St Andrew’s Anglican Church, Indooroopilly
SUNDAY – Pentecost 18 – Sunday 13 October 2019
Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7, Psalm 66.1-11, 2 Timothy 2. 8-15, Luke 17.11-19
I have a hypothetical for you to start – imagine someone new walks through that door. Hold on to that first person you imagined. What does that person look like? Can you imagine what their backstory might be? How old are they, what is their profession, where are they from? How did they find out about us? How might that person be received here?
It is funny how well we can fill in details with an open canvas. That’s exactly what the author of Luke plays upon today. This gospel text has so much embedded within it, so today I’ll focus in on two aspects – the idea God’s work in the margins, and the imperative to mark the work of God amongst us.
This story takes place in transit. This event is then set somewhere between Samaria and Galilee. The communities were religious rivals. Because they both evolved from the tribes of Israel, they shared common practices and scriptures, but others were unique, and it seems each believed they were “right” and the other “wrong”. Schism breeds bitterness, and for the Samaritans and Jews, this was evident in the competition between Mount Gerizim and Mount Zion as the legitimate site of worship. Just before this event, Luke’s author takes care to tell us that Jesus had sent messages forward to Samaria, and was denied their hospitality, because he was going to Jerusalem. The sons of thunder, James and John, were outraged, and wanted Jesus to rain down destruction on the town. The battle lines are drawn, but instead, Jesus continued past, and ended up in this in-between place, identified as neither Samaria nor Gallilee. A place between the boundaries, territory, practice, and religious structures that drew a sharp divide between the Samaritans and Jews.
And so we end up somewhere unnamed. We’re in an in-between space. Away from both religious communities, and far enough from settlement to be within calling distance of those who were ritually unclean, an exclusion zone between two communities with similar purity codes. We are at the edge of societies that bled into one another.
Jesus pauses from his press towards Jerusalem, towards the end of his mission, and stops for the people who call out from a distance “Master, have mercy on us”. Jesus calls back “Go and show yourself to the priests”. Nothing has happened yet, but not one questions Jesus. They all obey that command in hope, and were healed on the way.
Nine people had faith that healing would come were obedient to Jesus’s command to return home. They would likely have told the story to their priests of how they were healed by Jesus – adding another story about Jesus the miracle healer doing the rounds. Just one stopped to look at their skin, and then returned to give thanks to God. The tenth was fundamentally changed, recognised God at work, and marked the moment, falling at Jesus’ feet. The original readers and hearers of this story would have been able to imagine this, perhaps to imagine themselves in the place of that prostrate and grateful person. And then Luke drops the twist in the plot – that person was a Samaritan and not a Jew. 1
The nine were obedient, and perhaps their focus was on the joy of returning to their lives, the relief at the end of solitude and exclusion. Of being sufficiently pure to be able to return to society, to return to within their communities’ boundaries. But one realised they had been lifted out of those boundaries, and that God was right there in that undefined space. That one returned home knowing that beyond being made clean and acceptable in society’s eyes, they had encountered God who was beyond the boundaries.
All ten was made clean, but only one through faith had an encounter, that Jesus declared had made them well. The word “sōzō”, translated in here as made well, means also to be delivered or saved. The encounter with God has forever changed this person’s life, because not only did they receive the freedom from the disease they longed for, they recognised the greater gift of an encounter with the source of love and grace from where the healing came. And that person marked the moment, seeking out Jesus, falling flat on their face, and worshiping in wonder.
What does the text say to us today, here in Indooroopilly? Let’s consider first the importance of stopping and marking the work of God in our lives. Then we can discuss the way God would reach those we would not expect, in places outside the confines of our expectations.
How do we stop, notice, and mark God’s work in our lives? Our personal practice of prayer, reflection, and of reading the scriptures is key. Corporately this gathering each week is our community’s expression of recognition, thanks, confession, remembrance, worship, and praise. From start to finish, we follow in the example of the 10th leper, and it’s a continuing work, not a one off event.
What does difference does this ongoing work make? This story is sometimes called the 10 lepers made clean and the one converted. Now, converted is one of those words can be glibly thrown around, along with salvation, conviction, and faith. How is it different from the obedience of the nine? What does it mean to be made well? What do our prayer lives and Sundays mean – this moment of deliberately stopping and turning to God, of being caught up in the celebration of the Eucharist… of meeting God in prayer… of sharing in fellowship with our sisters and brothers, of receiving the Gospel. What happens next? Is there a change that we take with us? The leper made well was told by Jesus to go on their way. When we are sent out from here by Jesus, what happens next for us?
Michael Knowles frames this Gospel text as the story of two people heading in opposite directions. Jesus continued towards Jerusalem and the end of his Earthly mission; the tenth leper left the exclusion zone, towards the beginning of their mission. In telling the man to get up, and go on his way, what did Jesus expect? When we’re told to go in peace to love and serve the Lord, what is expected of us? I would suggest that this brings us to our next take home – that God reaches people in those undefined places. People we don’t expect, outside the usual practice of religious communities.
Today, our excluded and marginalised aren’t infectious or a risk to the physical health of our community. They may or may not be poor. They may or may not be rejected by the mainstream. But they’re far outside of our faith communities, all the same.
Luke’s readers and hearers would have been shocked that of this mixed group of Jews and Samaritans, it was the Samaritan that saw God. God is beyond human boundaries, is in the margins, in the space, despite the constraints we might wish to apply. Luke makes clear that God reveals Godself to those we don’t expect and is missed by those that we might think are better candidates.
When we imagined that newcomer – what did they look like? Someone like us, someone we aspire to have join us, or someone beyond the boundaries?
If we only mix with, talk with, value and share God with people like us, we’re very likely to miss those that might just recognise God in their midst. If we value uniformity and assimilation over compassion and inclusion, we will exclude today’s foreigner. The world wants tidy and homogenous – take for example the criticism of Ellen Degeneres’s friendship with George W. Bush. But it’s not our call. Who is today’s Samaritan that will recognise the work of God in Jesus, the Jew? Who is the person that seems so different from us, so foreign, so mistaken, but is in fact just like us, and is called by our God?
Where are our margins? I’ve spoken with a number of people recently about the treasure that is this community. But we’re walled in, not this time because we fear for our purity, or contagions, or because we shut people out – quite the contrary, we desperately want people to come in! But our church literally has walls. People can’t see the friendship, welcome and love we share. The way we band together and look after one another. The time we set aside to meet God in this space, and learn how we can follow Jesus. We’re as foreign to the world outside as the temple of Samaria was to the temple of Jerusalem. How do we tell people about the welcome and wonderful diversity inside? How do we begin to bleed into the undefined space beyond our boundaries.
As we stop now and see the source of our life and joy, our God, in this moment, what is next for us? Our visioning points the way for us as a community – where is that vision going to take us? To whom? What about each of us individually – what or to whom is Jesus calling us to next? Like the leper, we stand from our prone posture, dust ourselves off, and know that Sunday is just the beginning.
Let us pray.
Loving God, refresh and inspire us, and send us into your world, to the liminal spaces, with eyes that see the leper and foreigner. Let us hold fast to the example and teaching of Jesus, confident in the strength and guidance of the Holy Spirit, taking with us the assurance we have in the living God, who loves and calls us to those outside our four walls.
1 This detail draws us back to Luke 4, when Jesus declares Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown… There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. This text mirrors the story of Naaman – a foreigner healed from a distance, recognises God, and returns in gratitude recognising the source.