The RICH Tax Collector! Sermon for OT31, Year C

Sermon for 23rd Sunday after Trinity – Ordinary Time 31, Year C
31st October 2016

Luke 19:1-10


An acquaintance of mine is a chaplain at Rimutaka in the Hutt Valley – following an encounter with a particularly notorious Mongrel Mob member she found herself calling into question her whole approach. He was interested in becoming a Christian – and she was teaching him all about Christian beliefs and reminding him over and again of God’s unconditional love and acceptance for him, when he finally lost his patience with her and shouted, ‘but you’re suppose to tell me how to live my life!!’

That there might be a Way of existence – the Christian life was more than ‘knowing you were loved by God’ and a set of beliefs – whilst she wouldn’t deny it – she was far too vague about what that might mean

Another story. Sarah and I were doing the tourist thing – sat on the floor of a typical Fijian dwelling, discovering the ‘pleasures’ of kava [not to be confused with Cava . . . 🙂 ] whilst listening to the chief. He was the Methodist minister for the community and spoke at some length and without embarrassment about their ‘Christian’ way of life together, how they all shared the little they had and never closed the door to a stranger. After a while this became too much for a young Australian tourist – – well I think he was Australian . . . 😉 – who burst out, ‘but what right had those missionaries to tell you how to live? Imposing their views on you!’
The chief paused, put down his kava bowl, looked him in the eye and said, ‘young man, our people are very very grateful for the gospel of Jesus Christ and for those missionaries who gave everything to bring it to us for, before they came . . .

we used to eat each other . . .’

Perhaps there really was more to this Christian Existence than ‘living YOUR life, knowing you were loved by God’, plus a set of infinitely variable beliefs about that God. That, to become Christian was somehow to change – or perhaps, to be changed?

Last week we considered the Pharisee – part of our difficulty in hearing about the Pharisee is that we think we know what a Pharisee is – but, as we explored last time we are perhaps more like the Pharisees than we like to think – for example, an important element of ‘being a Pharisee’ is thinking ‘I don’t need to change. After all, I am a good person and my life doesn’t harm anyone else.’ Pharisees are ‘Respectable’, fine upstanding members of the community. Certainly not like those Mongrel mob sorts, and have certainly NEVER!!! had a taste for eating other human beings. The judgment of the behaviour of others requires a sense of security in our own goodness – and whilst I am sure the Pharisee would say ‘well of course no one is perfect . . .’ I guess he gave little thought to his own need to change

So we come to a story about a tax collector, but not this time, a parable. The story about Jesus encountering the tax collector Zacchaeus – and it is a Wonderful story, and like so many of the ‘stories of the Bible’, we actually miss how wonderful it is as we have become so accustomed to hearing it 🙂

Imagine for a moment if you will that we are coming to this story afresh, and have been paying attention to the gospel week by week – this IS important, the Gospel is itself a whole story. We don’t hear the Gospel by taking a chapter out of the flow. That would be like reading a novel as if it were a set of essays which you could read in any order. Luke has gone to a lot of trouble to set out ‘an orderly account’, and the order matters.
So, recently we’ve listened to lots of Jesus’ teaching about the terrifying perils of wealth. The last time we encountered this together was a couple of weeks back with the Dire parable of the Rich man and Lazarus – with the chasm fixed between the two, in life and then in death. Then – although we missed it – Luke includes the story of the young man, whom was unable to follow Jesus, because ‘he was very rich’. How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God. Indeed it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God’ Followed by the agonised question of those who heard him, saying ‘Who then CAN be saved??’

And in-between The Pharisee and the Tax collector – the Pharisee, just like that Wealthy ruler – ‘I have kept all these commandments since my youth!’ – and the tax collector, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’, who went away justified rather than the Pharisee.

So if we’re paying attention, it seems Pharisees and the wealthy are OUT, Tax collectors and sinners are IN . . . but!!!!

. . . ‘Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. And, behold [!] there was a man named Zacchaeus, who was the chief among the [tax collectors], and he was rich.’ Luke says – Behold!! That strong form of look, or see – Behold – he is the Chief tax collector – a sinner amongst sinners – AND He is RICH!!
On the one hand, The tax collector went home justified, on the other, the Rich man ended up in Hades with a gulf fixed – and ‘it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle . . .’ if we have been paying attention, Doctor Luke has got us now on the edge of our seats 🙂 ‘Chief amongst the tax-collectors AND he was rich . . .

