Sunday, October 10, 2004

Proper 23 C

Ruth 1:1-19a; Psalm 113; 2 Timothy 2:3-15; Luke 17:11-19

I cannot count the number of essays I wrote toward the end of high school and into college on the topic of "the most influential teacher you've ever had." Every application asked for it. On each one, I wrote about Dr. Bates.

At the beginning of 10th grade, I probably wouldn't ever have suspected I'd be writing positive things about him. From the first day of class, we knew we were in for something different. His survey of world history took us on a journey of thousands of years, and we felt every single step of it.

Looking back, of course, I see that Dr. Bates was up to much more than world history. He knew we were capable of learning more than names and dates, and he treated us as such. We read, we wrote, we debated, we challenged, we imagined....the single question that made up the final exam was: "Explain the history of the world." The amazing thing is, by the time we sat down with paper and pencil to answer that question, we knew how.

Dr. Bates paid careful attention to how we expressed ourselves, and he constantly challenged not only the content of our class discussions but even the turns of speech we used. Poor Bill Irwin (a well-liked boy with the unfortunate distinction of having a face that, when he was embarrassed, turned redder than tomato) was dragged up to the chalkboard one day to explain how one could "center around" an idea. Who knows what Bill had been talking about, but apparently he had said something was centered around something else, and Dr. Bates would have none of it.

Bill was asked to draw a point on the chalkboard - simple enough. Then Dr. Bates instructed him, "Now, with the chalk, center around that point." Bill stood there for a moment, his face practially pulsing red, and then finally drew a circle around the point. For the rest of the class period, we learned that "circling around" is not the same thing as "centering on." The center is the point in the middle, not the stuff around the edges.

From the safety of nearly seventeen years, I would humbly submit to Dr. Bates that perhaps God is indeed capable of what we are not. God, I submit, centers around. God, the center of the universe, walks to the edge of creation in the person of Jesus Christ. It was the sinners, the outcasts, the lost sheep Jesus came to redeem - not the folks safely tucked in the center. Jesus called everyone worthy of being in the center of God's love, and then sends us out to the margins with that love.

Jesus is feeling every step of his long journey toward Jerusalem. On the outskirts of a town, he encounters ten lepers. It is the only place he could have encountered them - their skin diseases kept them marginalized from the rest of Jewish society. Incredibly, Jesus tells these unclean, outcast people to go into town, all the way to the temple, and present themselves to the priests. It was probably not what they were hoping to hear. "You are healed," would have been nice. Only then would it have made sense for them to make for the temple - one cannot present one's self as healed and clean until one has actually been healed and made clean.

Let's give credit where credit is due. There is no good reason for any of these ten lepers to follow Jesus' instructions - in fact, in doing so, they could be risking their lives. They were not welcome in the temple. And yet, each one gets up and begins the journey from the margins to the center because Jesus told them to. It is a remarkable show of faith.

Perhaps that is why, somewhere along the way, they are healed. I wonder who noticed it first. I wonder what they said, what they did, what they thought had happened. We only know the response of one of those ten - the one leper who, finding himself healed, returns to Jesus. Luke doesn't tell us why this man returns and the others didn't - perhaps that's not important. What does Luke tell us?

He tells us the man was a Samaritan - a man on the margins of the margins. Even healed of leprosy he would not be welcome in a Jewish town and certainly not in the temple. And yet Jesus sent him off with the others to the temple in the center of the Jewish town to the temple, the center of the Jewish faith. Jesus had called him worthy to be healed. Jesus had called him worthy to stand in the center. And Jesus would tell him that his faith, although he was not a Jew, had made him well.

Luke tells us the man returned with shouts of praise to God. He threw himself down at Jesus' feet and thanked him. Perhaps he realized he would not be welcomed in the center. Perhaps he realized that the center of his newly healed life was still on the margins of town. And so he returned to the outskirts of town, where Jesus was still lingering, and offers thanks not in the holy of holies but before the Holy One himself. Perhaps the other nine did make it to the temple as Jesus had told them to do, and perhaps they gave thanks there. Apparently, that detail is not important. For Luke, it is important that one returns and gives thanks in the presence of God, where God is in that moment - on the margins.

Where are we in this story? Are we characters, or are we onlookers? Are we at the center or the margins? The answer must be....yes. We are centered around this story. We suffer from many diseases, as people have in every time and place, but the one that seems rampant among us is a sense of entitlement, a sense of deserving the good life, to the extent that we are easily able to become distanced and isolated from much of the world. We assume things are our "right", our "due" - we become preoccupied with our needs. Another preacher wrote, "It enables me to maintain my distance in the illusion of absolute independence. Healed of illness [of want, of need - when we get what our lives have been aching for] we wander off like the nine, because, after all, we're entitled to health."

The tenth leper turned back from his way, from the protection of distance, from the protection of the center, and threw himself at Jesus' feet on the margins of society. This was a second act of tremendous faith for him, for one who had so long been untouchable because of illness and would still be untouchable because of ethnicity. He threw himself at Jesus' feet and offered thanks, and in so doing, proclaimed his absolute dependence on God.

The same preacher wrote, "We cannot live at a distance and be truly healed at the same time. We are not really entitled to health or to joy or even to righteousness. Like the food that nourishes our bodies, these things do not grow up independently within us, but are literally foreign, alien to us, gifts from beyond ourselves that lure us into mutual interdependence with all others [which is to say, everyone] who have been embraced by a God who reached beyond the boundaries that we and the world have established to tell us we belong."

Jesus calls us to the center - to the center that is our faith community, to this worship space literally in the center of town, to the altar at the center of our worship space....and then he calls us to the margins, where Jesus himself is waiting, to the world "out there" where there are Samaritans all around - those whom we have pushed to the margins because they are not like us. The thanksgiving we offer at his feet here is a meal intended to prepare us, to strengthen us, to nourish us for the thanksgiving we will offer out there. After all, the beginning of our eucharistic prayer - the very beginning - acknowledges, "It is a right, good, and joyful thing always and everywhere to praise you...." Not just from the safety of the center.

And so, Dr. Bates, I humbly submit that as Christians, we are indeed called to center around Jesus Christ, himself the center and the margin and the place beyond the margin of love.

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