Sometimes geography can be really important, and this morning’s Gospel is one of those times. The passage begins: On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. The region between Samaria and Galilee – the two anciently related groups of people who despised each other – that in-between place that was neither/nor. Jesus was headed to Jerusalem in his final journey to the Cross, and where does he go? To the borderlands, a place of ambiguity and hostility, if not down-right danger. And while he and the disciples were traveling through this no-man’s land, they met a group of lepers, people whose skin disease caused such fear of contagion that they were quarantined outside of town, shunned, cut off from any community outside their own company. They knew the rules, these lepers; they kept their distance from Jesus, but they called out for his assistance and mercy. Maybe this was the One who could heal them, could end their suffering and their isolation.
Now before we get too comfortable with this story, thinking that this kind of banishment was an ancient, unenlightened practice, think again. Not only did leper colonies continue all over the world through the middle of the twentieth century, but thirty years ago the US was in the middle of the AIDS crisis, when children with AIDS were barred from school, and some medical professionals refused to treat AIDS patients – despite the fact that the virus is not easily communicable – because of their “life-style choices” as gay men or intravenous drug users. Fear and judgement was in the air for years. One of my personal heroes is my dentist who, long before I ever came to All Saints’, agreed to treat a young woman of this parish when no one else would give her the dental care she needed because she had AIDS. She eventually died of the disease. The ostracism she and so many others lived through and died with were a kind of modern borderlands, an exile from community, a place of neither/nor.
So Jesus encountered these people, these ten lepers. They called out to him for mercy and healing, and he healed them, telling them to go and show themselves to the priest – the local Temple official – who was the person who could officially declare them clean and restore them to community life; kind of an ancient Jewish doctor’s note to be able to go back to work. And they all went off to do just as Jesus said, and in the going were made clean. But one came back – the one who was living under the double whammy of being a leper and a hated Samaritan among Jews. The import and the irony here should not be lost: the one who was the greatest outcast was the one who returned to give thanks, to fall on his face at Jesus’ feet, to give praise to God for what Jesus had done.
Why didn’t the other nine come back and offer thanks? We don’t know. Perhaps they were so relieved at their return of health that they forgot. Perhaps they were eager to get back to their families and former lives. Perhaps they wanted to put as much distance between themselves and those borderlands as quickly as possible. But maybe part of it was their recognition of the power of God in and through Jesus. With power can come danger, upset, requirement to change; maybe it was just easier to slide away.
But the Samaritan came back; he returned to give thanks and praise to God. And Jesus commended his faith – his recognition and trust in the power and goodness of God, not just to be physically made well, and to be restored to his community, but also to be saved – to live in the fullness of God’s purpose and blessing for him, now and in the age to come. When Jesus tells him to “get up” it’s a word related to resurrection: rise, stand, made new and whole, enter into God’s reality. And all because the man returned to give thanks, to express his gratitude.
We are entering what is traditionally a season of gratitude, both in our culture and in the Church. We are surrounded by images of harvest and abundance. Thanksgiving is a little over six weeks away. We know we are supposed to be counting our blessings – in this season at the very least, if we don’t do it every day. And it’s the season for a very important aspect of stewardship, when we gather our financial resources for the coming year, out of our gratitude and thanks for all that God has done for us – not unlike the squirrels in my back yard gathering hickory nuts and acorns for the coming of winter – glad for the abundance of the trees that support and shelter them.
When we think about gratitude, we can consider it in at least two ways: the personal and the corporate/community. I hope and pray that we all have things in our personal lives to be grateful for – ways that God has sustained, healed, restored you and your loved ones. Those images of the borderlands in the Gospel, after all, aren’t just about physical geography; they are also about our own lives and experiences. After all, how many of us have spent time (sometimes a lifetime) in those borderlands where we are living in the pain of being unwanted, unwelcomed, at enmity with others or with ourselves? Those are precisely the places where Jesus shows up, accompanies us, hears us, heals us, loves us. And I hope and pray that we can all make living in gratitude a daily habit.
We can also be grateful for our parish community – not just in what it does for us, or what we get out of it, but grateful for the increasing role we are playing with our neighbors and our civic community. So often when I am out and about people say tell me how much they value All Saints’ and the open-hearted and generous ways we try to embrace the community – whether it be through AA and other recovery meetings, partnering with our Christian Community friends, our food pantry, our dinners for Vets, our support of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts; hospitality of place, of food, of prayer. That’s who other people know us to be; - it’s our vocation as a community following Jesus. But it means it’s our vocation, together, not just mine as priest doing it on your behalf, or the buildings as the assets we have to share. We all together have been given the gift and vocation to be a healing, loving, strengthening, generous presence in our community, and the Holy Spirit continues to nudge, cajole, inspire, and push us in the ways God wants us to go. We are very much a work in progress.
And we are grateful for all of this, grateful that God has called us into partnership with him in this place and time. So as we begin to think and pray about what financial resources we will commit to God’s work in and through All Saints’ for 2017 - as well as our commitment of time, and talent, and prayerful presence - we should remember that the way we express our gratitude affects not just ourselves alone, but our neighbors and community members. Let us act with the generosity of Jesus, remembering that:
God is good/All the time. All the time/God is good. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
October 9, 2016