21 September 2008

A harvest of healing and restoration

The Samaritan returns to say thanks for healing and restoration © jesusmafa.com

Patrick Comerford

Deuteronomy 8: 7-18; Psalm 65; II Corinthians 9: 6-15; Luke 17: 11-19.

May all we think, say and do be to the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I have to confess that I was never very good at science at school: unlike an older brother, and unlike my elder son, it was one of my weaker subjects. And so, when I sat the Leaving Certificate almost 40 years ago, I sat physics and chemistry as one paper, and just scraped through.

How things have changed over those past four decades. The Celtic Tiger, however short-lived, brought not just temporary economic prosperity, but a whole new set of agendas about what we can talk about, how we talk, and who we talk to.

Years ago, it was unacceptable to talk about sexuality and sex in polite society. Now everybody talks about them.

Years ago, the economy and finances were confined to somewhere around pages 17 or 18 in The Irish Times – what were called the business pages. Now we’re all talking about the crisis in the American and European markets caused by sub-prime lending and exposure. Did any one of us hear of the Lehman Brothers before Meltdown Monday? Now we all talk as easily about Morgan Stanley as we do about Morgan Freeman, about Merrill Lynch as about Meryl Streep. Everyone on the top of a Dublin bus seems to know what a tracker mortgage is. I hear people talking about Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae as if they lived on our street or are working a few fields away.

Years ago, sport was confined to the sports pages. Now the new owner of Manchester City is as likely to feature on the front pages or the finance pages, and the adventures of Verona soccer fans provide the topic for a best-selling paperback, popular even among people who know nothing about football.

And years ago, science was regarded as a subject for the knowledgeable and the educated – you could only read about nuclear physics and black holes in specialist journals and textbooks. Now, everyone talks about “the God Particle” and is concerned about the consequences of Genetic Modification and Global Warming.

We now know the connection between the floods in Bihar and the rainy summer here. For once, the fears of the farming community in Ireland are shared by the population at large as we all ask: “What have we done to God’s creation?”

Over the span of a generation or so, these topics have become part of everyday conversation for every age and generation.

I know a young man who was recently ordained priest in the Church of England, and who is putting a brave face on his battle against cancer and the side-effects of heavy chemotherapy. His emails are sometimes bleak and difficult, but are also filled with faith and hope, and sometimes even contain wonderful nuggets of humour.

Two weeks ago, he was taking part in a baptism when a young boy, perhaps ten years of age, approached Joe and suggested to him: “I suppose Joe you’re happy the world is going to end next Wednesday?”

“Why?” Joe asked.

“Because then you won’t die before the rest of us, you can die with all of us,” the boy replied.

Even small boys were listening to speculation and fears surrounding the experiments with the Large Hadron Collider. Many people were genuinely worried that this 17-mile particle accelerator under the French-Swiss border would create black holes that would start devouring the earth, this beautiful earth, the very place that we feel at the heart of the cosmos, God’s creation.

A distant cousin in Toronto jokingly asked a few days after the experiment began whether we had all died and entered heaven – because that meant she could sit back and relax and enjoy the music without worrying … not about whether there are actual Pearly Gates and angels with wings and harps and clouds, but worrying about world peace, world famine, world-wide oppression and poverty.

Now, wouldn’t that be a much better definition of what heaven should be like?

What we have done to God’s creation is a cause for real concern in the farming community throughout Ireland this year. This is one of the toughest harvests to celebrate in my memory. I know I had summer holidays this year – but when did we have summer?

Our care and attention to God’s creation, our stewardship of what has been entrusted to us, is not something we should worry about today because it’s topical and fashionable. It is part of our duty as Christians; it is part and parcel of our discipleship. For just as in our humanity we are made in the image and likeness of God, and reflect God’s glory, so the earth, the cosmos, should be seen and treated as an image or likeness of the Kingdom of God and reflecting its glory.

Agnus Day cartoon © www.massprep.org

Our Gospel reading this evening is not one we readily associate with Harvest time. Unlike the beautiful, rich harvest images in our Old Testament reading, unlike the images in our Epistle reading of sowing and reaping bountifully, and a harvest so blessedly abundant that it overflows into justice, righteousness, and the end of poverty for generations to come, our Gospel reading is not a pretty image.

It is a story of sickness, both personal sickness and the deeper malaise to be found in society; it is a story of marginalisation and discrimination; and a story of the use and the abuse of religious authority and power.

But then harvest is not just about bringing in the crops and giving thanks for God’s blessings on the land – however slim they may appear to be this year. Harvest, at a deeper level, is about the restorative justice that Christ seeks as a sign of what the Kingdom of God is like.

Try to imagine the horrific scene that confronted Jesus as he entered that village with no name in that dangerous zone between Samaria and Galilee on the way to Jerusalem … It is an isolated area, the sort of place where a man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho could expect to be mugged, robbed and left for dead, with anyone who saw him scurrying by hastily in fear that they too would be mugged (see Luke 10: 30-37).

In an area like that you couldn’t expect a Good Samaritan to come by.

