Saturday, October 12, 2013

Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Proper 23C

Over the past few weeks we have had a series of readings from the Hebrew scripture that tell the story of the Babylonian Exile.  In 596 BCE the nation of Babylon (now Iraq) invaded Jerusalem and enslaved the majority of the upper echelons of Judean  society just as the Assyrians had done to the Northern Kingdom of Israel some 200 years before. 

The loss of their freedom and their mass deportation to Babylon savaged the people of Judah, but they learned that if they did not keep their faith, they would never be a nation again.  It was clear that to be faithful they had to maintain their ethic ties and customs.  That is what the first lesson is describing.  They recognized their sinfulness and in order to continue to be the chosen people of God, they had to be willing to survive as a people.  Finally in around 539 when Babylon was defeated by the Persians, the people of Judah were allowed to return to Jerusalem.  Not all returned, but those who did would become the Pharisees, those who found Mosaic Law the center of their faith rather than the sacrifices of the Temple. 

It is interesting that since 596 BCE there have been Jews in Iraq.  It has only been in the past 20 years
or so that those Babylonian Jews have been forced out of that very Muslim nation.

  One of them was J’s doctor.  It was very interesting to talk to him about the Babylonian Jewish community.  Their customs differ a bit from those of other Jewish groups, but their centrality on the Law is just as fierce as it was during the enslavement 2,500 years ago.  I find this fascinating and helpful to my Christian faith.  Such ethic identity did preserve the faith that Jesus would further some 500 years later.
The story we have in the Gospel is usually preached as if it is a reminder to be grateful to God for healing.  But I think that the purpose of the story is really about the Samaritan leper who returned thanks to Jesus for the cleansing that Jesus had performed.  

Samaritans were those people, some lower class Jews and some were non-Semetics who inhabited the area around Jerusalem and the areas in the ancient part of the nation that once was part of Israel, the   They worshiped God, the same God that the Judeans worshiped but not in the Temple in Jerusalem.  They worshiped God in the ‘high places’.  They made sacrifices as the Judeans had done.  But they had not had the experience of the ‘exile’.   However, with the return of the Babylonian exiles, they were not accepted as ‘Jews’.  They were considered unclean.  

When we realize that most of Hebrew scripture was codified during the time of the Exile and in Babylon, it is easy to see how the Samaritans would be loath to find the returning exiles as being the 'traditionalists' that the returnees thought they were.  In the minds of the returnees from Babylon, those who had been exiled and who followed the Laws that were codified there were the righteous ones, the Pharisees.  And even though they began rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, it was not until Jesus’ time that the Temple was really rebuilt by the half-breed Jew, Herod, who was made king by the Romans.

This Gospel story is about returning thanks, but then Jesus makes his dig:
               “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to                return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

It was the Samaritan who returned to thank Jesus for his cleansing.  And although he worshiped the same God as did the Jews, it was he who understood the meaning of the gratitude that the Law of Moses.  It was the Samaritan who understood the purpose of the Law, the meaning of righteousness better than those who were supposed to know—the Pharisees.  

All too often we use pigeon holes to describe people’s faith.  Those who make great show of being observers of the rules and regulations of faith are often the ones who don’t really get it.  Even in our own denomination and even in our own diocese.  I am always amused when people are willing to point at others who don’t observe the same customs that they do.  They are ‘wrong’ or not ‘really Christian’ or Episcopalian or whatever.  Here in my area   That I don’t observe the evangelical arm of Anglicanism either makes me suspect. 
Because I don’t observe all the high church pomp and circumstance that the people in this part of the country are used to, I am considered ‘not really Episcopalian, you know’.  Even though we Episcopalians like to think we are so broad minded.
I know that ritual is very important in faith matters.  It is the way that we remember.  It is the way that we touch those incredible holy moments of our lives.  For those whose experience of God is tied up in such rituals those rituals are the way that they can access the Holy.  But if their experience of the Holy can ONLY be accessed through a particular ritual, then we have done the faithful a tremendous disservice if we clergy have not taught them how to gain access the Divine in more than one way.  The purpose of ritual is to open people to splendor of God.  And I would hope that people can find God in much more than the services of the Church.  

Yes, we priests are given the ‘good housekeeping seal of approval’ to guarantee the validity of sacramental worship, but if people are not experiencing God in their daily lives, what I do at the altar may not be enough to open them to how God works.  Yes, the sacrament is efficacious.  But it may not be the gateway to that incredible experience of the Holy that transforms us, molds us, and creates that new being that the sacrament promises. 

Jesus recognized that it was the Samaritan whose life had been transformed by the healing that God had done.  It was the foreigner, not one of the ‘in crowd.’  Jesus’ message is not about healing, but that the Law was being misused.  Jesus’ message was that God is free, you don’t have to be a member, you don’t have to be a card-carrier, you don’t have to follow all the rules.  Jesus’ message is that God is God and no church, no law, no words of humans can keep one away from the meaning of that which is so far beyond us.  

Over the years I have taught the canon law of our church because it was expected of me.  But I no longer think it is necessary.  There are too many who have misused those canons, those rules, to make   We have made ritual more and more arcane so that the real meaning of living in the embrace of God gets lost in the translation.  I don’t care what people think when they come to the communion rail; I just want them to come.  They don’t have to believe in anything special.  God will teach them what they need to know.  I only want them to know that they are welcome to experience what I hold to be holy.  If they come to know it is holy too, then I have done my job as a priest. 
the sacraments more difficult to access.

We need to have more people in the world who are aware of the Holy that is both outside of them and within them.  We need to be able to identify that feeling that one has when he holds his first child, or that incredible experience of when she knows that someone really understands her and loves us just the way she is, or that sense of complete surrender that come when he recognizes that he isn’t the ruler of his universe.  We must be willing to not only experience this, but recognize how others embrace that moment of healing, liberation, total acceptance, source of love, etc.  It is the only way that we can truly share what it means to be a part of Creation with others who share in that wonder. 

In 1991 I had the privilege of going to Cabo San Lucas for the total eclipse of the sun.  We went with a Smithsonian museum tour.  We all knew what happens when there is an eclipse.  We understood the science.  I had heard stories of others who had witnessed this phenomenon before.  But until I experienced this astrological event, I could not understand just how much power such events have.  It is impossible to really explain and it happens in a very short time.  Bands of light precede the total eclipse, and then there are spectacular visions of the ring of fire around the sun.  It put so much into perspective of just how small my experience of the world is.  I had much the same experience when I witnessed the damage following Katrina along the Mississippi coast in 2003.  God’s might is so much more than we can ask or imagine.

I would imagine that the Samaritan leper had a similar sensation at being cured of his malady.  The heavens opened, the intimacy of the touch of God’s liberation cleansed him.  He understood at a level   It would be his faith—his embrace of all the goodness of the universe that was the healing of the leper.  We call it miraculous; we call it marvelous.  But both Jesus and the Samaritan knew it as the beginning of the conversation of faith.
that Jesus recognized as that moment when the soul comes into conversation with God.

It is this conversation that all ritual is supposed to assist.  But ritual pales in the light of the real thing. The conversation of faith only happens when we are ready to embrace that which we don’t know—embrace the unfathomable love that is both within us and without us.    Faith is a dialog with all of Creation and the Uncreated.  It is an exchange of the singular with the whole, a colloquy of the heart.  

The Samaritan went away healed in ways that the others didn’t.  The others were made clean—but it was the 'unclean one' 
who knew the secret of the Universe. The Divine had touched him.

1 comment:

The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski, M.Div/MSW said...

I so appreciate how well you put this in context - historical and theological - and then anchor it in to the world today.