Sermon: The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (C) – 13th October 2013

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am and 8am

Readings: Jeremiah 29:1,4-7; Psalm 66:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:(1-7) 8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Some years ago I woman I worked with, a single lady, fell seriously ill. She was off work for many weeks. She was very weak and confined to her bed. What made things more difficult was the fact she lived alone. Yet very early into this illness the man next door visited with his wife. He noted how ill she was and he promised he and all his family would nurse her and feed her and care for her until she was well again. And he and his family kept their promise. She enjoyed the best of care and all the rest she needed until she was restored to health and able to return to work. She wanted to pay them for their generosity but they wouldn’t take a cent. They said they were doing their duty as neighbours.

The point of this story is, this family was Muslim. Up until her sickness my friend had been war of this family. She had rarely spoken to them. She had felt uncomfortable whenever she saw them in the street. And they had responded to all of this xenophobia with love. I tell this story because it is so similar to the type of stories Luke gives us about Jesus. It is only Luke that tells us the story of the Good Samaritan. The Jews held the Samaritans in contempt. They avoided contact with Samaritans if they could because they were regarded as unclean. The crowds would have regarded Jesus behaviour as perverse to dare to tell a story where the hero was a Samaritan and perverse for Luke to bother to record that parable. It is not mentioned in any other gospel.

Yet it was characteristic of Jesus’ behaviour. He tells stories about Samaritans, he heals Samaritans and in John 4 much of that chapter records Jesus having a long conversation with a Samaritan woman. There were two social taboos in the one event. First she was a woman and then she was a Samaritan. No wonder the disciples were shocked. What was Jesus doing? What is Luke doing by recording this healing in chapter 17?

It helps if we remember from chapter 1 that Luke is addressing his gospel to a man named Theophilus. With a name like that we can be sure he wasn’t Jewish. He was probably Greek. And this was Luke’s aim. He was writing his gospel for the wider world so he includes stories about non-Jews, stories that illustrate that the ministry of Jesus was to go beyond Israel, that the blessing of Jesus were to overflow into the wider world.

But look at that name Theophilus. It may be there was no such person. Rather, it could be a literary device. The name means “lover of God” and perhaps Luke has addressed his gospel to all lovers of God from anywhere around the world. So he is at pains to make it clear that this message of Jesus cannot be contained within Israel. Rather, it is a message for all people. The good news about Jesus is a universal message for all of the world. So of all the healings Jesus must have performed Luke makes sure he tells us about this one.

Leprosy was a generic word that covered a range of skin diseases from the ancient world. Some of them you could recover from. But you won’t recover from Leprosy. In those days lepers were forced to live as social outcasts, depending upon whatever food was left out for them for their survival. It was a miserable existence where only death gave relief. So as Jesus looked at these ten men he probably couldn’t have imagined a more pathetic sight.

But see what these men do. They stand at a distance. They know they cannot come near to Jesus. They can’t approach him. And so they shout out their prayer. And it is striking in its simplicity, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” It sums up the longing of their hearts. But they are saying more than just “Help!” They are calling for mercy. And mercy itself is a key theme in the gospel of Luke.

Throughout Luke’s gospel there is a debate concerning how to relate to God. What is the best form of worship? What does God expect from us? The Pharisees had a very clear answer. They believed that God expected them to obey the law. So the essence of their worship was obedience to the law. But sadly, over time their law-keeping had become corrupted. It had lost any sense of true worship. It became a system whereby they could justify themselves.

But Jesus calls upon a more ancient tradition from the Old Testament. True worship is expressed when we call upon God for mercy and where we show mercy to our neighbour. It is this same mercy that led Jesus to heal on the Sabbath. One can break the law of God if one is fulfilling the requirement of showing mercy. Showing mercy clearly has precedence over keeping the law. And calling upon God for mercy is simply another way of showing faith in God. Asking for mercy is an acknowledgment of who God is and our inability to rescue ourselves. Asking for mercy is a demonstration of our need for God.

Throughout Israel’s history, Israel is condemned for its failure to call upon God for help, to call upon him for his mercy, and in that act – demonstrating their faith in God. Yet these lepers, stripped of everything we value in life, family, home, community, wealth and health, bring their simple petition to Jesus. And its all summed up beautifully in that simple phrase, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

Yet that simple phrase contains such profound depth. These lepers were well aware of their condition, they understood their deep need for rescue and they recognised Jesus as the master, the one who could show them mercy, the one who could be the answer to their prayers. So these lepers are an example to us for right worship – that we get that creator/creature relationship sorted out.

