Sermon for Year C, Pentecost Proper 23
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
October 13, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
So a leper is healed by Jesus. He runs off, then realizes that he’s been healed.
He then wheels around to say thanks to Jesus, which he does with boisterous and emphatic voice.
And Jesus asks him a question: he says, Say, where’d the other nine of you go?
And ... in one way of thinking, this seems like a pretty lame question to me --
I mean, he’d just told them all to go and show themsleves to the priests.
That’s where they were going.
In Jesus’ day, everyone with leprosy was outcast from society
In just about any way you can imagine.
Everywhere they went, they had to shout out, “Unclean!” so none would come near.
If they ever got past their disease,
The process of being reincorporated into the community was long and arduous,
Taking at least eight days to accomplish if everything went exactly according to plan.
(If you like you can read about that process in Leviticus chapter 14.)
So, I’m sure the other nine people in this band are anxious to get started on that process:
The first step being to go and show themselves to the priests.
So Jesus says, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?”
Well, Jesus, you said it yourself -- they’re trying to get their lives back in order;
Where do you think they are?
Yet this one -- this one out of the ten --
He alone has remembered to stop and to turn, kicking up the dust of the road as he goes --
And he alone runs back to the Lord and offers his thanks.
He praises God “with a loud voice,” the text says, throwing himself at Jesus’ feet,
And offering clear and loud words of thanks.
Thank you. Thank you so much.
It is surely a moment of humility and hope, wholeness and healing.
But, as if to undercut that moment, for me at least, in all honesty,
Jesus’ question is still hanging fresh on the air: Where is everybody?
My wife Jacquie and I became Episcopalians on the same day -- September 5, 1993.
We had been married all of nine months.
The bishop of Oklahoma, Bishop Moody, put his hands on my head,
And he prayed, “Strengthen, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit;
Empower him for your service; and sustain him all the days of his life.”
Ah-MEN, they all said.
And just like that, we were Episcopalians;
But more than that, for us -- we were grown-ups.
All in all, confirmation was an easy decision for us to make;
The religion of our youth had ceased speaking to us;
We needed a faith narrative that would allow us to have questions and doubts,
That would encourage us to think for ourselves --
That wouldn’t prime us with automatic knee-jerk reactions --
That wouldn’t care what party we signed up to vote with --
That grounded us and guided us,
Even as it strengthened and nourished us with its beautiful traditions.
We needed something stronger and deeper if we were to continue maturing in Christ.
We could not see then what some with prophetic voice and imagination did see coming --
The truth of it --
A looming generation of fights in the church over matters of sex;
Divisions between continents of Anglicans about how to read the Bible;
And endless arguments about whether or not our leadership at all levels was competent --
Because we all need scapegoats;
And because frankly the conversations about leadership and sex and the Bible
Were actual conversations we needed to have.
But the cost ...
When Bishop Moody put his hands on my head and prayed his prayer,
I thought everything was hunky-dory.
Who but a very few among us could have seen the extent of the measureless rift ahead?
All those moments of division and schism before us, yes,
But also all the rough feelings left over from the years before any of that began --
Years of raw and divisive and much-needed talk over revising the Prayer Book
And inviting women in to take their share in the councils of the church
And getting together with the Lutherans.
All these bruises; I had no idea any of this existed.
In our catechism they taught us,
Look -- The Episcopal Church is one unbroken succession
Of Anglicans worldwide since its inception.
Despite our differences, we stand firm in our unity, shoulder to shoulder,
At the communion rail, at the supper of Our Lord.
Who knew? Who could have known?
And now, after those twenty years, we (all of us -- not just Episcopalians) --
We have begun to collect ourselves.
We are bandaged up from our infighting;
We have begun to make a slow peace with the brothers and sisters
We were formerly so ready to rid ourselves of.
And now that we have paused long enough to see our situation with clearer eyes,
We have begun to look out Sunday by Sunday,
And we find ourselves in strange agreement with the question of Jesus to the leper:
Where in the world did everyone go?
It’s a question that almost makes too much sense -- that fits almost too easily with our situation.
