a sermon by Sam Persons Parkes, delivered at the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, Dothan, AL, Temple Emanu-El, November 22, 2016
A reading from the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 17, beginning at the 11th verse:
11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Your faith has made you well.
YOUR faith, said Jesus.
Not my faith, my JEWISH faith,
but YOUR faith.
Not your CHRISTIAN faith,
(heaven knows, there ain’t a single Christian in this story.)
But YOUR faith?
Your SAMARITAN faith
You know, THOSE people. The Samaritans.
A distinct religious community in Northern Palestine, formed after those tribes of the Northern nation of Israel were plundered by Assyria 800 years or so before Jesus walked by. Their conquerors resettled many of them elsewhere and brought in others, outsiders who intermingled with them, making them a kind of half-breed, impure people. THOSE people. (However, genetic testing of modern Samaritan populations reveals that they have much greater genetic affinity with Jews than anyone else. Which suggests that they were probably just as “pure” as anyone else! But, it’s hard to make those people into THOSE people if they are a lot like OUR people. I wonder if, like us, folks back then, lack genetic distance from an unwanted group could push people away rhetorically…perhaps even defining them as somehow subhuman, just as Jews and Muslims and just about all of THOSE people have been made so by Christian rhetoric at some point during the last 19 centuries.
Perhaps you have seen the video produced by the Atlantic Magazine of Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer leading a recent white nationalist rally? Hideous stuff. I found that the most chilling comments in his speech were reserved for his media critics in using the term lügenpresse, a German word Nazis used for their media critics: “One wonders if these people are people at all, or instead soulless golem,” Spencer said, referring to the clay figure of Jewish folklore brought to life by rabbis in to protect the Jews.
Oh, my friends, with enough rhetoric and self-centeredness we can push anyone away as genetic aberrations or morally deficient or religiously misguided. The wrong blood, the wrong life, the wrong God. THOSE people. The ones who eat the strange foods and worship on the wrong days. The ones who wear odd garments and read funky scriptures written with mysterious squiggles and dots. THOSE people.
THOSE Samaritans, from the Hebrew word samerim meaning guardians/keepers/watchers, were guarding the law, the torah. THEY had the right scripture, the right place of worship. Their version of the Pentateuch was better than the Judean version! Religious leaders on both THE Judean and Samaritan sides prohibited contact with THOSE people. Pushing them away, neither side could enter the territory of the other. Even speaking with them was a deep violation. Pushing back, enforcing boundaries with demonizing rhetoric until these people become THOSE people. And we become OUR people.
I believe that the Divine intentionally haunts the border between US and THEM, and for us to get close to the Divine draws us closer to each other, inviting us to encounter one another.
What I love about this gospel story is that the divine is drawing us close enough to the boundary between OUR people and THOSE people to really SEE each other. I believe that the Divine intentionally haunts the border between US and THEM, and for us to get close to the Divine draws us closer to each other, inviting us to encounter one another. Jesus enters the village; ten people approach and ask for mercy and it says that Jesus SAW them. The biblical tradition reveals that this is not always the case with Jesus. Please see the language about “this foreigner” later in the passage! At least once, he rebuked a Syro-phoenician woman who begged for mercy for her child. Jesus called her and her people dogs not fit to eat the children’s food. Even Jesus could see folk as THOSE people. But she kept on until she got what she wanted from the Divine. In the face of sickness and her mother-love, she was not willing to let these silly boundaries between us and them work that way.
I find two forces at work in this passage bringing people together across the boundaries between us and them. Perhaps no force is more capable of unmasking many of these boundaries as irrelevant and even silly than experiences of disastrous misfortune. Sickness can destroy silly boundaries. Just go to a Relay for Life event and try to sign up at the Protestant Tent or the Buddhist Tent. There’s only one tent, for cancer survivors and those who love them and those who love the ones who didn’t survive.
Our faithful Samaritan was one in a colony of Jewish lepers whose only qualification for admittance was having contracted one of the terrible skin conditions that fell under that cover term of leprosy. In some forms, the nerve endings in the skin would die particularly in the extremities leaving injuries unfelt and wounds untreated. People would lose digits and limbs. The disease was contagious, and Jews and Samaritans alike threw the leprous into yet another subset of THOSE people. People with leprosy would be cut off from family and friends, from the life-sustaining practice of their faith. At some point, the religious distinctions become irrelevant when you need to eat or change the dressing on a wound or experience loving conversation after experiencing isolation. For our Samaritan, leprosy had made THOSE people into HIS people.
Interestingly, Jesus does not perform a ritual of any sort. He just gives them a religious instruction. (Apparently all lepers look alike to Jesus.) Go show yourselves to the priest, the JEWISH priest! And as they started walking just the Jews were healed as evidence of their faith in Yahweh, right? NO! The Samaritan, too, experiences healing. I will always wonder how far the Samaritan got before he stopped and said, “Why am I going to a priest? I ain’t Jewish!”