Let’s read on  . . . Zacchaeus – whose name by the way and somewhat provocatively means ‘Righteous . . .’ was seeking to SEE Jesus – he was trying to Really See him, to BEHOLD Jesus – and of course we know Zacchaeus cannot see him for the Crowd – The Crowd was doing the Crowd stuff, Getting in the way . . . ‘for he was a little man . . .’ 🙂 But Zacchaeus WANTS to SEE Jesus and will not be stopped, so he runs ahead and climbs a sycamore tree . . . how do we know it is a sycamore tree? Because it says so in the Greek, συκομορέαν 🙂

Well as Jesus is walking along, he lifts his eyes – Zacchaeus is a little man – he would have to look up to see Jesus and as we know, tax collectors can’t life their eyes to heaven, rather heaven lifts His eyes to a tax collector. ‘just’ to see, Jesus of course doesn’t need a special word for Really Seeing, because that is all he does, his vision is not clouded. Jesus looked up and said to him ‘Zacchaeus, hurry, come down, today I am going to dwell in your house’

‘Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.’ Zacchaeus wants to See Jesus, and thus Jesus wants to come in to be with Zacchaeus 🙂

So he hurried down and Rejoiced to welcome Jesus . . . [David and Michal??]

Meanwhile ‘when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner!’ . . . looks like a whole crowd of pharisees, of course Everyone despised the tax collectors, the whole crowd, and Zacchaeus would have been Notorious – a Chief tax collector. The tax collectors took their cut, and Zacchaeus took a cut from the cuts!! In this encounter, nearly everyone IS a pharisee . . .

And so we have come to the crux . . . How can this be resolved? We know that Jesus is ’the friend of notorious sinners’, BUT it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God . . .’ Is the door shut or is it open – well of course it is open – He rejoices that Jesus has come to his house – and Everything is Changed, most especially, Zacchaeus.

‘And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.’

Here is the crux, here is the difference, here is what really matters. For Zacchaeus what really matters to him is he wants to See Jesus and Jesus wants to be with him and THAT changes everything. Jesus hasn’t asked Zacchaeus to do anything – but He is SO happy that Jesus has come to be with him that He spontaneously opens up to the generosity of God. He SEES Jesus, he GETS Jesus and He just wants to be like Jesus.

The Pharisee thinks he is living a good life, the Young ruler, just wants to ‘live a good life’ – they want some tips on getting it right, or to have a sense that THEY have got it right. Careful, measured, have I met the requirements of the law. They are not interested in Jesus except to see whether he measures up, or as a teacher of timeless truths

Zacchaeus is under no illusions, he KNOWS he is a Sinner – he KNOWS he doesn’t measure up, and he doesn’t want some tips on the good life or the virtues, or living better, He wants Jesus, He wants LIFE and in wanting to See Jesus, Zacchaeus is Set Free from that which held him, his riches. This Love and Life that he has encountered overflows from him – there is no carefulness here – If he were the Rich young man, who wanted to be right by the law, well The Law says, ‘in a case of defrauding another, repay, plus twenty percent.’ Not Zacchaeus, in Jesus he has discovered Grace in abundance, welling up to eternal life – it is pouring out of him –  ‘Lord, if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will repay him four times as much – the Law says 20%, but Zacchaeus is now living out of the Generosity of God, forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven, not 20%, but 20 times 20%, 400%. God’s forgiveness is Rejoicing, God’s Generosity is Overflowing

The Christian Life is utterly a Life lived out of all that we have received – as Jesus says, ‘those who have been forgiven much, Love much’

God is not carefully calculating with us – he sends his Son, He gives everything he has for us – in Jesus, the Salvation of God. Like Abraham, he responds out of Faith, giving all that he has – he Sees Jesus, he believes in Jesus and his Life CHANGES beyond recognition. Jesus has come to stay – the Life of Jesus is now beginning to pour out of him.

