Homily for Solidarity Sunday, Holy Wisdom Monastery Sunday Assembly, October 9, 2022
Sometimes I think the editors/compilers of the lectionary have it in for us preachers…and all those who plan weekly worship as well. The lectionary is built, of course, for the so-called liturgical churches who feel it is compulsory to have three scripture readings and a psalm each and every week. I agree that the use of the lectionary has brought churches together ecumenically and has been a boondoggle for bulletin companies and those who produce worship materials and music. But when one plunges into those “lections” on a given Sunday one can quickly discover that the given readings are far from being a nice thematic package, especially in the long season of post-Pentecost time called “Ordinary.” Sometimes these readings hardly gel together at all. Oh I know preachers and worship planners do their best to bring these disparate lections into some semblance of harmony but it often seems forced to me. Today is a prime example of this.
From the Hebrew Bible we have a story from the adolescence of faith. It is a long and rather tedious dive into a soldier/commander named Naaman who also happened to have a skin disease the writer called leprosy. At best it is an interesting but archaic read and it certainly expresses a view about healing that leaves me wondering about how God arbitrarily picks and chooses to help…or not, an idea about God that leaves me cold. And the only thing that I can find about this story which connects it to the Gospel reading for today is the presence of the disease of leprosy, though many scholars say this is most certainly not Hansen’s Disease, but a skin disease which marked its host as having been touched by the inexorable. Once a death sentence, today Hansen’s is both treatable and curable. I have visited Father Damian’s colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai and today it is national historic site.
In the lectionary the second reading is an “epistle” from Paul or one of the other letter writers of the Christian canon. Today it is from 2 Timothy. Often these readings are semi-continuous through a season. Today the reading seems to be a bridge between two leprosy healing stories because it seems to elevate suffering to be some kind of noble thing but then quickly devolves into a bit of a diatribe about words as only Paul knows how, words about whether words can be helpful or not as a means to make a point. For me the whole of the Timothy passage can be summed up in a pious platitude about keeping on keeping on.
This brings us to today’s Gospel reading from Luke which is the real jump start for my message today. This passage actually appears twice in the lectionary, here where it is paired with a Hebrew Bible passage by its common denominator of leprosy, and then again on Thanksgiving Day because of its sub-current of gratitude which runs through Luke’s account of the healing of ten lepers.
I must say Jesus seemed to have a thing about using those despised Samaritans in his ministry of show and tell for his fellow Jews. You will recall that Samaritans were “cousins” to the Jews. Samaritans had become an amalgam of commoners who had intermarried with pagans and thus were considered unclean. The Samaritans remember the same ancestors as the Jews and tell the same stories as Jews, but are judged to be on the wrong side of the Us/Them divide. It’s complicated.
Jesus told a parable about a Good Samaritan which pointed up the disdain which most Jews held for their mixed and confused relatives. He had a long conversation with a woman of ill-repute at a well on a trek that took him and the disciples through Samaria itself. And now here a Samaritan appears in an encounter Jesus has with ten lepers which certainly provides an interesting twist in the Gospel. The twist, of course, is that the Samaritan leper is the only one of the ten who are healed who returns to thank Jesus. Yup, it is one of those nasty, dirty, fringe people who is the only one to show Jesus how grateful he is!
That sets up the cultural milieu in this story. These lepers appear to be what happened to them. As a group, these poor souls who suffered from a virulent skin disease were ostracized from their communities, forced to live in the shadows, on the narrow margins of society, in “a region between.” There were certain rules by which they had to abide. They existed in separate colonies far enough away from others so as not to be a threat to the “health” of the community but close enough that they had to yell out their contagion with a loud, humiliating shout of “Unclean, unclean, unclean” if they happened to be walking on a road. They existed by begging from the margins in order to survive this situation of shared misery and misfortune. It should be noted that even though they see Jesus and hail him as “Rabbi,” they follow the strict protocol of standing off a bit.
But there is something different in this Jesus whom they encounter. Rather than avoiding the ten lepers like a plague, Jesus interacts with them. They found access to the realm of God through Jesus. All ten found their disease battled successfully. But only one of them –the Samaritan – in turn interacted with Jesus!
Something wonderful is happening here. This is a story of healing to be sure, but not just of a disease, but healing of a rift in the warp and weft of society’s fabric. It’s not a patch, but a reintegration of an outcast into acceptance. Jesus restores their identities. He enables their return to all that makes us fully human – family, community, society, intimacy. He releases them to feel again, to embrace and be embraced, to worship in community, to reclaim all the social and spiritual ties their disease stole from them. Jesus enters their land of no belonging and invites ten exiles home.
On yet another level, this healing is a bridge between racial divides – the man was, after all, one of “them,” not only a leper, but a Samaritan with whom no self-respecting Israelite would casually strike up a conversation. Once more, we see Jesus champion of the least and the lost and the lowest. And as that convalescing Samaritan gave thanks, he was healed and made whole, accepted and welcomed into the kin-dom life of all God’s people.
I mentioned earlier that this text is also used in the lectionary on
Thanksgiving Day. You can sort of see why. It’s about nine who didn’t return
thanks, and one who did. There was nothing wrong with the nine, but
is something quite extraordinary about the one.
And the one who did come back to say thank you found not just healing but wholeness and belonging again. He sees that his identity – his truest place of belonging – lies at Jesus’ feet. He sees that Jesus’ arms are wide enough to embrace all of who he is. He found that he was not “I am what happened to me.” Instead, because of the love and graciousness of God, he and all of us are bound to proclaim, “I am what I choose to become.” The borders have been opened. And we are whole!
And for me, this is the connector to our observance today of Solidarity Sunday. For millennia, probably from the beginnings of human history, whatever has been denoted as the dominant culture has always had a thing – and not in a good way – for fringe people on the edges of society. Ordinary communities always must find ways to manage manifestations of the extraordinary, and they do this by managing their borders to keep the extraordinary outside. And certainly what today we identify with letters like L and G and B and T and Q and more have pretty much always been viewed with little tolerance and more often with outward and active contempt.
It is sad, very sad indeed, that in 2022 we have politicians and school boards and religious zealots making concerted attacks on trans kids. It is sad that in 2022 we have candidates telling lgbtq folk that they really shouldn’t leave their homes and parade who they are for everyone to see. It is more than sad that in 2022 we have a court which is supposed to protect our fundamental rights set to do to same sex married couples what it has already done to all women, and that is to yank out from under them rights which were thought to be secure.
But we are not victims. Trans kids are not victims. LGBTQ folk are not victims. Same sex married couples are not victims. Women are not victims. We are not what has happened to us. Instead, we are what we choose to become…whole, healed, welcomed, and accepted.
It is sad that the ordinary community still wants to manage the borders and keep the extraordinary outside. It makes me sad, but not bereft. All those who are marginalized by others have not had their choice to be who they are stolen from them. We are not unworthy. We are not victims saying “Look what happened to us.” We are instead who and what we choose to be by the grace of God and we are thankful. And, by the way, we are thankful too for people and places just like this one which rejoice in all of us being who and what we choose to be.
So we claim our wholeness with gratitude, like that the one returning Samaritan leper, and then we go on with the rest of our amazing lives. And like that one grateful Samaritan, we find that in God’s grace and freedom, mercy’s great gift opens up all the possibilities of life! All of God’s people who rejoice in this gift of freedom know that we are already joined by a force more powerful than those who would manage the borders and keep the extraordinary outside! Our faith has indeed made us well! We are alive and whole!