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The Outsider (or Bigger, Part 2)

October 14, 2013

“The Outsider” (or “Bigger, Part 2”) Luke 17:11-19 © 10.13.13 Ordinary 28C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Strange, he thought, how a man could have friends, yet feel so all alone. Of course, the others in his group weren’t really his friends. They were brought together, thrown together, by a common enemy, namely, the horrid disease that deformed and destroyed their flesh. They did what they had to in order to survive, and there is some sort of sustenance, even strength, in numbers. They couldn’t get near any community of healthy folk, and even lepers didn’t relish wandering the deserts alone. But he knew that if ever he and his fellow sufferers were released from their servitude to their hard taskmaster, they would go their separate ways. Before long the other nine, all Jews, would begin uttering the “S-word” as a slur and wonder how in the world they ever put up with being around a Samaritan. In their anguish and pain, it would seem that all that should matter was their common humanity. But even disease had not erased the barriers between them.

As they all shouted pleas for mercy at the Jewish rabbi many yards away, the Samaritan wondered if he would receive the healing for which he longed. After all, he had no claim on this man Jesus. And why should a rabbi be any different than any other Jew? Probably he would be more prejudiced and stand-offish. Who said Jesus would not join his countrymen in rejecting any Samaritan as a pagan half-breed? Jews went out of their way, inconvenienced themselves, in order not to talk to or have dealings with Samaritans. Was one man going to break down the walls on which people had been piling bricks for centuries?

So it was with great surprise that he found himself included when Jesus commanded the group to go see the priests. And it was with even greater amazement that he discovered he was cured as they all went their way. He—a Samaritan, an outsider—regarded with mercy by this man Jesus, brought back from the margins into the kind of life he had enjoyed so long ago, before being struck by his dread disease.

The others could go their way, fulfill the ritual, follow the procedure, be certified. There was something else he had to do, something more immediate, more heartfelt, and oh so much more important. Nothing else but falling at Jesus’ feet and giving praise and thanks and glory to God could express what the Samaritan felt inside. Nothing but loud, exuberant shouts, whooping and hollering and dancing. Nothing but getting a little bit crazy.

Jesus noticed that only he, the Samaritan, had come back to offer praise and thanksgiving. The holy man was clearly disappointed. Had only one gotten the point? Did a heretic foreigner understand and experience what God’s own chosen did not, would not, could not? So be it, then. The Samaritan heard words beyond his imagination, full of promise and hope: “Rise and go; your faith has saved you, made you well, made you whole.”

What happened to the Samaritan after that, we don’t know. But Luke has given his readers in every age enough to ponder with the tale he has told. It’s a typical one for this writer, with his spotlight on the faith of someone we least expect to be an example. Like a ritually unclean woman who touches the hem of Jesus’ cloak. Or a Roman centurion asking for the healing of his servant, confident of Jesus’ authority.

Do you recall those stories? In the one, a woman has suffered from chronic bleeding for over a decade. This condition in that culture made her as much a marginal person as a leper. Desperate, she comes up in a crowd and touches the hem of Jesus’ cloak. Joy floods her soul as she feels his power surge through her body and heal her. But happiness is replaced by fear when she is found out. Somehow, though, she summons the courage to come forward and tell her story. Her faith is acknowledged by our Lord and rewarded with the same blessing the Samaritan received.

In the other account, a Roman centurion, the leader of 100 men in their army, has a servant who is sick. The soldier was a benefactor of the Jews in the town, and thus respected, even loved. But he was still a member of the occupying force, and thus on the most basic level the object of scorn and mistrust. Jesus finds in the man deep humility, and an amazing perception of the power and authority of God. Above all, our Lord called this pagan soldier an example of faith.

There are more tales with much the same point. Those on the margins show extraordinary courage. People not accepted by the so-called “good” folk of the day grasp the message of our Lord. Luke even tells us that Jesus began his ministry with stories of grace shown to outsiders by the Hebrew prophets of old. It seems to be our Lord’s mission to reach out to those who don’t fit in, who don’t have any friends, whose sin is so great they despair of forgiveness. Luke insists that it is often or even usually those who struggle to survive, who are on the edges of society, such people as that who know the importance of gratitude. And by the same token, the credentialed, well-regarded, ordained and sanctified, the members of the in-crowd, don’t have a clue.

We only have to think of our experiences of being marginalized to know the gospel writer may have a point. As you think of your life of having enough to eat, a place to live, clothes on your back, you may ask, as do I: when have I been left standing on the sidelines? Well, have you ever been sick? Have you been left out of helping to make some important decision, even one with consequences for your life? Has someone you love had to have surgery? Have you ever felt small or alone or worried over tomorrow with bills due or trouble brewing? Have you ever been concerned about your adult children or grandchildren, but matters were out of your control? Have you ever felt less than successful or even incompetent to do a task? Have you been left standing in a corner at a party or some other social gathering with nobody to talk to or been rebuffed by someone with whom you wanted to be friends? Have you found yourself in an unfamiliar place or situation and felt disoriented and frightened? Have you ever been laughed at or bullied? Have you ever been down in the dumps or down and out and had no one to turn to? If the answer to any or some or all was “yes,” you have been marginalized. So you know as well what it feels like when someone cares, reaches out in a special way, touches your deepest longing. You know that the person sitting by your sickbed or holding your hand at a funeral or insisting that your voice be heard is the embodiment of Jesus himself. And all you can say or do is give gratitude. To your helper. To God. And in that instant of saying your prayer of thanks, you are made whole. You may not be cured. Your grief may be unabated. You may not have any money. But you are whole because you have seen what life is all about, that it’s being in touch with the Creator. You’re whole because you’ve seen that health doesn’t mean getting along on your own. Instead, it’s the capacity to receive, to be open to grace, to see the world in a new way.

