While I was researching materials about this Sunday’s readings, I ended up going down a rabbit hole of what leprosy is. See, it gets mentioned several times in the Bible, notably in this week’s readings from Luke and from 2 Kings, but also in several other books of the Bible. I looked it up, and leprosy, which is called Hansen’s disease in medical terminology, is a bacterial disease that deadens nerve endings and deforms your fingers and toes by eating away the cartilage. Throughout history and across cultures, leprosy has been treated essentially the same way: by outcasting and isolating people with it.
Up until the late nineteenth century, there was even a leper colony in Hawaii established by the American government where otherwise healthy people were sent to live in isolation together. People in developing nations with the disease are regularly shunned and avoided. And in the Bible, the prescription from the book of Leviticus for the disease—and pretty much any skin disease resembling it—was ritual isolation, wearing your hair long and messy and your clothes tattered and ragged, and shouting “unclean” anywhere you went so people knew to avoid you.
All of this is made even more tragic by the fact that leprosy isn’t contagious 98% of the time. But these are the kind of people who encountered Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and asked him to have mercy on them.
There was an extraordinary thing that happened earlier this week. Amber Guyger, who has been convicted of murdering Botham Jean after she mistakenly entered his apartment, heard words of forgiveness from Botham’s brother, Brandt. If you haven’t had a chance to see the video or read the transcript, it was incredibly moving. Brandt spoke of how he had no ill-will toward her, wishing her the best in her life, calling her to turn to Jesus, and even asking the judge if he could give her a hug.
It’s a scene I can only recall happening two other times. Once, by some family members after the Mother Emmanuel massacre who forgave the murderer for what he did; and once after a gunman killed five schoolgirls in Amish country in Pennsylvania. These stories of incredible acts of forgiveness are inspiring and also intimidating, because what kind of superhuman could forgive such an awful act? It puts the onus on the rest of us to somehow live up to that kind of selflessness of letting go, of forgetting the sin committed, of passing over punishment.
I saw a picture just recently of the city of Mumbai in India, and it struck me because on the right side of the image was what looked like a modern, wealthy city with skyscrapers and hi-rise apartments; and on the other side was a sea of squalid slums filled with shanties. And the only thing separating these two parts of the city was a tree-covered hill.
It reminded me of how, in seminary, the school was in the neighborhood of Eau Claire. Now, Eau Claire used to be a well-to-do kind of area, but in the last few decades has experienced a lot of economic depression, crime, and neglect. But if you got in your car and drove eight minutes, you could get to a part of town called The Vista. The Vista was the trendy part of town, with lots of shiny new shops and restaurants, a park by the river side, and expensive homes. That eight minute drive was all that separated the two.
Last week had a really nice parable that Jesus told his disciples. It was a wonderful reminder about the relentless love of God, that there is no road we can go down that God won’t go down to find us, that it doesn’t matter how lost we are, God will always find us. And those parables reminded us that we, too, are called to imitate the way that God loves relentlessly, looking for those who are lost, understanding how they left, and loving them back to the kingdom.
And then there’s this parable.
I can sympathize with the characters in these parables Jesus tells us today. Losing things is something I have a knack for doing. Usually it’s pretty trivial stuff, though. I lost my earbuds for my phone some time ago—not sure where they went. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of losing a pair of scissors or nail clippers, and the only way to find them is to buy a new pair. I’ve managed to misplace more pairs of sunglasses than I’d care to count. But there was one time when I lost something really, really important: my car keys.
It was last month when Annie and I were in Milwaukee for the Churchwide Assembly. We drove, but we had no plans (or time, really) to drive anywhere during the week. So, knowing how prone I am to losing things, I put the keys on the nightstand and swore to leave them there so we’d know where they were when we got ready to go at the end of the week. Only, when I was packing up the last day, the keys were nowhere to be found.
There is a road, a pretty famous road at least regionally, going through the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina, called “the road to nowhere.” It was meant to replace NC Highway 288 that was flooded when the Fontana Lake Dam was built, but shortly after it got started it hit a few snags. First, WWII was going on. Then, the rock under a significant part of the route was found to be unstable and rerouting it would lead to all kinds of cost overruns. Then, to top it all off, funds were never appropriated to finish it.
So now there’s a road that goes a few miles before abruptly ending in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Someone probably should’ve looked at what Jesus said about counting the costs before they got to work on that road to nowhere.
I might be in a weird age gap here, but does anyone remember MySpace? Before Facebook, MySpace was the social media for middle and high schoolers. But among its many features, one enduring thing that it had was your friends list. And the friends list was important, very important, to the teens who used it, because your friends were ranked, and you could change that ranking any time you wanted.
Let me tell you there was a lot of drama around the MySpace friend ranking. Inexplicably being bumped down someone’s list could easily lead to anxiety about what went wrong in your friendship. Being bumped up was a source of joy and pride. It’s a little weird how much hung on something as simple as a list on a website. It was a lot like the seating arrangement Jesus spoke about in the gospel today.
In one of my classes back in seminary, the professor put on a video for us to watch. It was from a psychology experiment. There were five people in a room, and they were passing a ball back and forth. We, the class, were supposed to count how many times the ball was passed in the course of the video. So the professor turned on the video, we all watched and counted, and then when the video ended he turned off the T.V. and asked “raise your hand if you saw the man in the gorilla suit.”
Y’all, I definitely didn’t see a man in a gorilla suit in that video. But when we re-watched the clip—now that I knew he would be there—there was totally a guy in a gorilla suit that walked literally right in between the five people tossing the ball back and forth. It was totally nuts that I didn’t even see him the first time we watched it.
Turns out, this is a phenomenon that happens all the time. When we need to focus on one thing—like counting how many times a ball is passed—other things will fade into the background to the point that our brains literally erase them from our awareness. It’s why people who get into car accidents changing lanes claim they didn’t see the car—since the other car was going about the same speed, their brain perceived it as being stationary and therefore not necessary to notice.
We actually see the world differently based on what we prioritize noticing.
This past week has been a flurry of activity for our congregation. The week has been filled with people gathering early in the morning to bake pies for the crowds that came to the fair stand. Soup was made which people inexplicably long for in the August heat. Workers took shifts at the fair stand to greet people at the fair, cook burgers, take orders, clean tables, run sodas, and count the cash register.
We are so incredibly blessed that God gave this ministry to this congregation. It is such an important ministry, and we take great pride in the fact that we are called to do it every year. Yes, there are the normal anxieties about getting enough workers and supplies and all—but this congregation always pulls together for the fair and it is always a success.
We do it because it’s one place that this congregation has put our treasure. We have our treasure in the fair by the physical presence of a building that we own and operate. We have our treasure in the fair by the long tenure of our participation—people would notice if we weren’t there one year. And we have our treasure in the fair by our pride in the good work we do together. And because this congregation has put its treasure in the fair, our heart is there too.
Hey, that sounds familiar.
We use the vocabulary of being “blessed” when things go well in our lives. When we have more than enough food on the table. When we land that new job we’ve been wanting. When the crops come in despite a difficult spring. When something good happens regarding our health. Having an abundance is a good thing. It’s a reminder of the goodness of God, and using the vocabulary of “blessed” to describe these good things really helps us reorient toward God in that goodness.
In fact, abundance shows up again and again as a way to describe God’s goodness throughout the Bible. Isaiah’s vision of the world when God makes all things new is pictured as a feast: fine wines, rich food, abundant bread for everyone. Jesus promises us that God will provide abundantly for all of our needs. Having a lot, having an abundance, is part of God’s good will for our lives.
So why is the rich man, who has enough abundance to need bigger barns, called a fool? Let’s take a look at this parable.