A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 9, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day are Proper 23C of the Revised Common Lectionary: 2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; and St. Luke 17:11-19. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)
For ten months, since the First Sunday of Advent 2015, we have been in Lectionary Year C, during which we’ve been following texts from the Gospel according to Luke. Luke’s Gospel , after telling of his birth and infancy, sets out Jesus’ original mission statement, which he adopted from the Prophet Isaiah and proclaimed in his hometown synagogue:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18-19)
Throughout the year, Luke has given us profound glimpses of God’s grace alive in the world of 1st Century Palestine, encouraging us to open our eyes and respond to God’s grace alive in the world today. This sort of awakening and response to grace forms the foundation of Christian stewardship.
In July of 2014, Evelyn and I were privileged to visit the place where the healing of the ten lepers is said to have happened. A tradition stretching back nearly 2,000 years tells us that it was in the village of Burqin and the Christian church which stands there today is believed to be sited on the longest continually used place of Christian worship in the world.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Luke tells us that this place is in “the region between Samaria and Galilee.” I have to assume that Luke was ignorant of Palestinian geography. There is no such “region.” At best, there is a line on the map, a border, between Samaria and Galilee, nothing more. If Jesus was “passing through” such a region, he was simply stepping over an imaginary line separating one human-defined locale from the next. In the modern world, he might have been going through a checkpoint. There’s a wonderful word for doing that, for being in that in-between place, in that “space” which is neither one thing nor the other – liminality. It is derived from the Latin word for “threshold.”
The village of Burqin is located almost exactly halfway between Nazareth in Galilee and Sychar (now called Nablus), the Samaritan city where Jesus spoke with the woman at Jacob’s Well. Today, it is a village of about 6,000 people; fewer than 100 of them are Christian, and all of those are members of the Greek Orthodox congregation that worships at that longest-used church in all the world.
When we visited there, we were treated to lunch in the home of church leaders Usama and Nadya. During our conversations with them, one of our party asked Nadya if they felt uncomfortable living as such a tiny minority among so many Muslims and if she had ever considered leaving. “These are our neighbors and friends; they are our families,” she replied, “why would we ever leave?” She told us how they visited in each other’s homes, watched each other’s children, and celebrated each other’s holidays. And then she said, “Besides, if we left, who would be the church?”
I was struck then and continue to be amazed at the wisdom of her answer, at her choice of verb: “Who would be the church?” In that liminal place, that small group of Christians is constantly in that in-between place. Visiting, working with, celebrating with, being family with their overwhelmingly numerous Muslim neighbors, they cross over and through so many thresholds; they are constantly in spiritual motion yet grounded in that longest-used place of worship.
Their stewardship of that place is phenomenal, by the way. It must rank as the most lovingly cared for and tended church I have ever entered! Not a speck of dust, not a single cobweb, not a trace of tarnish on any of the numerous silver lamps, candlesticks, icon covers, and other objects of devotion, not a thread torn or hanging loose from the linens or tapestries. It was clear that, like the Samaritan leper who was healed there, the members of that community returned again and again to give thanks through their loving stewardship of God’s gifts.
That’s one thing about this story that grabs my attention and excites my imagination, that it takes place in that “space” which is neither one thing nor the other, that it is a story in spiritual motion from one state to another, a spiritual journey culminating in thanksgiving.
It is that sort of story in the other particular that grabs my attention, as well. This other thing is something that I’ve never seen touched on in any commentary on this text, and that is the way in which their disease unites the ten lepers. Although Luke as narrator and Jesus as character in the story comment on the citizenship or race of only the one leper, the implication is that the others are Jews. One commentator has suggested that the Samaritan turned back from going to the Temple to present himself to a Jewish priest because he would have been unwelcomed there, but the others continued on suggesting that they were Jews for whom there was no similar problem. If that is so, then for the ten the shared experience of leprosy had bound them together and had overcome the traditional enmity between Jew and Samaritan.
I’d never thought of that before but now, every day, I show up at a cancer center where I converse with two men I would never before have interacted with. The man who gets his radiation treatment before me drives a Cadillac on which there are two bumper stickers. One reads, “Hillary for Prison 2016” and the other bears only the word “Trump.” In other circumstances, I would be very unlikely to converse with this man. But, thrown together by the common malady of prostate cancer, I know that he is also 64 years old, that he has two daughters and that both are married, and that he has three grandchildren. I know his name. He and I wish one another well every day, even though we know that our political views are wildly disparate. The man who comes after me rides a Harley; he has bushy, unkempt grey beard and tattoos on his arms; he wears “muscle shirts” and grubby jeans and his wallet is attached to his belt loop by several inches of heavy stainless steel chain. In other circumstances, I would be equally unlikely to talk with him. But I know particulars of his life also and we greet one another as friends.
We three will move on from this experience when the linear accelerator has done its thing and we are “cured” of the cancer. Like the ten lepers, our small community of shared disease will break up, but none of us will ever be the same; I will remember them and I hope they will remember me. In some sense, we will remain a community.
That is what the ten lepers were and what they remained even as they moved off on that spiritual journey from one state to another, from leprosy to wholeness; they were a community. I suggest to you that they are an icon of the church. We are all of us, both individually and together, on a journey from some form of “leprosy”, a journey from some illness of spirit, a journey to wholeness and salvation. That iconic community returned a tenth, a tithe (if you will) of its substance to Jesus, praising God with a loud voice, falling prostrate at his feet, and giving thanks. (The other nine, also, would offer thanksgivings if they went, as instructed, to the Temple priests: the Law required a thank offering of two male lambs, a ewe, a measure of fine flour, and a measure of oil.) Thus, in this sense also, this is a story in spiritual motion from one state to another, a spiritual journey culminating in thanksgiving.
Martin Luther was once asked to describe the nature of true worship. His answer: the tenth leper turning back. David Lose, the Lutheran seminary professor whose writings I like so much, says of this story:
All the lepers were healed; one, however, saw, noticed, let what happened sink in … and it made all the difference.
• Because he sees what has happened, the leper recognizes Jesus, his reign and his power.
• Because he sees what has happened, the leper has something for which to be thankful, praising God with a loud voice.
• Because he sees what has happened, the leper changes direction, veering from his course toward a priest to first return to Jesus.
In this light, this story serves as an invitation to believers – then and now – to recognize that what we see makes all the difference. In the face of adversity, do we see danger or opportunity? In the face of human need, do we see demand or gift? In the face of the stranger, do we see potential enemy or friend? (Lose. Emphasis in original.)
After the Samaritan saw that he was healed, the rest of his response is characterized by four actions: he turned back, he praised God, he prostrated himself in worship, and he gave thanks. This, again, is Luke encouraging us to open our eyes and giving us an example of how we ought to respond to God’s grace alive in the world today. This is true worship, a road map for our response to God’s activity in our world: returning, praising, worshiping, and giving in thanks.
Echoing Luther, Prof. Lose asks, “What is true stewardship, worship, and Christian living? It is the tenth leper turning back. For now as then, seeing makes all the difference.” It is the sort of awakening and response to grace that forms the foundation of Christian stewardship.
And now I would like to invite parishioner ____________ to share some thoughts about his spiritual journey and thanksgiving.
A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.