Sermon for October 13, 2019
2 Kings 5:1-2, 7-15c; Luke 17:11-19
This past week, I was thinking about Thanksgiving Day, which led me to think about the Pilgrims and their first years on this continent. When we read what they preached in their sermons, one consistent theme is heard again and again: as God guided the Hebrews through the Red Sea and led them to conquest in the Promised Land, so God guide has guided us across the sea to this new land, a land that is our to conquer. Other preachers, building on this image, spoke of the Pilgrim community as a city set on a hill, there to bring light to the world. Thus was born the notion that the American people are an exceptional people and, as many politicians have claimed, a people inhabiting the greatest nation on the face of the earth, singularly blessed by God above all other peoples – with the exception of the Indian nations who were conquered and murdered or forcibly removed from their land in the tens of thousands as this “exceptional” people imported tens of thousands of slaves.
Well, I don’t think the disciples of Jesus would have been surprised by the notion that a nation is exceptional. After all, they and Jesus were born and raised as Israelites, a people who believed they were God’s chosen people and that their mission was to be a light in the world, a witness to this one God and the ethical vision set forth in the covenant God made with their ancestors. Thus it was important to keep one’s distance from those who did not share in this religious and ethnic identity bestowed at birth. A good Israelite father would never let his daughter or son marry a Samaritan, a Greek, or a Syrian. By virtue of their ethnicity, they were outsiders who would never be invited to the Thanksgiving table.
At first glance we might think Jesus participated in the exceptionalism of the chosen people. After all, he told a Greek woman who begged him to heal her daughter that he was sent by God only to the lost sheep of Israel. It would seem clear that Greeks are not part of God’s people and the same could be said for Samaritans who were viewed by Israelites as fake Jews, as second-class people, as “bad” people one would never want crossing the border into the Holy Land. Imagine yourself in the center of this exceptional people, and then on the fringes are those pretenders, the Samaritans, and then beyond them you see everyone else, what the great Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, called, white trash and freaks and lunatics off their meds.
Yet here is the odd thing: Jesus heals the Greek woman’s daughter. And then we hear in the first reading that the prophet Elisha heals a Syrian. And this is incredibly odd because Syrians were not only different from Israelites; they were considered enemies. And then the same thing happens in the gospel reading: Jesus heals a leprous Samaritan, a man not counted among the lost sheep of Israel. What’s up with that?
Here is the amazing thing in this story: Elisha freely offers to the Syrian – his people’s “natural” enemy – the healing power of God; Jesus offers to the Samaritan – what many considered an unloved outsider – the healing power of God – and in doing so moves beyond – moves beyond “us versus them” to a third thing: all of us together joined by and drawn into the healing presence of God. In other words, by loving and healing those who everyone else said he should ignore, Jesus finds his own people everywhere. And thus, he begins to form a new people – not marked by exceptionalism and the arrogance that supports such superiority – but rather by recognizing their common humanity as children of God, as people in need of mercy and capable of extending that mercy to others. I mean the point is clear, though risky, isn’t it? Treat him or her with mercy and unconditional favor and you may well discover to your surprise that the person in front of you, the person quite different than you – is your sister, your brother, a fellow child of God who, with you and with me, is in need of mercy and the unconditional love that is yours, is ours, in Christ.
In 1934, a young musician named Lloyd Stone wrote a hymn, cherished by many who reject the arrogance of claiming that one’s nation, one’s group, one’s social class, one’s race or ethnicity, is better than and superior to all others: “This is my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine; this is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine: but other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine … My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine; but other lands have sunlight too, and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine: O hear my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for their land and for mine.” At this time in our national life, we hear voices that claim we are the greatest nation, a nation so superior to all others that we will welcome only the well educated from a select number of countries. But this, I say, is not the way of Jesus who offers to you and me an alternative to the arrogance and exclusivity that prowl across the land. For here, from his altar, he gives his world-encompassing self, his breaking-down-the-barriers self, his upsetting-the-claim-to-privilege self to you and me, to an assembly drawn from many nations, to the comfortable retiree and the unemployed searching for work, to the wealthy and the struggling poor, to the highly trained and those with little education – inviting us to see each other, to see each other, all with hands opened in need of God’s presence and mercy. And for this: we can, I think, give thanks.