Monday, 7 October 2013

Our mission: to be the "tenth leper" (a sermon: Jeremiah 29:1,4-7; Luke 17:11-19)

I’d like to re-tell our gospel lesson, putting it into a contemporary Australian setting.

On his way into Hobart, Jesus was walking along Liverpool Street.  As he passed the Royal Hobart Hospital, ten patients with AIDS approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  

In a real sense, in our own lifetime, people with AIDS have been similar to people with leprosy in Jesus’ day. 
  • In Jesus’ day people thought leprosy was much more contagious than it really was, just as it it has been with AIDS during our lifetimes.
  • People with leprosy were shunned in Jesus’ day, just as people with AIDS have been during our lifetimes.
  • Leprosy in Jesus’ day was the object of a great deal of superstitition, just as AIDS was during our lifetimes. 
  • There was also a really unfair tendency of many people in Jesus’ day to “blame the victim” in terms of leprosy, as is the case with AIDS during our lifetimes.
Back to the story

When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the specialists.”  And as they went, they were healed.  Then one of them, when he knew that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.  He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.  And he was a … a what?

The tenth leper, the fellow who went back to Jesus was a Samaritan.  Thinking of the way Samaritans were shunned in Jesus’ day, who are the “Samaritan” here in Australia? … here in Tasmania? …  Who are the “Samaritans” in the circles with which you associate? 

When I was thinking of my sermon, there were a number of candidates for the role of the despised and shunned “Samaritans” in our own setting. 
  • For a number of years, our Muslim neighbours have been placed in the role of the “Samaritan” in Australian society.
  • As well, Australia’s African community – Sudanese and others - have been treated like “Samaritans” by some of our neighbours.
  • For over two centuries, indigenous Australians have been made into “Samaritans”.
  • Some people treat unmarried couples or single mothers as their “Samaritans”.  For others, their “Samaritans” could be those members of the community in same-gender relationships.
  • People with intellectual disabilities, or with psychiatric illnesses, or with drug addictions are the “Samaritans” for yet others.
  • With high levels of prejudice still existing in the community against Jews and against Catholics, these communities are also cast as the “Samaritan” for many people, even now in twenty-thirteen.
There is more than one candidate for the “Samaritan” in our Australian context, far too many candidates.

In any event, it is particularly significant to the story that the one ex-leper who realised he was healed, and turned around to thank Jesus, was a member of a despised minority.  This sort of thing just goes with the territory with Jesus.  As David Gill once wrote, “You may expect to find Jesus among those whom society despises.  You will never find him in the company of those who do the despising.”

A significant thing about this story is the one little detail which is often missed by many people who hear this story.  The other nine lepers – the ones who, for whatever reason, didn’t turn around and thank Jesus personally – these other nine lepers remained just as healed as their Samaritan friend who returned to thank Jesus.  Luke didn’t say anything about the nine becoming somehow “un-healed” as they went on their way.  (After all, they were merely doing what Jesus told them to do, showing themselves to the priests to confirm that they were healed.)

Ten lepers were healed.  One of the ten expressed his thanks.  Ten remained healed. 

As people who worship God - … and as people who worship God in a mainstream faith community … - our task is to be the “tenth leper” for our broader community.

There are many people in Tasmania, … in Australia, … in our world … who do not make it a habit of turning up at a church, … at a synagogue, … at a mosque, … or at any other place of public worship.  They just don’t.  But like the nine lepers who went on their way after they were healed, they have received the same blessings from God that we have received. 

Our mission is to be their “tenth leper”. 
  • Our mission is to worship God, not only on our own behalf, but on behalf of our whole community, our whole nation, our whole world. 
  • I’ll go so far as to say our mission is to believe in the living God, not only on our own behalf, but on behalf of our whole community, our whole nation, our whole world.  
Our mission is to be their “tenth leper”, and be their “tenth leper” with gladness and without resentment. 

Jack Burton, a Methodist minister in Norwich, in England, once told about a Saturday afternoon when he passed a local cricket pitch.  A match was in progress, and he stopped to watch a few overs. 

As he went on his way, he thought that, while he wasn’t a cricketer himself, the cricketers were playing on his behalf.  Probably most of the cricketers wouldn’t be in church the next day, but he’d be in church, worshipping God on their behalf.

In our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, Jeremiah had a sense of the same thing.  He wrote a letter to the Jews who had been taken off to Babylon as exiles.  In his letter, he said that God wanted them to “…seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

The exiles were being taken to a place where the people worshipped a variety of petty, little small-g gods rather than the one big-G God, the one big-G God who was in the business of freeing slaves from their slavery and sustaining exiles in their captivity.  Jeremiah encouraged the exiles to be a positive influence in the place where they were, to bring the worship of the one big-G God to that place, and to bring the values of the one big-G God to that land, for the sake both of the exiles and of their captors.

“… [S]eek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Like the exiles to whom Jeremiah wrote, we have the mission to “seek the welfare of … [our community] …, and pray to the Lord on its behalf”.

Like the tenth leper, whom Jesus healed along with his neighbours, we have the mission to worship God both on our own behalf and on behalf of all humanity.

I believe that Jesus does not call us to complain about those who are not here, … or to act in any way as if we have a preferred position in God’s sight compared to them.  I believe God calls us to be their ‘tenth leper’, worshipping God on their behalf, and on behalf of all humanity.

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