The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23 - 10 October 2010

Dawdling, a poem by Catherine Pratt
II Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
II Timothy 2:8-15
Saint Luke 17:11-19


The Book of Kings (usually divided in to two parts) was written to address a great existential dilemma on the part of the Jews of Palestine.  Their capital in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587.  The walls had been breached, the temple destroyed, and leading citizens taken off to an exile in Babylon.  What was to be believed about the God who had made a covenant with Israel?  Kings is not a history, but rather a theology that wrestles with the nation’s demise, and the God they believed in.  This technique was not new, for the writers and editors that had formed the separate strands of the Torah, had also written a theologized history.  Rather than have the reader know which kings was when, and what he did, the author attempts to get at the theological why of the events of history. 

First Reading: II Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman's wife. She said to her mistress, "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy."

When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, "Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me."

But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, "Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel." So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha's house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean." But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, `Wash, and be clean'?" So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel."

Namaan bathes himself in the river.

This is a sermon on desperate prayer and subsequent thanksgiving, which appears in the cycle of stories about the great prophet Elisha.  The characters are classic.  There is the prophet; the king of Syria (probably Ben-hadad) and leader of a country that represented a direct threat to the Kingdom of Israel; a young girl, a captive of the Syrians; the king of Israel (probably Jehoram) a leader that Elisha has been critical of.  The situation is familiar.  Naaman, “a commander of the army”, had contracted leprosy.  Leprosy as used in the Bible can cover a variety of diseases, some curable.  Normally, Naaman would have been quarantined, but in this story he is still functioning in society. The innocent child, the true believer, recommends the healing of the great prophet.  The story shows the complications of prayer – its simplicities, and its complications.  This reading ends with the faith of Naaman.  In the healings of Jesus, faith is usually the starting point of such healings.  Also of special interest is that the extra-national (and enemy of Israel) is brought to faith, an example of the growing universalistic attitudes at this time.

Breaking open Second Kings:

1.     Which character in the story do you find to be the most compelling?  The most faithful
2.     What is the role of the young girl?
3.     What is the role of the prophet?  What difficult words does he have to impart?

Psalm 111 Confitebor tibi

I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, *
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the deeds of the LORD! *
they are studied by all who delight in them.

His work is full of majesty and splendor, *
and his righteousness endures for ever.

He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; *
the LORD is gracious and full of compassion.

He gives food to those who fear him; *
he is ever mindful of his covenant.

He has shown his people the power of his works *
in giving them the lands of the nations.

The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice; *
all his commandments are sure.

They stand fast for ever and ever, *
because they are done in truth and equity.

He sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant for ever; *
holy and awesome is his Name.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; *
those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
his praise endures for ever.

This praise psalm is a short acrostic, with the initial of each verset representing a letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Its praises are general and not particular, and as such it is probably not a psalm of thanksgiving.  The final verse of the psalm, familiar to most Christians, probably commended this psalm to the framers of the lectionary, in that the verse is a comment on the faith of Namaan and the lepers.

Breaking open Psalm 111:
1.       What praises does the author give to God?
2.       What does the psalmist mean when he talks about “all the works of his hands are faithfulness and justice”?  What does that mean for you?
3.       What is the “fear” of the Lord?  How does “wisdom” emanate from such fear?

II Timothy 2:8-15

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David-- that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 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. 

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

The Yellow Crucifixion, Gaugin

Paul is commending an attitude to his timid apostle, Timothy.  The strength of Paul’s faith and his courage are what he wishes to impart to his young partner in Ephesus.  Probably written from a prison in Rome, Paul candidly talks about his being in chains.  With this setting, Paul espouses the virtues of endurance and faithfulness.  These are the behaviors he would like to see in Timothy.  It appears that the congregation at Ephesus was challenging the work that Timothy was doing, and Paul wants to assure Timothy not only of his (Timothy’s) authority but of the strength of his faith.  He sees Timothy as “approved by God” and unashamed – a virtue he extols for all the faithful.

Breaking open II Timothy:
  1. Do aspects of your faith make you timid or afraid?  Why?
  2. Paul practices his faith in difficult circumstances.  Are there difficulties in your life?  How does your faith overcome them?
  3. How are you “approved by God”?

Saint Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."

There is a great deal of discussion about this reading, which follows thematically last Sunday’s Gospel about the nature of service and thanksgiving.  The question is, is this really a healing story, or is it a parable in which Luke has Jesus teach about thanksgiving.  Unique to Luke, it may be based on a reading of Mark 1:40-45, and is certainly a parallel to the first reading for today.  Both Naaman and the one leper return to give thanks.  And this seems to be the point.  There is none of the usual Lucan “amazement” on the part of the crowd that witnesses these events and then believe.  The other interesting parallel is that the lepers are probably Samaritans, and like Naaman, outsiders.  Luke’s familiarity with the Pauline mission to the gentiles would demand such an inclusive take on this story, or parable.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How important is a thank you note to you?  How do you feel if you don’t receive one?
  2. How do you feel if you don’t send one?
  3. What are the points of similarity between the first reading and the Gospel?

Contemporary Reading: Dawdling, by Katherine Pratt

Dawdling in the church
On one of those blank days,
I cannot think of much
That is good or wise.

My fingers idly stroke
The pew’s polished grain
Worn as smooth as silk
Since Eighteen Forty-nine.

This unaltered air
Has been here from the start,
Thick with all the prayer
offered into it.

Shadows in the nave
And pictures on the glass
Invite an elusive
Simplicity of grace,

But I think of all
the mortal need brought here
By so many people
For so many years,

And freeze into a far
Philosophical abyss
Between what they prayed for
And what came to pass.

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


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