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Sermon, January 8, 2023

A Sermon
The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ
January 8, 2023

“When is Enough, Enough?”

And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Hebrews 2:17[i]

You would think that a dove alighting on the head of Jesus and a voice from heaven proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God would have been enough, that everyone there that day would have become ardent believers.  But the text falls silent.  It speaks of this miraculous epiphany and fails to mention the reaction of the crowd.  It’s almost as if it never happened.

            A good number of biblical scholars think this story of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist is given such a prominent position in the life of Jesus because Jesus and John were both seen as viable candidates for the title of Messiah.  Indeed, they say that John the Baptist’s disciples didn’t disappear from the historical record until the second century.  So this story serves the purpose of making a clear distinction between John, who is seen as the one who prepares the way, and Jesus, who is proclaimed to be the Son of God.  So the author wasn’t all that concerned with the reaction of the crowd.  That isn’t what Matthew was shooting for.  Thus, we never learn how the crowd responded to the dove and the voice.

            I probably shouldn’t do this — I don’t have the academic credentials to call into question the scholarship I just cited — but what if there is another way to see this?  What if there is an important spiritual point being made about what it means to believe?

            Let’s see if this helps me make my point.  A motion picture came out in 1977 staring John Denver and George Burns entitled, O God.  Denver plays the role of a supermarket assistant manager who was married and had two children.  His life was going well until one day God decided to pay him a visit.  God, played by George Burns, enlists Denver’s help.  God wants him to get the word out, to convince others of God’s existence.  Denver tells others, his wife included, that he has talked with God.  His assertion is meet with universal skepticism.  Even Denver’s wife wonders if he isn’t losing his mind.  As the movie unfolds, Denver becomes a liability to his employer, loses his job and eventually finds himself in court having to defend seeing God.  God, a.k.a. George burns, lends Denver a hand and appears in court as a witness.  God testifies, performs a miracle for all to see, and you might think that Denver has won the day, that God’s existence is now irrefutable.  But in only a few minutes, the entire event is reasoned away and life returns to its predictable normality.  What I take from the film and from this story of a dove alighting on the head of Jesus and a voice from heaven heard by all is that belief is more than a momentary experience.  It is the formation of a life.

            You see, intellectual assent, our ability to accept as real those things that seem to contradict our perceived reality, may be one of the steps in believing in God, but I do not think this where faith begins.  I want to suggest that these words of Dag Hammarskjöld point us in the direction of a deeper truth.

You dare your Yes and experience a meaning.
You repeat your Yes and all things acquire a meaning.
When everything has a meaning,
How can live anything but a Yes?

I believe Kierkegaard got it right.  Faith is leap into 70 fathoms of water.  It is a risk that only those who have been blessed by grace are willing to take.

            When I say it is a risk, I do not mean it is devoid of reason.  One candid glimps of the worded mess humanity has made of the world make the leap reasonable.  Because the truth of the matter is that the way of the world has failed to produce human virtue.  The world lives not by the Golden Rule of doing unto others what you would want done unto you, but by the Silver Rule of “Do it unto others before they have a chance to do it unto you.”  To speak of the meek inheriting the earth, of turning the other check and carrying an oppressors heavy load beyond the required one mile — these seem folly to the world that measures one’s worth by the size of one’s financial holdings.

            Now we all live in this world.  But there are those who have been blessed by grace to see another way and have been granted the courage to take that leap of faith.  It is what you have done.  By your presence here today, you bear witness to a different way.  You have attempted to shape your life around a set of valises that seem like nonsense to the world.  Oh, none of us has done it perfectly, but our failure to be perfect must never stand in the way of what is possible.  So, today we speak of a dove alighting in the head of Jesus, of a voice from heavne proclaiming Jeus to be God’s Son.  You may not be able to see the dove or believe in the voice, but take the leap of faith and cast your life in the mold of Jesus and the dove will be seen and voice heard.  Let us pray….

[i] Matthew 3:13-17

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Sermon, January 1, 2023

A Sermon
The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

January 1, 2023

“Made Perfect Through Suffering”

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.

Hebrews 2:10[i]

A little over a week ago we were singing peace on earth, joy to the world, O little town of Bethlehem.  This week?  Not so much.  This week we are brought before this stark truth — “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”  It seems a rather stark transition.

            Let me be clear, however, with the scope of this sermon.  I intend to explore how the suffering of Jesus made Jesus the perfect savior.  I am not attempting to explain why human beings suffer neither am I implying that suffering somehow brings us to perfection.  I am limiting the scope of this sermon.  I want to explore why God in the Second Person of the Trinity, was made perfect through sufferings.  Why you suffer?  I don’t know.  What I do know is you do.  Every human being suffers.  Some are blessed with lives of relative ease, but no one passes through life without some measure of suffering.  Everyone here today knows this to be true.  Which brings me to my first point.

            A savior who knows nothing of human suffering is no savior at all.  I don’t need to be saved from happiness.  I don’t need salvation from peace, neither do I need to be rescued from joy.  No.  I await a salvation that releases me from the grip of darkness and lifts me beyond despair.  So a joyous savior fails to meet my most pressing need.  In the end, I stand with Thomas.  You remember?  In the twentieth chapter of John Jesus appears before the disciples in a locked room.  Thomas who was not present when Christ first appeared before them, had listened to the witness of the other ten but said that he would not believe until he had placed his hand in Jesus’ wounded side and his fingers in the holes in Christ’s hands.  Unless the wounded Jesus was the risen Jesus, Thomas would not believe.  I’m with Thomas.  I need a wounded Jesus who saves the whole of me — wounds and warts and all — and unless the wounded Jesus is the risen Jesus, I fail to see how my salvation is complete.  So, my first point is this — a savior who knows nothing of human suffering is no savior at all.

