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I have a difficult, painful topic I want to talk with you about today. This is not a joyful topic, and I apologize to you if this sermon causes you pain.
Many of us this week were moved to tears by the story of Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey. His roommate had surreptitiously videoed him while having relations with another man, and then posted it on the Internet with a few choice gay-bashing words.
What happened next is just tragic. Tyler jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death.
We don’t know what went through Tyler’s mind, but he must have felt very alone, very shamed, an outcast in this world. We wish Tyler had felt differently. But he didn’t.
Let’s be clear about something: The world creates outcasts, not God. Politics creates outcasts, not God. Prejudice and ignorance creates outcasts, not God. Sadly, religion creates outcasts, not God.
Sometimes being an outcast has nothing to do with status from material wealth.
Sometimes being an outcast comes from being in the wrong tribe, or the wrong clique, or the wrong race, or the wrong religion, or the wrong gender, or the wrong sexual orientation – or just plain looking wrong. The world creates many wrong places to be.
It can be so very hard to be young and different than your peers when you know you just don’t fit in.
There was a news report the other day about a high school in Ohio that has had four suicides by students who were bullied. One was bullied because he liked to wear pink. Another was bullied because she had a Serbian accent.
We need to say enough. No more of this. God wants better than this. We need to do better than this for our children.
I think it incumbent upon us in the Church to stand with those who are outcasts or hurting or shunned or bullied, because I believe to the bottom of my bones that Jesus is weeping with them.
There are times when all I have are tears. There are times when I do not know what to say.
There are times when I am listening to someone who is very ill, or has experienced a tragedy or a loss, and I just don’t know what to say.
Sometimes the best I can manage is silence. I pray that my silence will be enough.
I have no words to explain why some people get sick while others get well, or why some people are hurt or bullied, and others seem to glide through life unhurt.
On one level, this healing business perplexes me. Life is not fair, life is ambiguous, life can be cruel, but none of that that is an explanation for anything.
In our parish, we’ve witnessed quite a bit of heartbreak lately. Two long-time members, Bill Lassetter and Sally Kauzlarich, both died in the last week after difficult illnesses.
We’ve had 21 funerals this year in the parish – that is an average one every other week. We had a service for Sally yesterday and we will have a service for Bill next week. That is just too many.
Sometimes there are miracles. And sometimes there aren’t. Why, I don’t know. I don’t have all the answers.
That question is squarely in front of us in today’s gospel lesson. We meet ten lepers who are healed, who get a miracle. Why should they be healed and others not?
Outwardly, the story is quite simple: Jesus tells them to go visit a priest and they will be healed. The lepers go and are healed, and nine of the ten go on their way.
But one of the lepers, a Samaritan, returns to thank Jesus; and Jesus tells him “faith has made him well.”
This is a shocking story on many levels.
Lepers are outcasts, and in the time of Jesus, lepers were required to live outside the gates of the city. They look awful, and they live in a filthy trash heap.
They are supposed to shout warnings to healthy people to stay away, but this group of lepers breaks all the rules. They cry out to Jesus asking him to join them.
And so he does.
As if that wasn’t stunning enough, one of lepers is a Samaritan. In the cast system of the ancient Jewish world, Samaritans are the lowest of the low, the untouchables, the dirtiest of the dirty people.
So here we have someone who is both a leper and a Samaritan – an outcast among the outcasts – who is healed by Jesus, and then he returns to thank Jesus.
Everyone else disappears, but it is the lowest of the low who comes back with the gift of thanks.
It is an outcast who outwardly has nothing to be thankful for, nothing to be faithful about, who has been dumped upon his entire life – it is this untouchable Samaritan leper who gives thanks.
And Jesus honors this outcast.
Jesus tells the Samaritan something extraordinary – that it is his offering of thanks that has made him well and set him free.
Healing is not a reward, healing is not earned by following the rules. Rather, healing – grace – comes as a free gift from God alone.
Please notice something really important: Jesus has just re-defined the very definition of faith. It is not adherence to a set of precepts or dogmas, or a mental exercise of intellectual understanding.
Rather, faith is defined as gratitude. Simple gratitude. Faith is about giving thanks.
The outcast has something important to teach us with his thanks. By giving thanks the Samaritan is set free to live, and to live with joy.
And that raises a few questions for me, and I hope for you.
What if we were use the word “thanks” instead of the word “faith”? What would that sound like to you?
Try substituting the word every time you hear it, see how it sounds.
Instead of saying “I have faith in God,” what if you said, “I give thanks to God”?
Instead of saying we belong to a “faith community,” what if we said we belong to a “thanks community”?
Instead of saying, “I don’t have enough faith,” what if you said “I don’t have enough thanks”?
What would change for you by saying that? By living that?
And ask yourself today: For what do you give thanks?
What brings you joy in your life? Give thanks for that. What makes you laugh? Give thanks for that. Who supports and upholds you especially in your worst moments? Give thanks to them.
Give thanks and you will be this close to God.
And those who give you support, and make you laugh, see in them the face of Christ. They are this close to God. Show your thanks to them and you are showing thanks to God.
Or how about this – instead of using the shopworn churchy word “stewardship,” what if we substituted the word “gratitude” for that? Instead of calling it the annual “stewardship campaign,” what if we said we are having a “gratitude campaign” this season?
What would it look like if we saw our giving as a tangible way of thanking God for the life we have and the abundance we enjoy?
What if our giving came not out of obligation or guilt, but out of joy and delight? How much would you give if your giving brings you joy? How much joy would you like to spread around?
And who needs your joy? Who are the outcasts near you who could use some of that? Can we find the Tyler Clementis in this world, show them our love, and give them our thanks for being who they are?
What would happen if we bring a little hope and healing – and a little joy – to those whose lives are linked with ours? What might change for them and for us when we do that?
Let me put it squarely. I believe we can be the hands and feet of Christ Jesus in our world, and it can begin to do that by giving thanks.
Maybe I’ve asked the wrong question about why some are healed, and some are not, in this world.
These stories of Jesus healing people are really meant to give us a window into the limitless love of God for all of us in this world and in the next.
What if we hear in these stories of Jesus healing the sick and outcasts the ultimate expression of the nature of God? What if see in Jesus the embodiment of a God who will find the lost sheep, who will be with us no matter the pain, and who will ultimately bring us healing either in this world or in the next.
Maybe then we might hear in these stories of healing lepers and outcasts as expressions of what God wants for all of us, for all of creation.
And then, can we experience healing and gratitude as the very essence of faith and salvation? What would our lives become of we live that knowing the truth of that?
How would we be set free to live here in this world with wonder, with love, and with joy?
May our thanks make us well. Amen.
* * *My friend Carol Anne sent this link the other day to an essay "Memoirs of a Bullied Kid." The author talks about bullying from first hand experience and what each of us can do about it. This is a difficult post to read, but please read it if you get a chance. You can find it by clicking HERE.