Sunday, October 09, 2016

Sermon for Sunday, October 9, 2016 Luke 17:11-19 “Identity”

Good morning! I am Mary Thorpe, Director of Transition Ministry for the Diocese of Virginia, and it is my privilege to be here with you as you adjust to a new reality without Rev. D at the helm of this wonderful parish. It is the work of my department to support you in this time of transition. Your bishops and your diocesan staff are your resource, the folks you can lean on, as you look toward the future.

The readings we have today seem to have very little to do with your situation…and yet they do. That’s the blessing of the lectionary – it seems that every time something happens in our lives that shakes us, there is a thread in the lectionary that speaks to our souls.

So in today’s readings, we hear two stories about people afflicted with leprosy, and how they are affected by it as well as how they deal with their affliction.

Well, what does leprosy have to do with St P's? On the face of it, not much. But let’s explore a little bit and see what we can find.

Leprosy was a feared disease in the ancient world. It was viewed as a sign of being unclean. Lepers had to survive by begging, living outside the gates of the city. There was fear, too, that this was a transmittable disease – we know now that Hansen’s disease, as leprosy is now called, is not infectious in that way. But in those days, people who suffered from this affliction were ostracized, kept out of the community, were known not as brothers or mothers or children but as outcasts who must announce themselves by ringing a bell and calling out “unclean, unclean!”

In other words, they lost their identity. They became known only as their affliction.

This is not only a phenomenon of the past. When I was in chaplaincy training at a hospital in Washington, there was a tendency to refer to patients by their ailment. “The gallbladder in 4West.” “The terminal pancreatic cancer in that room.” “The teen with end-stage AIDS.” Not Mrs. Jones. Not Fred Smith. Not Angela. Their identity was subsumed by their disease.

Nowadays, they train doctors not to refer to patients in this way, but the practice still lingers. And it’s not surprising. When we are focused on our own illness, we tend to be consumed with talk about it. When a loved one is ill, everything is about the symptoms or the treatment or the prognosis. Even in referring to ourselves, our illnesses become a primary identity, and we forget how we are so much more than that. There is a loss of identity, or at the very least a shift in identity, when there is illness.

So now we turn back to the Gospel. A group of lepers encounter Jesus on the road. 
They ask him for mercy. He heals them. No big surprise there – he usually heals those who ask for his help. He doesn’t ask questions, he simply cares for them. He doesn’t sort them into good people or bad people, or Jews or Gentiles, or men or women. He sees each of them as beloved of their Creator, and heals them.

Now what happens next is interesting: only one turns back to say thank you. And in the telling of the story, suddenly there is note paid to the fact that this grateful man is…a Samaritan. Not a Jew, but a member of a sect that most Jews would view as unclean simply by virtue of his religious identity.

This is a guy who was viewed as doubly broken, doubly unacceptable, because he was first, a Samaritan, and second, a leper. His healing solves the second problem but he is still a Samaritan. Yet he crosses the boundaries, not denying his identity, not turning from someone he shouldn’t have trusted, because he sees that Jesus’ love is bigger than that. Jesus doesn’t allow the peculiarities of one person’s identity to get in the way of loving the man and healing him.

Jesus puts identity in its proper place: a facet of a person, not the whole of the person’s story. Something that is infinitely more nuanced than we usually think. By doing that, it becomes perfectly sensible that Jesus should heal a Samaritan leper. He sees identity differently, not ignoring it but putting it into its proper context.

Identity matters. When our identity is taken away from us, when we stop being Mrs. Smith and become the gallbladder in room 4West, we feel we are no longer visible. Have you ever had the experience of being the patient lying in the bed, and having doctors talk over your prone form to your spouse or another doctor? Then you know what I mean! You feel somehow lessened. Your identity is shrunk into a small box.

But identity is not a one-dimensional thing. It is complex. It evolves, just as the transition from leper to healed person is an evolution.

What does this have to do with St P's? I know of the history of this parish, that there have been times of great conflict and tension, that you have welcomed parishioners from other conflicted parishes, that there are still a range of theological points of view in this place. That is a part of your identity, one that we can celebrate because despite the struggles you are united in your love for this place and you are looking forward in hope. But the other part of an evolving identity is to say “that is a part of our story but it is not the whole of our story.” You are writing your story as a parish family with love, with spirituality, and with service.

If you simply choose to identify yourselves as your past story, you inhibit your ability to write the next chapter, with the help of the Holy Spirit. If you say “we are fragile because of the struggles of the past,” you deny the hard work you have done…and the toughness of scar tissue exceeds that of untested flesh. You are stronger than you may think.

As you reflect on your identity in this time of change, Jesus suggests that you see yourselves as you truly are: strong, vibrant, with gifts and ministries that benefit each other and the larger community. See yourselves as more than past disputes. See yourselves as Jesus sees you: healed, strengthened, beloved. And see how that shapes your vision of God’s plan for St. P's.

Your identity is even now growing, because God’s grace keeps you moving and changing, and that’s a good thing. May God bless St P's, all of you who are here and those who could not be here, and all those who have not yet found you but who belong here, and God bless the next chapter of living into that evolving identity with God’s help.


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