            And it’s a good thing this was left in God’s hands.  If I had been the one to writing this story of salvation, I suspect I would have focused more on God’s power.  I would have wanted a God who would wipe all suffering away, who would bring a new day into being when human suffering was a thing of the past and immortality assured.  I would have been more concerned with omnipotence than with companionship.  This is what I might have wanted.  But the German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, has an insight for us today:

“… a God who is only omnipotent is in himself an incomplete being, for he cannot experience helplessness and powerlessness.  Omnipotence can indeed be longed for and worshiped by helpless men, but omnipotence is never loved; it is only feared.  What sort of a being, then, would be a God who was only ‘almighty’?  He would be a being without experience, a being without destiny and a being who is loved by no one.”[1]

A savior who knows nothing of human suffering is no savior at all.

            The Second Person of the Trinity was made perfect through suffering for a second reason —namely, suffering may be inevitable, but it need not be final.  For some of us, there have been days when the sufferings set before us were enough to defeat us.  I have never suffered the loss of a spouse, the premature death of a child.  Such losses can bring us to the brink of emotional ruin.             In one of the churches I have had the privilege to serve, I was going about my day unaware of the horror one of the families in the church was passing through.  I got a phone call and I fell into disbelief.  O beautiful child had died of Sudden Death Syndrome.  I don’t know to this day what they listed as the cause of death.  What I do know is how devastated the family was, how overwhelming their grief.  I was asked to do the eulogy and pondered long and hard as to what I would say.  The child’s life had been brief.  There were no accomplishments to point to or noble deeds done.  Rather, I focused on our sense of loss.  In the end I told the story of film I had shared with the youth group.  It told the fictional story of a man whose job was to secure a railroad bridge that spanned a river.  The bridge was unique.  It pivoted on its axis so most of the time, the train tracks were parallel to the river’s shore.  At a particular time each day, the man would row out to the bridge and throw the switch that moved the treks back into place thus connecting the two shore lines.  One day the man set out to do his job.  He arrived at the bridge, threw the switch that connected the rail

[1] Moltmann, Jurgen, The Crucified God.

[i] Hebrews 2:10-18

10It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” 13And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”

14Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.17Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Sermon (A Homily), December 24, 2022

A Homily
The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

December 24, 2022

“The Darkness Has Not Overcome It”

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

John 1:5[i]

I’m going to ask you to do something you probably didn’t come here to do.  Most, myself included, love singing Christmas carols, hearing the story told again, marveling at God made flesh and kicking in the straw, the glow of candle light.  It’s all warm and fuzzy.  And I suspect we could stay cuddling the baby Jesus and go home with a warm glow in our hearts.  I could do it.  I could craft a message that sooths rather than confronts.  But I believe I am called to lay open a deeper fact.  I think my brother, Doug, who died of an AIDS related illness in 1988, captured the proper tension between the birth of Jesus and what awaits Him as a man. 

Shepherd keep you flock tonight
And hasten not to town.
Content you with the starry light,
The Angel’s joyful sound.

Tis royal sure the birth they sing
Throughout the troubled sky.
But though the Child was born a King
He was but born to die.

So stay you on the hill, my friend
With mind and body whole.
Life is short, tis best to tend your sheep
And not your soul.


The road which from Judea led,
Was it for gain or loss?
And was the wood of manger bed
Intended for a cross?

It is to that tension that I now turn.  What makes the birth of Jesus unique is not the birth itself.  For the fact of the matter is birth is rather common.  Indeed, it is estimated that each day on average there are 385,000 births worldwide and that the total number of births in 2022 will be around 137 million.[1]  Birth is not terribly remarkable.  Indeed, only two out of the four gosples found in the Bible have infancy narratives.  The other two — Mark and John — don’t tell us anything about the birth of Jesus.  We mark His birth not because of what happened in Bethlehem but what took place on Golgotha.

            The words that serve as our text — namely, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” can only be affirmed after we have taken on the reality of Golgotha’s darkness.  The theologian, Joseph Sittler, answered why the cross is the central symbol of our faith when he wrote:

“A cross is a blunt and graceless form.  It has not the completeness and satisfying quality of a circle.  It does not have the grace of a parabola or the promise of a long curve.  A cross is a straight-up line abruptly crossed by a counterline.  The assertive yes of its vertical is crossed and broken by the no of its horizontal.  A cross speaks not of unity but of brokenness, not of harmony but of ambiguity; it is a form of tension and not of rest….The cross is the symbol because the whacks of life take that shape.  Our lives are full of abandonments, infidelities, tragedies.  The affirmation is always crossed by a negation.  The vitalities of life move toward death.  And unless you have a crucified God, you don’t have a big enough God.”[2]

The brokenness of Christ is the final seal for our hope.  Only a crucified God can know the pain of life’s tragedies.  Only a risen Christ can point beyond the brokenness to a world made whole.

            I began this brief homily with these words from the gospel of John, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  You have come here tonight to mark the birth of the One who was crucified.  On that dark and dreadful day, the forces of evil thought they had won.  The tomb was sealed.  The voice silenced.  But God was not done yet and even the forces of death could not extinguish the light of hope.  Tonight, there is a light shining in the darkness and the good news is the darkness did not and cannot overcome it.  Let us pray…

[1] Births per day

[2] Sittler, Joseph A., Grace Notes and Other Fragments, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1981, pp. 116 & 118.