The Christian Life IS the Life of Jesus – As Jesus says ‘Today, Salvation, Life eternal overflowing and in abundance, Salvation has come to this dwelling place where I have come’

May we too desire above all to See Jesus – to live out of HIs abundance day after day after day. May we throw off the careful calculations of the young ruler, the self security of the pharisee and the crowd, let us leave all that behind to follow him and be changed from one degree of glory to another, we who with unveiled faces BEHOLD HIM. May we truly desire Him, for in truth he has come to seek and save the lost and ‘with God all things are possible . . .’


‘Thank you I’m not like Donald Trump!! . . .’

Be like the Pharisee???

Parables always catch us out . . . they are Jesus gracious invitation to find ourselves within the story . . . and thus to find our Salvation, our deepest healing.

So, ‘Lord I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee!! And neither are any of the people in my church, cos we don’t hang out with the Pharisees!!’ And of course, we all know who the Pharisees are . . .

Funny how being  a Pharisee has become a term of abuse – so ironically its ‘In’ to be a Pharisee, that is one who holds others in contempt – all pharisees 🙂
He spoke this parable to those who held others in contempt . . . to those who failed to see that their life was with the other – that they had no life apart from the other, no life separate from the one they really didn’t want to have a life with

Recently we’ve spent a little bit of time exploring our current situation in the Diocese in terms of facing reality – not in terms of the narrative of ‘falling numbers and raging congregations’ There is a real sense that that is an Unreality – it is abstract. It is not to do with particular people in particular places’. Insofar as it is anything at all to do with Community, it is only in the loosest sense. We may talk of being the Diocesan family, but when we come to talk about our life together it all begins to be Impersonal, statistics, numbers, strategic plans, not people in place with a history.

In that Context of Unreality Closing Churches may be a Good Idea, in order to face us with REALITY – we won’t get to choose whom we hangout with – Urban church phenomenon

Can you imagine?? Like an atomic bomb

Bad ideas – we don’t hang out with people we don’t like hanging out with 🙂

Getting Real as a church is incredibly hard, it is like setting off an atomic bomb, but can be a creative one . . . depends whether we’re pharisees or tax collectors – but you have to get CLOSE 🙂 You have to stand close enough to others to see that actually you don’t want to get That close – I’ll shake hands . . . but don’t ask me to share the Kiss of peace . . . Don’t get too close . . .

Setting off an atomic bomb requires 1kg of enriched uranium – but you can’t have it all in the same place unless you want it to go off – so you have two 500g blocks – and then when you want them to go off, you push them together – easy – except . . . they don’t want to be together – the reaction starts – created by ‘getting close’ pushes them apart

And this is why Jesus says – if your brother sins against you seven times a day and comes back – you must forgive him – because we’re not about pushing apart

And this perhaps is why we MIGHT have a golden opportunity in the church – at some point we’ll be summoned to a meeting and told – ‘we have to close ten churches’

But to do this we have at least to occupy the same space. Part of the problem of Jesus’ parables is that we have so lost any sense of community, that the story falls a bit flat. It just becomes a moral story which leaves us going away feeling, Well at least I’m not like that Pharisee . . . Yet, perhaps there is more hope in the parable for the Pharisee than there is for us, For all the Pharisee won’t identify himself with the tax collector – he still has to occupy the same space. there’s only one Temple where you can go to pray – we have Heinz 57 varieties, or in Dunedin 14 🙂

And of course such is the Spirit of the age that we live in we are told ‘go where you feel comfortable’ Go to the church that suits your temperament, or your worship style, or your view of the faith. We anglicans are perhaps the pre-eminent consumer brand – we have Conservative, Liberal, Anglo Catholic, Charismatic . . . pity the poor Pharisee – he has to hang out with this social pariah, this tax collector if he wants to go to worship – and this is pretty much like having to go to church with Donald Trump . . .

and What if when we are gathered together, all in our mutually defensive corners – it might become apparent that ‘The Diocesan Family’ is an unreality, or, it is no different to any other family, we don’t embody the difference the gospel makes. This is why however much we complain about structures and strategies and plans handed down from above we prefer them to the Reality of sitting together in the same room . . . Like the Pharisee we are most comfortable standing apart . . .