Where’d everybody go?
You must know that an awful lot of churches
Find themselves in the same unenviable place today.
And ... it’s easy to work up a lather over this;
Easy to want to assign blame;
Easy to feel self-righteously indignant about it.
Yeah! Where is everyone?
As I say, it is an altogether too-comfortable question
Because it allows us to just marinate and wallow in What’s Wrong.
It’s like a security blanket that turns out the worst in us the warmer it makes us.
It isn’t just churches:
It’s all the things we thought we were supposed to use to hold us together.
We’ve spoken of this before.
There are fewer and fewer bowling leagues.
Fewer members of charitable and fraternal organizations.
Fewer voters, fewer readers of newspapers.
Less public speech that actually builds up the body-politic.
What has gone up, instead, is fences between people’s houses.
News channels and talking heads and the politics of fear and division and My Team Wins.
The number of cell phones is up, and the number of eyeballs glued to them.
The number of people radically connected to each other through the Internet,
Yet tragically pulling apart and disintegrating as organized and interrelated persons.
We miss these things; we grieve them;
And maybe we even wonder, Can any of it be brought forward?
Can the best of it come into the world we now occupy?
The answer to that is yes, if we are careful;
But in the main it seems we are preoccupied by the wrong questions, misplaced longings.
In the world of Harry Potter, there is a magical object called the Mirror of Erised.
(“Erised” is “Desire” backwards.)
When you look into the Mirror of Erised, you see yourself surrounded
By all the things and people you most deeply want.
We learn in the course of the story that
“Men have wasted away before [the Mirror],
Not knowing if what they have seen is real, or even possible.”
I guess perhaps when we fixate on the question of where everyone has gone,
It looks a bit to me like sitting before the mirror,
Wishing and waiting for our desires to come true.
No different, really, than simply longing for the past to become the present.
It may seem unnatural to compare the hand-wringing and blame-casting of churches
Over the matter of empty pews
With a magical object from a child’s fable.
Yet I wonder.
I wonder if it isn’t a form of a survival strategy -- this looking back, looking in.
A way to cope.
Last month, Tom Breidenthal, who’s the Bishop of Southern Ohio,
Addressed the bishops of The Episcopal Church who had assembled in Nashville.
It was an interesting talk.
He talked about how it’s hard to be formed for mission
When mission is usually just something God sort of throws you into last-minute.
“I’m thinking here of the typical small county town Episcopal church in southern Ohio
That used to have wealthy patrons and social status and a full church on Sunday morning,
But now is struggling to continue in its old ways while it deals with loss on every side.
There are countless opportunities for this little band of Christians
To minister God’s reconciling, innovative love,
And to exercise bracing leadership out of their own unaccustomed poverty,
If only they will stop focusing on survival and start focusing on being the church.
But how will that switch be flipped?
God has to do it, but until the light goes on,
There is very little we can do to form that congregation for mission.
Before that corner is turned, everything,
Whether it be outreach, ecumenical partnership, or evangelism
Is immediately transformed into a strategy for survival.”
So it seems fairly basic to me.
It’s right there in Bishop Tom’s speech:
Stop focusing on survival and start focusing on being the church.
For once it’s clear as crystal, black and white:
Stop focusing on survival and start focusing on being the church.
It was, after all, good old Anonymous who wrote that
“The safest place for ships is in the harbor, but that’s not why ships were built.”
And for today, for this Gospel, that means at least three things:
One, just being glad about the fact that ten former lepers are about to get their lives back,
Even if they don’t all necessarily return to the literal sanctuary to give literal thanks;
Two, continuing to provide for the means of the healing of all
Through prayer and kindness and ministry;
And three, giving care and attention to the ones who have taken the time to run back --
Who are looking to give thanks for all that God has done for them.
Refocusing. Recasting our vision. That’s what it means to be a follower of Christ,
And to exercise maturity and humility,
And to set aside all the constant, nagging questions of survival.
And all along the way, to God be the glory:
“To him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly
Than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church
And in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.”