Sunday, 13 October 2013

When we find ourselves travelling in
the in-between place, the nowhere land

As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him … they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ (Luke 17: 12-13)

Patrick Comerford,

The Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Sunday 13 October 2013,

The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity,

11.30 a.m., The Community Eucharist

Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-12; II Timothy 2: 8-15; Luke 17: 11-19

May I speak to you in the name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

This morning’s Gospel reading is well-loved by preachers – perhaps because it provides the opportunity for so many sermons on faith and healing, inclusion and exclusion, how Christ meets our every need, how we need conversion, on the connection between healing of the body and healing of the soul, perhaps even on the value of good manners and learning to say thank you.

Some parishes are going to hear about one Samaritan who returns and says thank you. Some may even hear about nine other lepers who did exactly as they were told, went and showed themselves to the priests, received a clean bill of health and were restored to their rightful place in the community of faith

But which is the greatest miracle for you: the healing of these ten people; or their restoration to their rightful places in the community of faith?

Perhaps it is worth noting that it is the ten men, not Christ, who keep their distance on the outskirts of the village, because they are forced to behave this way, to be marginalised and to live on the margins

Christ keeps his distance, as might be expected. Yet, from that distance, he sees. We often translate verse 14 to say that “he saw them” but the Greek says simply, καὶ ἰδὼν, “and having seen,” without any object, there is no “them.”

For in Christ there is no “us” and “them.” He sees the future without the limits of the present.

This is a story about trusting in God’s plans for the future, rather than living in the past, living with the fears of the present, living without hope for the future … precisely the context for the urgings and exhortations to the exiles by the Prophet Jeremiah in our Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7), precisely the hope the Apostle Paul has for Timothy in our epistle reading (II Timothy 2: 8-15).

But we foil those plans, we quench those hopes, we continue to live in the past when we continue to limit Christ’s saving powers with our own limitations, continue to look at him with our own limited vision.

Christ sees … sees it as it is in the present and as it could be in the future.

Perhaps that is why Saint Luke has placed this story in a location that is in the in-between place … the region between Galilee and Samaria. The place between Galilee and Samaria … neither one nor the other, neither this earthly existence, nor what the future holds, but still on the way to Jerusalem.

Even the village here is not named. Is it Sychar, the village where he met the woman at the well who becomes one of the most powerful and successful missionaries in the New Testament? Is Christ in the Decapolis, which squeezes partly between Eastern Galilee and Eastern Samaria? Is there some literary image being created with the Ten who seek healing and the Ten Cities

Perhaps this is idle speculation.

We should not forget that not one but ten were healed. Christ does good – even to those who will not be thankful.

And even then, we do not know why the other nine did not return to say thanks. It took an eight-day waiting process for a person with leprosy to be declared clean by the priests.

After those eight days, did they then go an give thanks to God in their local synagogue?

Did they first breathe sighs of relief and return to the families they loved but had been isolated from for so long?

Did they return to that unnamed village, and find that ten days later Jesus had moved on … the next named place we find him is in Jericho (see Luke 19: 1)?

Surely Christ does good without expecting a thanks that comes straight from some Victorian book on good manners for girls in Cheltenham or Rodean, who know when and how to write thank you notes.

How often when we give a gift to someone do we want to control how they use it?

I give a Christmas or birthday gift, and then I am upset when they don’t like it, when they trade it in for something else, or pass it on to someone else, or simply just never say thank you or acknowledge what I have done for them.

But who was the gift supposed to benefit: me as the giver, or you as the receiver? What was it a token of: my love for you, or my need to tell you how important I am to you?

A begrudging attitude to how others receive and use the gifts I give them, or my taking offence when I feel they have not thanked me profusely enough amounts to a passive aggressive attitude on my part, a desire to control. If we give gifts only to be thanked, are we truly generous?

And if I only say thank you so I remain in someone else’s esteem, perhaps even to be rewarded again, to be kept on their invitation list, am I truly grateful?

Christ is not passively aggressive in this story. He is not seeking to control. He sends the ten on their way … and they go. If he had expected them to return, he would not have been surprised that one returned; he would have waited around in that unnamed village for the other nine had time to make their humble way back to them.

No, it is more important what Christ frees them for, and where he frees them.

He frees them to regain their place in the community, in the social, economic and religious community that is their rightful place.

He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan (Luke 17: 16-17)

For the Samaritan, his “faith has made him well”: ἡπίστις σου σέσωκέν σε, or, more accurately, your faith has saved you, rescued you, restored you. The word σῴζω is all about being saved, rescued, restored, ransomed, and not just about regaining health and physical well-being.

That land between Samaria and Galilee is where we find Christ today. The in-between place, the nowhere land, the place where people need to be saved, rescued, restored, ransomed.

We all find ourselves in the in-between place, the nowhere land ... to borrow a phrase from TS Eliot, wandering in the Waste Land.

This morning, perhaps, just for one moment perhaps, it is possible to imagine that Christ has arrived in that particular in-between place for a reason. For the land between Samaria and Galilee is neither one place nor the other.

