October 21, 2013

Story and Postscript


Text: Luke 17:18: “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 

It will probably not surprise you to hear me say that this is not the sermon I planned to preach this morning. I now have two sermons all written and ready that I didn’t get a chance to preach, and so with your indulgence I’m going to backtrack a little to last week, and particularly to last week’s gospel lesson, and I think if you hang with me you’ll see just why. I didn’t change the title or the text, because they both turn out to be helpful to the idea I find wanting to reflect on together this morning. But even then this is not the sermon I first expected to preach on the twenty-first Sunday of Pentecost, to say nothing of the twenty-second; it went through a lot of changes on its way here.

I warn my brothers and sisters in the Sermon Group against the temptation of spending too much time, maybe even any time, using this pulpit to reflect on personal experience. The responsibility of the preacher is to save souls, yes really, and it is difficult to convince me that anything about the particularity of my small life will help anyone out toward that end.

But now I’ve had four unexpected weeks and three unexpected Sundays away from this spot, and as I have been in a pretty pitched battle with my own strong preaching preferences. Because since I last stood here I really have had one of those experiences that changes your life indelibly, even if not really all that dramatically. Thousands and thousands of people go to the hospital every day, and a lot of them go for the reasons that took me there; so there is nothing really special in that.

But I find that I read this gospel lesson very differently now from the way I did a couple of months ago, when I had a first draft of this message pretty much in shape. So if you will forgive me, I’d like to adopt the lens of that experience to talk about the ten healed lepers and the nine who didn’t return to give thanks.

•  •  •

The setup of the story is obvious enough. The affliction of these ten people is The Worst Thing That Can Happen To You in the ancient world. It doesn’t just make you sick; it makes you an outcast. It throws you over the wall and outside the community. It is a spiritual sickness, as well as a physical illness; you aren’t just unwell, you are unclean.

Okay, we know all that. And we probably know that there’s something important about the setting of the story—the road between Samaria and Galilee. They are like a little band of Newton Episcopalians traveling on the road through—oh, I don’t know; Cambridge, say. They are in an unfriendly place. They’re in a place where they don’t belong, among people who are not their people, in a world in which that’s a stupidly dangerous thing to do.

Samaritans are the bad guys of Jesus’s world. Or at least, that’s how they are seen—though Jesus sees them very differently. They’re treated with suspicion, with disdain; and, of course, as we always do when we think about the other, the people who are different from us, with real contempt. It is simply true that the people around Jesus are sure they know the moral motivations of these Samaritan people; and what they sure know is that they are bad people.

So that’s the setting. And we know how the story unfolds. But one of these Samaritans who has been healed returns; and we are meant to understand by this that he gets it. He understands what has been done for him, and who did it, and who Jesus is, and all of it.

Now, think about this for just a moment. We don’t know whether the other nine also get it. Maybe they did. Maybe they got it to different degrees and in different ways. After all, when they keep walking instead of turning around they are only doing what Jesus told them to do; they are going to show themselves to the priest. They already know they’re regarded with suspicion and disdain. Maybe they want to improve their reputation by doing what Jesus tells them to do.

Instead it’s this one who comes back that we’re going to focus on. And even here, Jesus, of all people—gentle Jesus, blessed Jesus, merciful Jesus—sort of buys in to the disdain for Samaritans, right? Was none of them found to return and give thanks to God except this—foreigner?

Imagine that you are that man. And you’ve had this earth-shattering moment of realizing, suddenly that you don’t have a terrible disease, a death sentence, anymore. And what’s more, you now exactly why it has happened; this man Jesus. You’d heard about him; now here’s the proof. And you’ve made a tough decision: Despite the fact that the man who gave you this gift gave you a directive about what to do next, you turn around. In a word, you disobey.

And what happens? You get asked why the others didn’t make the same decision you did. As though you could possibly answer the question. It’s sort of the healing-story equivalent of my asking you, right here, this morning—why aren’t there more people in church today? Why aren’t they here? Not really a great message to offer to the people who willingly come.

It’s that decision to turn around and give thanks that I think is really worth our reflection. At least that’s how it seems to me now. Because over these past four weeks I’ve walked along the road with that Samaritan, at least to the extent of having an overwhelming sense of how much was done for me.

I am an only child, and my mother and father are both gone, so when I went home to Michigan to sell my mother’s house I was going back to a place where I am both a native and a stranger. When all this happened I was staying, almost accidentally, with the family of a cousin I’ve known all my life, but with whom my engagements have been pretty typical of extended family; we see each other at weddings and funerals. Sherry and her family were incredibly helpful to us when my mother was failing; but since that funeral more than six years ago, I really hadn’t seen Sherry at all.

