Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 20 2013

2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c
1 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

There are a number of incidents related in the gospels where Jesus heals lepers. They are all remarkable, but this one is unique. 
Leprosy in Biblical times covered a range of disfiguring diseases, all of which made their sufferers outcasts from their communities. If you were a leper you were shunned by religious laws which decreed that you were unclean, unholy, untouchable. You had to live a segregated existence outside of any town or village. If anyone came near you, you had to shout out a warning that they must not approach. How dreadful that was. Speech, communication, is central to human society, to building communities. But of you were a leper the only communication you were allowed with the society that had cast you out was to shout a warning to keep away. You had ceased to be someone who could participate in society.
In most of the stories where Jesus heals a leper he is approached by an individual, one person who asks for healing. And Jesus responds by touching. A very important and indeed scandalous gesture, touching the untouchable. This should have made the holy Rabbi unclean, but instead the reverse happened. Healing and power flows from Jesus, making whole, making clean.
But this story is different. Here there is not one leper, but ten. Curiously one of them is a Samaritan, and we are left to suppose that the other nine are Jews. Now Jews and Samaritans, of course, as represented in the gospels, did not mix. They regarded each other as outcasts, each thinking the other followed a heretical version of their ancestral religion. But here is a group of ten people, Jews and a Samaritan, who are all outcasts from their own communities because of their leprosy. 
Jesus we are told was “going through the region between Samaria and Galilee”. Samaria where the Samaritans lived, Galilee where the Jews lived. Jesus is in an uncertain, unboundaried area, a no-man’s land between these regions where people lived apart. This is where the lepers are, cast out into no-man’s land, which ironically has brought them together. Outside their home structures of exclusion, which they had once been part of, they are able to form a new community, of sorts, which sets aside the old differences.
And Jesus is travelling in that marginal outside place, on his way to Jerusalem, where he will become the outcast, hanged on a tree outside the city on Good Friday.
So in this marginal outside place, this no-man’s land, the lepers ask Jesus, the Master, to have mercy on them. And they are healed, all ten of them. What happens then? Well, Jesus has told them to show themselves to the priests. The Jewish law said that if you had been cured of leprosy you had to be examined by a priest who would certify that you were once again ritually pure, so you could rejoin your community. And this is exactly what the Jewish former lepers do. 
But not the Samaritan. He couldn’t show himself to a Jewish priest; even if he was no longer a leper he would still have been an outcast Samaritan. Perhaps he might have shown himself to a Samaritan priest instead. But he does not. Instead, he turns back to Jesus, praising God in a loud voice, and falls at his feet, giving thanks.  
It looks as though the Samaritan is disobeying Jesus, by not going off and showing himself to a priest. But in fact he has found in Jesus the one true priest who offers salvation, healing and wholeness to all. His response breaks through all the purity codes and religious laws, all the mechanisms of exclusion and casting out. He has found something greater. A new way of belonging, founded only on God’s love reaching out to us and to all in Jesus. A new way of living, founded on praise and thanksgiving rather than on formality and obligation.
The Jewish lepers had a choice. They could have made the same response as the Samaritan. They could have realised that in Jesus God was breaking open all the sacred boundaries and religious laws which had made them victims for so long, outsiders to their own people.  But instead they chose to go back into that system, now that they could be on the inside again and return to their old existence. They were ritually clean, back on the right side of the religious law. That was the easy option for them, not available to the Samaritan. But by going back to the old ways they are missing out on the fullness of life and joy which made the Samaritan shout with praise. 
For the Samaritan, the discovery of God coming to meet us in Jesus changed everything. A life of exclusion was transformed into a life of thanksgiving and praise. Thanksgiving, gratitude, in particular is at the core of a life which is turned outward towards the other, and above all to God. Thanksgiving acknowledges that we receive everything we have and are from God. We face outward, not inward, in joy and praise.
It is no accident that the central act of Christian worship, the Mass, is also called the Eucharist, the Thanksgiving. The Church from the earliest times has set the memorial of Christ’s death, the consecration and offering of his Body and Blood, in the heart of a great prayer of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for creation, for life, for grace, for God’s unfailing love. Above all thanksgiving that God gives us his very self in Jesus and feeds us with his life.
The Eucharist, the Mass, is the “source and summit of the Christian life”, in the words of Vatican II. It is the heart of the new way of living that Jesus makes possible. Living not for ourselves but towards God in praise and thanksgiving. Living without barriers of exclusion. Living for others, to welcome the outsiders home.

To live so is to live in peace. We are all familiar with the words often used in the blessing at the end of Mass, "The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God". That is part of a quotation from St Paul's Letter to the Philippians, but in full it is this:

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
If our spiritual life is narrow and formal, if we try to be righteous by following rules, we will not know peace. Because that is to make it all depend on us, and what use are we? True peace comes from being open to God, turning to the Lord in praise and thanksgiving, with our hearts open so that we can receive the peace and love with which he longs to fill us. And then we can follow wherever he leads.
To live from the Eucharist is to allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit into that no-man’s land where there are no boundaries, where all can be welcomed. This is a risky journey! Do we perhaps prefer our safe comfort zone where we know we are on the inside, and never mind those outside? Or will we let ourselves be transformed by praise and thanksgiving? Can we discover that the journey in the wilderness is actually the adventure of God’s love, breaking the rules and overflowing the boundaries in all directions?
In Jesus all the systems of fear and exclusion break down, and with them the narrow but safe existence which we thought was what God wanted. God, it turns out, is not some thing to be afraid of but some one who loves us, and that love surprises us with joy, transforms our lives beyond our imagining.
In Christ there is no-one who is unclean, no-one who is an outsider. The kingdom he is bringing overturns all those old ways of living based on fear and casting out. Today in this Eucharist, and every day, he calls us to live in thanksgiving and praise, turned to him from whom we receive life, being, grace, salvation, and love. 

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