The wide embrace

Have it your way. Have it your way was a tagline introduced in 1974 by Burger King. Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce. Special orders don’t upset us. Have it your way. Years passed, burgers were sold, tag lines changed. Burger King reintroduced Have it your way in 2004. The four simple words still tapped into the deep current of individualism in America; in addition, the thirty-year-old slogan had a vintage feel, and vintage was hip. Have you ever read what’s printed on the bag they hand you with your burger and fries at the drive-through? Listen to this:

Have it your way. You have the right to have what you want, exactly when you want it. Because on the menu of life, you are “Today’s Special”. And tomorrow’s. And the day after that. And… well, you get the drift. Yes, that’s right. We may be the King, but you my friend, are the almighty ruler.

Yeah, it’s a little over the top. But only a little. Henri Nouwen, while traveling in Latin America in the early 80’s, saw something, noticed something important.

We people of the first world emphasize our rights. We claim our right to food, health, shelter, and education. [We] relate to the goods of life as possessions that are ours and [that] need to be conquered ... and defended. Although the poor in the third world do not deny that they have basic human rights, their emphasis is on the giftedness of life ... The goods that come to them are experienced as free gifts of God ... gifts to be grateful for and to celebrate.

Nouwen paints with a broad brush and he may be dangerously close to romanticizing poverty, but he has noticed something worth pondering: Some members of the human family live in a world where we’re being taught that on the menu of life we are “today’s special” and the almighty ruler. Others live in a world where life is gift after gift after gift.

Peter Marty comments, “Gratitude becomes completely superfluous when life is viewed as entitlement instead of gift.”[1]  We gather here Sunday after Sunday for a variety of reasons, but one of them is our hope that the vintage jingles we sing in worship, we call them doxologies, shape our perception of the world and how we live in it.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow… gift after gift after gift, flowing from the heart of God… Praise God all creatures here below… all that has life and breath… Praise God above ye heavenly host… earth and heaven joined in praise… Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost… praise God who is the giver and the gift and the giving in the perfect mutuality of love.

We worship God because there’s something about life that calls for it. We worship God because we have seen something, noticed something that makes us want to say thank you, sing thank you, live thank you. And we worship so we learn to see even more fully until all that we are becomes one gift of praise to God. John Burkhart reminds us that,

“What matters … is not whether God can be God without our worship. What is crucial is whether humans can survive as humans without worshiping. To withhold acknowledgment, to avoid celebration, to stifle gratitude, may prove as unnatural as holding one’s breath.”[2]

Martin Luther was once asked to describe the nature of true worship. His answer: the tenth leper turning back.

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem when he was approached by ten men with leprosy. Luke writes he was traveling between Samaria and Galilee, only there wasn’t any land between the two, there was, however, a line. There was no border, no border control, no fence or wall, but there was a line, a sharp line drawn between two groups of people who hadn’t been friendly with each other for generations, Jews and Samaritans. The enmity between them was entrenched and old. They disagreed about things that mattered most to them: how to honor God, where to worship, what set of scrolls to accept as sacred scripture. The line between them wasn’t so much on the land as it was in the heart, the mind, and the imagination. They did what they could to avoid contact with each other.

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, traveling between Samaria and Galilee, when he was approached by ten men with leprosy. Leprosy was more than a name for skin blemishes that looked suspicious and triggered fear of contagion. Leprosy was a sentence to exile. These men had been banished from their homes and villages; who knows how long they had not felt the loving touch of spouses, children, parents, friends. It didn’t matter any more which side of the line they once claimed as home, which community they claimed as theirs. It didn’t matter any more who they used to be or dreamed of being, now they were lepers. Whoever saw them didn’t see them as persons, but as no-longer-persons, untouchables pushed out and left to beg and wander in the invisible land between Samaria and Galilee. “They shall live alone; their dwelling shall be outside the camp,” the law of Moses, which was the law of Jews and Samaritans, declared.[3]

These ten no-longer-persons who had been dwelling outside the camp for who knows how long approached Jesus, begging for mercy, and Jesus saw these invisible ones. “Go, show yourselves to the priests,” he responded to their plea. The priests, of course, were very much “inside the camp,” they were the ones responsible for determining if a rash was leprous or not. The priests were the ones who would examine the skin and decide if a man or woman could return from their exile after the blemish had faded. “Go, show yourselves to the priests,” Jesus said to the ten, as though it was time for their return to life. And as they went, they were made clean.

Unclean meant not belonging. Made clean meant they belonged again. Made clean meant they could return to all that makes us persons – family, community, intimacy. Made clean meant they could touch and be touched, embrace and be embraced, hold the baby, kiss the children, hug their wives, do their work, eat and drink with their friends.

The ten had encountered Jesus in the land of not-belonging and they were not just cured, but healed, restored to wholeness. One of them, though, when he saw that he was healed, didn’t continue on his journey to see the priests. One of them turned back, praising God with a loud voice, and he thanked Jesus. One of them, when he saw that he was healed, saw something the others didn’t. Nine of the ten got their old lives back. One found new life. And he was a Samaritan.

Again it was a Samaritan who saw what others didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t see. At the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus told a story about a man who fell into the hands of robbers on the Jericho Road. You know the story. A priest happened to come down that road, and when he saw the victim, he passed by on the other side. Next a Levite came to the place and saw the man, and he passed by on the other side. And then a third man came near, and when he saw the man, he was moved with pity. And he was a Samaritan.

On the dangerous Jericho Road and in the no-man’s-land between groups tangled and trapped in enmity it’s an outsider who sees what others don’t. It’s an outsider whose actions reveal what being a neighbor is about. It’s an outsider who sees that in Jesus the kingdom of God is present.

Ten cried out for mercy. Ten were made clean. Nine went home and lived happily ever after; nothing suggests that their healing was revoked. One, however, turned back and gave praise to God at Jesus’ feet.

In Jesus, the kingdom of God has broken into the invisible land between Samaria and Galilee, the land of non-belonging where the exiles dwell, longing for redemption and crying out for mercy. Leprosy is a way to name all modes of non-belonging and being cut-off from life. For some of us, complete isolation may be difficult to imagine, but to the degree that we are not at one with the world, not at one with each other and with ourselves, we all know what it means to wander the roads outside the camp, longing for life that is nothing but life.

The Samaritan saw that with Jesus the kingdom of God had entered the world. He saw an embrace so wide, it wouldn’t create yet one more camp in our broken, divided world, but one redeemed humanity, healed and saved in the arms of God’s mercy and at home. He saw grace so deep, his whole life became gratitude and praise.

Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to the cross, and we know that his journey was more than a long walk across a piece of Middle Eastern geography. He traveled through the vast, invisible land between, his feet tracing the many lines that divide us, his hands stretched out to either side in the most vulnerable gesture of reconciliation; he went all the way to the cross, erected outside the city gates, outside the camp, any camp – and there the deep divide between us and God was revealed, the violent pride of God’s human creatures presuming to be the almighty rulers. And there God’s faithfulness prevailed.

Can you see how wide an embrace this is? So, yes, make a joyful noise, all the earth; sing the glory of God’s name.


[1] The Christian Century, August 17, 2016, p. 3.

[2] John Burkhart, quoted in A Sourcebook about Liturgy, ed. by Gabe Huck (Chicago: LTP, 1994), 148.

[3] Leviticus 13:46

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