As I said at the beginning, Parables always catch us out . . . they are Jesus gracious invitation to find ourselves within the story . . . and thus to find our Salvation, our deepest healing. For to find ourselves within the Story of Jesus, the Story of Salvation, is to discover that we are the ones who need healing – the speck in my brothers eye, is only apparent to me, because I have a forest growing out of my own skull – I know wood when I see it 🙂

Waking up to our own predilection to say ‘Lord I thank thee that I am not like other people . . . especially this tax collector . . .’ wakes us up to our need of healing – which can only bring us to the place of prayer before God.

Two prayers from the Tradition help us in this regard. The first is a prayer of recognition. The former Bishop of London, John Taylor Bradford, lived opposite the notorious Tyburn gallows, where the ‘notorious sinners’ were publicly hung (if they were lucky . . .) He was the one who gave us words of recognition which keep us from judgement, ‘There but for the Grace of God goes John Taylor Bradford . . .’ Words which remind us of the source of our life – the Grace of God.

And of course the prayer of the tax collector. ‘Jesus told this parable to those who trusted that they were righteous . . . this I suggest is the default position of us all – it keep us secure – at least I am not like that!!’ But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The Pharisee can only see himself and the tax collector, he is blind to God, the tax-collector strangely cannot look God in the face, yet the Face of God looks with love upon him.

But, here is the Hope for the Pharisee. That he is the object of the address of the words of Jesus – we need also to hear from Jesus -to understand our own tendency to Pharisaism, and to know our need of healing from it.

The Reality of our existence, in this church, in this Diocese, is that we Are in this together. We sink or swim together – to stand apart from one another – to identify others as ‘Pharisees’ or whatever label of abuse we might use, is to deny we have a life with them, and it is to deny our Life before God . . . you see, Jesus died for us all, yes, even the Pharisees. Imagine spending all eternity with THOSE people!! Of course our desire not to be with those Jesus died for is the seed of our spending all eternity in a place we’d rather not be in . . .

It reminds me of something said many times – to the familiar accusation ‘I don’t go to church, its full of hypocrites’ -the rejoinder, ‘but there’s always room for one more’ The beginning of our Salvation is in recognises that there is no one whom Jesus did not identify with – if we want to be healed, we have to learn that same identification, and that happens within the house of God, a place peopled by both Pharisees and tax collectors, and maybe even Donald Trump 🙂 Now THERE’S a thought . . .

A Place to Live – Evensong Sermon – Sunday October 16, 2016

Sermon for Evensong – Sunday October 16th, 2016

Nehemiah 8:9-18
John 16:1-11

A Place to Live

I’ve recently started the far from straightforward journey of leaving Facebook. Back in 2008 when my acquaintance with it began, a friend, thinking that I would ‘make something of myself in the church’, counselled me to remove my political allegiance from my public profile, for it would not be read with favour by the powers that be and would undoubtedly count against me, should I look for ‘preferment’.
Which has got everyone wondering, and as the account is now deactivated, I will have to relieve your curiosity by telling you it said, ‘Ellulian Anarchist’! In any church this might be thought to be unwise perhaps, but within the established church of the state . . . Well, I believe and continue to do so, that insofar as any political ideology is consistent with the Scriptures and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Anarchy, properly understood, is closer than most. However, here is neither the time nor the place . . . and it is that notion of Place, or more correctly, ‘Somewhere to Live’, which at once calls my own anarchic purity into question, and which also weaves together our two seemingly disparate readings this evening.
My purity, which is of course always in question, is compromised because I belong to that class notorious amongst True Believers, I am a Landlord. That is, I own a house that I do not live in and take a rent from those who do. The Anarchist vision is very close to that of the Old Testament vision of the Shalom of the Kingdom of God, each man under his own vine. We are told in the First Book of Kings ‘During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, everyone under their own vine and under their own fig tree.’ And the prophetic vision of Micah, foretelling the future kingdom says ‘Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.’ So not only from my ideologically pure fellow anarchists, but also from Holy Scripture, I realise that I am under judgement – as The LORD says through Isaiah ‘Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.’
My only defence is that for the last 20 years I have been constrained to live in a house that is not my own – a defence that the Tax authorities seem uninterested in, and which leaves me on the shakiest of grounds with regards to Scripture.

