This morning’s Gospel starts out as a miracle of healing. In our modern ears, it sounds ridiculous. In our age, miracles don’t happen. Our minds have been made narrow by “Science.”
In Jesus world, expectations were different. In his time, many people performed miracles. To the Science of the day, ten healed lepers were impressive but not inconceivable. Healing then, like healing today, was a sign of God s care for his creation. Jesus was the love of God in flesh. Healing was naturally part of his portfolio. The love of God takes flesh in many human forms. In our own age, Jesus may come as a skilled and loving physician armed with all the equipment and skills of medical technology.
But if we linger too long on the miracle of healing, we miss another point of the story. Ten were healed, but only one gave thanks. And that one was a Samaritan. A foreigner. The outcast among outcasts. They didn t like foreigners then, and we still don t like them today. Ten were cleansed, but only one was “saved.”
As a child, I often visited Wales with my parents. My parents had Welsh friends. Beryl and Thom-as Ed-ward, with their son, Neville.
They were farmers at a little place called Llanwrin, whose name sounds little like it’s spelt, close to the small town of Machynlleth, whose name certainly sounds nothing at all like it’s spelt! I remember sitting at the giant kitchen table in their grey stone farm house before a plate of cold beef and mashed potatoes. Thomas Edward presided. Beryl asked, Would you say grace, Lindon? There was embarrassed silence. We didn t say grace in our house. I didn t know what to say. She must have sensed my embarrassment because the next moment she said Neville. Would you do it?
As a child, it seemed to me that there were only two questions in that part of Wales. The first was Are you Church or Chapel? I think the right answer was Chapel because Church was the Church of the English invader. The second question was Are you saved? I believe the socially acceptable answer was Yes.
Are you saved? The question seemed weird. I wasn’t quite sure what it meant but it seemed very personal, impertinent even. It had much the same feel as Did you use deodorant this morning? Obviously, it had something to do with Jesus and heaven. But heaven was a place I never wanted to go to and, to judge from the pictures I d seen in church and books, Jesus was a bit of a wimp. Life with mom and dad was a whole lot more fun.
Are you saved? The question still seems weird. It comes from a kind of blessed assurance that seems out of touch with the uncertainty of my life and the frailty of human knowing. Are you saved? I want to reply, I m not sure. Maybe I am. Maybe one day. I don t know. It s hard for me. I have too many questions. Is that Okay? Saved seems so final and so certain. It is the very opposite of the inquiring and discerning heart I was told was given to me at my Baptism. Paul Tillich understands this: What I hear from you sounds like ecstasy , he says to his fellow Christians, I want to stay sober. It sounds like mystery, and I want to illuminate what is dark.
When other Christians are so sure of themselves, is there any hope for me? What must I do to be saved? Do I have to join some Jesus club and learn a lot of secret signs and secret messages? Do I have to give up on reason and leave my brain outside the church? The Gospel this morning gives me hope. It gives hope to the Samaritan in all of us.
Healing came to all God s people. It came to all the lepers who were banished to the margins of the city. But salvation came to the Samaritan, to the outcast among outcasts. Salvation came to the foreigner who spoke in a different tongue and worshiped at a different shrine.
What was the difference? What was the sign of salvation? The answer in the Gospel is Thanks. The Samaritan gave thanks. It was as simple as that. You know that biologists have a name for the human species: Homo sapiens , Wise Man. The Samaritan was a new species of human. No longer Homo sapiens like the rest of his leper friends, but Homo thanksgivingus. He became a new creature, translated to a different kingdom with a new view of reality and a new dream. And the sign he painted on the gate of his new life was Thanks! A life that understands thanks, is a life that has already bubbled over with the freedom and knowledge of God. It doesn t have to be wrapped up in a bunch of religious cant. It is rejoices in the gift of life. It embraces life. It enriches life where ever life is found. It gives life wherever life is not.
I ve just finished reading a book called Killing Time. It is the autobiography of the philosopher Paul Feyerabend. He was an Austrian who served in the German army during World War II. A war-wound left him on crutches, in pain, impotent and turbulent. He sounds anything but saved and would probably think you were mad if you suggested he should be. He was an atheist and a mess–forever changing jobs and forever changing relationships. Yet he challenged generations of thinkers and students in Berkeley and around the world. In his later years, he finally met, loved and married Grazia, a brilliant and beautiful Italian woman whose life was devoted to others. They wanted children but, of course, couldn t have them. Finally, he had his life together. Then they discovered he had an inoperable brain tumor.
The last paragraph of his story gives a picture of his last days. He writes:
These may be the last days. We are taking them one at a
time….My concern is that after my departure something
remains of me, not papers, not final philosophical
declarations, but love….Whatever happens now, our small
family can live for ever–
Grazia, me and our love. That is
what I would like to happen, not intellectual survival but
the survival of love.
In a brief post-script, Grazia tells of the day he died. He received a letter saying that Killing Time was going to be published. She says: …I felt happy about the news, and told Paul with joy in my voice. He was breathing slowly and somehow peacefully. A few seconds later, he simply was not anymore. We were alone, holding hands, and it was midday.
One of the Latin fathers wrote Outside the Church, there is no salvation. This theme has been picked up and elaborated by Christians ever since. It s utter rot. It tells us more about our need to feel right than it does about God. The story of Feyerabend, and countless other Samaritans like him, shows that there is plenty of salvation outside any church we choose to build.
Here at St. James’s we can offer a bigger dream. Here in St. James s, in this holy space, in this shrine, the Samaritans gather. It is the gathering place of Homo thanksgivingus. We are not perfect. We may not have the certainty of the saved. We may be full of doubt. Our lives may be a mess. We may sometimes have good reason to wonder if there is really a God. But in this holy space, the Samaritans gather to say Thanks. The most important words we say together are Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. Everything else we do in church leads to that moment and flows out from it. It is the moment at which our scarred all-too-human flesh reaches the peak of evolution and the height of culture. This is the moment in which healing wells up into eternal life–into salvation . This is the place where we Samaritans begin to know God. This is where we come to share the dream of a new heaven and a new earth.