Sermon: “A Letter to God”
Preached; October 10, 2022
Scriptures: Luke 17:11-19; Psalm 111
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
Holy Christ, I wanted to write you an open letter this morning for a few reasons, all of which you already know. The fact that you know the contents of this letter is one of the fun parts about writing a letter to you, but I am fairly certain you do not mind my sharing this letter with your congregation.
One reason I chose to write you a letter this morning is the very real tiredness which comes from attending Annual Conference for several days in a row. Preaching a sermon while looking people in the eye and focusing on body language is a bit much after several days of long meetings. Such a presentation might be beyond me this morning, but presenting a letter is within my capacity.
Another reason is the very real challenge that comes with the subject matter. You know the subject we are speaking around is very near and dear to my heart as a person. I wanted to choose my words carefully around this touchy subject, so I chose each word in advance this week.
So, dear Lord, let me get to the heart of why I wanted to write to you today. The scripture reading that we just read included a psalm from the Hebrew Scriptures around the work of God and a story from Christ’s life. The psalm shared how your goodness and majesty are embodied within the earth. You are described in words with words like majestic, glorious, righteous, and honest. In covenant, you are revealed as faithful, trustworthy, merciful, and compassionate.
Now, you know what I do for a living. As an Elder in the United Methodist Church I am called to a ministry where I share the Word, offer the Sacraments, invite others alongside the community into a life of Christian Service, and Order the church life through acts of administration with ordained authority. While I live out my ordained role within the community I perform wedding rites, counsel and encourage individuals and couples in relationships, and help to advocate and work towards ensuring that the churches I serve are safe places for children and vulnerable adults. I am in ministry with elder saints, married adults, single adults, adults in relationships, with teenagers, and with children. To put it in Methodist terms, since “the world is my parish,” I am called to minister to all parts of the community and not simply the people who walk through the doors of my church or who officially enter church membership..
I enjoy what I do for a living. I derive comfort from helping others. I enjoy sharing in deep conversations about you (God) and about what life can be like while living with you. If it were not for paperwork, there are very few days where going to work feels like drudgery, but that does not mean that it is always easy or painless.
In those moments of both joy and pain, I rely on you both as the One who walks with us and sets an example for us. You, Lord, are all the things described in our psalm. When I marry people, I share with them about the way that Christ models a healthy way to live in love with a spouse. When I confirm students into church membership, I ask those students point blank about their relationship with you, their divine parent and Savior. All of these conversations use relationships as a simile for our relationship with you. God, you are like our Parent. God, you are like our spouse.
So, what am I supposed to do when I come across places where spouses hit spouses? Didn’t I just say that a loving relationship with a partner is like a loving relationship with you? Do such analogies work after a spouse bruises a spouse? Do they do more harm than good after such moments? In a similar vein, what do I say when a teenager tells me that their parent or parents tear them down? What do I say when a child tells me that their parent does not love them? What do I say when a child mentions one parent hitting another?
The other day you know that I had Chinese for lunch on the first day of the Annual Conference. You know what that fortune cookie told me. The cookie stated in bold fashion that “Fate loves the fearless.” You know that I read that fortune and thought of this moment in this letter to you. You know the questions I wanted to ask after reading that short little proverb.
It is nice to think that people who are unafraid have a place to live in this world. What of the others? Who favors the fearful? Who favors the frightened? Who favors those who have felt pigeonholed into places of darkness and doom?
We know as a people that domestic violence is not okay. The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church affirms that belief when it shares on behalf of the church the words: “We recognize that family violence and abuse in all its forms—verbal, psychological, physical, sexual—is detrimental to the covenant of the human community.”
We understand that domestic violence is not acceptable and harms the covenants within our community. We understand that God cares for us deeply and does not want us to suffer in such ways, but these actions happen in spite of our best intentions and desires.
So what do we do, Lord? Where do I point as a proclaimer of the Word? If people see you as their divine parent and their example of a parent is violent, then how do I share that there’s a difference between what the worst of humanity shows us and the way you want to care for us? Where can I point? Where can I tell a hurt person to look?
Of course, you know the answer to that question. I already know the answer to that question. A lot of people who have spent time in church know where I should invite people to look. Where do I point people who have such questions, concerns, and fears?
I point them to Jesus. When they need to see a person whose life is marked by compassionate love rather than impassioned hatred, I point them to Jesus. When they need to see a person who does more than say pretty words, I point them to Jesus. Jesus not only spoke about love and nonviolence, but went so far as to heal the ear of a soldier who was hurt by Jesus’ disciple when that soldier came to arrest Jesus on the night before his crucifixion.
Look at our story! Jesus is confronted on the road by ten people with skin diseases which were identified by translators for many years as leprosy. There are ten lepers on the road who need help. They are unclean and by both religious law and cultural tradition they had to keep their distance from Jesus and his disciples. From a distance they cry out for help.
