On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. (ἐκαθαρίσθησαν)15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, (ἰάθη) turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? (ἐκαθαρίσθησαν) But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’(σέσωκέν) Luke 17:11-19
I grew up in a wonderful church. I was taken to that church before I even knew what a church was. The place made me; what kind of church lets a nine-year-old preach a sermon? One of the reasons I like Hare Street Uniting Church as much as I do, is that people here remind me of the people I grew up with.
I was still quite young when I noticed that just before Communion each month, a whole lot of people would get up and walk out of the church. And I remember asking my mother why they did this. It turned out they were not full members of the church, so they couldn't stay for Communion.
And I learned, without even knowing it, that somehow these people were the less worthy members of the church. They were a sizeable proportion of the Sunday congregation, and as I've thought about all this, I've realised something else. The church had about a quarter— maybe even a third— of its pews behind a wide aisle that ran right across the church from left to right. As I've replayed my childhood memories, I've realised that the people who didn't stay for Communion almost all sat behind the line of that aisle!
And of course, in our town, there were people who didn't go to church at all. Or they were Church of England, or Catholics, who were different. My dad had friends everywhere, and you would never know from the way he treated them or talked about them whether they were members of our church or not. But I seemed to learn from the air itself, despite my parents, that some people were 'in' and 'good,' and the right kind of people, and that other people were not.
And that's how I thought about them... and how I treated them...
In Luke Jesus tells stories about people who were 'in' and people were 'out.' There is the story of the prodigal son, who was a 'no-hoper,' and definitely not one of the good people. And yet his father, who is meant to remind us of God, loved him with a great love. The elder brother, who Luke intends to make us uncomfortable because he is too often a picture of our church, is very angry about the fact that the father loves this wayward son.
Then there's the parable of the Good Samaritan. The good people of the church walk past the robbed and beaten man who's been left— he may be even dying— on the side of the road. Who should help him but a Samaritan, the kind of person that the good people of society despised.
Some people who heard Jesus tell that story would not have been happy. "Of course Samaritans are not good and kind like that," they would have said, "and besides, the priest was in a hurry. He had no time to stop. It's quite understandable."
Then Jesus told the story of a Shepherd who had an enormous flock of sheep— 100 sheep, in fact, which was very large for the time— and he left 99 of them in the wilderness, he left them on their own, and went of looking for just one lost sheep. It wasn't until he found the lost sheep that the 99 were made complete; 100 per cent. It's only when the lost one is found that the shepherd, who is meant to remind us of God, is able to rejoice.
Straight after that story, Jesus tells the story of the woman who had 10 coins and had lost one. The nine coins are only complete when the woman finds the lost coin. The whole ten coins are a picture of the kingdom of God, and a symbol of how the church should be, and a symbol of how we should treat those who are lost.
Then we have today's story about 10 sick men. In Jesus' time a skin disease meant you were excluded from society. It meant you could not go near other people. And quite often, it was the kind of disease like the leprosy we know today, which would slowly kill you.
These men came to Jesus desperate, asking him to have mercy on them. And he did. He told them to go off to the priest, which was what you did when a skin disease got better. The priest would give you 'a physical' to make sure you were clean, and then pronounced that you were healed, and you could join society again.
On the way to the priest the men find that they are healed. And of course they all turn around and rush back and thank Jesus, don't they? Well, no. Only one comes back. And that one is a Samaritan.
The only person who thanked Jesus,
the only person who praised God in a loud voice,
the only one who did the right thing,
was one of the people who sat in the back pews of the church where I grew up,
who wasn't really one of the good people
or one of the proper members of the church,
or was not even a member of the church at all.
Jesus is sending us an uncomfortable message.
The church is not complete without the last lost coin.
The church is not whole without the last lost sheep.
it's the prodigal,
the lost sheep,
or the Samaritan,
the person we don't like so much...
sometimes it is that person who really shows us how to worship God,
and guides us into the presence of God.
So... don't we love it when someone arrives at the church, and they are attractive person, and love their Bible? We think, "I hope they come back next week."
And there are other people who come who, although we wouldn't send them away, we would be quite happy to have 'sit up the back,' and probably we wouldn't worry too much if they stopped coming, after a while. It's only natural that we would feel like this. Some people are quite strange, or a bit threatening, or really hard work to get on with.
The thing is... Jesus is saying it is these people who complete us and make us whole. It is these people who God especially loves, and especially wants to find, and to be able to heal. It is these people God especially wants us to look out for, and look after, and make welcome.
These people complete us. They are the ones who especially enrich the church and make it whole. We need thembecause they are God's blessing for us.
So... why would you change church, and do things differently, and do things that were not done the way that you would prefer?
You would do it so that these people who complete us feel welcomed, and feel able to stay, and understand that God loves them, because we the people of God, have made them welcome.
In my own clumsy way I am trying to train us to do the work of the kingdom of God; to help us be comfortable with change and difference.
I am also trying to help us survive, because if we cannot change so that the outsiders and the Samaritans feel welcome, we will die. We will shut down, and the Presbytery will sell the church to a property developer to build new units— or something like that.
We always welcome people. We try really hard to do this. But our congregation on Sunday mornings is shrinking. People outside are not actually finding us welcoming, or attractive, or channelling God to them.
It's not because people are not interested in God. In the 5 km circle around the congregation at Greenacres there are at least 90 Christian congregations! The spirit is alive and moving in Australia. People are seeking God. Churches are only closing down because they are not able to change enough to make the outsiders welcome, or because they are not able to put their message into words people understand.
We have not changed enough; the people outside are the ones who decide what it is that makes them welcome.
And the good news again: the outsiders complete us. They are the blessing of God to us. They are God's new gift to us. They are the ones whom the spirit sends to give us more life. We would not dream today, of forbidding someone to come to communion, would we? Why would we even dream of not changing something in the church, so that they felt welcome to come to communion?
- - -
Now you could be sitting here this morning feeling like I'm having a go at you.
Please don't, because I am preaching to myself perhaps more than anybody else.
I am conservative.
I don't really like change.
I like to do things comfortably, predictably, and to a set pattern.
But there is something I've learned.
Over the years, starting in that wonderful church where I grew up, I have been deeply blessed by the good people of God.
But the people who brought those lessons and those blessings to life,
who were the catalysts in my fatih,
who were like the salt on my food,
have been the outsiders and the strangers.
The people who have really changed me
and made my life richer,
and who have healed me,
and who have enabled my healing,
and have made me bearable— I kid you not!— have been
the mentally ill,
the drunks I've sat with on the front step and preached the sermon with,
the Africans whose English I could barely understand,
these people have opened my eyes to God and have enriched my life and have made me complete.
So if I have made you feel uncomfortable, I'm glad in a way,
because I'm talking about the sort of uncomfortable that— if we let it— that enables us to hear God.
But I'm a bit selfish really, because I'm preaching to remind myself of how it is that God heals us, and renews us, and blesses us, and makes us whole. Amen.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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