So instead he turns back. He turns back to the borderlands. If the first force bringing people together is shared experiences of disastrous misfortune, the Samaritan also reveals the second force: expressing gratitude.
I’d say that ratio is about right for me. I’d say about 90% of the time when I experience some kind of blessing, I just say Thank ya! out to the universe and move on in life, rarely allowing the gratitude to really soak in. But every now and then I stop and I turn back and fall before the Divine and offer my own Alhamdulillah. My own Namaste, the God in me sees the God in you. My own Hallelujah!
I’ve been doing that a lot lately, because I’ve been having some spiritual experience. You see, I’m a bonafide member of a community of disastrous misfortune, a spiritual leper colony, the addicted who gather in rooms all over this city seeking mercy and relief from the disease of compulsion. Oh, my, friends! Those rooms are full of all kinds of people, all colors of people, all ages, gay people, straight people, cisgendered people and transgendered people, Republicans! and Democrats! For the disease of compulsion shows no distinction. I have a doctorate in Theology from one of the most prestigious degree-granting institutions in the world! But, my addiction never asks me one Question about puritan point-form preaching in early America. Not one time has my addiction listened to me talk about my Christology and said, Tell me more! He don’t care. That addiction tried to take my degree, my dignity, my humanity, my life. And here I was a religious professional whose portfolio did not include what I needed. I needed something like exorcism. I needed spiritual experience.
But one day I heard the Divine call to me from the strangest place, it called to me from inside my own experience of addiction. And God said what God always says to me when I am so wrapped up in my own self, God says, “Are you done?” Sam, are you finished with you? finished being wrapped up in your own obsessive mind? Are you done? And one day, I said, yes and God said , “Good. I have some people you need to meet They are carrying my healing and wholeness for you.” I said okay. And then I went into the rooms and walked along the border between all kinds of otherness receiving gift after gift after gift from THOSE people.
I received my life back, but not the old life, but a new life – a new way of living that I share with my fellows bound together by our pursuit for “a proven, workable method whereby we can arrest our illness.” And bound together by the Divine who is always skirting around the edges of social respectability looking for the losers, the addicts, the drunks, the lepers like me. I have met God through my unclean, hilarious, deadly serious fellows. I’ve met Jesus in my sponsors who SEE me (meaning they see through my BS) and give me instructions to follow. My sponsors so far have been a dog’s breakfast of funky Others – an agnostic retiree, a gregarious Roman Catholic academic, a government contractor, and my current Jesus is a Mormon housewife who has been so willing to help me struggle with my own Methodist Christian sources to discover a living, fierce God who stops at nothing to set people free from their own personal hells. Did you catch that? A Mormon woman helped me sort through my own faith tradition to discover God at work? “There you go, Sam,” she would say, “YOUR faith has made you well.”
Perhaps then, this is one of the most radical phrases that Jesus ever uttered: YOUR faith has made you well, which is actually a terrible translation for the Greek phrase better translated, your faith has SAVED you. Whoa, hold on. Do you mean Jesus pulled out his pocket New Testament and led him down the Romans Road to pray the sinner’s prayer? Or did he walk through the catechism with him toward baptism or send him to confirmation class? Nope, the text seems to indicate that he was just as Samaritan upon rising as he was on falling. And Jesus seems okay with that. So that must not be the kind of salvation Jesus is talking about here. He must be talking about the kind of spiritual experience that happens even to us when we show up for one another, even for THOSE people, when we create safe space for each other, when we call each other on our own special brands of BS. He must be talking about the wholeness that happens when we allow our gratitude to carry us deeper into our own faith without having to diminish the faith of others.
This space tonight, my funky Wiregrass friends, is a weird, marginal space pushed to the cultural edges of our community by the fear and anxiety of otherness. But we are not afraid. We know that here on the edges, at the boundary, comes walking the Divine inviting us to see each other, to become curious about each other, to come closer. And the Divine leans over to whisper in our ear, “Are ya done? Are you finished with fear? Are you sick yet of violence? You ARE? Then, I have some of THOSE people I would like you to meet!”
 Jessica Taylor, “Energized By Trump’s Win, Alt-Right Extremists Gather In Washington To ‘Change The World’ : NPR,” November 20, 2016, http://www.npr.org/2016/11/20/502719871/energized-by-trumps-win-white-nationalists-gather-to-change-the-world.
 “Overeaters Anonymous Mid-Peninsula | Our Invitation to You,” accessed November 26, 2016, http://www.oamidpeninsula.org/about/our-invitation-to-you.htm.