But Luke’s story goes further than that because we have the return of the one leper, who comes back praising God and thanking Jesus for his healing. This shows us the dynamic of our interaction with God. It is not just about reconciliation though that would certainly be enough. It is also about celebration because of what God has done. Its just like the parable of the prodigal Son. Jesus includes in that story not just the return of the Son but also the celebration because of what had happened – this son was dead but now he is alive. He was lost but now he is found. And then as well – the fact that this man was a Samaritan – a leprous Samaritan – you couldn’t sink any lower in that society. Yet Jesus uses him to teach the Jews about right worship. It would be hard for Jesus to be any more offensive.

But in the end we have to ask what about us? What impact should this event have upon us? Why is Luke telling us this story? Jesus healed many people. Why choose this story to be passed on for generations. Luke tells us more than the fact that Jesus was a great healer. There is more to this story. We need to consider this healing as a metaphor. In the end this story is about us and it is about hope.

When you think about it, you couldn’t get further away from God in a Jewish world than a leprous Samaritan. They would have been considered outside the orbit of God’s blessing. Even worse, their condition would have been regarded as evidence of their rejection by God, that their condition was evidence of the judgment of God – only likened to those recently who claimed that AIDS was God’s judgment on a corrupt world.

Yet it is this Samaritan who was not only healed but who is commended for his faith. As well, he is a reminder to us that for a whole range of reasons we can drift far away from God. For so many reasons we can find ourselves in a place where we feel a long way from the blessings of God. Yet the message of this Samaritan is that it is never hopeless. Like the good shepherd he is, Jesus is always seeking us out, always calling us back, always restoring and refreshing and forgiving us. Jesus’ mission is not just to make these lepers better, but to make everything better.

We can only just imagine the joy that must have filled this man’s heart as he realised he was at last free of that dreadful disease. We can only just imagine the way thanksgiving must have risen in his heart, as the words of thanks tumbled from his lips. But in that healing we have a clear picture of the gospel message. Jesus not only preached good news, he was good news to a suffering world and that good news continues from generation to generation. So we are never without hope, never without forgiveness, never without joy as that same transforming love goes to work in our own lives, that love that will never leave us when we have the wisdom to turn to him and say like those poor lepers, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

Sermon: The Festival of Saint Francis of Assisi (C) – 6th October 2013

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings: Genesis 2:4b-9a, 19-22 Psalm 148 1 Peter 2:1-5 Matthew 6:25-33

“All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and let us sing Alleluya, Alleluya! Thou burning sun with golden beam, Thou silvers moon with softer gleam: O praise him, O praise him, Alleluya, Alleluya, Alleluya!”

“Make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred let me bring your love; where there is injury your pardon, Lord; and where there is doubt true faith in you.”

“Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

“While you are preaching peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart.”

These are words ascribed to Saint Francis of Assisi, whose life and contribution we remember today. The first few lines are from the first and second hymn this morning. Francis is especially remembered for his commitment to the Gospel and God’s providence, to peace and to driving a proper understanding of the beauty and value of God’s creation. This morning’s readings dwell upon some of the concepts that may have influenced his theology.

The accounts of creation found in Genesis are placed at the beginning of the Bible even before the accounts of Israel coming into being. Such a placing in the Bible shows the universal activity of God. God’s creative activity not only brought the world into being but also engaged in the lives of individuals and peoples long before Israel came into being. God was at work creating before Israel understood what this activity was all about.

God’s actions in the world are of more importance than what humans understand that God has done. Israel eventually catches up with what God has long been about. How humanity understands God’s action in the world comes after God has acted.

Human beings in all times and places have experienced, even if they have not known it, God’s creative acts before and alongside God’s saving acts. We receive our lives and all our natural gifts from God apart from our knowledge of God. God’s salvation takes place within the world and within individual lives, which have been brought into being and sustained by God’s care.

The placing of Genesis at the beginning of the Bible demonstrates that God’s purpose in redemption does not finally centre on Israel. God as Creator has a purpose that spans the world. God’s salvation shown by and offered through Jesus is universal.

The reading from Matthew concerns how then we creatures of the Creator are to live. The instruction “do not be anxious” is not only directed to rich people; those inclined to the self-satisfaction and arrogance because of their wealth. Poor people can idolise what they do not have and become anxious. Jesus contrasts the life of a believer with that of the non-believers. His challenge to trust in God’s providence does not exclude working and having property. The words are directed to people who were involved with sowing, reaping, storing in barns, toiling and spinning, but who are called to see that their life is not based upon such things. Such people are called to see that their life is not based upon these things. Such persons are not called upon to become birds or lilies, but to consider God’s providence for all creation, including birds, lilies and human beings.