[i] John 1:1-5, 10-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Sermon (a Homily) December 18, 2022

A Homily


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

December 18, 2022

“Wait A Minute.  What Did You Say?”

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” 

Matthew 1:20[i]

Oh my!  Mary and Joseph.  They might be the first miracle of Christmas.  Let’s be honest.  Would you have been relieved if you had had Joseph’s dream?  Would the appearance of the angle Gabriel have lessened your stress if you had been Mary?  Here’s how Luke records her encounter:

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” (Luke 1:30) 

I fail to see how either of these visitations – the one to Mary or the one to Joseph – could lessen their fear.  These two had a future planned for themselves.  They would marry, have kids, raise a family, pay the bills, and await the grandchildren.  Now, suddenly, they are being tasked with a burdensome mission that would uproot them from their home and see them become political refugees.  If they were thinking clearly, their fear should have been intensified.  Their openness to God’s plan may be the first miracle of Christmas.

            Yet this is how God became flesh and dwelt amongst us.  It all came down to two young people being open to the seemingly impossible.  If God is to break into our lives, what can we learn from Mary and Joseph?

            First, the reality we perceive with our senses fails to take in all that is possible.  We live our lives as if the rising of the sun, the changing of the seasons, the routines of daily life are predictable and prosaic.  We seem to echo the words of McBeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time….

Oh, we like to think that we live in a sophisticated age of science, but in everyday life we live with Newtonian physics.  On an intellectual level we know that reality is far more complex than the three dimensions we readily perceive, but to make our lives manageable, we suspend the findings of quantum physics and embrace the predictable.  Then, when we encounter the unimaginable, we often reject the uncontrollable and embrace a world of predictability, and when we do this, we call it “rational” when actually is a denial of life’s complexity.  So, the first learning I take from Mary and Joseph is a newfound openness to the unimaginable.

            If our first learning is that reality is more complex than first imagined, the second learning is to let go of our need for control.  How difficult this is.  Most our lives are dedicated to increasing and managing our control.  From infancy to adulthood life is a journey seeking to maximize one’s control.  Indeed, we are held accountable to the lives we shape.  It is assumed that we have agency, that we can be masters of our own lives.  Now we are being asked to forgo control?  It grates against our conditioning.  But this is exactly what Gabriel in asking Mary to do.  It is what Joseph had revealed to him in his dream.  And while this second lesson may be difficult for us to accept, it may be the most beneficial.  Why?  Because life is not always shaped by our wills.  Things happen, twists occur, the unpredictable becomes the inevitable and parents are left with a child who has special needs.  A marriage is challenged by the unforeseen.  The course of history takes an unexpected twist.  The collective greed of humanity becomes an existential threat to our future as a planet.  What then?  Are we to going to lament our lack of control or open ourselves to the new challenges before us?  Can we still affirm God’s overall intention for the good when our control is gone and the dreaded is before us?  Are we so sure of our own sense of what the future holds for us that we refuse the future that has been given to us?  Had Mary and Joseph refused to relinquish control would the baby have been born?  Our second lesson is our need to let go of our control.

            There are, of course, other lessons to be mentioned, but let these two suffice — namely, the reality we perceive fails to take in all that is possible and our need to forgo control.  May they be enough to open us to the reality of God’s coming.  Let us pray….

[i] Matthew 1:18-25

18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Sermon, December 4, 2022

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

December 4, 2022

“Did John Get It Wrong?”

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Matthew 3:12[i]

I suspect there is a place for stern warnings and instilling fear.  Nation states use this method all the time.  Indeed, the threat of thermonuclear war has kept the United States, China, and Russia, from crushing each other’s throats.  Every parent knows the value of instilling fear and punishment.  Doug was less than five and we were walking to the home of his daycare provider.  We came to the curb and without looking, he left my side and ran across the street.  I was scared to death which may explain why I got in his face and gave him a swat on his bottom telling him to never, ever, do that again.  He didn’t. There is a place for stern warnings and instilling fear.  But when it comes to God, we have a problem.  How can the God who gave His son up on the cross be the same God who rains fire upon the very sinners God is said to have died for?  God cannot contradict God’s own nature.  God is either for us or God is against us.  Which is it?

            So I begin this sermon declaring that John the Baptist got it wrong.  His God of judgment and retribution is not the God of the cross.  In addition, here in the third chapter of Matthew, John is not talking about the Second Coming of Christ.  He is talking about Jesus.  So I ask you, does this sound like an accurate description of Jesus:

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

And if I were to make this personal, is John’s Jesus the same Jesus you know?  This is the man who said:

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’  (Matthew 11:28-30)

The truth of the matter is that we were called into the faith not out of fear of fire but by the compelling nature of God’s love.  So, John got it wrong.  The Jesus he describes is not the Jesus of history.

            But was John completely wrong?  I began this sermon stating that perhaps there is a place for judgment and instilling fear.  I hold by that statement because I know it to be true.  Let me illustrate this point.

