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Sunday, October 13, 2019

There is a field. I'll meet you there.

St. Philip's Episcopal Church,  Laurel, DE
October 13, 2019

Tonight at sunset, observant Jews here in Delaware and all over the world will begin the celebration of Sukkot, which commemorates the years that the Jews spent in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, and celebrates the way in which God protected them under difficult desert conditions. (Leviticus 23:42)

Sukkot is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths. The word sukkot means huts (some translations of the bible use the word booths), and building a hut is the most obvious way in which Jews celebrate the festival.

Every Jewish family will build an open-air structure in which to live during the holiday. The essential thing about the hut is that it should have a roof of branches and leaves, through which those inside can see the sky, and that it should be a temporary and flimsy thing.

The Sukkot ritual is to take four types of plant material: an etrog (a citron fruit), a palm branch, a myrtle branch, and a willow branch, and rejoice with them. (Leviticus 23: 39-40.) People rejoice with them by waving them or shaking them about.

Rabbi Mordechai Dixler, Program Director, Project Genesis, explains that when a family lives in a Sukkot for 7 days, they learn not only to appreciate not just their history as a people, but they gain deeper appreciation for the simpler things in life – time with family, meals together, talking together instead of typing a text or email, time away from the TV and reading a book. 

There is also time to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation, the vast expanse of the sky and the multitude of stars, the crisp smell and the chill in the autumn air. 

The operating theory, of course, is that by doing without, we will better appreciate what we have. 

That has been the basis of some forms of parental discipline for generations upon generation, everything from “time out” to “you’re grounded” to “no TV for you, young man” to “hand over the car keys, young lady.” 

Sukkot is not a punishment, it’s a spiritual discipline. 

Jesus, our Rabbi, turns that teaching on its head in this morning’s Gospel lesson from Luke (17:11-19). The gratitude expected comes not from having to do without but from having been given something or having something restored. 

Jesus was traveling with his disciples between Samaria and Galilee. Now, let me set that in context for you. Samaria is a city in ancient Palestine, now called The West Bank. Samaria lies in between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south.  Galilee, of course, is known for Nazareth, where Jesus and his family lived. Judea is home to the great city of Jerusalem. 

Samaria and Galilee were both considered inferior by Judean Jews. Galileans were known to speak with a distinct accent which disqualified them from reading Torah in the Temple during public services of worship. Samaritans were known to intermarry, leading them to be considered the ‘mongrels’ or the ‘half breeds’ of the Hebrew people and therefore, inferior. 

Indeed, as distasteful as the Judeans found the Samaritans, the hierarchy of prejudice and bigotry found the Galileans to at least be above the Samaritans. No one expected anything good to come from a Samaritan – a foreigner! – not even a Galilean like Jesus. 

We are told that Jesus encountered ten lepers as he was walking in the region between Galilee and Samaria. We do not know their identity. Perhaps there were some Galilean and some Samaritan. 

We don’t know. 

We only know that they were ten men (but, who knows, there might have been some women) and that Jesus had mercy on them as they called to him and healed them all, sight unseen, identities unknown. 

What we do know from Luke’s account of this story is that of the ten who were healed only one returned to give thanks. 

And, he was a Samaritan.

It is twice in this story that Jesus turns our expectations upside down and right side up. Not only was the one who showed gratitude a mongrel, half-breed Samaritan, he was grateful not because something had been taken from him; rather, he was grateful for what he had been given. 

Today’s gospel asks us to consider the gratitude of the lepers. I have no doubt that all ten lepers were deeply grateful for the healing they experienced. Only one had an “Attitude of Gratitude”. 

And, he was a Samaritan. 

Now, it’s easy to see this gospel only in that light. Ah, yes, we think. This is about being grateful. Check. 

Thanksgiving will be here in less than two months, providing another opportunity to be grateful. Check. 

And then we’ll no doubt be hearing about Stewardship and how we need to be grateful for all we have been given and return a portion to God as our tithe or our pledge. Check. 

I want to suggest that, while important, all of that is low-lying gospel fruit – it’s easy pickins. 

I want us to stretch a little – go up a bit higher where the sweeter gospel fruit is waiting for us. I want us to spend a little time with Jesus in that land in “the region between Samaria and Galilee”. 

Jesus has grown up being carefully taught about the Samaritans. He knows they are considered inferior. Indeed, although they had the same scriptures and purity codes, Samaritans rarely went to Jerusalem during the High Holy Days, which was considered heretical. 

And yet, Jesus seems to place himself intentionally in this area between what he has been carefully taught is right and amidst a people who do things all wrong. In this place, he is most certain to encounter not only Galileans but those unlike him, people considered unclean and inferior. 

If any of you have watched Star Trek, you know that there is always a Neutral Zone, a place to create distance between warring factions. It’s a place where you’re really not supposed to be, and, if you do go there, you’d better not have your photon torpedoes armed.

