Who Is Included?
October 6, 2019
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen
We spent the month of September here at Westminster remembering some of the great, ancient stories of the Hebrew Scriptures and discovering in them a word that strengthens our faith. This month we shift our focus in worship to another set of stories – those told by Jesus or about Jesus in the gospels.
Gospel stories are told to teach us something about the intentions of God and about God’s hopes for us. Many of these stories are framed by this phrase: “The Reign of God is like this”…and then the story unfolds.
The Reign of God is like this…One day Jesus is walking from Galilee in the north to Jerusalem in the south, maybe down the Jordan River valley. He passes near the land of the Samaritans when he finds himself on the outskirts of a village. He seems to be by himself. From a distance, he hears a group of people calling out to him. He looks and sees they have a skin disease that may have been leprosy or some other visible illness. So as not to get too close, they’re shouting at him to have mercy on them. Jesus, wanting to diminish the distance between them, walks over to the group and says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
They turn and head into the village to find the priest when all of a sudden, they find themselves healed, their skin made clean and pure and new. One of them spins right around, goes out of the village and back to Jesus, and throws himself on the ground at his feet to thank him. He was a person from Samaria.
Jesus wonders where the others are. “Weren’t there ten in the group?” he says. “Only one has come back, the one from a foreign land? Where are the others?”
Then, not waiting for an answer, Jesus says to the one who came back, “Get up and go; your faith has made you well.”
Most stories have a backstory, and this one is no exception. Who was that group of people with leprosy outside the village, and what were they doing there? They were there because they had been pushed out, ritually excluded, cut off from town by the law that declared those determined to be unclean had to leave. They had been judged to be other and were no longer welcome. They became beggars on the margins of a community to which they once belonged.
This gospel story is typically used as a teaching on gratitude. I have preached on it many times, focusing on the one who turned back to give thanks to God. I’m not against gratitude, but today, in our time, this story is trying to teach us something else as well, something at the core of the gospel and at the heart of our faith. The reign of God is poking its way up and out of this story, if we have ears to hear.
If you were to look up this text in your pew Bible you would see the language used there to describe those shouting at Jesus for mercy is not what you heard when the scripture was read just now. We changed the wording.
“As he entered the village, ten lepers approached him” became “As he entered the village ten people with leprosy approached him.”
Do you hear the difference? It’s subtle, but important – and it’s the heart of this story. When we join in labeling these individuals lepers we participate in the very thing the gospel is warning us about in the story. We take away their humanity. Scholarly commentaries on this text don’t notice the problem. In fact, they participate in it. They continue to use the phrase “the leper” to refer to the one who had been healed, even after he was rid of the disease. “The leper came back,” they say.
I wonder if the villagers did that when the ten who had been living with leprosy rejoined the community. Did they give them back their full humanity?
It’s a matter of language, but it’s also more than that. It’s a show of power over others, and it happens all over the translated pages of scripture. The leper. The demoniac. The paralytic. The lame. The blind. The deaf. The poor. The rich.
All of them, the other.
This biblical story wants us to understand that these individuals Jesus meets had been excluded by their own community. They had been pushed out and left behind as the world moved on as if they weren’t there. They were considered to be different and unacceptable by local norms. They had become strangers, almost invisible. Forgotten. They had become other.
We do it, too. The ex-con. The slave, not enslaved people. The right-winger. The leftist. The Black. The white. The Mexican. The racist. The homeless. The Republican. The Democrat. And those are only more polite ways we refer to each other. We all use labels and then amplify them through social media in order to otherize someone. Othering has become our national pastime. We might as well be those villagers back in the day of Jesus, deciding that some among us are not worthy of sharing in community with us.
“One belief, more than any other,” says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,
“Is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals. It is the belief that those who do not share my faith – or my race or my ideology – do not share my humanity.” (The Dignity of Difference [New York: Continuum, 2003], p. 45)
We see that all around us – the polarizing tendency in the human family today. We see it in the widening gulf between those who live in rural areas and those who live in urban areas. We see it in those who live on the north side and those who live in south Minneapolis. We see it in the distance between those who live in the city and those who live in the outer suburbs. We see it on our borders and in our courtrooms and in our prisons.
It’s as if we don’t share the same humanity.
The story about Jesus and the healing of ten persons with leprosy is not merely about the one who returns to say thank-you. The heart of the story may be found in the clue tucked into the passage in this line: “He was a Samaritan.” That’s more use of language to label someone, only this time it is intentional. Jews and Samaritans were enemies. They avoided contact, less one contaminate the other. To call someone “a Samaritan” was to write them off, make them invisible.
Even Jesus is othered in this story. He does not go through the village. He’s left outside, by himself, presumably not allowed as a Jew to enter the Samaritan town. He’s excluded, like those with leprosy.