            In one of the churches I served there was a man who had a son.  His son was troubled and suffered from heroine addiction.  The pain of this addiction was unrelenting.  It had destroyed what would have been a promising life.  His father loved his son but would admit he did not know what to do.  Seeing his son in pain was unbearable.  One day when his son had run out of the drug that brought him peace, his father drove to a city where drug dealers were readily available.  At his own risk, he bought heroine and brought it to his son.  His love had compelled him to stop his boy’s pain, but most of us would say it was mistaken love.  Without consequences, life evolves into chaos.  Love is lived in light of consequences or it is not love.  Without limits, life has no boundaries and without boundaries we are likely to fall off a cliff.  So while I may have difficulty with John’s description of Jesus, I, nevertheless, believe that life’s natural order has inevitable consequences woven into it.  Transgress against the principle of justice, and life will deal you pain.  Oh, it may not come in the form of the fires of hell, but the soul becomes twisted and life becomes brutish.  My friends, I believe we come to Jesus because His message and His life reflect what we know to be true.

            This from Martin Marty writing in The Christian Century:

From the tradition of Bernard of Clairvaux in the Middle Ages there survives the story of a woman seen in a vision.  She was carrying a pitcher and a torch.  Why these?  With the pitcher she would quench the fires of hell, and with the torch she would burn the pleasures of heaven.  After these were gone, people would be able to love God for God’s sake.”[1]

So I end by saying this.  As we look over the communion table set with the elements that ask us to remember the One who came into the world to be the savior of us all, do not come fearing the fire of John’s vision, but come embracing the God who loved us despite our sin.  The One who bids us come is the One whose arms are opened wide.  Let us pray…

[1] Marty, Martin E., The Christian Century, “Spirit at the Solstice,” December 22-29, 1982, p. 1309.

[i] Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Sermon, November 27, 2022

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

November 27, 2022

“Living in Hope”

Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Matthew 24:44[i]

I have a confession to make.  The idea of Christ’s return is not high on my agenda.  I don’t give it much thought.  There are Christians who do.  I’m not one of them.  I suppose I’m more like Andre Trocme, a Huguenot pastor in Southern France who is credited with having led his little village of Le Chambon in saving over 3,500  Jews from deportation to the Nazi death camps.  He and his compatriots performed this task right under the nose of Vichy France.  He was arrested.  While in prison, some French Communists who were also prisoners asked the pastor if he believed in heaven.  He responded by telling them he didn’t know about heaven.  He was more concerned with doing God’s work in the here and now.  So it is with me.

            But I am a realist.  Given our proclivity to sin, the here and the now will always be flawed, imperfect and unjust.  I may like to think that I work for the betterment of the world and the people who live in it, but I can never fully know the outcome of any action I take.  History is replete with examples of how good intentions led to disastrous results.  So today, I am a chastened sceptic.  If I cannot see beyond the present to what God has promised, my life is deprived of hope.  So, here is my contention: there is no greater hope than living into the hope of Christ’s return, all of which raises the question “Why?” 

            First, Christ’s return leads to the fulfillment of the kingdom’s promise.  I said earlier that I am a realist.  I know that I am incapable of either perfect love or perfect justice.  This doesn’t mean that I should give up on both.  Just because I cannot achieve perfection does not excuse me from doing the possible.  Given the constraints of my finitude, I am called to pursue both love and justice.  But I also know that short of God’s perfect love and perfect justice they will never arrive.  Unless Christ comes again, all the efforts of humanity to fulfill the vision of Christ’s kingdom will fail.  Oh, we may move the needle, we may make progress.  Indeed, I think the era in which we live is far better than feudalism in the Middle Ages.  But I am a North American White, middle-class male.  Things undoubtedly look better to me than they do to many in this world who live under the thumb of oppression and the blight of poverty.  So, I hold this truth to be self-evident — namely, in Christ, in the Second Person of the Trinity, we find perfect love matched with perfect justice.  Without His reign being fulfilled, we are bereft of hope.  Christ’s return leads to the fulfillment of the kingdom’s promise.

            If my first point is Christ’s return leads to the fulfilment of the kingdom’s promise, then my second point is this — without transcendent hope, we are hopeless.  It was Brendan Rodgers who wrote:

I’ve always said that you can live without water for many days, but you can’t live for a second without hope.”

Do you buy that?  Do you think that despite its hyperbole, it is factually true?  I do.  Rob humanity of hope and we are doomed.  Right?   But to have genuine hope, one that will outlast the vicissitudes of life, it must be grounded on the transcendent. 

            Let’s see if this exercise makes the point clearer.  I am going to state a hope many of us have.  I hope my children will live happy, meaningful, and productive lives.  Sound familiar?  Most of us would state that as a hope for our children.  And that hope can come to fruition.  Right?  They be fortunate enough to live lives that are happy, meaningful, and productive.  But isn’t their happiness wrapped up with the happiness of their children?  I don’t think my son could be ultimately happy in life if his children lived in misery.  Just as my happiness in contingent on the happiness of my children, so my children’s happiness is contingent on all the generations that follow.  Get the point?  For hope of this nature to exist, for it to be possible requires a hope grounded on an unknown and unforeseeable future.  But more than that, this hope whether we recognize it or not, cannot be fulfilled if we cannot see beyond the immediate present.  To find hope’s ultimate fulfillment it must be pinned to the transcendent hope found in Christ’s return.  Only God can bring our futures to perfect fulfillment, so while I may hope for my children to live happy, meaningful, and productive lives, by extension I also am hoping the same outcome for generations yet to come.  Unless my hope is pinned to God it is not a realizable hope.  Our hope must be a transcendent hope.

            Third, there is no greater hope than living into the hope of Christ’s return because, in the end, the forces of evil cannot prevail against it.  There are, are there not, forces that would shatter hope?  The world and its principalities have interests that are counter to the interests of God.  Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that does not love a wall, that wants it down,” and I would say, something there is that does not love our hope and  wants to tear it down.

