Faith into action

A sermon preached on Thanksgiving Day at St. Paul’s Cathedral

RCL / Thanksgiving Day / Year A 
Deuteronomy 8:7-18 / Psalm 65 / 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Luke 17:11-19

There is a video that is very popdownloadular on the internet at the moment, especially on Facebook.  It is actually for a Thai life insurance company and it ends with the words “believe in good”.   The video is all about a young Thai man who goes around doing good deeds for others.   The deeds range from helping an older lady push her street food cart, to sharing some of his meal with a stray dog but most heartwarming is the sight of him giving his spare cash to a mother and daughter who are begging on the street to help pay for the daughters education.   In the first half of the video we see people’s reactions to these good deeds.  Which range from disbelief, to mocking.   A caption then comes onto the screen asking what does this young man get for his actions?  The answer of course is nothing material, no riches, no fame but what he does receive are people’s emotions.  The highlight of the video is seeing the young daughter of the begging mother run to meet her mum on the street in a new school uniform as she squeals with delight at being able to go school, made possible, presumably, by the young man’s donation.  The look on her face is more than enough thanks for the young man.  The message of “believe in good” is clearly aimed at focusing our attention on good deeds rather than on the need to be thanked.   On this Thanksgiving Day I wonder what each of us is giving thanks for.

A good question indeed, and as we read today’s Gospel it seems like a question that Christ himself wants us to think about.   Ten lepers present themselves to Jesus.  Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests and on their journey there they will be cured.   It will come as no surprise to us that Jesus’ promise comes true and the ten lepers are cured on their journey to the priests.   Only one however, a Samaritan, turns back and returns to give thanks to Jesus.  Jesus asks of the nine that didn’t return “Where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”  Then he says to the Samaritan “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well”.  A nice story for Thanksgiving Day, a good reminder of for us to give thanks.   But I think that there is much more we can learn from today’s Gospel reading.  I believe that Jesus is calling us to action.

It is very easy for us today to miss some of the pointers that the Gospel writers were trying to show their readers as they wrote the Gospels.   Today’s Gospel starts off with some scene setting.   “On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through a region between Samaria and Galilee”.  As we hear that we think of nothing spectacular or out of the ordinary.  But to the early Christians hearing the Gospels for the first time this was something of interest.   They would have been following Jesus on his journey towards Jerusalem but when they looked at a map they would have been scratching their heads.  For the region between Samaria and Galilee was on no direct path that Jesus would have been expected to have taken.  They would have known that he was taking not only a very long detour but also a detour into a region that would bounded by two very different countries.  They would have known that his actions must have been deliberate.

On one side we know that Jesus spent most of his public ministry in Galilee, a region that he was familiar with.  On the other side, Samaria, was a wholly different place.   The Samaritans had the same scriptures and followed the same purity laws as the Galileans but they did not worship in the temple in Jerusalem and therefore were a despised group of people considered unfit for association.

I recently read an article by Brenda Loreman[i] who described the dilemma of Jesus finding himself in this in-between place.  She writes

Yet Jesus, it would seem, has deliberately entered into this place, this area between what his community considers what is right and what is wrong, an area where he is sure to encounter not only his own folk, but those who are unlike him, whom his community considers unclean.

She goes on to describe the region as something like the neutral zone in Star Trek.  A region deliberately put in place to keep two warring factions apart.   A place that you are not really supposed to be in, a place where if you do find yourself in, you better be alert with your torpedo’s armed.

But that is exactly where Jesus went.  He went to the place where many thought he should not go.   In Biblical times he went to the region between Samaria and Galilee.  Where would he go today?  Maybe to Ferguson Missouri, maybe to a funeral service for a victim of Ebola in Liberia, maybe to San Diego’s east village, to one of the many makeshift homeless camps full of human beings but human beings despised by many people.

What did Jesus do in that region between?  He continued his ministry.

What was so special about that group of lepers?   They knew the rules.   They had a terrible disease.  They knew that society forced them to be separated, kept away from the public at large.   But they must have known something of Jesus.   Of his ministry.   Maybe they had heard the stories of his miracles or his healing powers.  For they came towards Jesus, keeping their distance.  They shouted “Master”.  Not teacher or savior but master for they knew that Jesus had authority.   And shouting, shouting would have been hard for a leper for one of the side effects of leprosy is to make your voice horse.   “Master, have mercy on us”.  Jesus did not cure them on the spot.   He sent them off on a journey to the priests.   In order to be cured they had to have faith to go and follow Jesus’ command.    And having done so they were made well.

Likewise, Jesus is calling us to action.   He is calling us to go into that region between.  He is calling us to engage with the very people that we want to avoid.  He is telling us that we need to be practicing faith in action.

What does Luke 17 sound like in today’s world?

On his way from the Gaslamp to La Jolla, Jesus was passing through the area of San Diego known as Barrier Logan.   As he turned onto South twenty-seventh Street he was approached by a gang of ten unemployed youth.   Some were covered in tattoos, many were Latino and one wore a beard that marked him out as a Muslim.   Keeping their distance they shouted out “Master, help us to find a better way, no one will give us a job, our lives are pointless”.   Jesus walked up to the group and sat down with them and listened to their plight.   After some time he said to them “listen, here is what you need to do and laid out a plan for help”.   The group listened intently and even though the advice sounded a little lame they trusted the words of Jesus.   The group members got up and headed for one of the self-help centers that Jesus had suggested.   None of them was ever heard from again, apart from one of them, the Muslim, who came back to look for Jesus to thank him and tell him about his new job as an outreach worker for Father Joes village.

Today is a day for each of us to give thanks for all of the blessings in our lives.   Today we will do well to model ourselves on the Samaritan, who remembered to return to his Master and give thanks.  But let us not forget that in the midst of giving thanks Jesus Christ is calling each and every one of us to go into that region between, into the place between to do the work of Christ, into putting our faith into action.

[i] http://www.edenucc.com/documents/sam-gal.pdf

Link to the video mentioned: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaWA2GbcnJU

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