Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost: October 13, 2019
In our encounter with Jesus today, we once again find him journeying in and through places he was not supposed to be, and meeting with people he was not supposed to know. Galilee was certainly familiar territory, but Samaria, gosh, the people there didn’t worship in the correct way and worst of all, they were foreigners. Then we introduce lepers, ten of those poor souls in the Gospel reading and the infliction of Naaman, the mighty warrior in 2 Kings. Lepers, of all people, were social outcasts and seen often as less than human.
During my own life I have discovered that I have been most changed by two things: Being in places this middle class white boy would not ordinarily find himself, and meeting with people with whom I was not to be associated. I am thinking about when I spent some time working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, going to minister with her and others in a leper colony a few miles north of the city.
Not unlike the culture found in 2 Kings and in Jesus’ day, lepers in Calcutta are shunned, marked as unclean. They are the untouchables. If one goes to Leviticus 13 and 14, you will find verse upon verse about how to deal with leprous people as well as their clothing. I hopped on a packed Calcutta train headed out of the city to the north, in itself quite an experience. Disembarking and then walking up the railroad tracks to where I was told the leper colony was, I came upon women and children kneeling between the tracks making patties out of cow dung which after drying all day in the sun would be burned as fuel for cooking purposes. Then, after walking another couple hundred yards as I got closer to the leper’s housing, I heard a strange repeating clacking sound that got louder and louder as I drew near.
Coming upon the entrance to the first building, I saw two rows of residents operating looms. What I was hearing was the shuttle on the loom going back and forth. Many of the people had partial arms and legs, many missing parts of their noses and/or lips, the results of ravages of leprosy. It was later that I found out that this work producing cloth, some of it the familiar blue and white worn by the nuns of Mother Teresa’s Order, gave the people dignity. Before then there was a constant issue of fighting between families over territory and commodities. The meaningful work brought mutual respect and dignity. A sense of self-worth followed, clearly important, even essential, to people who had been told they had no worth.
Then I went down another hall and heard some men singing. They too had bodies that had been deeply scarred by leprosy. I asked one of the nuns what was being sung and I was told the rough translation was, “Jesus, we who have no hands, you are our hands. Jesus, we who have no feet, you are our feet. Jesus, we who have no eyes, you are our eyes. Jesus, you are our everything.” I was stunned. Yes, they had found their worth and dignity when given meaningful work by the Christians who ministered among them, but even more, they found that there is a God who loves them. Contrary to what many had told them, it is God who defines their worth.
This is what is happening in today’s Gospel and it comes up over and over again throughout the Scriptures. This is the great reversal of Jesus’ ministry, giving honor and love to the least, the last, the untouchable, the outcast. Because it was his ministry it is our ministry as well, as we are the Body of Christ on this earth. We mark and sacramentalize this truth in those receiving the laying on of hands today.
Look how it plays out in 2 Kings. Naaman, a great warrior, has contracted a leprous skin disease. Who is the one who opens the possibility of cleansing, healing, and hope to this Gentile enemy? A little girl, from, here again, the margins, calling forth the prophet in Samaria of all places! Nothing good could come out of Samaria the religious teachers of the day would have thought. Without her as an instrument there would have been no healing. This was an intervention from below, from the minimized, the little ones, the less valued, and it moves to God’s great healing. Even Naaman’s misconception on how God works shifts to apprehension when he recognizes the God of Israel as his deliverer.
Then in the Gospel we find again what it means to follow Jesus, which is St. Luke’s point. From where does the gratitude for healing come? The one leper. Where is he from? You guessed it. Samaria! Are you catching a theme here? Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem, scriptural code meaning he was going to where he would die. By traveling between Samaria and Galilee, even engaging a person from that territory, he was crossing the high and solid religious and cultural boundaries of separation that had been set up. He was about taking them down. It was only the Samaritan who sees and understands and returns to Jesus. Luke draws his hero from outside the chosen. Its about the continual need for our conversion, always turning back to Jesus as we find that what was promised in 2 Kings is fulfilled in him.
We have a Lord who two millennia ago was busy blowing the doors off the constricting, life-draining, dignity denying religious approaches that kept God’s people captive. It got him killed. Sometimes in the life of the Church it appears that we spend a lot of time trying to put the doors back on. Why? What are we afraid of? That someone might get saved who we think doesn’t deserve it?
Dear friends—none of us deserves it. But isn’t that the great Good News of Christ? As the Collect for today says so beautifully, it is God’s grace that precedes and follows us. We are surrounded by and immersed in grace! 2 Timothy tells us that when “we are faithless, he remains faithful!” More good news!
The wholeness of Naaman was found in the loving God who we discover in Jesus. The leper who returned to Jesus in gratefulness, his wholeness was found in Jesus. Through our baptism we died with him so that we might live, even now, with him. Where do we find our wholeness, our hope? It is found in Jesus. Now let’s celebrate.
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Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.