            But in the promise of Christ’s return, we stake our hope on the One who thwarted Satan’s plan.  Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Rome these words:

If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?….37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

My friends, there is no greater hope, no more enduring promise than living into the hope of Christ’s return.

            I started this sermon with a confession that the second coming of Christ is not the primary focus of my faith only to find that without it, I have no ultimate hope in the future.  So, I end saying, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”

[i] Matthew 24:36-44

36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Sermon, November 13, 202

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

November 13, 2022

“Thy Kingdom Come”

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust!  They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

Isaiah 65:25[i]

It’s over — the midterm elections are behind us.  Various forms of media will go back to their usual forms of advertising and, at least at some level, our lives will return to some semblance of normality.  The issues before the American electorate were important and the people have spoken.  For a while, we will get a political reprieve – at least until we gear up for the 2024 elections.

But things feel different than they did twenty years ago.  Oh, there was still division between liberal and conservative.  But the level of political polarization we are witnessing today is of a different order.  Recently, the New York Times ran an article entitled, Today’s Politics Divide Parties, and Friends and Families, Too.  The article states, “In the latest poll by The New York Times and Siena College, nearly one in five voters said that politics hurt their friendships or family relationships.”  I have seen it in my extended family.  I have seen it within our church.  Something seems different.

            I believe our faith has something to offer amidst all the divisiveness, and I think it is found in our reading from Isaiah.  At first blush, it can be seen as a fantastical view into the future.  I am very sure that this picture of a lion lying with a lamb was Photoshoped!  And I am certain that Isaiah did not want these words to be taken literally.  So how do I find a helpful message contained in this idealized view of our world?  How does Isaiah help to heal our current political divisions?

            In the interest of transparency, let me confess that much of what I am going to offer is derived from Garrett Galvin’s[1] commentary on Isaiah 65:17-25.  We begin by exploring the context in which these words from Isiah were written.  Galvin notes that it was a time of internal turmoil.  Those who were taken to Babylon in captivity were returning to Israel.  One would think that this would be a time of great joy and celebration.  But wait.  Those who were retuning had been the best and the brightest.  Before they were captives in Babylon, they had been the movers and shakers of Israel.  Indeed, they were so gifted that they had prospered while being captives.  And those who had been forced to remain in Israel under Babylonian occupation?  They had learned how to survive.  They had the shame of planting vineyards and never eating the grapes, of building homes for their oppressors — homes they would never occupy.  They had endured.  Now the elite return with the skillset needed to govern and the capital to get things done.  Instead of this being a time of unfettered joy, there was conflict in the land.  Having suffered under the Babylonians, now they will be forced to endure the rule of those who knew little of their suffering.  Oh, these rulers would be their fellow citizens, but neither the elite nor the less fortunate could find enough empathy to avoid conflict.

Sound familiar?  In America there are vast numbers of people who feel disenfranchised, who believe the system is rigged against them.  The MAGA (Make America Great Again) movement has millions who heed its call and millions who see it as dangerous.  Black Lives Matter has millions who embrace its message and millions who see it as an illegitimate cause.  The poll I mentioned earlier appears to have gotten it right.  And if all this is true, then we, too, have little empathy for those outside our political camp.  Both Isaiah’s Israel and our America have lived through trauma and need a unifying vision.

Garrett Galvin, the commentator I mentioned earlier writes:

The prophet has to imagine what a land with empathy would look like for them: a land without violence and destruction where the wolf and lamb or the lion and ox will live peacefully together.

Galvin continues:

There is a desperate need to build empathy bridges between the polarized groups in the United States. That is exactly what we see happening in this oracle from Isaiah. Rather than declaring one group right and punishing the other group, this oracle imagines a world in which both these groups coexist peacefully. They still have their salient characteristics: a lion is still a lion as well as a lamb being a lamb, but they coexist.

            How might we arrive at such a place?  By finding our shared humanity.  So I ask, Does God love you more than God loves me?  Does God love us more than God loves them?  Isn’t God’s forgiveness extended to us all and are we not called to extend the same even to those we find it hard to forgive?

            I have cited this quote from Reinhold Niebuhr before but I find it particularly apt for the healing we desire.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.  Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.  No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”[2]

 Bearing his words in mind, I pray we find our way to empathy for the other and thus come to a nation healed.  Let us pray….

[1] Garrett Galvin, O.F.M., was born in December 1968 in Wilmington, Delaware to parents who recently emigrated from Ireland. After receiving his doctorate from the Catholic University of America, he began teaching full time at Franciscan School of Theology and the Graduate Theological Union in 2009, where he teaches a variety of courses on the Old and New Testament as well as Hebrew.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History

[i] Isaiah 65:17-25

17 For I am about to create new heavens
   and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
   or come to mind. 
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
   in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
   and its people as a delight. 
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
   and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
   or the cry of distress. 
20 No more shall there be in it
   an infant that lives but a few days,
   or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
   and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. 
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
   they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
   they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
   and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 
23 They shall not labor in vain,
   or bear children for calamity;*
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
   and their descendants as well. 
24 Before they call I will answer,
   while they are yet speaking I will hear. 
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
   the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
   but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

Sermon, November 6, 2022

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

November 6, 2022

“Living in the Not Yet”

The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts…

Haggai 2:9a[i]

This sermon is given for me.  I need to cling to hope.  Personally, I have a brother who is suffering from a chronic illness and will be lucky to see Christmas let alone Easter.  I have a friend and colleague dying from ALS and another friend who’s recovery from breast cancer is uncertain. I’m at the age where one’s medical history becomes a common topic of informal conversation!  Add to this that although God called me into ministry, I wonder if God got the wrong number.  You see it.  This church should be filled with young people seeking the purpose of life.  Instead, our congregation is slightly larger than a small group.  This sermon is for me because I need to cling to hope.  That is exactly what I found when I came to this reading from Haggai.

