A letter from Dennis Smith in Argentina (Regional liaison for Brazil and Southern Cone)
Suddenly this whole Christmas thing – once again – is right around the corner. Bright lights, endless commotion. . .
The church calendar invites us to pause, take a deep breath, and see Christmas differently - as part of the season of Advent. Far from being the season for frivolity, our Christian tradition portrays Advent as a time to find within ourselves the patience to wait for God’s wholeness to be revealed in our lives and in all of creation.
Advent invites us to live in thankfulness, despite life’s messiness. Advent invites us to live out the hope born of what God is doing in our lives and in our world.
As I approach Advent this year, I remember a Sunday several weeks ago when I pinch-hit for a pastor friend so he and his wife could celebrate her birthday free of pastoral duties.
In my sermon, I focused on the passage in Luke 17 where Jesus tells of ten lepers asking to be healed. He promptly sends them – still leprous - to show themselves to the religious authorities. On the way, all ten were healed; only one – a Samaritan – returned to give thanks.
I asked the congregation what it meant to them to live in thankfulness. As we talked together, we wondered together if all this was just romantic religious rhetoric.
People shared difficult experiences; one even spoke of having lost a child. Did Jesus really expect us to be thankful for the pain and suffering in our lives? How could that be healthy?
We agreed that the gut-wrenching brokenness we all experience at some point in our lives unleashes within us not thankfulness, but the anguish of Job.
That was the week the Nobel Prizes were awarded. I noted that Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who had been shot by the Taliban for advocating girls’ education, had been touted as a favorite to win the Peace Prize.
Malala seemed like a perfect stand-in for the thankful Samaritan in Jesus story. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries viewed the Samaritans with disdain. For them, Samaritans were “the other” – people who, according to tradition, must be excluded in defense of right belief.
Malala, like the Samaritan, embraced her return to wholeness not unscarred, but with thankfulness. Both found within their restoration a call to break down historic barriers.
Jesus invited the Samaritan to show his suddenly cured body to the religious authorities. By doing so, Jesus was telling the Samaritan that longstanding religious strife between Samaritans and Jews mattered less than his own restoration to wholeness. Jesus invited this infidel to present himself to the priest at the temple! In response, the Samaritan gave thanks. Loudly!
Luke does not document how Jesus contemporaries reacted to this incident, but they must have been angry that both Jesus and the Samaritan had so dramatically challenged traditional hatreds.
On The Daily Show, John Stewart asked Malala what she had thought when she learned that Taliban extremists wanted to kill her. She responded: “I was not worried about myself that much; I was worried about my father, because we thought that the Taliban are not that much cruel that they would kill a child, because I was 14 at that time. But then I said: if he comes what would you do Malala? Then I would reply myself: that Malala take a shoe and hit him, but then I said: If you hit a Talib with your shoe then there would be no difference between you and the Talib, you must not treat others that much with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace, and through dialogue and through education. Then I said: I’ll tell him how important education is and that I even want education for your children as well and I will tell him that’s what I want to tell you. Now do what you want.”
Can a 16-year-old Muslim girl embody the hope of Advent, the hope of God’s grace and wholeness transforming our world?
We don’t know if any of the nine ungrateful lepers were Samaritans. If they were Jews, their experience with leprosy could have taught them what it felt like to be a Samaritan, to be excluded. Was it a lesson they were prepared to learn?
Perhaps the error of the nine was to put their infirmity behind them too quickly. Perhaps they thought that their newfound wholeness was the result of their own merit, some virtue of right belief. Perhaps they forgot how precarious was their hold on wholeness, how marginalized their illness had left them from the community.
Perhaps the nine forgot how utterly dependent we all are on God’s grace.
Even as we experience God’s healing and feel the Spirit leading us to wholeness, brokenness will continue to haunt us. That is why, as followers of Jesus, we must always know that God’s Spirit – the Comforter - walks with us. That is why, in this time of waiting for God’s full presence, we must continue to find healing and nurture in the community of faith.
Advent reminds us that we can trust in what God is doing in the world. Advent invites us to live in thankfulness and hope.
As Presbyterian mission workers, Maribel and I live in thankfulness for all you mean to us. Your prayers, your expressions of kindness, your regular financial support for our ministry nourish our sense of hope each day. Thank you!
If you are new to Presbyterian World Mission, we’d love to welcome you into our community of support. Tell us how God is working in your life! We’ll be strengthened by your testimony and happy to share with you where and how we sense God’s presence in our corner of the world.
Under the Mercy,
Dennis A. Smith
Individuals: Give online to E200481 for Dennis and Maribel Smith's sending and support
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