11.19.2017 Preaching Text: “‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?’” (Luke 17:17)
As most of you know, Linda and I were away on Bermuda for a week or so. It’s a beautiful, sun-splashed coral island out in the Atlantic that features pink sand, stunningly clear blue-green water, exotic flora and fauna, ubiquitous pastel-colored houses with iconic white-stepped roofs (which catch the rainwater), and a curious assortment of locals.
One of my favorite things, however, has to do with the tree frogs who come out in the evening. They’re only about the size of your thumbnail but make a surprisingly outsized noise. They have a two-toned whistle that’s almost deafening when combined with the others. We dined outside every night and were duly serenaded by these boisterous albeit unseen amphibians.
On a less congenial note, the island also features a swarm of subcompact cars and scooters, all driven on the left, which dart around menacingly at speeds far too fast for the island’s narrow, hilly, twisty roads.
One morning Linda and I decided to walk from our hotel to the bus stop, some half-mile away, to visit Hamilton, Bermuda’s capital. On the way, in front of the Mangrove Bay Post Office to be precise, we saw a woman in her car who asked us where we were going.
“You’re not going to walk all the way to the Dockyard, are you?” she protested. No, we weren’t, as it was several miles away. After we told her our plans she volunteered, out of the blue, to drive us all the way to Hamilton, a good half-hour away!
She was an unmitigated trip. After settling into her car, we thanked her for her uncommon generosity. In response she blithely announced that she was a bored, rich retiree who welcomed the opportunity to drive us to our destination! Along the way, we were a captive audience to her many stories, most of which involved a true insider’s view of the island’s goings-on.
At one point, as the palm trees and coral walls along the side of the road whizzed by, we got onto the subject of today’s society, of how it has coarsened over the years. At which point she swung around and showed us the necklace she was wearing. It was a large marble entwined in strands of silver.
She explained: “This is to remind me that while everybody else seems to have lost their marbles, I still have mine.”
A few days later we attended an Anglican church about a five-minute taxi ride from our hotel. It’s an imposing pastel-green structure, though perhaps the most noticeable feature is its tall white steeple rising high into the azure sky. In front of the church is a large cemetery complete with whitewashed, above-ground tombs. And behind it all lies the omnipresent blue-green waters of the vast Sargasso Sea.
Since Bermuda is a British protectorate, they observed Remembrance Day this past Monday, a British national holiday that goes back to the end of WWI. Like our Veterans’ Day, it commemorates all those who gave their lives in the defense of freedom.
The church took the occasion to honor the dead. This involved a number of uniformed military, police, and fire representatives as well as other dignitaries, including a senator, several members of Parliament, the Chief Justice of the land, and the island’s Deputy Governor.
To say there was great pomp and circumstance is putting it mildly. As each representative got up to do a reading, each sought to bring formal dignity to the moment.
I couldn’t help notice how many of them struggled with the readings and seemed a bit unfamiliar with church protocol. But through it all, they really tried to bring gravitas to the proceedings – and they succeeded. One felt a stiffening of one’s spine and a genuine sense of respect for what they sought to symbolize and for those they sought to honor.
Afterwards, back on the hotel grounds, we walked past several vacationers. What seemed odd was that we’d say hello but some could barely manage to look at us, much less return our greeting.
So it got me to thinking. Here we all were in this tropical paradise, enjoying our leisure, and some couldn’t muster the courtesy to simply say hello. I thought about the formalities of the church service earlier in the day and its deferential nod to a higher good. And even though each participant in the service hadn’t necessarily pulled it off seamlessly, they brought a bearing that did indeed honor something higher than themselves.
I thought about form, about protocol, about standards of conduct that we all used to adhere to. And I wondered if over the years we’ve lost something important as we pursue more self-seeking ends.
Even if the other person hadn’t felt like saying hello, old-fashioned protocol would have required they do so, if only in pro-forma fashion.
On our way to the airport two days later, our taxi driver, as with just about every one of his compatriots, honked and waved hello to passing drivers. We commented on how much more pleasant it is, how much brighter it makes one’s day, when we make contact with our fellow human beings. (Linda told the driver that, in our country, the only time people think to honk is when they want you to get out of their way!)
I thought about how holding to form is, for lack of a better way to put it, a nice thing to do. Of course, in our post-60s world, we’ve dedicated ourselves instead to following our own solitary inclinations. Forget the “fake” or “plastic” formalities of bourgeois society. What matters is “authenticity”! If we don’t feel like saying hi, we don’t, perhaps because to do so would appear disingenuous!
Recently I’ve discussed the problem of understanding our Christian faith by means of the Bible alone. It needs to be interpreted, I’ve said.
In this vein there’s a longstanding interpretive scheme within Christianity known as the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” generally attributed to the Methodist Church but claimed by other faith traditions as well. Here four basic “tools” are required for properly understanding the Christian faith (and life), not just one: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
In jettisoning the first three, each of which relates to something beyond the self, contemporary secular culture seems to derive all meaning from the last only – experience (and in this mostly feelings). Thus there is nothing outside the Sovereign Self that helps explain life. There’s simply no objective concept or reality that informs or tempers the Self’s imperious authority. Doomed to this impoverished, truncated view of life, we are led dumbly by the arbitrary dictates of our own limited time and place, and by our own subjective whimsy (mostly, that is, what feels right in the moment). The results, by the way, have not been pretty.
In Luke this morning we saw how only one of the healed ten lepers turns back to give thanks.
We have much to be grateful for as well – our Judeo-Christian heritage, Western Civilization, the remarkable freedoms of living in this country, as well as the freedom to worship our religion unencumbered, to name but a few.
So let us not be as those who ignore or take for granted the sacrifices made for us and the gifts given us. May we look beyond our narrow selves for life’s larger truths, and in having received them humbly, worship that which is greater than we, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.