            The evidence that would make for doom and despair was all around him and his people.  Indeed, he acknowledges the bleak condition of their present moment.  The nation defeated.  Many taken into captivity.  The Temple destroyed.  It is hard to cling to hope when death and loss are constants.  Yet Haggai hoped.  He clung to the promises of God and asked his people to do the same.  He saw beyond the undeniable present to a promise making and promise keeping God. 

            We, too, must make the promises of God our ultimate hope.  Let me suggest that it will require three affirmations.  First, realize that any given moment is capricious.  Second, cling to this truth — the promises of God never fail.  Third, know that the constraints of our finitude are not final.

            We already know the truth of the first affirmation — namely, any given moment is capricious.  That’s why we invented marriage.  Right?  Do you remember the days when you were head over heals in love?  It hurt to be apart.  You were infatuated with the other person.  Twenty years later?  Not so much.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer captured this truth when he wrote to a couple who either were or were planning on being married.  He talked of marriage as an institution, an office, that one enters into.  While you might be driven to getting married out of a mutual infatuation with each other, marriage is more than sentiment.  It is an obligation centered on a promise and a willingness to keep it.  He said that while love may drove folks to get married, it is now the marriage that will sustain their love.  One’s infatuation with the other will not always burn with heat.  What is needed is commitment to a future that cannot be fully seen in the present.

            But why would anyone do it?  Why take such a risk?  I have shared this before but here is what Joseph Sittler has to say:

“The heart of marriage is a promise.  On the face of it, it’s a crazy promise: two people who have only a partial understanding of each other stand up and make this bizarre statement that they’re going to cherish and care for one another for a lifetime.  They say, ‘I take this one and this one takes me as long as we both shall live,’ not ‘as long as we both shall love.’  To many persons this seems like a mad and risky thing to do.  Yet I would suggest that the madness is the romance.  Without risk there is no beauty or strength or goodness.”[1]

            What is true for marriage is true for the passage of time.  The imprint of either despair or joy is capricious.  It can change in any given moment.  If we cling merely to the heat of our emotions, we will be trapped by what is and never see what might be.  To have hope Haggai had to see beyond his present moment to a nation restored and a Temple rebuilt.

            If we are to have hope, the second requirement is to affirm that the promises of God never fail.  It is impossible to make this affirmation if we cannot live out the first requirement of seeing any given moment as capricious.  Right?  I catalogued at the beginning of this sermon why I needed hope.  My present moment is filled with enough ominous reality to sink my optimism.  How, then, am I supposed to affirm the promises of God never fail?  Aren’t they failing now?  Why do the good people in my life have to suffer?

            I don’t know.  What I do know is if I let this question consume me, I will go down a rabbit hole of speculation.  In the end, I don’t believe there is a satisfying answer to this question.  But if I continue to affirm that God’s promises are always kept, it changes the way I frame the question.  Given the fact that good people suffer, suffering is not their final end point.  There is a Sunday com’in.  The cross may serve as a reminder of suffering’s reality, but it is empty.  It is not Christ’s end point but the means by which He arrived at an empty tomb.  The promise was kept.  Trust in the promise making and promise keeping God. 

            If we are to have hope even in dark times, then, as just suggested, know that our finitude is not final.  Put succinctly, God is not done yet.  Satan, the forces of evil, they know this.  If Hell has parties, certainly they had one on Good Friday.  The voice of truth, the champion of justice, the ambassador of peace, silenced on the gibbet of shame.  But there was a Sunday com’in.  What Satan could not see, what the forces of evil cannot comprehend, is that God is not done yet.  Even amidst all of life’s afflictions, our lamentations about the condition of the world, the promise making and promise keeping God is not done yet.  Satan and his minions were fooled.  But I will never be, and for that reason, I live in hope.  And you?  Let us pray…

[1] Sittler, Joseph, Grace Notes and Other Fragments, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1981, p. 17.

[i] Haggai 2:1-9

2In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 2Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, 3Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? 4Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, 5according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.6For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; 7and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. 8The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. 9The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.

Sermon, October 16, 2022

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

October 16, 2022

“The Heart of the Matter”

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Jeremiah 31:33-34[i]

In Harvey Cox’s little book, When Jesus Came to Harvard, Cox tells about a course he taught for undergraduate students at the university.  The course was entitled, “Jesus and the Moral Life.”  Cox didn’t expect much of a response.  After all, it was Harvard, not exactly a bastion of Christian Evangelicalism.  What happened shocked him.  The course became so popular that it had to be taught in a theater often used for rock concerts.  What Cox found is that the young people who attended the class were looking for a moral rudder for the modern world.  After having been exposed to Immanuel Kant’s moral imperative of never do anything that you would not wish to become a universal law, after they had been exposed to utilitarianism’s admonition to do that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number, after they had learned about situational ethics, they had come to find themselves as confused as ever.  They were seeking an anchor that could withstand the waves of moral relativity.  What Cox found is that by exploring the life of Jesus, the students found what they needed.  Ethics, Cox would contend, is more about following the example of Jesus than practicing lofty principles.

