Our Gospel story today is a story about boundary crossings, about an encounter on the margins. It’s a story about what people on the outside can teach people who are on the inside. What people who are outside our community, our fellowship, our congregation, can teach us insiders about our faith.
In this story Jesus is traveling: he’s on the way to Jerusalem, passing through the region between Galilee—his home turf—and Samaria—essentially enemy territory. There’s the boundary. But it’s important for us to note that Jesus is traveling, that he’s “on the way.” It’s a reminder to us that the church described in the New Testament is a dynamic body of people, people on the Way. Not a settled, established, fixed-for-all-time group; not a static institution that has a lock on the understanding of God; but a people, on a journey, always willing to be exposed to God’s call upon them.
We don’t always think about church this way: as a risky adventure into the unknown, unsheltered and exposed to the elements, like the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness for forty years, or Jesus time of trial in the wilderness for forty days, dependent only on God for our sustenance. We’ve tended to become insulated from all that, in our comfortable pews in our well furnished sanctuary.
This story comes to remind us, to stir us up, to reawaken our sense of the adventure of the Christian life.
So Jesus is on the way, on the margins, on the boundary that separates insiders and outsiders. He encounters a group of ten outsiders—lepers, people who have some kind of visible skin condition, that in their culture and religious practice meant that they had to be physically separated from the rest of the community. The custom dictated that they were to warn passersby of their presence. So these outcasts call out to Jesus, but they call him Master, suggesting that they believe he has the power to do something to help them, to heal them.
There’s a clue here that these outsiders, these people living outside the boundaries of the community, exposed: that they see something, that they know something about Jesus that those in the comfortable confines of the community may not see. Those on the margins, on the outside, can sometimes see more clearly than those of us who have become well-insulated from the exigencies of life on the edge.
Jesus provides the lepers with what they need: healing and restoration to the community. Interestingly, he provides it within the parameters of their cultural and religious practice: he instructs them to show themselves to the priests. That’s how you were certified to be “clean” and eligible to return to community.
Then we come to the hinge point of the story: one of the ten who were healed—and this one a Samaritan, one of the enemy, an outsider’s outsider, beyond beyond—this one turns, praises God, and falls at Jesus’ feet, thanking him. The other nine—presumably Jesus’ own people, Jews—go on their way.
Now it’s easy to turn this into some kind of moral lesson, where we see the nine who didn’t turn around as ungrateful, and the lesson is that we should be like the one who did express his gratitude. But we don’t need to be too hard on the nine; after all they did just what Jesus asked them to do—they presumably went and showed themselves to the priests so that they could be readmitted.
And if you think about it, we can’t really blame them. They must have been overwhelmed, overjoyed, to be set free from their affliction, to be able to rejoin their community, their families, to go back to their work, to be treated as human again, no longer having to sleep rough, and live rough, outside, exposed. Imagine their relief. They have suffered so much and for so long that they just want to be “normal” again.
But this one—this outsider’s outsider—he sees beyond the restoration of the ordinary good things of life—home, family, participation in work and in community—he sees beyond all this to the source of all these ordinary blessings, to God. To God who is at the root of it all.
He sees that everything depends on God. Jesus says to him, Get up, go on your way, your faith has made you well, literally “your faith has saved you.” Not your home, not your family, not your job, not your possessions; but, your faith has saved you.
So what does this little story have to say to us on this Thanksgiving Sunday?
Well, as a church we are reminded not to get too cosy, too comfortable, too settled. We are meant to be a people on the Way, on the move, on the journey or the pilgrimage through life in this world. A pilgrimage, a journey, an ongoing process of conversion in which we centre ourselves more and more in God’s will for us. This process of conversion involves a gradual relinquishment of the things that insulate us from God.
To be the church as it’s described in the New Testament is to allow ourselves to be exposed, uncovered, laid open, to God’s call upon us, to God’s claims upon us as a community of faith.
