A message based on Luke 17:11-19 (NRSV)
We’ve heard this story before. Or, at least, the general moral narrative placed into various platforms. The arrival of the unlikely hero, the unpredictable model, the unwelcomed prophet. Ten lepers are healed by Jesus and only one turns back to praise Jesus. Could you imagine how out of place the story would be if the grateful presence was that of a Pharisee? There is a predictability in the surprise ending of the Samaritan’s promotional efforts. As the commentator states early on in his reflection, “Luke is building a case for indiscriminate love and radical inclusion.” An argument could be made that for the modern-day reader the case has been so well built in the context of a formulaic storyline, we tend to overlook the impact of the repeated plot twist. We expect the Samaritan to step up just as we plan on the religious representative messing up.
Defining the same predictable parties today feels like a bit more of a gray area. A woman aggressively refusing to sign an environmental petition as she walks into the grocery store holds reusable bags for her shopping trip. A young man driving a beat-up Civic, stops at the Wendy’s drive-thru to purchase two meals for the couple standing at the corner with signs for help. The connection between action and nonaction is less formulaic than an ancient script’s pattern would likely provide. The unpredictability of generosity’s genesis is the impetus for both our regular awe at the heroic actions of neighbors and the horrific crimes of our friends. Rarely do we know the suspects for either side of the moral dilemma.
When I discovered that someone had stolen four blanks checks for The Land from my office two weeks ago, I comforted myself with assurances that only an inescapable sense of desperation could drive someone to perform such a crime. When the officer sent over the bank photos of the young woman standing at the counter, smiling in her workout clothes as she cashed out fraudulent checks, all I could think is that she looked just like me. No missing teeth, sunken in cheeks, no tattered clothes or broken out skin. There at the counter stood a criminal as similar as the image I saw each morning in the mirror. The story and the scandal rarely tie into a neat bow for the package we wish to push away on the back shelf. They sit with us, unwrapped and wide open, reminding us of the unpredictability characteristic of the world we live in.
It’s easy to demonize the deviant in cases so extreme, but rarely are these the examples Luke offers to us. More often, the subjects are participating in behavior considered normative in their societies. In the story before us, the criticized act would be equivalent to neglecting to write a thank you note; an intentional demonstration that it is the behaviors unnoticed in a society that Christ identifies as out of bounds. For the followers of Christ, this measurement of moral behavior reflects one’s implementation of the law over their understanding or awareness of the law. This distinction functions as the bridge between the message then and the meaning today. The learned being the least likely to live with an awareness of the gifts we have been given through the construct of this thing called religion; a term simply summarized as meaning and purpose in community.
This week I completed the quarterly grant report for the new church development committee. Most of the report requires a listing of numbers; number of social media followers, number of worship attenders, number of dollars raised. These numbers are vital to communicating the value of the investment the committee has or will be making to the new church start. If the people participating in the community aren’t investing in the vision with their time and financial resources, it would be a poor choice for the committee to support that new church over the plethora of other new churches starting. The measurements of the institution do matter…even as we realize that they are far from enough.
Financial health may allow a church to continue existing, but it says nothing regarding whether the church itself is worthy of its existence. The worthy community recognizes the healing presence in the place and people surrounding them. The worthy community identifies its responsibility to responding with gratitude in a multitude of manifestations. The worthy community wakes up to the miracle of standing on sacred ground as others arrive to be present to the in-between of something greater than each individual. The worthy community feels their pain and seeks their healing in the stillness of silence and solidarity with their sisters and brothers in Christ. They reach beyond their ideas, preferences and passions to build bridges from the world to their community because they know what it is like to wander alone on a road with no passage to belonging.
The leper overwhelmed with gratitude for the miracle of his healing is, of course, the Samaritan. He knew the pain of his illness and the isolation of its infection. He understood the gift of resurrection as he experienced the reconciliation of the parts of himself long lost. The parts that sat deep within him and whispered the truth that he belonged in a world that shouted for him to go away.
The response of the Samaritan was never the breaking news of the story. It was his understanding and awareness that healing comes from quiet places beyond our own center, from the edges of risk and the depths of despair. That our response to any miracle is only a reflection of our awareness of the spaces beyond ourselves and the possibilities held beyond our own plans. This was the holy opening, the reminder that the spiritual regression of the religious is still real. We have wandered beyond the walls of a Church, but our risks of regression remain the same. The risk of our role becoming ritual, our doors- as invisible as they are- closing from the attachment of our own routine.
The vision for development of the Land happened long before the community arrived. Plans were made and approved and patterns were formed before the first church service ever gave birth. It set us down a road before we had anyone to walk down that road with…and the challenge will be to decide what matters more: getting to where we wanted to go or making sure wherever we go is a place everyone can get. We could dig ourselves into these plans so deeply that we lose sight of the miracle of the community we have now. Or we could retire the parts of our story that are no longer a reflection of who we are and invite new voices and fresh visions to influence the direction of the path we are walking in.
The catching of the true vision requires recognition of the actual miracle as we let go of the miracle we had hoped to receive. It requires slowing down, sticking around, giving in and trying again. It requires asking questions before forcing answers and valuing relationships over insisting something happens a certain way because we think it is right. It requires the practice of connecting to this place, to these people, with the understanding that we are always to receive something unplanned. It is the vision of a Land’s physical evolution matching the spiritual transformation of its caretakers; the development a tangible and visible sign of God’s grace with each moment recognized as something worthy of being grateful for.
May we recognize that the miracles we have expected have not been the miracles we have received. May we show up to share space with one another, to sit in our own story, to surrender to the sacred. May we accept all for which we are yet not worthy, and may we turn around to share a story of a God who is still here.