In Jerimiah’s day, the nation faced a crises point.  The Babylonians had wreaked havoc .  Conquered cities.  People imprisoned.  The best and the brightest taken into captivity.  The fields desolate.  Jeremiah believed the tragedy was a result of the peoples’ unfaithfulness to God, that God had brought the destruction, had unleased the Babylonians to punish the nation for its sin.  In Jeremiah’s mind, what had been practiced by the people had not worked.  Obedience to an external law code had not prevented the calamity of captivity.  Something else was needed.

In our own day, something like the same crisis is upon us.  We live in a world awash in moral relativity when one’s person’s conception of right and wrong, differs sharply from another’s.  We seem to exist in an age where ideology rather than principal reigns.  Truth seems to be in the eye of the beholder, and we find ourselves echoing the words of the poet:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,…

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Could it be that we suffer from the same malady as those young people at Harvard?  We look for a moral rudder and cannot find one the guides us through the confusion of our age.  Let me suggest why this may be so.

To gain some understanding our plight, I want to use a typology suggested by Max Stackhouse, a professor of ethics at the seminary I attended.  In his thinking, there are three primary ways to think of ethics — Good and Bad, Right and Wrong, Fit and Unfit.  I am going to try and unpack them and then point to the problem they fail to resolve.  To illustrate my point, I am going to make use of very contentious moral issue —abortion.  People have strong and visceral feelings about this issue and while my purpose is not to suggest a moral solution to this dilemma, the issue of abortion is a helpful way to understand the differences between these three ways of thinking ethically suggested by Stackhouse. 

First, those who think ethically about things being either good or bad.  This ethical approach takes the long view.  It asks what type of society does one untimely want.  I am going to assume that we all want a good society.  Some see a good society defined by banning abortion.  The protection of the unborn is seen as a noble end.  It points to a society that values human life.  It is, therefore, good.  Others, however, believe that government is intruding on what ought to be a personal choice.  They ask, “Who has the right to demand a woman carry a pregnancy to term?  What kind of society do we create when we cede the right to choose our own destiny to the dictates of the state?  Preserving the right to choose makes for a freer and, thus, better society.

Anyone who is paying attention can clearly see that the dichotomy of Good and Bad as a form of ethical decision making does not necessarily resolve the moral ambiguity between two divergent views.  So, let’s take up the next way of determining an ethical position — seeing things from a legal point of view of right and wrong.

This point of view has much to commend it.  It has the ring of moral clarity and reduces ambiguity.  If something is illegal, it is, by definition, wrong.  I suppose one could argue that the Jewish law codes were driven by this typology.  What was decreed as unclean was seen as illegal to eat.  Most of us live within this way of thinking and want people held accountable for breaking the law.  When the issue of abortion is brought to bear, however, things become immediately murky.  For fifty years in this nation, a woman had to right to seek an abortion up to 21 weeks of first becoming pregnant.  Suddenly, that legally protected right has been overturned.  Now individual states get to decide the issue.  The result?  If you have money, you will have access to an abortion.  A woman living in Texas can, if she has the financial means, travel to Vermont and get an abortion.  But poor woman have no such option,  In addition, the poor are at a higher risk of having a problem during pregnancy due to a lack of access to health care.  Does this seem right?  Does it seem equitable?  Sometimes the law gets in the way of justice.  One must always remember that there was a time when people of color could not drink from the same water fountain as folks deemed “white.”  Segregation may have been legal.  It was never good.  Like the first typology of Good and Bad, Right and Wrong does not remove all ethical tensions.

Which bring us to our third approach to ethical decision making — namely, Fit and Unfit.  This is often referred to as situational ethics.  It seeks to make ethical decisions based on the immediate context of the problem.  When the issue is abortion, it asks some very important question.  Is it fitting to require a twelve-year-old girl who is the victim of incest to carry a pregnancy to term?  Almost all Americans would say “no.”  Given the context of the pregnancy in question, it seems highly unfit for a number or reasons.  But the issue of context is not always seen as relevant.  When a woman is making a choice and there are not extenuating circumstances, to many it seems fitting to place restrictions on that choice because there are other moral factors involved or they see the issue defined by one of the other two typologies of Right or Wrong, Good or Bad.  Seeing things as Fit or Unfit, like all the others we have examined, does not result in universal moral clarity.

So, where does that leave us?  We have to live in the world we have been given.  How are to do so ethically, and more than that, how are we to do so with a degree of civility that allows for differences of opinion?

Short of a faith filled answer, I have no idea.  To think that one way of making ethical decisions is pure is to ignore the moral ambiguity contained within them all.  But my faith informs me first and foremost that I am not God.  Simply put, I get things wrong and while I may want to believe that I have the correct moral answer, I am forced to admit that not only may I have it wrong, but my brothers and sisters who see it differently think just as strongly they have it right.  If I can retain this perspective, I am called into humility and a more compassionate approach to those who think differently.  But my faith also informs me that there is no pure place to stand, that when it comes to difficult moral choices, I must choose between competing principles and like the students in Harvey Cox’s class at Harvard, learn from Jesus.  When I do that, I come to see the wisdom of the cross, that to engage the world is one of the causes of necessary suffering.  In the end, I seek what Jeremiah offered — that the law of God be written upon my heart for if it is, then I will come to love my neighbor as I love myself.  Let us pray….

[i] Jeremiah 31:27-34

27The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. 28And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. 29In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” 30But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. 31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Sermon, October 9, 2022

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

October 9, 2022

“Do We Walk On?”

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.