Luke wants us to see what Jesus is up to here: he’s reaching out to the other and drawing them close, drawing them into his circle. Jesus refuses to let the norms of the day set the terms of his interaction with others.
Can we do that – refuse to let the norms of the day set the terms of our interaction with others? The Reign of God is like that.
We received a report this week from Dr. Sam Ngwane, a Presbyterian medical doctor in Douala, Cameroon, with whom Westminster has partnered for many years. Our Open Doors Open Futures campaign provides resources for Dr. Sam’s work – which began as assistance for those living with HIV/AIDS, but has shifted recently to support people forced to leave their homes by the growing violence in that West African country as it teeters on the brink of civil war.
Westminster’s support helps displaced people through the work of four congregations in Cameroon, three of which are historic, traditional Presbyterian churches with buildings and a presence in their neighborhoods. The fourth congregation has sprung up inside Central Prison in Douala, Dr. Sam writes, among persons detained for lack of identification papers. Those who fled quickly from their homes and made their way to the city have been put into prison because they can’t prove who they are. A new Presbyterian church is thriving there, behind those walls, among people who were previously strangers but now find themselves being labeled as other by the authorities in their own country.
They may not have identity papers – they have been othered by their own government – but they still know they are beloved children of God. Their faith is keeping them whole.
The Reign of God is like that, when people find in their faith the strength and courage to refuse to be cut off from their full humanity.
Rabbi Sacks argues that God wants to “teach humanity to make space for difference…The human other,” he says, “Is a trace of the divine.” (Sacks, p. 53, 59-60)
This is the work of our congregation, to learn from this story about Jesus crossing the borders of stereotypes and animosity and historical hatred to heal people who have been excluded. He sees a trace of the divine in all ten of them.
Can we do the same for those we exclude from our circles?
We’re grateful to be led in worship this World Communion Sunday by new friends from South Africa, a nation that has struggled with racial categories and stereotyping, discrimination and violence. We know something about that in this land. We’re all too familiar with the dehumanizing impact of seeing people as other.
Who is included? Every gospel story told by Jesus aims to answer that question, in one way or another. In these narratives we learn that a lot more people are welcomed into the circle God draws than we would have expected, certainly more than in the circles we draw.
Yesterday I preached at a memorial service here in the sanctuary for a beloved member of our congregation, Bill Petersen. We read the text for the service, one that is commonly heard at memorial services. We read Psalm 23, the shepherd’s psalm, the most popular text in the Bible. Most of us know it by heart.
When we read through that psalm we eventually get to this line: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
I used to interpret that line as the poet feeling so protected by God they could sit down for a meal, alone, in front of those they considered enemies, and have nothing to fear – almost as if the psalmist were taunting their enemies.
Reading that text yesterday, and then this text today, I’m beginning to understand that God is promising to the psalmist and each of us something else, and that something is at the heart of our faith: a completely different way to see the one labeled enemy. The other. The table in the text is set for both of them.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemy so my enemy can join me.
The Reign of God is like that.
And this table, heaping with the goodness of God, is set for all of us.
Thanks be to God.
Loving God, as we gather around your table in Minneapolis this morning we are thinking of our siblings in Palestine, Cameroon, South Sudan and South Africa who, at your invitation, gathered around this table earlier for this joyful feast. Our siblings in Cuba may yet be assembled for worship and they too have a place at your table. In some parts of the world some gathered or will gather in secret for this emancipating meal. Generous in grace and love, you provide a place at your table for everyone born.
Here at this table we remember and praise Jesus, the Light of the World. Living among us, Jesus loved and invited all people into deeper and fuller relationship with you. He gave us a new identity, telling us we “are the light of the world.” (Mt 5:14) In the power of your Holy Spirit you send us out singing Siyahamba and marching in the light of God as Jesus preached and demonstrated.
“Gracious God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these your gifts of bread and wine, that the bread we break and the cup we bless may be the communion of the body and blood of Christ. By your Spirit unite us with the living Christ and with all who share this feast in every time and every place. ” (Book of Common Prayer)
Some who have shared this meal and long to again be nourished here are encountering obstructions and opposing powers that keep them from coming to this table. There are migrant families, and forcibly displaced refugees, and people living in conflict zones, and people who have been marginalized because of our narrow social constructions—who we have made “the other” who are denied access to this table even though you set a place at your table for everyone born. Give us good courage to insist your table is as wide and long as you intend it to be. Nourished at this table, send us out into the world with transformed minds and brave hearts.
The family of Botham Jean received a verdict this week and it seemed to the outside world a kind of closure. We cannot know how they will navigate the years of grief ahead. We do know you will continue to give them the strength to keep going.
O God, today and every day, in every language you call your people together to be the church. Unite us now at your table, and in one loaf and a common cup, make us one in Christ Jesus.
And joining our voices together we pray in the manner Jesus taught us, saying:
Our Father who art in heaven…