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Pentecost 21 October 9, 2016 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend

PENTECOST 21  Proper 23 Year C

II Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Psalm 111; II Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Rev. Samuel Torvend
I hold the clear adolescent memory of being served dinner by my Aunt Margaret (I’ve changed her name to protect the guilty). It was a dry and utterly bland meal, the cooking devoid of any love, offered by a schoolteacher whose primary learning goal in the classroom was keeping law and order. When my sister and I were not forthcoming with compliments, Aunt Margaret – who also taught Sunday School (I can easily imagine her students have left the practice of their childhood faith and are now Scientologists) – Aunt Margaret thought it good to invoke Scripture, indeed the gospel reading just proclaimed. “Good Christian boys and girls know how to give thanks. Why even lepers can say Thank You!” she exclaimed. “Yes,” whispered my wonderfully precocious sister, “but they were healed, not tormented.” It was a memorable experience of Scripture being used as a form of social control.
Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear this story serve as encouragement for giving donations to a Christian charity. You know: the cheery voice declares, “Thankful people always give back to God,” as if – consider the irony here – the Creator of all things in heaven and on earth actually needed anything from you or me because, you know, the Creator might be lonely (having created 8.7 million species) or suffer a bout of low self esteem. No, I say, God needs nothing from us, nothing, except our heartfelt trust in God’s unfathomable grace and God’s good will for this world. God needs nothing from us except our loving care for the neighbor in need, loving actions which, no doubt, do need to be supported with our donations, with your treasure and mine. Rather than a story about good children giving thanks, Luke presents us with something a bit more challenging.
In that culture so similar to ours and yet so incredibly different, we hear of ten lepers, that is, ten persons with a contagious flaking skin condition (not the deforming  leprosy we know as Hanson’s Disease, an affliction seen in many Hollywood biblical epics). They approach Jesus and ask for only one thing: for mercy. Note that they do not ask to be healed. They might as well have said, Can you help us out? But help them out with what? In that world then and still in our world today, I think we recognize that sickness, disease, emotional stress, addiction, disability, or just looking different than the majority can be perceived as a stigma, a stigma that isolates the person behind an invisible barrier. How quick we are to insist that the “healing process” begin for someone struggling with grief or loss in a culture that cannot cope well with loss: we’re Americans after all and we’re exceptional aren’t we? We love winners but don’t abide well losers. Grief? “Get over it and turn that that sad face into a glad face,” right? How quick was my Aunt Margaret to stop drinking from the communion cup and start gingerly dunking her bread into the wine for fear that a gay person might be at communion and, in her fearful fantasy, might be contaminated with “gayness” or with AIDS – as if anyone – anyone! – with a compromised immune system would willingly expose themselves to the many germs carried by many hands. Jesus, have mercy on us. Jesus, have mercy on us, these ten shout. For what is it that his mercy can offer them but this: that as the agent of God’s healing presence they will be restored to the community of the living, to family, to friends – the barrier and stigma of sickness or disease or stress or simply being different dismantled.
Indeed, the Samaritan who praised God was considered a sub-human species, a fake Jew, a person contaminated by the “wrong” religion, “wrong” customs, and “wrong” relations, a minority who would never be allowed to participate in worship and show himself “clean” to the priests. An invisible but palpable boundary separated him from Jesus, his disciples, and the other nine. What does he know about Jesus and for what does he give God praise? That Jesus was constantly challenging existing socially and religiously constructed boundaries and pushing them ever outward. How shocking it would be for the other nine to see an outsider welcomed into Jesus’ holy community, holiness redefined by Jesus as God’s mercy made available to anyone and everyone in need.
I was standing in the restroom across from my office at PLU, combing my hair, when a student entered: a student who sported bright pink lipstick on his lips, wearing low heels, holding a purse with enough bling on it to blind the sun, wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned in bright gold with the letters “PLU.” I thought to myself: “The sweet Norwegian Lutherans who founded this school in the 19th century could never have imagined this moment.” Another student walked in and upon seeing the first student, purse in hand, turned around as he snorted a nasty expletive and quickly walked out. Perhaps the second student missed the notices across the campus that state we are a transgender friendly school. Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered. Perhaps he did not know or would not have cared that this pink-lipped student, created in the image of God with an eternal dignity, was struggling to find his truest self – her truest self – in a world so quick to erect barriers, to stigmatize someone who doesn’t fit the neat categories we construct. As my favorite off color comedian, the Liberal Redneck, says: “There’ll always be someone on the other side of the door just waiting to beat the hell out of you if you’re different.”
But, we hope: not here in this place of worship, this place of learning, this place committed to the service of the neighbor, any neighbor, in need. Not here where we praise God for the deconstruction of barriers that divide us. Not here where we ask God to melt within us the fear of what is simply different. Not here where we share peace rather than violence. Not here where the friend of sinners gives himself and his expansive self to you and me in wine cup and bread fragment. Not here.
Can I get an Amen?
Fr. Samuel Torvend