Thursday, October 18, 2007

Embracing the Tenth Leper: a reflection

As many of you know, ancient Samaria is, today, a part of Israel and the West Bank - a sliver of land running from south of the Galilee region in North-Eastern Israel to about 30 miles north-east of Jerusalem. After the Exile, when the Israelites returned to the Promised Land, they split into two groups, "Judean Jews" who returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple there, and "Samaritan Jews" who built a rival temple on Mt. Gerizim, believing that the destruction of Solomon's Temple was a sign of displeasure from God and they should not rebuild there.

Samaritan and Judean Jews hated each other.

Here, then, is a context for the story Luke repeats about Jesus healing ten lepers. (Luke 17:11-19)

These ten lepers were a community where the fact that nine are Judean Jews and one was a Samaritan Jew was less important than the fact that they were lepers. They had that stronger bond of their own sickness, the bond of their outcast status, the bond of their common humanity a bond that forced them to be together.

They were all outcasts from the ordinary and the every day – a minority classified by their sickness and thus spurned by their "cleaner" brothers and sisters.

But notice that Luke finds it noteworthy to mention that there are nine Judeans and only one Samaritan. The Judean/Samaritan split was only less important, not of no importance at all. The Samaritan is, even within this Community of Suffering, a minority. And, no doubt, even within this community he suffered the sort deprivations that are always glaring to a member of a minority but mostly go unnoticed or glossed over by the majority. Just as in normal society the lepers maintained social distinctions and hierarchy even though they had been excluded by their community of origin.

Even in their community of outcasts lepers would quite naturally have treated some of their number as outcasts.

In Jesus' story the ten lepers are really metaphors for the way “Community” worked and always works. His choice of lepers is revealing, therefore – there's another message for us – that we are all in need of healing, and some more than others. But we're often surprised by which ones need it more.

How does that sort of prejudice and discrimination work out today, I wonder? Well, like this: on the whole, when I've been stopped by a policeman, I haven't ever worried about there being a question of who owned the vehicle I was driving. If I owned a Mercedes or even a Rolls Royce, I still wouldn't have to worry about any assumptions around the ownership of my car!

But the same isn't true for an African American driving an expensive car. There's a telling phrase sometimes used as an ironic description of the supposed “offense” committed that causes African Americans to be stopped by the police: "Driving while Black". It's testimony to the consequences of having minority status within our culture.

Any minority person will tell you this. It doesn't matter if they're African-American, Hispanic-American, Native-American, Muslim-American or any other qualified American - because that's what it is, isn't it?! A qualified identity – a subscribed membership – an associate status that can be revoked at any time.

It means, ultimately, to be treated as less than a human being.

And how does it feel, as a minority, when you're treated as less than a human being? I don't know. In this culture I'm doubly privileged: I'm white, and I'm a man. And, in the Church, you can add two more privileges: I'm a priest, and I'm English. I really can't say that I have had a first-hand experience of what it means to be a minority, of what it means to be discriminated against.
I can only know, only get a brief glimpse, based on what people I respect and love have to say about that experience. What we take for granted is something that they notice.

Samaritans knew what it meant to be treated as less than a human being. Our Samaritan leper was no exception and so he immediately noticed when that didn't happen....when Jesus treated him as fully human, and fully equal – when Jesus 'included him in'. Not as a leper. Not as an outcast. Not as a Samaritan. Not as a 'thing' incapable of being a part of a community.

As a human being.

As a result, while the other nine ran off he did something different: he returned to give thanks!
Again the realism of the story comes through. What the other nine did was to run to the Priest, who could declare them healed, and thus give them their ticket back into the Community of the Pure. You bet they were happy. And they were only doing what Jesus told them to do, after all to show themselves to the priest. But because they'd had status before, because they'd been part of the majority, because they'd not known what it was like to be part of a minority, always sensitive to how they were among a dangerous majority....because of all these things it never occurred to them how truly profound and great was the debt of gratitude they owed Jesus. For these nine, thanksgiving was for later, in the Temple, not here, with this weirdo preacher.

But the Samaritan did understand, did "get it". And his first response? "Thank you, Jesus".
Thank you.

Once again, the outcast, the minority, the "less-than-human" teaches us all a lesson in grace, humility, and faith. And notice what Jesus says. The others are healed of their outward sickness. Only the tenth leper is made whole.

So here's a question: how do we overcome our own innate discrimination?

I think it's a journey for us, and we're all at different places on that journey. I want to tell you about one congregation that's on that journey.

I visited this congregation in 1999, as a candidate for rector in its search process. The congregation is on the East Coast south of the old Civil War border between North and South, and some way inland.

It didn't take long to figure out that, in this fairly conservative community, the congregation was finding the issue of homosexuality challenging. No surprise, really; if we all look back we can all say that it has become a challenging and divisive topic for our whole denomination.

This congregation’s organist – I'll call him Frank – was a gay man in a committed relationship. And everyone there knew it.

He was clearly loved and embraced by the congregation, as was his partner. When I gently asked how this could be I was told: "Oh, but this is different! We know Frank and Mark".

I suppose you could say that Frank and Mark were being treated as honorary "straights" and accepted into the club. But I think it was much deeper than that, and much more important. Frank and Mark being gay was overlooked because the relationships that existed between the members of that congregation – with each other and with them – were more important than any ideology.
Now perhaps that's less than we hope for – we who proclaim that we will respect the dignity of every human being. But no one is perfect. Those Episcopalians out East are on a journey, and one day, perhaps, they'll get there.

What they do know, even if they don't know it in their heads, is that Christian faith is not, in the end, about legalisms, not about any ideology that trumps human identity and belonging.

What they – and we all – know on some level is that it isn't even that relationships matter as part of our faith. It's that they're the only thing that, in the end matters. Our faith is relationships and their quality – with God, with each other, with self.

St. Paul says that how we love is, in the end, the final arbiter and definer of who we are as human beings. It is only when we embrace each other as children of God – only when we stop seeing difference as about our greater worth opposed to the lesser worth of others and start seeing other human beings also in need of god's healing touch – it is only then that we truly enter into the fullest meaning of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Thus does Jesus give us the charge, in this story, to continue the struggle for the inclusion of all people into God’s reign. And he even gives us a title for it: “Embracing the tenth leper.”