At times when the church is rich and strong and powerful, it’s easy for it to be well-insulated against God’s call. Our comfortableness can be a barrier to our fidelity to the Gospel. We rely on our own abilities, and our own particular interpretation of what God wants us to do. The trouble is, when the church is successful, when it’s popular, we tend to hear our own voices more and more, and God’s voice becomes ever fainter.
That’s why the time we are living in now presents us with such an opportunity. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall calls this time in the church’s life the era of the “humiliation” of the church. The church is brought low as we become less powerful in society, and less popular. Our own denomination has been in numerical decline for fifty years; our membership peaked in 1965.
But Hall reminds us of the gifts our humiliation can bring. In a way this should not surprise us: the church’s core story is the story of a particular act of humiliation, the crucifixion of Jesus, and God’s response to that act, raising Jesus back to life.
The humiliation of the church offers us the opportunity to shed some of our excess baggage, the insider comforts we have accumulated that have gotten in the way of our dependence upon God. The ways our church has come to resemble too closely a club for insiders, rather than a place of radical welcome and hospitality for outsiders.
Our recognition that we are no longer self-sustaining, that our own best efforts are not going to be enough to keep the church alive into the next generation, offers us the opportunity to be pushed, or pulled, or maybe even dragged—by God, not by me!—into the future God intends for us. We have an opportunity to allow ourselves to be open to God’s leading, God’s transformation of our communal life.
Our gospel story today suggests that sometimes the best place for that to happen is on the margins, on the boundaries, not in the cosy insulated homes we have built for ourselves. My friend and mentor Will Willimon tells a story about a comfortable congregation’s transformative encounter with an outsider. Here’s Will’s story:
“In one of my former congregations, we sought and eventually welcomed as a member a woman who was, due to her addiction, homeless. A family was assigned to lead the church in doing what we needed to do truly to receive Alice as Christ had received us. We had two years of successes and disappointments, frustrations and wonderful surprises, hard work that stretched our patience and our finances.
When Alice had been off alcohol for a year and was thriving in a new job, I thanked the woman who was instrumental in her recovery.
‘You should thank Alice,’ she responded. ‘Before she joined Trinity, we were in danger of becoming a club for sweet old folks. Alice made us a church!’
Welcoming Alice restored the adventure of salvation in Christ and saved us from moderate, mediocre Methodism. After Alice, we changed our evangelism slogan from ‘We welcome you’ to ‘We NEED YOU.’”
“We need you.”
I like this story because it turns the tables. When the church is strong and powerful, and rich and popular, the church thinks of itself as a charitable institution, giving in order to help those less fortunate. But this story reminds us that sometimes it’s the church that needs to be evangelized by those outside.
“We need you.” We need those outside to help us remember our story, and to encourage us to live it again. We need the families who are supported by the Trinity Food Bank to remind us of Jesus’ table fellowship in which no one was excluded, and no one went hungry. We need our friends who have come through Bill’s Place and those in other recovery programs—all those who are continuing to learn and to practice what it means to be “clean” and sober—we need them to teach us what it means to be a community that lives compassion, and that provides a welcome to those who have been to hell and back.
We need friends like these to stretch us as a community, to remind us of our call to go out to the margins with a message of good news, to not hunker down in our comfortable, cosy place.
Think back a minute to the two responses to Jesus’ healing: the nine who went on their way, relieved to pick up their lives again; and the one who paused first, to remember the source of life. Maybe there’s another metaphor for the church here: we can be like the nine, longing for our restoration, and eager to race back to the life we once knew, when the church was big and popular.
Or we can be like the one, who praises God and then humbles himself to the ground, remembering and giving thanks. And then is raised up, and told to go ‘on his way,’ ‘on his way,’ for his faith, his trust, his reliance on God—that and nothing else—has saved him.
We will end our service again today by singing “When you walk from here,” with its call to us as a church to ‘walk with justice, walk with mercy, and with God’s humble care.’ May it be so.
Rev. Jeff Seaton reserves all rights © 2016. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.