“Where Are They?” sermon by Keith. Proper 23C. Preached 10/10/10


Scriptures:  Psalm 139:1-18 and Luke 17:11-19

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or MTD.  Sounds scary, doesn’t it, but don’t worry!  It is treatable, even if it is highly contagious.  And we will unpack what it means, I promise.  Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a term coined by researches as part of the National Study of Youth and Religion in 2005.  The focus of the study, as the name indicates, is on youth and their religious beliefs.  But the researches felt that a significant part of American Christianity, no matter the age, falls into the trap of teaching and believing in MTD, so don’t think that it is just a ‘youth’ understanding of religion.  The researches found that youth came to the following conclusions about God and religion, based upon what they were learning in church and from society:  1) there is a god who exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.  2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most of the world religions.  3) The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.  4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.  And 5) Good people go to heaven when they die.[1]  So, Moralistic-be good and do good, Therapeutic-feel happy and good about yourself, and Deism-God exists and defines our general moral order, but is not a god who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs—especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved.  So, one’s life is lived basically separated from God, unless there is a problem.  God becomes a superhero, flying in to save the day.  When it comes to personal relationships and marriages, as long as no one is getting ‘hurt’ and both parties have a voice and they try to be equitable in how they view tasks and power, then God is not part of the relationship.  That’s not what God is for.  But if things start going bad, hearts get broke, or a divorce is immanent, God is called upon to pick up the pieces, mend broken hearts, and get the relationship back on track.  That’s what God is for.  In the job market, slight exaggerations on a job application or resume are OK, who can it hurt?  God’s not involved in the business world.  But when the pink slip gets handed out, out comes the Bible and prayers to God for intervention.  God is only involved when one has a crisis and when called upon.  If a disease hits, pray for healing!  But when the healing happens and God is done doing his business, it is business as usual; God can go back to where ever God goes.  If faith exists, it is only in a God who will be there when the times get tough.

In our text this morning, we rejoin Jesus and his disciples on the long journey to Jerusalem when they encounter some folks who just might be suffering from MTD. It is during this journey that he teaches his disciples about God and discipleship.  During this time together the disciples got to hear the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.  Last week, Laura told us how the faith that the disciples have been given by God is more than enough to have a huge impact in the world around them.  Always the teacher, Jesus instructs them how to live out that life of faithful discipleship when they encounter others, especially the poor and outcast.  Today, they are in an unnamed village between Samaria and Galilee when they encounter ten lepers.  It is difficult to exaggerate what life was like for these men.  People lived in dread of them because of the disease they had.  With their skin covered in lesions, they had to yell “Unclean!” so others could stay clear of them when they entered a town.  They also called out to God, “Make us clean!” as they remembered their life before the leprosy struck.  They banded together, because religious affiliation and background doesn’t matter when your survival is on the line.  They lived on the periphery as a small company of misery.  They lived alone, away from the main community, but close enough that they could receive the charity of those few who were willing to throw them a morsel of bread. 

            And then Jesus comes to town.  They had heard about his stories of healing.  They call out to Jesus like they call out to the villagers that pass by.  “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  Jesus’ response to them gives the impression that they are already clean.  Old Testament law required a priest, not a physician, to declare them clean before they could enter back into normal societal life.  There is no touching of the diseased skin or no lying on of hands.  Jesus just sends them on their way to the priests to declare them clean.  And they go.  As they walk into the city, the sores close and scabs fall off.  They are well!  They cannot believe it!  They can now go back to their homes, their families, their normal lives!  A couple of them take a left, heading straight to the synagogue to get the priest’s stamp of approval, following the letter of the law.  Two head off to the right on a side street, where their homes are located, so they can celebrate with their families.  A couple more head for the market, trilled by the prospect of being around people without yelling “Unclean!”  Maybe one tracks down his old boss, ready to begin working and earning a living again.  Life can go back to normal! 

But one goes back to where he left Jesus and falls at his feet, thanking him and praising God for the miracle that has happened in his life.  Jesus ponders where the other nine might be, “Where are they? Why are they not praising God?”  God has brought a great miracle in their lives and they just want to go back to their old lives, forgetting to praise and thank God who has made going back to their old lives possible.  It is important to note that this encounter with the lepers comes on the heals of Jesus’ teachings about faith.  About the faith that God gives us.  About the tiniest amount of faith having huge impacts.  And this encounter with the leper is also a lesson about faith.  Faith is a gift from God, and it is a powerful gift.  But it does more than heal.  In the translation we read this morning, Jesus tells the healed leper that his faith has made him well.  The Greek word that is translated to make well is also translated saved.  His faith has saved him.  He recognizes that the God that has healed him is also the God who saves him, who makes him whole in more ways than just curing his leprosy.  And his only way to respond is praise, praise to the one who gave him the free gift of faith, praise to the one who healed him, praise to the one who saves him.  There is no more going back to a normal life because he knows his life is now intertwined with God’s.  He will live a new life, a life full of praise of the God that has given him that new life.

So, what’s the cure for Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?  First and foremost it is recognizing who God is.  God doesn’t sit off somewhere out there just waiting for us to have a problem that he can fix, like Clark Kent waiting to hear Lois Lane scream so he can become Superman.  God intimately knows us, and wants to be intimately known by us.  The psalmist puts it so beautifully.  God knows us before we even know ourselves, before we are even born.  God knows our getting up and our laying down.  No matter where we go, God is there.  In the farthest country and even in the depths of the grave, God is there with us.  God even knows our words before they come out of our mouths.  God knows us better than we know ourselves.  And God wants us to know him so badly that he became one of us, lived a life of a Galilean carpenter, was tempted in every way that we are tempted, and died on a cross for us.  He rose from the grave, overcoming death for us.  He ascended into to heaven and sits in glory for us as he prays for us.  And he sends his Holy Spirit to empower us.

The other part of the cure is recognizing who we truly are.  When we try and live a ‘good’ life so that God will respond to our pleas when we are in trouble, we are attempting to control God.  We cannot control God, nor can we live a good enough life to merit God’s presence and action in our lives.  God’s presence in Christ in our lives is a free gift, we cannot earn it.  The faith God gives us is a free gift.  It is unmerited grace.  We cannot earn it, we cannot have a checklist of ‘right living’ that allows us access to God’s grace and love.  God gives it freely and abundantly.

And what is our response to the free gift of grace and faith that we receive from God in Christ?  We praise God!  The Heidelberg Catechism says that we praise God with our whole lives, our entire being.  And even that praise is guided by the Holy Spirit and looks different from person to person.  For the leper, he was led by the Spirit to throw himself at Jesus’ feet.  For others, the Spirit guides a life of praise through mission and service.  For some, it might be singing.  It could and probably will look different for every individual in this congregation.  It happens here on Sunday morning and it happens every minute of every hour of every day, because we have a God who is with us every minute of every hour of every day, lavishly pouring the Spirit upon us as we respond in praise with our whole lives.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  It’s not quite as scary as we thought when I first brought it up.  The reason is we can’t compartmentalize God to only be involved in certain aspects of our lives.  Let us praise God that our lives and God’s Spirit are intertwined and cannot be separated because of the one who tells us, “Your faith has made you well.”  Amen.

[1] A detailed write up on this study can be found at http://www.christianpost.com/article/20050418/moralistic-therapeutic-deism-the-new-american-religion/ in an article by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. from 2005.  A more summarized account can be found on Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moralistic_therapeutic_deism.   Also, a internet search of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” will find lots of people’s comments on the research

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