Frederick Buechner once said that the mystery of God’s presence is buried in us like a treasure in a field. “All his life long,” Buechner wrote, “wherever Jesus looked he saw the world not in terms simply of its brokenness—a patchwork of light and dark calling forth in us now our light, now our dark—but in terms of the ultimate mystery of God’s presence buried in us like a treasure buried in a field…. To be whole, I believe, is to see the world like that. To see the world like that, as Jesus saw it, is to be whole. And sometimes I believe that even people like you and me see it like that. Sometimes even in the midst of our confused and broken relationships with ourselves, with each other, with God, we catch glimpses of that holiness and wholeness that is not ours by a long shot and yet is part of who we are” (“Journey Toward Wholeness, Theology Today, January 1993: 454).

When you have to reach down deep inside yourself for sustenance, you discover the treasure. When you have been touched by the care of another, the treasure is opened up right there in front of you. And the best way to receive the gift is to say “Thank you, Jesus! Praise the Lord!”

Walter Brueggemann reminds us that such praise, such doxology, is what our lives are all about. Praise is the only proper response to the God who has overcome our alienation, hurt, and rage to give us speech again. It is the simple act, he says, of enacting our true purpose, which is letting God be God in our life. “In the act of praise, we become the creatures whom we are meant to be…filled with life…gifted by the Creator…As we find our tongues, we find our identity and our vocation. Our lives are given back to us in the oddness of praise” (Finally Comes the Poet: 68, 73-4, 77).

It is only by the gift of God that we are made whole and find the meaning of our lives. We are all beggars asking for bread, lepers needing to be healed, desperate people longing to touch but the hem of Jesus’ garment. Yet have you noticed how many delight in dividing the world into us and them, insider and outsider, superior and inferior? The situation is so bad that the word “Christian” has become synonymous these days with “narrow-minded,” “arrogant,” “bigoted,” “intolerant,” even “cruel.” This is a take on faith that emphasizes what separates us, how you are different from me, what I find suspicious or unacceptable in your behavior, always judged by my standard. This is hot button, litmus test Christianity; stir-the-pot, shout-you-down Christianity; five points of Calvinism or five fundamentals Christianity; pursed lip, condemnatory, holier-than-thou, strict rule-following Christianity; finger-wagging, finger-pointing, fear-mongering Christianity. This is the sort of religion that is only sure about me and thee, and maybe not even thee. Its practitioners are found in every denomination and every church within every denomination. They are in red states and blue states; they’re progressive and conservative, rich and poor and in-between, male and female, older and younger, gay and straight, of every race. And they would welcome you with open arms and smiling faces to share their agenda.

How ironic that without exception everyone in this bunch would claim to be following the Bible and being good disciples of Jesus. I’m sorry, but if the text before us this morning authentically represents the way Jesus acted, and I believe it does, these folk are mistaken. The Jesus we know here had a vision that was expansive and inclusive. We’ve already seen how he praised and welcomed as examples of faith and gratitude folk that were not in the mainstream or any stream of religious life in Judea: a Samaritan, a bleeding woman, a soldier from an occupying nation. He didn’t require any doctrinal or polity exam or the right answers to questions. He simply noticed that that they displayed a trust and a thankfulness that was evidence of wholeness. And he declared them saved or granted their desire. Add to that his crazy notion that he could include both tax collectors and the terrorists who wanted to kill them in the same band of disciples, that ordinary working men would make excellent leaders, that women could travel with the group and even support their efforts from the women’s own funds. It went against the grain of good, respectable, sensible religion as it was practiced then. And it still scandalizes and surprises conventional religionists these days.

Is it any wonder, then, that spiritual seekers will say they like Jesus, but not the Church? That singer Jackson Browne once declared himself “a pagan and a heathen,” but “on the side of the rebel Jesus”? The Church as it’s found everywhere often bears little resemblance in its practice to how Jesus actually acted.

Brian McLaren has called his own evangelical tradition back to this way of Jesus, and in doing so, he calls us all. His 2004 book is entitled A Generous Orthodoxy, but it’s the subtitle that conveys its message for today even more clearly: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished Christian. Talk about an all-encompassing vision! I think that’s it.

But McLaren goes even beyond affirming the value of all Christian traditions. Like Jesus, he can find in the outsider an example of faith, a sister or a brother on a journey. In a particularly challenging chapter entitled “Why I Am Incarnational,” McLaren talks about relating as a “generously orthodox Christian” to Buddhists, Muslims, and others: “…I consider myself with them as a neighbor and brother…. I am here to love them, to seek to understand them, and to share with them everything of value that I have found or received that they would like to receive as well. I am here to receive their gifts to me with equal joy—to enjoy life in God’s world with them, to laugh and eat and work with them, so we play with one another’s children and hold one another’s babies and dance and one another’s weddings and savor one another’s hospitality.”

McLaren concludes the chapter this way: “I am more and more convinced that Jesus didn’t come merely to start another religion to compete in the marketplace of other religions. If anything, I believe he came to end standard competitive religion…by fulfilling it; I believe he came to open up something beyond religion—a new possibility, a realm, a domain, a territory of the spirit that welcomes everyone but requires everyone (now including members of the Christian religion) to think again and become like little children…. It is not, like too many religions, a place of fear and exclusion but a place beyond fear and exclusion. It is a place where everyone can find a home in the embrace of God” (263, 266).

Everyone. A Samaritan leper. You. Me. Welcomed, cleansed, healed.

Thank you, Jesus. Praise the Lord.


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