Many mystics have written about this Neutral Zone. The Celts call it “a thin place” – a place close to the veil between heaven and earth. Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a thirteenth century Sufi mystic theologian and poet, writes about this Neutral Zone as a “field”. He writes:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, 
there is a field. 
I’ll meet you there. 
When the soul lies down in that grass, 
the world is too full to talk about 
Ideas, language, 
even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make sense.
For Rumi, that field, that thin place that is too full to talk about is a place where those with opposing ideas might discover that they have something in common. 

Indeed, they may discover that their differences aren’t really all that important in the presence of the Divine.

Actually, I’m not sure that expressing gratitude is all that important to Jesus. It’s clearly important to Luke who is telling the story, but I’m not absolutely certain that it’s important to Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t condemn the nine or take away their healing or punish or curse them. What he does do is to lift up the one who does return to him. Which makes me curious to know more.

There is no one that Jesus could have hated or feared more than this 10th leper - hated because of his beliefs and feared because of his disease. And yet, Jesus meets this leper in this Neutral Zone, this thin place, in this field beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing and heals him and then greets him when he returns to give thanks and praise. 

“Get up,” Jesus says to him, “and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.” The word Luke uses for ‘well’ here is the same word that’s used for ‘salvation’

Do you hear that? Let’s reach a little higher and pick this higher gospel fruit that this leper – this unworthy, unclean, wrongdoing, wrong-thinking, sick, Samaritan leper – is not only healed of his disease, but he is also made whole and transformed in the presence of God. 

Saying thank you is a nice, social pleasantry. It's important to be polite. But what Jesus is talking about is not just being polite. Jesus is talking about the spiritual disciple of gratitude.  

Being polite makes you nice. Being grateful makes you spiritual. 

It's a little more difficult. You have to reach higher. You can be polite just by habit. Being grateful means your heart and soul are moved.

Which also makes me wonder if the thing Jesus is asking me to reach for – this higher gospel fruit – is to consider who it is I am avoiding meeting in that field. 

Let me explain it this way. There’s a theologian who has written a book on conflict mediation whose name is David Augsberger. I don’t know if the Sr. Warden who has a degree in conflict mediation has read this particular book but I’m sure the theory won’t be strange to him. 

Augsberger suggests that, “Conflict arises from the competition of same and other.” 

Those who are the same, those who see themselves on the side of right-doing, seek to control, subordinate, exclude and destroy those they see as other – those who are seen on the side of wrongdoing. 

It’s easy to spot that exclusion and subordination and destruction of ‘the other’ in the Bible. Scripture is filled with stories of tribal warfare and those who think God is on their side or take defeat as having disappointed or disobeyed God in some way. 

We see it, too, in our own day and time. Open the newspaper or turn on the TV or radio and you’ll hear the heartbreaking stories of the Israelis and Palestinians and the heartbreaking wall in modern day Samaria. 

Or, the Kurds and the Turks doing battle in Syria as the threat of Isis rises once again. There’s a lot more, even in our own country, but you get the picture.

Augsberger goes on to ask some very difficult questions, “What if the other is necessary to us, part of us, completing us, redefining us, capable of transforming us? What if the other we fear is the bearer of our healing, our hope, and our health as a human race?”

Let me bring those questions to this Gospel lesson: What if the Samaritan leper, the person I most hate and fear, is the bearer of my own healing? What if meeting that person in the field is the key to the healing of humanity and the transformation of the world?

That makes me think that picking the gospel fruit of gratitude is a far simpler task than picking the higher gospel fruit of healing and transformation in the Open Field of Possibility.

It also makes me think that we could all benefit from spending some time apart in our own Sukkot or hut, with an open roof so we could look out and contemplate the vastness of God’s creation. 

Speaking for myself, it just might move me not only to feel gratitude, but to see just how small and insignificant I am in relation to the enormous variety of all of God’s creatures and creation.

Perhaps we all need some time apart, to live more simply and reflect on our place in the world and role in the family of God before we find the courage to enter that Neutral Zone, that thin place. There, we might discover what Vendantan Hindu sage, Ramana Maharishi taught.

When asked, “How are we supposed to treat others?” the Maharishi answered, “There are no others.”

So, I will leave you to ponder these questions: Who is the Samaritan for you? Who is the outcast, the one you fear and hate? Jesus invites us to meet that person in that region between Samaria and Galilee – that space between wrongdoing and right-doing, between them and us – and bids us to find our healing and salvation – and theirs.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

Out in the area between Samaria and Galilee, there is a village. Let’s meet there. 

We’ll build a booth - a small hut - in that thin place, and stay a while. In the fullness of silence, we’ll learn to appreciate each other – where even ‘each other’ doesn’t make sense because, in the sight of God, there are no others – and be grateful for all we have been given. 

And then, we shall return, each to our homes, to give thanks and praise.

And in that act we shall be changed and transformed and never again be the same, for we shall find the path to our salvation and be made whole.


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