And all of a sudden I needed to call her and say—well, I’m in the hospital, and my dog is in my car, and my car is in the hospital garage, and can you help? And what I didn’t know I should have said was, I’m gonna be really sick for the next seven days, and would you mind if we used your guestroom for a rehab facility and urology clinic while you and your family still need to go to work and class and everything else?

I can’t quite put into words the response I received, not just to my words but to my state. That family, extended family, became my advocate, my lookout, my driver, my dietician, my nurse—pretty much they simply stepped in and made everything okay. And they did it for both of us; Judy tore out of town pretty much as soon as I called to miss a week of work. Although she didn’t do that before calling Peter Wenner, who so gracefully and willingly stepped in to this place on almost the shortest of notice.

And then there’s all of you, and especially Patty and Alastair, our elected leaders, who very quickly solved the problem of what to do when it turned out there was no way I was going to be back here in time for the next Sunday. I didn’t even have to suggest the idea of heading over to Trinity Church and the company of our neighbors in Newton Centre; they simply did it, and let me know that it was done.

And as if all that weren’t enough, to find myself again in a hospital last Saturday morning with a fever that wouldn’t go away and a doctor telling me I needed at least another two days of hanging around the IV rack in order to get the right antibiotics—well, that sure wasn’t the way I wanted the little hiccup of my health-care holiday to end. But there was David Killian at the other end of the line, more than happy to step in on a moment’s notice and to see us through last week.

I like to think that there’s a lot I can do, that like the job descriptions say I’m capable successfully managing a number of projects at once and of doing so with highly effective oral and written communication. But for the first time in my life I’ve now gone through an experience in which a major accomplishment was measured in terms of getting from the bed to the bathroom and back without passing out. It was the experience of being reduced in the most profound way; of realizing how absolutely frail I am, we all are, when things get just the littlest bit out of the very fine balance our bodies maintain.

And it was the experience of being completely and utterly dependent on the good will of others—Sherry and Judy and Peter and Patty and Alastair and David and all of you—to help, to be supportive, or just to be understanding and forbearing.

But what is really overwhelming is to have received all that, in magnificent excess, when I not only needed it but depended on it. And that’s what brings us back to our Samaritan. I think now I understand what he’s feeling when he turns around. He is overwhelmed at how much has been done for him. He knows he has to do something say something, offer something in response; he cannot just keep walking. He has to reconnect in gratitude, or somehow his healing itself won’t be complete.

And so he comes back, and the story tells us that when he does all he can figure out how to do is fall down on the ground, that must abject image of humility, and say thank you.

We don’t know why none of the others come back. We only know that for this man, the postscript turns out to be decisively more important than the story itself. Something has been revealed to this man about the very nature of God in his experience, and he has returned to acknowledge that simple fact. He may have no idea who or what Jesus is, but he knows this: True friends reveal God most clearly, and they do so by giving us that experience of receiving compassion that elevates us into genuine human equality.

We think of that moment of healing as Jesus somehow stooping down to heal these lepers, these outcasts, from a terrible disease. But the postscript tells us that that’s not what the story is about. The story is instead about how by daring to enter into their moment of deepest need, Jesus is raising these men to the status of equals.

He is acting out of his own awareness of his own capacity for suffering and frailty, and that is exactly what makes his act one of such powerfully transformative love—so powerful that it doesn’t just heal them but breaks down the social barriers of injustice and misunderstanding between them.

The Buddhist nun Pema Chodron has written that “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded; it is a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” Exactly. The care I received at the hands of the doctors and nurses was skilled, but it is a relationship between people inherently unequal—unequal in skill, in power, in all ways.

But the care I received from all of you—from my colleagues, and from my fellow-ministers, and from my family, and from my poor unsuspecting cousin—that was true compassion, and it brought me out of this experience feeling not only healed, but more human, because more connected, less alone, and more equal.

It’s out of recognition of this that the one man turns around. And of course when he does, he learns that there is nothing you can do to pay any of that back. All you can do is pay it forward.

Here’s the last point. This little crisis of medical care was a blessing at least to the extent that it made all that realization possible for me. But of course, spiritually, that is exactly what God has done for each and every one of us, and for each and every one of the people not here and not even considering coming here, through the initiative of Christ.

Christ’s initiative toward us isn’t just healing, it’s true compassion, in that it elevates us to the place God made us for and intends for us to have; a place of true communion, true stature, and true equality with each other. Sometimes it takes a crisis to make all that clear. But once it’s clear, life on the other side can never be the same. So whatever your story may be, I hope you get a postscript to it. Because that’s where the true awareness, the true conversion, the true gratitude, begins. Amen.