At the base of the scriptural critique is precisely this, that people do not need houses, a roof over their heads, they need much more than that, they need homes’. And as my anarchist friends would say, agreeing with the French anarchist philosopher ‘Property is theft’ – meaning taking up houses for your own ends and thus depriving others of a home . . . And of course in the current madness of the housing market globally we realise this. My children cannot afford their own home – for capital flooding into the land, not only in London, but of course here in New Zealand, inflates the price of properties so that increasingly they become the domain of property speculators. Fewer and fewer have a place they can call their own . . . Of course, in this respect we are only seeing the natural outcome of the shift to an industrialised society in which the most fundamental aspects of our humanity were, and continue to be eroded.

And the children of Israel in the time of Nehemiah knew this – they had been taken into exile – and now returning it was no longer their place. Somewhere to live, and where they had once lived, but no longer Their Place, no longer somewhere they could call home. As we read a little later on in the book of Nehemiah ‘Here we are, slaves to this day—slaves in the land that you gave to our ancestors to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts. Its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins; they have power also over our bodies and over our livestock at their pleasure, and we are in great distress.’ This text is a powerful indictment of the outcome of our industrial / capitalist system, Slaves in their own land, someone else employs them, someone else is the landlord and takes the fruit of their labours.

And this desire for their True Home comes to a focus in this ‘Festival of Booths’ or better for us perhaps, ‘Festival of Tabernacles’. This Festival was a remembrance, a remembering of who the people were, that they were the people who had dwelt in Tabernacles, or Booths, in the wilderness of Israel. Of course they dwelt in tents following the command and instruction of God in the Law and the Festival of Booths followed on from Moses descending from the mountain (a second time) a period of repentance after all that business with the Golden Calves. And we have an echo of that, in that all the people ‘wept when they heard the words of the Law’. This act of remembering precipitated sorrow, for they realised in remembering that they had once forgotten, and that it was that forgetting whose they were that had led to their homelessness. Lack of a home, fundamentally is a lack of self.
BUT Ezra commands them not to mourn or weep, for this rediscovered festival was to be a time of restored fellowship with the LORD. “This day is holy to the LORD your God, do not mourn or weep”. To participate in a Holy Day was to participate in the Holy, to share in fellowship with God – a sign of their True Home – it was a sign of restoration and acceptance and finding their Place – culminating in the ‘Festival of Tabernacles’, which were erected everywhere throughout the land on the roofs of people’s houses and people lived in them for the seven days of the Feast – in remembrance of their dwelling with God, in tents, in the wilderness. At once in a sense without houses, but also with a home.

Of course they had always kicked against this. The LORD dwelling in their midst was not enough for so many who longed for the good old days in Egypt and did not rest in the promise of the Land which God had sworn to them. Like so many of us, like the Prodigal Son, they didn’t realise how At Home they were with the Father. It was only when they had lost it that they ‘came to their senses’ When finally they were settled in the land, they rebelled against the LORD – the rich accumulated power and possession and added house to house and field to field, until they lived in lonely isolation – and the poor were dispossessed and put to work on land that had been taken from them – or put to work in the cities. (The correlation between what had happened and the world which we find ourselves is compellingly powerful as the industrialisation of agriculture globally has meant that more people now live in urban than in rural areas – people taken out of their place – having houses but no homes, no place of historical continuity, generation to generation, but another time . . .) The people had kicked against God’s shalom and so had been taken into exile – all except the poor, the nobodies – to whom now the land once more belonged in some sense – the meek inheriting the earth.

So, in this restoration of the festival an act of remembering took place – of remembering living with God in their midst in this Feast of the Tabernacles – each with their own Tent or Booth. But something was missing. In the days of Glory – the LORD had dwelt in the Temple, and before that his Glory, the sign of his Presence and rested on the Tabernacle i the pillar of cloud by day and find by night – the Shekinah, the Glory of the LORD was missing. For all they were back in Jerusalem, it was still as slaves under a foreign power, the land was not theres and the Presence of the LORD was, at best obscured. They lived in ‘booths’ for week each year, but where was the Shekinah, the Glory of the LORD . . .  And now there is a Long gap, a time of silence – until we get to the festival of the Tabernacles in the Gospels . . . For this festival is one we know in the New Testament also, although it too has got somewhat obscured 🙂

“Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle palm and other leafy trees . . .’ Bring anything to mind??