Does Jesus berate them? Does Jesus throw things at them? Does Jesus mock them? Does Jesus ignore them? Does Jesus tell them to go somewhere else? Jesus does none of these things.Jesus heals them. All ten of them. Nine of them are healed, but apparently have their own plans about what to do next. The nine walk away, but one returns.
Was this person a rich person? We don’t see that in the text. Was this cleansed person a person of importance? We don’t see that in the text. What we do see is that this person was that there was more going on with this person than just a skin disease. This person was a foreigner from outside the Jewish people. Beyond unclean, this person’s entire being was outside of the people God called and sanctified in the desert.
So, Jesus was nice to this leper when there was just a disease and the leper was one of many. Perhaps now Jesus will reject this person as a distraction, a nuisance, or an outsider? Perhaps now Jesus will strike the foreigner, mock the foreigner, or just ignore the fact that they have returned.
Jesus doesn’t do any of those terrible things. Jesus does not strike out at this person physically, verbally, or even culturally. Jesus invites this person to go forth as a person who has been healed. Even though the praise of God comes from someone other than a child of Abraham, Jesus welcomes the praise, accepts the thanks, and sends this person out with a blessing. There isn’t even a touch of cruelty shown to this person. All that remains is love and kindness for a person who needed help.
This is the kind of example that I point to when I tell people to love their partner like Jesus. This is the kind of behavior a loving parent should show their child, should model in their home, and should ideally invite their child to share with someone else one day. Do I expect that anyone can live this kind of a loving life 24/7 without divine help? No, but this is the ideal.
The love shown by Christ when shared between two people is holy and good. It does not harm or hate. It does not mock or denigrate. It does not tear down or destroy. It is good, holy, and kind. This is the love I want people to share with God. This is the kind of love that I pray will fill the lives of the people who stand before me when I perform a marriage. This is the kind of love I pray will anoint every child and every adult that I baptize. This is love incarnate.
Of course, I know that trust is hard, especially after the wounding that can take place when people face domestic violence. Here’s what I propose. God, if we do our best to trust that you are kind, loving, and graceful, will you help us to believe? Will you meet us in the moment we are tempted to see you in the same light as the broken parts of humanity we may have seen? Will you help us to believe in you when the worst criticisms of all come from within?
Truthfully, although this letter addresses domestic violence as a major issue, I hope that you will meet people who struggle to believe in a loving God in other situations. Some people live life with happy parents, loving children, and without a cloud in the sky of their home life while still struggling to believe. Will you meet them too? Right here and right now, will you meet them if you ask for help?
I trust you will meet everyone who turns to you in these moments. I trust you will help people to come to know love deeply, to understand hope intimately, and to cultivate faith in the internal garden they share with you.
Likewise, I trust that the people who hear me read this letter to you or who read it later on their own will understand the message that should not need to be said. The Book of Resolutions teaches after the passage we read before that:
“We encourage the Church to provide a safe environment, counsel, and support for the victim and to work with the abuser to understand the root causes and forms of abuse and to overcome such behaviors. Regardless of the cause or the abuse, both the victim and the abuser need the love of the Church. While we deplore the actions of the abuser, we affirm that person to be in need of God’s redeeming love.”¶161.ii.h. “The Nurturing Community, Family violence and abuse” in the Book Of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church, 2016
If someone who reads these words needs help, we are called to be a place where help can be found, whether they are the victims or perpetrators of domestic violence. All people are called to the redeeming and redemptive God of love and we will do our best to walk with each person who comes in need of help. Taking it a step further theologically and philosophically, as a church we will work with you through the Spirit so that we can do better than our best in such moments.
In the end God, for me the journey towards healing begins in trusting in You. Whether we are recovering from abuse, facing abuse, living out destructive patterns of abuse, or walking with others who face such terrors, we are called to trust in Christ. Like the foreigner long ago, we can choose to walk away even after Christ works in our lives. We can also choose to come back in faith.
It is only in returning to Christ that the cleansed person found welcome. It is only by stepping towards God in faith that the foreigner was sent forth with a blessing. In stepping towards Christ an example was set where blessing came from drawing near even after all was made right in that person’s life.
I would end this letter with a straightforward prayer: Holy God, help us to draw near to you. As someone who has faced such circumstances, help me to offer words of hope to others as a minister, an advocate, and as a Christian. Help each Christian to stand for a world where abuse fades in the light of love. Teach us to advocate for redemption in the lives of the least of these as well as healing in the lives of those they have abused. Help us to treat them like we would treat Jesus. Let that light of love shine in dark corners and help to bring hope into the darkest of places. We ask for your help in Jesus’ name. Amen.
October has been Domestic Violence Awareness month since it was first introduced by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 1981. Regardless of the month, domestic violence is never okay, no matter the circumstances. If you or someone you know is in desperate need of help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224.