“As a person who loves the church, I know that it is all too easy to get caught up in ‘the recipe.’ And as an Episcopalian, this is perhaps most evident in how we do worship. It is clear, to any visitor off the streets, that there are a number of steps that we follow as we move through the liturgy…. And yet all of that means nothing, if we don’t turn back towards Jesus at the end of the day, after all of those steps, to give praise where praise is due – just like the Samaritan in our Gospel reading today.”
Sermon Preached: Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022 at Trinity on the Green
Between the words that I speak and the words that are heard, may God’s spirit be present. Amen.
I love a complicated baking project – the more complicated, the better. Give me a recipe with 30 different steps. A six layer opera cake. Macarons with fancy flavors and fillings. A puff pastry that has to be folded and rolled out, folded and rolled out, over and over again. I don’t bake that often these days, but when I do I want it to be an event.
One of my crowning achievements as a baker is something that is very much related to our life here at Trinity Church on the Green. In 2019 I was chatting with Kyle Picha, our current Communications Director turned office manager, and somehow we got to wondering aloud, “now wouldn’t it be cool if we made a gingerbread house in the shape of Trinity?” Kyle, for better and for worse, suffers from the same kind of baking compulsions that I do. We set to baking, and six hours later had produced a miniature replica of Trinity in gingerbread, complete with candy stained glass windows and a small cookie cutout of Jeff, our head sexton, propped by the front door. We set the gingerbread bar high – and honestly, I don’t think I will ever attempt something like that again. It was just too perfect, in the moment.
I’ve been thinking about baking projects these days – not because of the return of a new season of the Great British Bake-off (though I certainly have been watching that) – but because of our scripture readings this week. “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?” These are the words of a servant to the army general Naaman, in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures today. Naaman is a powerful man afflicted with leprosy. Elisha, the prophet, is sent to Naaman to show the power of the God of Israel by healing Naaman’s sickness. Elisha’s prescription for the sick man is relatively simple: go wash in the Jordan River seven times, and you will be healed. Naaman fights this advice. The solution is too simple, too humble, too different from the magical wave of a hand that Naaman was expecting. Naaman would have preferred a complicated solution – a 30 step recipe with hard-to-find ingredients and a long, drawn out process. Thanks to the servant’s pointed comment, Naaman decides to follow the instructions of the prophet Elisha after all. Naaman is healed, and emerges from the Jordan River praising the God of the People of Israel.
Miracles in the Bible sometimes feel like they should come with a recipe. Bathe in the Jordan seven times, says the prophet Elisha. This, apparently, is the recipe for curing leprosy. Or we might think of the miracles of Elisha’s teacher, Elijah. His instructions are even more complicated: dig a trench around an altar, and fill four jars with water, and pour it on the wood on top of the altar. Repeat three times. This, apparently, is the recipe for calling down fire from the skies when trying to prove a point to the prophets of Baal, in 1 Kings Chapter 18. And finally, no miracle recipe book would be complete without an entire section on the miracles of Jesus. For example, fill six stone jars with water, and remove some to take to the chief steward. This, in the Gospel of John, is the recipe for making wine at the Wedding at Cana. Or consider the recipe for a miracle when a blind man seeks healing in the Gospel of Mark: put my spit on your eyes, and you will be healed. How’s that for a miracle? Sometimes, the recipe for healing is deceptively simple. “Go, show yourselves to the priests,” Jesus says to a group of ten lepers seeking healing in our Gospel passage for today. Surely this is something the lepers would have thought of already. And yet somehow, on the journey to see the priests, the lepers are healed. The “recipes” for healing and other types of miracles in the Bible are as vast and varied as the people in need of God’s love and healing. They are as vast and varied as the people gathered in our congregation here, today.
When you think about miracles in the Bible, and your own search for healing in this place, do you find yourself falling into the same mindset as Naaman? Do you find yourself wanting things to be overly-complicated – or stuck in a particular vision of what healing should look like? I can tell you, from experience, that there is no single roadmap or “recipe” for healing in the church. For some people, healing might come by sitting anonymously in a back pew, letting the prayers and the music wash over you. For other people, healing might come by getting involved – sometimes intensely involved. It might look like volunteering for committees, or vestry, or getting involved with service opportunities. For others, healing might look like worshiping alongside our neighbors outside at Chapel on the Green. And for others, healing might look like joining the choir, making music that is even more beautiful because it is made in community.
Our scripture passages for today are a reminder to not be so rigid in what we expect church to be – to not over complicate things, or be too narrow minded about where we expect Jesus to show up in our lives. We human beings get so caught up with “the recipe.” We become attached to a particular routine dictated to us by tradition, or experience, or habit. And yet God works through our lives in many different ways. God works through the church in many different ways. Like Naaman, we are invited to let go of our expectations around how God works. Instead we are invited to listen, to discern, to be open to change, to be open to God moving in and through us.
We might also take our cue from the one leper in our Gospel passage today who returned to Jesus once he was healed. This story is surprisingly vague about how the healing of the ten lepers takes place. The how is besides the point. Instead, this story focuses on what the lepers do after they are healed. Do they turn toward Jesus, the source of their hope and their healing, like the one Samaritan who ran back to give praise where praise is due? Or do they hurry back to their ordinary lives, ready to get caught up in old patterns and habits; ready to attribute their healing to the priests rather than the God who works through them?
As a person who loves the church, I know that it is all too easy to get caught up in “the recipe.” And as an Episcopalian, this is perhaps most evident in how we do worship. It is clear, to any visitor off the streets, that there are a number of steps that we follow as we move through the liturgy. These steps are based on traditions that have been passed down through centuries. For example, when I preside at communion: I lift the bread, I cross the bread, I bow towards the bread, I break the bread – and I do all of these things at a particular moment with a particular intention in mind. It’s not unlike a recipe – a recipe for consecrating holy communion. And yet all of that means nothing, if we don’t turn back towards Jesus at the end of the day, after all of those steps, to give praise where praise is due – just like the Samaritan in our Gospel reading today. It isn’t our manual actions that make communion real. It is Jesus. It always was, and always is Jesus.
I love a complicated recipe – not only in the kitchen, but also, metaphorically speaking, in church. I love our liturgy: the words that we say, the structure we follow, the cross and candles that we carry. I love our music, our choirs. I love the Anglican tradition, and the diverse global voices that are a part of it. I love our stained glass – even if it isn’t made up of actual candy. All of these things are beautiful. And all of these things are means of God’s grace, and mercy, and healing.
Scripture shows us that God does indeed work in complicated, intricate ways. But it is also true that God sometimes works in straightforward, simple ways. Sometimes we are simply told to bathe in the Jordan River, and be healed.
Stay open to God. God works in many different ways, and there is no right way to be healed. There is no right way to be a Christian, to the exclusion of all others. And yes, there is no right way to do church. Our task is not to worship the road that we travel, but simply to walk on it. And at the end of the day turn your heart again to the one who sets our feet on the journey; the one who walks on the journey with us. Turn again to Jesus – without whom, none of this makes any sense. Turn again to Jesus – recognizing the source of our life and our healing, giving praise where praise is due. Amen.