Francis was born in 1182, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. He died on 4 October 1226. His early years were frivolous, but an experience of sickness and another of military service were instrumental in leading him to reflect on the purpose of life. One day, in the church of San Damiano, outside of Assisi, he seemed to hear Christ saying to him, “Francis, repair my falling house”. He took the words literally, and sold a bale of silk from his father’s warehouse to pay for repairs to the church of San Damiano. His father was outraged and there was a public confrontation at which his father disinherited and disowned him, and he in turn renounced his father’s wealth. One account says that he not only handed his father his purse, but also took off his expensive clothes, laid them at his father’s feet, and walked away naked. He declared himself “wedded to Lady Poverty”, renounced all material possessions and devoted himself to serving the poor.

In his day the most dreaded of all diseases was something known as leprosy. It is probably not the same as either the modern or the Biblical disease of that name. Lepers were kept at a distance and regarded with fear and disgust. Francis cared for them, fed them, bathed their sores and kissed them. Since he could not pay for repairs to the Church of San Damiano, he undertook to repair it by his own labours. He moved in with the priest and begged stones lying useless in fields, shaping them for use in repairing the church. He got his meals, not by asking for money so that he might live at the expense of others, but by scrounging crusts and discarded vegetable from trash-bins and by working as a day labourer, insisting on being paid in bread, milk, eggs, or vegetables rather than in money. Soon a few companions joined him.

Dante in his Paradiso has Saint Aquinas say of him:

“Let me tell you of a youth whose aristocratic father disowned Him because of his love for a beautiful lady. She had been married before, to Christ, and was so faithful a spouse to Him that, while Mary only stood at the foot of the Cross, she leaped up to be with Him on the Cross. These two of whom I speak are Francis and the Lady Poverty. As they walked along together, the sight of their mutual love drew men’s hearts after them. Bernard saw them and ran after them, kicking off his shoes to run faster to so great a peace. Giles and Sylvester saw them, kicked off their shoes and ran to join them …”

After three years, in 1210, the Pope authorized the forming of the Order of Friars Minor, commonly called the Franciscans. “Friar” means “brother” as in “fraternity”, and “minor” means “lesser” or “younger”. These titles could be taken to mean that to be that a Franciscan, upon meeting another Christian, is to believe “I am your brother in Christ, and your younger brother at that, bound to defer to you and to give you precedence over myself”.

Francis and his companions took literally the words of Christ when he sent his disciples out to preach recorded in Matthew chapter 10:

“Preach as you go, saying, “The kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” … You have received the Gospel without payment, give it to others as freely. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, no spare garment nor sandals, nor staff.

They would have no money, and no property, individually or collectively. Their task was to preach, “using words if necessary”, but declaring by word and action the love of God in Christ. It has been suggested that he it was who set up the first Christmas manger scene, to bring home to human hearts and imaginations as well as to their intellects the Good News of God made human for our salvation.

In 1219, Francis went to the Holy Land to preach to the Muslims. He was given a pass through the enemy lines, and spoke to the Sultan, Melek-al-Kamil. Francis proclaimed the Gospel to the Sultan, who replied that he had his own beliefs, and that Muslims were as firmly convinced of the truth of Islam as Francis was of the truth of Christianity. Francis proposed that a fire be built, and that he and a Muslim volunteer would walk side by side into the fire to show whose faith was stronger. The Sultan said he was not sure that a Muslim volunteer could be found. Francis then offered to walk into the fire alone. The Sultan who was deeply impressed but remained unconverted. Francis proposed an armistice between the two warring sides, and drew up terms for one; the Sultan agreed, but, to Francis’s deep disappointment, the Christian leaders would not. Francis returned to Italy, but a permanent result was that the Franciscans were given custody of the Christian shrines then in Muslim hands and animosity between Christians and Muslims remains strong today.

From the first known letter from Francis to all Christians:

“O how happy and blessed are those who love the Lord and do as The Lord himself said in the gospel: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole soul, and your neighbour as yourself. Therefore, let us love God and adore him with pure heart and mind. This is his particular desire when he says: True worshipers adore the Father in spirit and truth. For all who adore him must do so in the spirit of truth. Let us also direct to him our praises and prayers, saying: “Our Father, who are in heaven”, since we must always pray and never grow slack.

Furthermore, let us produce worthy fruits of penance. Let us also love our neighbours as ourselves. Let us have charity and humility. Let us give alms because these cleanse our souls from the stains of sin. Men lose all the material things they leave behind in this world, but they carry with them the reward of their charity and the alms they give. For these they will receive from the Lord the reward and recompense they deserve. We must not be wise and prudent according to the flesh. Rather we must be simple, humble and pure. We should never desire to be over others. Instead, we ought to be servants who are submissive to every human being for God’s sake. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on all who live in this way and persevere in it to the end. He will permanently dwell in them. They will be the Father’s children who do his work. They are the spouses, brothers and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Remember the words from Matthew’s Gospel this morning;

“But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”1

 

 

 

1 This sermon produced using The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volumes I and VII, Abingdon Press Nashville, and material fromwww.http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/