In the Mishnah – the verbal commentary in the Torah, the book of the Law, which described the ‘rituals for [The feast of] Tabernacles in the time of Jesus: how the branches of palm, willow and myrtle were cut and tied into bundles. People carried them in procession to the Temple, while singing Psalm 118 : Hosanna, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
‘The whole bundle [of palm, willow and myrtle] was called ‘lulabh’, literally a ‘palm’’ . . .

‘The next day, a great multitude, that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees – [not to build booths, but] – to meet him . . .’ For truly ‘He inhabits the praises of his people’

A feast of the Tabernacles unlike any before, with the palms for a house for Israel’s God and King to dwell in once more. As John had already said in his magnificent prologue which we rarely hear outside the context of Christmas, ‘The Word became flesh, and [literally] ’tabernacled’ amongst us, and we have seen his Glory . . .’ The Glory, The defining sign of the Presence of [The Son of] God.

The question of where Jesus is from, and of where he is dwelling runs like a thread through John’s gospel. The first question addressed to him is ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’ Where do you abide? Jesus invites them to ‘Come and see’, and they ‘abided with him’ that day . . . And now in Ch 16 we are in the midst of the great discourse of Jesus with his disciples on the night before he died. In a sense we are deep in the heart of the mystery of who Christ is as in this, at times bewildering narrative, Jesus speaks of being the Vine, of calling the disciples to dwell in him as he dwells in them . . .
‘Where Is God to be found?’ Jesus had spoken with the Samaritan woman at the well and this very question had come up. Where do we go to meet with the lIving God? You Jews say we must go to the Temple, we Samaritans go to Mt Gerizim – and Jesus said to her, ‘the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ God’s presence was no longer to be confined to the Temple, or the mount, but in and through Jesus, all who were themselves abiding in Jesus, became the place where the Holy Spirit would dwell – within the Church, not the building, but the people.

Why do we long for Home? Because we are made in the Image of God who is himself seeking a Place to dwell! And so God sought out a people amongst whom to dwell. Jesus in his humanity is that faithful people Israel, and the Holy Spirit that dwelt in him was now to abide in all who lived in him, in all those who kept his commandments.
And as I said last week, in the mutual and unreserved forgiveness amongst God’s people, that which did not place a stumbling block in front of those whom Jesus was calling and had called to himself, so His Love amongst them is set free. A new commandmentI give to you, that you love one another, as I have loved you. As I have forgiven, forgive, As I have loved, so love. In obedience to Him, He abides is us and we in him. Our Life in Him, His Life amongst us.

Jesus has been telling his disciples that if they abide in him as he abides in them through obedience to his commandments, so they will also share in his sufferings – As they treated me, so they will treat you, he says – I am telling you this so that when it happens you won’t fall away, you will not stumble, you will not deny the Life that is in you through me, you will not once more leave home.

Jesus Christ dies not for the immoral, but for the ungodly – not the immoral – those who do not know their true home – that it is to be found in Him – Abide i me, as I abide in you – and that He may be found in us


Ten lepers :- ‘Turning back . . . to Jesus’

Sermon for Sunday 9th October, 2016
OT 29 Year C

Luke 17:11-19

‘Turning back . . . to Jesus’

If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’ Luke 17:3-4

One of the lovely co-incidences which mad Rose’s wedding such a joy for me personally was working with one of my former colleagues in Bradford, Robin Gamble, someone for whom my respect is unbounded.

Robin is a born evangelist with a desire for people to come and know Jesus, and even at the end of the wedding service he was issuing an invitation to any who had been touched by the palpable blessing of God on our worship, that they might come and explore faith with him!

