Something extraordinary happened in the State of New Jersey this past Tuesday: State Supreme Court Justice Helen Hoens had her last day on the bench. Some of you may have heard back in August that she was not going to be re-appointed beyond her first term; some of you may have even seen the article in Wednesday’s Star-Ledger, noting the event, or heard the You Tube clip of her final speech. Some of you know Helen; she lives in Basking Ridge, she is a fine jurist, and a remarkably funny and wise person; she also has a son who is severely autistic. And Helen used her last day on the bench to say this:
“Every important thing I ever became, all of the qualities like patience and compassion and strength and courage, all of it was forged on the anvil of autism. The truth of it is, I have never left the margins of society. I have never left the people like my son, the people in the shadows, the folks that the important people don’t see or just don’t want to see. Someday each and every one of you will come across someone like my son. When that day comes, you’re going to be just like me, you’re going to want to get by, you’ll want to do what everyone wants to do: you want to push these people aside, look the other way, get on with your busy, important life or your movie or your fast food or your groceries. When that day comes," she concluded, “stop, stop, take a deep breath, reach down deep, deep into the reservoirs of love and patience and kindness and compassion that reside deep in every one of our souls ... and tell yourself this: Somebody just like that taught me everything I needed to know to be a justice of the Supreme Court of the state of New Jersey. Think on that. Remember that. My work here is done."
I don’t know about you, but when I read those words on Wednesday morning, they moved me to tears. How often have I, how often have any of us, walked right past the people in the shadows, on the margins of society, because I was too busy or stressed or even frightened? Probably too many times.
One of the hallmarks of Jesus’ life was that he noticed – he noticed and paid attention to the people in the margins of life, in the shadows, no matter how awkward or inconvenient it might have been: women, children, tax-collectors, those who were sick, lame, ritually unclean, the poor, the mentally ill, foreigners and outcasts. Jesus noticed these people, spoke with them, prayed with them, shared meals with them, lifted up their faithfulness to the crowds who followed him – all to the consternation of the religious authorities who were more concerned about their own spiritual purity and than they were about recognizing God’s Spirit at work in their midst in and through Jesus. Today’s Gospel is one such example.
Jesus was traveling in the borderlands between Jewish Galilee and less-than-Jewish Samaria – a no-man’s land, a shadowy margin.
And he encountered ten people with leprosy, a skin disease that made them outcasts from their community – not only because of the fear of contagion, but because Jewish Law as outlined in Leviticus declared such people to be ritually unclean – they could not participate in the life of the community or the prayers and sacrifices that constituted the worship of God.
This group of lepers on the edge of the village saw Jesus from afar and called out to him: "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" When they called him “Master,” they were using the word that in every other instance in the Gospel of Luke is used by the disciples for Jesus; Luke here is casting these lepers in the role of disciples. Jesus did have mercy on them and healed them, by sending them on their way to the Temple so that the priest could declare them clean and restore them to their families and community.
But one of them turned back - a Samaritan, someone who was doubly outcast in Jewish society – this man was glorifying God, fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, and thanked him for his healing. And Jesus blessed him even further: he said, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." He was made well, whole, sound – not just physically, but spiritually; the word that Jesus uses here is the word that means “salvation.”
When the Samaritan man returned to praise God and thank Jesus he was blessed even further, more deeply; it is probably no surprise that this man who had been living in the shadows and borderlands was overflowing with gratitude when Jesus noticed him, paid attention and then healed him. And once again, Jesus lifted up this man – someone from the margins - as an example of faithfulness and right response to God.
So where does this leave us, with the Gospel in one ear and Justice Hoen’s words in the other? Some of us do know what it is to live in the margins, because of our own experience or because of the condition of someone we love, perhaps live with, or even someone from whom we have had to separate ourselves for our own safety and theirs.
And the margins can be identified in a number a different ways, perhaps not as dramatically as the Samaritan leper or Helen’s son, but painful and over-looked, nevertheless: the child who is bullied or teased at school; the immigrant who busses your table at the restaurant or cuts your lawn or pumps your gas; the disabled vet who is given a hero’s welcome on first arriving home, but then fades from view when it comes time to re-enter the work force; the family whose jobs cannot cover the household grocery bill and who must rely on food stamps; I’m sure you can think of others who live in the shadows of our society.
As Christians, Jesus calls us to follow his lead: to notice, to stop, to pay attention, to offer our compassion, to learn wisdom, patience and love. And Jesus also calls us to follow the example of the Samaritan leper: to return and give thanks, to praise God, to stretch out our lives at Jesus’ feet in gratitude, offering what we have – our hearts, our time, our financial resources, and our talents and abilities. Everything we are and everything we have are part of what we offer back to God for the blessing of life and wholeness and salvation.
We do that every day when we awaken and give thanks for the gift of life and offer the day to God, asking that we may spend the day wisely and well; and again in the evening when we review the day, thank the Lord for our blessings, and ask forgiveness for the things we have done wrong and the ways in which we have fallen short. We give gratitude back to God each week – literally and symbolically - when we put our financial offering in the collection plate and when we raise our hearts in praise and thanksgiving in the Eucharist.
And we come to this season when we intentionally think about our stewardship of God’s gifts for the coming year – what we will pledge, how we will pray and think and talk and plan about how best to support and join God’s mission in the world, the mission that includes the people living in the shadows.
In the next week you’ll be receiving stewardship materials in the mail – a letter, a brochure, and a pledge card that includes room for both a financial pledge and a commitment of time and talent. Before you make any decision about what level of giving you will make for the coming year 2014, stop and consider your gratitude for God’s presence in your life; recall all the ways that Jesus has noticed and spoken and healed you when you felt you were in the margins, in the shadows; read the letter and the brochure; pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit about how you should return thanks to God by supporting God’s mission in the here at All Saints’ and in the wider world.
Someone commenting on this Gospel reading said that “the love that springs from gratitude is the essence of faith.” God has given to us so generously, even when we least deserved it, even when we were in the shadows and the margins; to return to God to offer our thanks and praise – we can do no other.
Let us pray.
Thank you, O Lord, for seeing us in the shadows and in the light; accept our praise and gratitude for all you have done for us; open our eyes to see others who need compassion and love; strengthen us to act generously in Jesus’ Name; and finally, grant us the joy and peace of knowing we have served you faithfully and well. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
October 13, 2013