And the in-between place is a place where I might find myself unsure of who belongs and who does not, where I might be uncertain, untrusting, even frightened and afraid. It is a place where the usual rules may not apply, where I do not know my place, where I do not fit in, where I appear not as the person God see truly sees me, but as others want to see me.

This is the place where Christ is travelling through this morning. It seems to me that if we are going where we are called to be, then you and I are travelling in that place every day, today.

We all know what it is to travel between what I know and what I wonder about as we encounter this uncertain, often frightening in-between-ness in our lives, in my life.

It is difficult travelling in this in-between land. When we realise we are there, then it may be easier to identify with the Ten Lepers who have been cast out into the in-between land, not knowing where to go, rather than with those who appear certain about where they are going.

You may be in-between testing your vocation and ordination, in-between giving up your present career and facing the unknown in parish ministry, in-between an NSM ministry where you have carved out your own place, and facing a new unknown, a new uncertainty.

When you get to where you are going, remember how you feel about the present unknown, whether it is fear – “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” – whether it is fear, trepidation, anticipation, or joy that is tinged with all of these, in this in-between time and this nowhere place.

Remember, as Shakespeare reminds us, in the words of Portia in The Merchant of Venice,

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath
... (The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1)

These lepers in today’s Gospel were cut off from all they knew and loved and took for granted, all the certainties they once enjoyed or even took for granted.

And when you get out of this in-between place and nowhere land, do not hold back from your role in the task of cleansing, healing, restoration. You will not be doing it for “Thank Yous” and plaudits. It is not about you, it is not all about me.

Indeed, it is not this one man’s thanks that is important, but that his thanks is expressed in turning around, conversion, and praising God, bowing down before Christ as the Lord God.

Each of us moves at some time, perhaps many times, through our own land that is between Samaria and Galilee, where the rules don’t seem to apply, where the words are hard to find, where healing is elusive, where no-one gives thanks, and no-one seems to say please.

There will be many more times when you are called to travel “between Samaria and Galilee” as Christ did. Yet, Christ is to be found deliberately in these places.

Later on, remember how you once were in these places, remember what it is like, rejoice in the opportunities you have to bring people to Christ’s offer of cleansing, healing and restoration. Others – especially others in the Church – may see those you encounter in those places as unclean, as undeserving. But look at what you have to offer in Christ’s name.

The nowhere, in-between place is where we meet those who have fallen between the cracks in the floorboards, lost their way, have been marginalised without having a say in framing the criteria by which they are marginalised.

The Samaritan leper is an outcast among the outcasts, despised among the despised. But God sees him within his perfect plan, and he offers perfect worship.

Martin Luther was once asked to describe the nature of true worship. His answer was the tenth leper turning back.

Christ invites us into that region between Samaria and Galilee, that space between wrong-doing and right-doing, between them and us – and bids us find our healing and salvation – and theirs. And in doing that we find ourselves engaged, quite naturally, in true worship.

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

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached in the Institute Chapel on Sunday 13 October 2013.


Almighty God,
whose Holy Spirit equips your Church with a rich variety of gifts:
Grant us so to use them that, living the gospel of Christ
and eager to do your will,
we may share with the whole creation in the joys of eternal life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our Father,
whose Son, the light unfailing,
has come from heaven to deliver the world
from the darkness of ignorance:
Let these holy mysteries open the eyes of our understanding
that we may know the way of life, and walk in it without stumbling;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Luke 17: 11-19

11 Καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν τῷ πορεύεσθαι εἰς Ἰερουσαλὴμ καὶ αὐτὸς διήρχετοδιὰ μέσον Σαμαρείας καὶ Γαλιλαίας. 1 2καὶ εἰσερχομένου αὐτοῦ εἴς τινα κώμηνἀπήντησαν [αὐτῷ] δέκα λεπροὶ ἄνδρες, οἳ ἔστησαν πόρρωθεν, 13 καὶ αὐτοὶ ἦρανφωνὴν λέγοντες, Ἰησοῦ ἐπιστάτα, ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς. 14 καὶ ἰδὼν εἶπεν αὐτοῖς,Πορευθέντες ἐπιδείξατε ἑαυτοὺς τοῖς ἱερεῦσιν. καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν τῷ ὑπάγειν αὐτοὺςἐκαθαρίσθησαν. 15 εἷς δὲ ἐξ αὐτῶν, ἰδὼν ὅτι ἰάθη, ὑπέστρεψεν μετὰ φωνῆςμεγάλης δοξάζων τὸν θεόν, 16 καὶ ἔπεσεν ἐπὶ πρόσωπον παρὰ τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦεὐχαριστῶν αὐτῷ: καὶ αὐτὸς ἦν Σαμαρίτης. 17 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν, Οὐχὶ οἱδέκα ἐκαθαρίσθησαν; οἱ δὲ ἐννέα ποῦ; 18 οὐχ εὑρέθησαν ὑποστρέψαντες δοῦναιδόξαν τῷ θεῷ εἰ μὴ ὁ ἀλλογενὴς οὗτος; 19 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ἀναστὰς πορεύου: ἡπίστις σου σέσωκέν σε.

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14 When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19 Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

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