Today’s gospel reading put me in mind of Robin for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was one of his enduring complaints that in presenting the Gospel of Jesus Christ to children, we often distort is and water it down, and that this has an unhelpful effect when they come to encounter the church and the person of Jesus in later life. He used to put it like this ‘When people are young we inoculate them with a weak form of Christianity, so that when they get older, they are in no danger of catching the real thing!’ And of course we can see this working out in this familiar story of Jesus encountering the ten lepers.

It takes little is any imagination to hear the Sunday school teacher re-inforcing the voice of our mother ‘now then, what do you say to the kind man?’ – saying ‘Jesus wants us always to say thank you!’ But whilst giving thanks IS a Christian virtue, this bourgeois form of politeness – saying thank you to those who are kind to us, is nothing but an inoculation against Christian Gratitude – which is shockingly dangerous to our ears. As St Paul puts it, Give thanks in all circumstances . . .When you are ill, give thanks, When people assault you give thanks, When you are hungry, give thanks . .  . The perfect expression of Christian gratitude is found in the words of Job, when everything he holds dear has been taken from him – ‘Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshipped. He said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’

Although it ought to be pointed out  that the very fact that we have to be taught to give thanks surely reveals something  we’d rather not admit about our human condition, whatever this story of the ten lepers is about, we should flee any attempt to turn it into the tasteless gruel of a moral story about ‘saying thank you’, which inoculates us against the outrageous nature of Christian gratitude.

So what might it be about? Well, I remember something else about Robin, in particular his sermons. As I have already noted, his one desire was that people might know Jesus, and his sermons reflected this. As anyone who had heard him over any period of time would attest, Robin only had three sermons – all of what he said followed one of three patterns. Either ‘Come to Jesus’, or ‘Come closer to Jesus’, or, if you have been close to Jesus but drifted away, ‘come back to Jesus’

Now its always worthwhile looking at the context for a reading to better understand it. St Luke isn’t haphazardly putting material together – he like Robin is an Evangelist – proclaiming the Evangel, the Good News, which is Jesus himself – that God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself, that Jesus Is the place of that reconciliation.

Just a few verses earlier, and curiously committed from our reading last week, we hear these words of which Brett reminded us: “Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’” And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’

What is Jesus saying here? If they turn back to you seven times a day, day in and day out and say ‘I repent’, you must forgive? He is saying that you must put no obstacle between that person and Jesus. To encounter you seven times a day, to turn back to you seven times a day, mist be like turning back to Jesus himself, who forgives everyone for everything. He says ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble., therefore ‘Be on your guard! Be alert – be attentive!! Don’t forget whose servant you are!! Do not be an obstacle to them meeting ME. You Must forgive – you must not put a stumbling block in the path of your brother or sister however weak they are – you must not get in the way – if they encounter you, they must encounter my radical forgiveness.

They turn back, and they encounter Jesus, and to encounter Jesus is to encounter the Salvation of God . . . So we turn to the encounter of Jesus with the ten lepers.

We are told that Jesus was passing through the region between Samaria and Galilee. He was on the border somewhere – in an age without fences and walls and border posts, he was in that curiously undefined area – where he meets ten lepers – and of course their leprosy would have meant that they were pushed to the edges – they are even on the edge of the village in this borderland. ‘Ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’  Why ten?? Well as we shall see in a moment, matters of worship are in the background here. You will remember the encounter of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, and how the conversation gets onto where you should worship. This stuff mattered hugely, and of course the lepers were excluded from the Temple, THE PLACE in Judaism where you went up to regularly to worship. They couldn’t participate in worship because they were ritually unclean. BUT they could still engage in public worship, as long as there were ten of them. Ten was if you like the quorum for worshipping together – [note how Jesus reduces the quorum to two or three gathered in his name . . .] – primarily for Public praying.

But when you are the lowest of the low, you don’t get to choose your fellows, so in order to pray together, the 9 Jewish lepers have no choice but to get together with this Samaritan for public prayer,  BUT Pray is what they do!! ‘Jesus, master, have mercy on us!’ they cry out, publicly praying! ‘Jesus, master, have mercy on us!’ The most basic of prayers, and one known well in the Tradition of the Church, the Jesus prayer. ‘Jesus, have mercy on us’ – this utterly transformative prayer which reaches deep into who we are as it reaches deep into the mystery of the Living God. ‘Jesus, master, have mercy on us’ Out of the depths we cry to you O Lord. On the edge – shut out by their disease – they get together and publicly pray, to Jesus.

