that this man, who had been a double-reject, tried his best to reject rejection.
            So, there we were, a week ago Friday, at Garden State Episcopal’s homeless drop-in center, a small group who had prepared food and shown up to serve.
            There we were, a few people who have known God’s love, God’s healing, God’s unbreakable bond, here at St. Paul’s for many years, ready to offer a lovingly prepared delicious lunch to people who are homeless, people who are, let’s face it, often the lepers of our society.
            I had wondered how these “lepers” would receive what we had to offer, since when you’re really poor and suffering, when you have no place safe to sleep at night, sometimes you’re rightfully angry or depressed, sometimes you get tired of always being grateful, of always being expected to smile and say thanks.
            And, yet, that afternoon, just about everybody who took a plate of food offered thanks, sometimes repeated thanks, to us.
            And, I think we felt grateful, too - grateful that God had given us the opportunity and the ability to serve, the chance to give generously to people who can never pay us back.
            For a few minutes anyway, right there on Newark Avenue, for all of us “rejects,” it felt like the kingdom of God, it felt like the way things were always meant to be.
            God rejects rejection.