Luke 17:15 & 16[i]

There are four important messages contained within this reading from Luke.  First, if there is anyone who desires to be healed, note that the ten leapers received their healing while going to the priest.  Second, they did not need to be physically touched by Jesus.  Indeed, they simply yelled their request.  Third, the healing took place in the border lands where the disempowered live.  Fourth, the one leaper who returned to give thanks to Jesus for his healing was the one least expected to recognize Jesus as a source of divine power.

            First, all those who desire healing, note that the ten leapers received their healing while going to the priest.  It took faith to set off before the healing had taken hold.  The only reason a leaper would go to a priest is because they were healed.  The priest served as the guardian of society.  A leaper was ostracized by the community, kept at a distance, lest the entire community become infected.  A leaper had to be certified as “clean” by a priest.  So, to set off to the priest prior to being healed shows a great deal of faith in the One who sent them.  You don’t start off if you don’t think you are going to be healed.  Perhaps their healing began when they took that first step.  They believed they would be healed even before the healing was fully evident.

            How often do people live defined by their disease?  Their illness becomes their identity and society sets them apart, defines them as less than normal.  These ten leapers began to be healed when they were willing to challenge their social isolation before their healing was self-evident.  Perhaps we should take Jesus at His word when He says, “Your faith has made you well.”  It is in faith that the ten set out to journey to the priest.  Perhaps our healing begins with the faith to believe we are already made well.  The ten leapers received their healing while going to the priest.

            Second, they did not need to be physically touched by Jesus.  This is good news.  Many of the healings Jesus performs have Jesus touching the diseased — the man whose blindness was cured by Jesus applying mud to his closed eyes, the woman who touched the hem of Jesus garment and many others physically touched by Jesus.  But not these ten leapers.  Note, however, they are not the only ones who were healed by never being touched by Jesus.  The centurion’s servant in Matthew 8 is not even seen by Jesus.  The demon possessed daughter of a Canaanite woman is healed without being touched.  This must be good news to those of us living in the 21st Century.  We are not able to be in the physical presence of Christ.  Jesus cannot physically touch us, but it doesn’t mean that Jesus cannot heal us.  Indeed, we may not be in the physical presence of Christ, but Christ’s Spirit is present with us.  Our healing, like the one granted the ten leapers, does not require us to be touched but for us to trust.

            Third, the healing took place in the border lands where the disempowered live.  It was the Rev. Francisco Garcia’s commentary on this passage that makes this important point.[1]  He notes that the place of this healing is significant because it takes place as Jesus is going to Jerusalem by passing through the region between Samarian and Galilee.  This is not where the affluent and powerful live.  It is an in-between location, not here and not there.  It is the kind of place where the marginalized people of this earth find a home and it’s where these leapers reside.  Indeed, of all the marginalized, the leapers are perhaps the most disenfranchised.  It is here that Jesus performs a miracle of transformation where the last are made first, where the outcasts find acceptance. 

            All of that may not be directly important to you or to me.  After all, I am hardly one of the least.  I am not disenfranchised but live with privileges I am not even aware of.  But the importance of Rev. Garcia’s insight cannot be diminished in a time when so many Christians have embraced the gospel of success.  They speak of faith as the guarantor of worldly prosperity, of those living in the borderlands of our contemporary culture as unworthy of our attention or care, of the powerless as lacking faith.  This contemporary Christian movement is a denial of the ministry of Christ and must be challenged by those of us who know better, who are striving to walk with Jesus and not away from Him.

            Will it be popular to identify with those Jesus ministered to?  It may not.  But it will be faithful.  In the end, we won’t be measured by our worldly status but by our commitment to raise the least and the lost.

            Fourth, the one leaper who returned to give thanks to Jesus for his healing was the one least expected to recognize Jesus as a source of divine power.  Ten were healed.  Only one returned to give thanks to Jesus.  The one was a Samaritan.  He, too, would have been an outcast in the realm of Judaism.  Samaritans took exception to many of the tenants of their Jewish cousins.  For Samaritans, the Bible was to be comprised of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.  The wisdom literature, Psalms, the minor and major prophets all were expunged.  Mount Gerizim, and not mount Sinai,  was the sacred mountain of faith.  Such differences led those traveling from Judah to Galilee to circumvent Samaria and opt for a longer route to avoid the Samaritans.  So, for this Samaritan leaper to return and give thanks to Jesus for his healing, is surprising.  He is the last of the ten cured leapers one would have expected to give thanks to a Jew for what clearly was a divine power.

            But note this.  He would not have had a reason to return if he had not been healed.  There may be some within Christendom who want to pronounce some “in” and some “out,” who want to delineate and limit the scope of God’s love and care.  They have come to think that migrants are less than worthy of human compassion, that those seeking to escape violence in their country of origin do not warrant asylum, that people of color and women in general are to live on life’s margins, that those struggling with their sexual identity are sinful.  Such thinking would have made the return of this Samaritan impossible to conceive.  Yet return he did and why?  Because the one who was the least and most outcast of the bunch had been healed.  The affront of God’s love is not its limit but its breadth.  It is not limited to those who profess our faith but is extended to those who share our common humanity.  God so loved the world…”  The inclusiveness of that love must not be lost.

            And now the final question for us.  Do we walk on or return to give thanks?  Do we ignore the love of God for the least or find in God’s acceptance the pathway to broaden our own inclusive spirit?  Do we walk on, or return to give thanks?

[1] The Rev. Francisco García is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theological Studies, Ethics and Action at Vanderbilt University in the Graduate Department of Religion, and a Graduate Research Fellow at the Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

[i] Luke 17:11-19

11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”