And he Sees them – He is the God who sees, as Hagar, the mother of Ishmael call him, El Roi. Jesus Sees them – it is the strong Greek word which traditionally we translate, behold – he sees them and says ‘Go show yourselves to the priests  . . . and as they went, they were made clean’

Now it is worth noting here that there is a profound act of faith on behalf of all ten. Here they are, in the nomansland between Galilee and Samaria – unclean – keeping their distance . . . and Jesus tells them to go to the priests . . . and they would have known that to do so would have resulted in their rejection! For they are still leprous. Go to the priests . . . but just as when you have nothing, you have to make do with the people around you to call them friends, so also, when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose . . . still it is an act of faith, and they act in obedience to the Word of Jesus, ‘and as they went, they were made clean’. They epitomise the ‘unworthy slaves’ of whom we heard last week. They have no life of their own, so they respond to this command of Jesus the master – why not? They have no sense of their own worth or anything else and discover the wonder of a life lived in obedience to Jesus . . . and we hear nothing of them again, they are cleansed and become fit to enter the Temple once again, to worship with the crowds.
Their affliction lifted, one is now ditched, for they’ll easily make up a worship quorum now . . . their uncleanness now dealt with they are free from having to associate with the unclean Samaritan – There is one who still cannot come to the Temple, or can he??

When Jesus responds to the Samaritan ex-leper, he uses an unusual word. Now Jesus of course spoke Aramaic, but Greek was a public language. It was used widely on notices – for Jerusalem had visitors from all over as we know from the story of Pentecost, many of whom wouldn’t speak or indeed read Aramaic, but who would all know  Greek, pretty much as English is a global language at present.
Jesus said ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’  The Greek word used for foreigner is not found anywhere else in scripture, but it would be well known to any visitor to the Temple, where the very same Greek word, allogenes, was there for all to see, as in ‘No foreigners!’ Rather like post Brexit Britain, the Temple was a place where foreigners were told in no uncertain terms, keep out!

They were excluded from the place of the worship of God. But they had their own places of worship – upon Mt Gerizim, the Holy Mountain. The big dispute between the Jews and the Samaritans was precisely this – where did you worship . . . so the nine Jewish lepers go off to find the priests at the Temple – but what of ‘this foreigner’  . . . surely he’d go off to Gerizim?? We all have our own places of worship . . .
One of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.

Jesus Saw the ten lepers, but only one, ‘this foreigner, this allogenes’ who could not approach the Holy of holies, Sees Jesus, Sees Who he is . . . he falls on his face at Jesus’ feet in an act of worship . . . when he saw that he was healed, he turned back  . . . to Jesus . . . and there he finds the much deeper healing. ‘Get up, go on your way’, Jesus says, ‘your faith has saved you’

When Jesus commands his disconcerted disciples ‘if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’ He is saying to them, in my name, in obedience to me, you become the gateway for the deepest of all healings . . . after all, which is it easier to say? Your sins are forgiven you, or ‘take up your mat and walk. Reconciliation is the heart of what God is doing in and through Jesus. Not to be reconciled to God in Christ and through that reconciliation to be reconciled justas deeply to one another is to miss out on the Salvation Life in and through Jesus.

And what of the other nine? ‘Were not ten made clean? The other nine, where are they?’ Day after day the goodness of God is poured out upon all people – in food, and sunlight, in clothing and warmth – week after week we come to his house, to Hear the word which brings Life, to feed on the bread from heaven . . . but do we give thanks? Moreover, praising God, do we fall on our face before Jesus in Worship?

Within just a few short years, the Temple is destroyed, never to be rebuilt – for God’s Temple, God’s dwelling place was now fully established in the Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of His Son. There is Life, There is Healing, There is Salvation, In Jesus and Through Jesus and with Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And he still is that place today, now and forever, wherever two or three are gathered in his name, there He is.

A time is coming when all the places of worship will finally be closed, but the place of Salvation is always the Same, yesterday, today and forever. The Samaritan turns back to the place of healing and Life and Salvation – he turns back to Jesus. May we do likewise.