So this is wilderness country, bandit territory. And it is an area marked by discrimination and prejudice, deeply divided by sectarianism, racism and prejudice. Jews and Samaritans lived separate lives: they couldn’t share the same food, the same shops, the same streets, even the same villages. Although they shared a similar religious heritage and stories, they despised each other.

And this is an area where those who are disabled or scarred by their physical ailments are cast aside, left on their own, without help or assistance from the community at any level – political, social, economic or religious.

Can you imagine the scene in this dangerous territory? After a long journey, Jesus appears to have reached the safety of a village. But just as he gets to the gates, out from the rocks appear a rough-looking gang of dishevelled, disfigured, bedraggled, unkempt and filthy men, shouting out loudly. How dangerous are they? Will they mug and rob him? If they come too close, will he be contaminated too?

But these men are so desperate, so isolated, instead of mugging or begging, they keep their distance and all they ask for is – mercy. Mercy is all they want. How much they must have despaired in their search for compassion and companionship that all they ask for now is – mercy.

And what Jesus offers them is not mercy of the tea-and-sympathy sort. What he offers them, what he invites them to, is to be restored to, to accept again, their full place in society.

We don’t know when they were healed. When they called out for mercy? When Jesus spoke to them? When they obeyed his command? Yet the healing is less important than the collective action they are asked to take. They are asked to go together and show themselves to the priests. To show themselves to the priests allowed them to get a clean bill of health so they could be restored to their place in normal family, village, community, social, political, economic and religious life.

The Kingdom of God is a place where all can take part in life, and life in all its fullness. And what these 10 people are offered is a place back in society that will be an example of what the Kingdom of God is like.

The Samaritan is the only one to come back and say thank you. But I often wondered why this Samaritan even bothered in the first place to think of going to show himself to the priests. The priests could offer or refuse a clean bill of health to the other nine. But they would never give a Samaritan a clean bill of health. He is an outsider. Healed or not, he remains contaminated, unclean, impure, despised, rejected and isolated. He is “one of them.” He has no place with us.

But Jesus is saying he has. Jesus is counting him in. Jesus wants him to benefit from the great harvest and to sit down at the heavenly banquet.

The action of Jesus in healing the Samaritan alongside the other nine, in sending him too to the priests to stake his claim to a full, restored place in society, tells us the Kingdom of God is there for all. All are invited into it. And when we start excluding others we too become weak, we too fail to reap the rich harvest that God offers us.

The Kingdom of God is offered too to the Samaritans in our midst, to those afflicted with anything that places them outside normal, acceptable life: the immigrant who is isolated because of the collapse of our economy or the rise in vulgar racism; the single mother; the farmer whose harvest hopes are not being realised; the child who can’t get a special needs assistant at school; the distraught couple minding demanding and aging grandparents; the once-successful businessman whose enterprise has gone to the wall; and the employees who have lost trust in him and hope in the future when they lost their jobs.

Too often in the past our traditional Harvest Readings have been read both in a cosy, comfortable way, and in a way that separates the harvest from the full riches of creation. Yet those beautiful promises in the Old Testament reading of a rich, rich harvest were not made in a time of plenty. They were promises made to the people while they were still in the wilderness, when they were isolated in the desert, when they had been wandering for far too many years.

Even when there is little hope at harvest time, even at times when we feel most isolated, marginalised and unloved, God promises us a rich harvest that goes beyond this year’s yields, a harvest that will be so rich that we can also build up hopes for righteousness, for justice and for love.

And when the harvest is difficult, when we are not bringing in the returns we hoped for at the time of sowing, when economic gloom and doom appear to be imminent, we should remember that God’s creation is more splendid and more beautiful than anything we can imagine.

Let me return to the Large Hadron Collidor one more time. Did you notice the world did not come to an end the week before last? We were not all sucked into some monstrous “black hole” as the scientists started seeking what they call the “God Particle.” If anything, we realised instead, as it was put by the Revd Dr David Wilkinson, an astrophysicist who is also a Methodist theologian, that the earth, the cosmos, the universe, God’s creation, are “elegant and surprising.” But it also shows us that “we are still faced by the origin, the beauty, the universality and the intelligibility of the laws of physics itself.”

We are going through trying, tough times at the moment when it comes to farming, the economy, the changes that turn received values on their heads. But through all this we should remember that God is faithful to God’s promises, that when it comes to the real harvest that matters, there will be a place for everyone, especially those who have been marginalised, isolated and left to feel unloved.

In a week when the greedy have been saved from the consequences of their decisions in the banking world but the needy have to pay for this, in a world where the greedy take priority over the needy so that 30,000 people die each day because of poverty, God’s promise remains for a harvest that not only provides us with enough food and shelter but an abundance that allows us to measure out and ensure righteousness and justice for all.

God’s creation is filled with beauty from the very beginning. And if we believe this, if we gather hope from this evening’s Harvest readings, then we must work too to see that the Church and our society, by our priorities and by our lifestyles, in our actions and in our prayers, in the ways we preach and live the Gospel, are signs, icons, symbols and sacraments of this hope for creation and the Kingdom of God.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Harvest Eucharist on Sunday evening, 21 September 2008, in Saint Tighernagh’s Church, Aughmacart, Cullahill, Co Laois.

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