Sunday, October 10, 2010

Episcopalians Must Tell Our Stories

Here is an approximation of the homily that I gave this morning at St. James Langhorne Episcopal Church.

Proper 23 Year C
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

...your faith has made you well. Luke 17:19b

So who are the Samaritans, and why should we care? And what does it mean that faith makes us well?

Samaria was the capital city of the ancient Israelites in the Northern Province. After the first exile, Samaria lost its central status. Samaria became a trade route. Multiple cultures traveled through, and these cultures influenced the theology and practice of the Jewish Samaritans. Over time, their faith evolved into something not quite Gentile but not quite Jewish, either. (Source: Oxford NRSV Study Bible, 2001 ed.)

Of course, one person's evolution is another person's apostasy. Jews, evidently, generally looked down upon the Samaritans. Mark's Gospel takes a dismissive attitude of the Sam-tans. In the Gospel according to John, the Samaritans who encounter Jesus just don't get him. (But then again, hardly anybody "gets it" in John.)

Luke, however, has a perspective unique in the canonical gospels. Several times, Luke uses the Samaritans as examples of true faith. The most famous instance happens in Chapter 10 in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A man is injured by the roadside. One after another, the passers by ignore him. When the Samaritan sees him, he goes above & beyond to help. In contrast to the do-nothing pious members of the church, the Samaritan is the compassionate hero of the Parable.

In Luke 17:11-19, the Samaritan also plays a featured role. Note, by the way, that the story takes place in an undefined location, somewhere between Galilee and Judea. You might say that it occurs in a "middle" zone. Bearing that in mind, here's the story in brief: ten lepers approach Jesus asking for help. In scripture, "Lepers" is a broad term that includes anyone with a serious skin condition. Because of the Jewish preoccupation with cleanliness, lepers were frequently banished from the community and cannot return until so authorized by a rabbi. (Oxford)

Jesus instructions them to go to a rabbi, and they obey. Their encounter with the rabbi happens outside the text, but the result is that they are proclaimed clean. The presumption is that, now that they are healed, they can reenter the community. (Oxford) Among the ten, only the Samaritan returns to thank and praise Jesus. Jesus tells him to go about his business, closing with the enigmatic statement, "Your faith has made you well."

Returning to the original questions...for those of us who consider ourselves Episcopalians, I think that we are like the Samaritans. We, too, are Middle People - not Roman Catholic, not Protestant, not Evangelical - something in-between. We've heard criticism from both sides: our RC friends like to refer to themselves as the one true church and call us, ahem, Catholic Light. Incidentally, I've decided to embrace this label: I aspire to a faith that doesn't take itself too seriously, walks in the light, and is light enough to rise all the way to heaven. On the other side, our evangelical sisters & brothers ask, over and over, are you saved? I don't have a good comeback to this one; I just have to be content standing between the theological crossfire, not unlike those Samaritans.

What does it mean for Samaritans/Episcopalians that faith makes us well? There's the obvious cause-effect interpretation: asking for mercy + obeying Christ + thanking/praising Christ = healing. We Christians can't go wrong with such a formula. I suggest another implication - it's about the importance of community. Remember, as mentioned earlier, becoming "clean" ends the quarantine and reinstates a person into the Jewish/Jesus community.

In modern times, the community of the faithful assemble in a church. That church community can be local, regional, national, and/or international. For the moment, I want to focus on the parish level.

During the past few months, I've visited churches around the Diocese. Sadly, quite a few of them are struggling financially and attendance wise. There are many reasons for that, but I deeply believe that we can reverse that trend. Here's where we can learn from our evangelical friends: we need to make a more concerted effort to market ourselves. We have to tell our story. We have to be a little less gentile Anglican and a bit more evangelistic, proclaiming not just the Good News of Christ but the good news of belonging to a church family.

When I first began coming to St. James in 1999, I didn't know anyone. It took me years to develop the habit of attending weekly services, build friendships, and develop a comfort zone. It didn't come easily, because there was virtually no one of my age cohort present. Many times, I felt like an island representing an entire generation! By the grace of God and the kind people of St. James, I stuck it out.

One family that befriended me Dan Ahern & Kathy Coon, as well as their children Emily and Zachary. In 1999, they lost their home to Hurricane Floyd. They went through hell, but they persevered. Fast forward a few years to Easter 2006, I think. One of their parents - I don't remember who - had been on the prayer list for some time, battling an illness. That parent lost the battle and died about a week before Easter.

At the St. James Easter Vigil service, I sat a few rows behind Dan and Kathy. The first half of the service is solemn, taking place by candlelight. Then, there's a transition point when the somber mood of Lent/Holy Week ends, and we celebrate the resurrection. In that triumphant moment, I caught a glimpse of Dan and Kathy turning to look at each other. They smiled. It was only a flash, but I would swear that they exchanged sorrow, relief, joy, and a profound intimacy that only comes from years of sharing. Most of all, I saw new life. The suffering and defeat lifted; something new was born.

For me, their faces gave new meaning to the Resurrection. And it wouldn't have happened without spending time in that church, getting to know Kathy & Dan, learning their story, and worshipping with them at the Vigil. Had I not known them and known their story, I would have missed that flash of the Holy Spirit.

Christians have a duty to do compassionate works, especially to the stranger in need, as the Good Samaritan did. We must also proclaim the Good News, bearing witness to Jesus through word and example. In the modern world, attending Anglican/Episcopal worship services doesn't sell itself like it once did. The believers must be a little more outspoken about what liturgy means to us.

We should never let resurrection get old!

We have to get better at inviting others to participate in a faith community. We must find creative and compelling reasons to get folks out of bed on Sunday mornings. In short, we must tell our faith story. Such storytelling is not simply recalling the past life of Jesus; it is also a way to keep Jesus alive in the here in now. It is therefore an act of faith...the faith that will make us well.

No comments:

Post a Comment