Alton Parish—Luke 17:11-19
Those of you who have been around during the cycle of liturgies that lead up to, and include, Easter each year know that these are very rich and spiritually rewarding experiences. They are the very essence of what makes us who we are as the people of God, the people of the New Covenant between God and humankind. They are also very intense and quite demanding, particularly on those who plan and lead and assist with them. Of course, planning and preparation is less of a burden for me than it was when I was a parish priest, but I still involve myself at the cathedral in everything that leads up to Holy Week and Easter. It’s a lot of work—work that can sometimes begin to feel like a chore, something to be endured until it’s over with. So every year, as the process of preparation picks up, I have found that it helps keep me focused, it helps keep my enthusiasm fresh, if I think of one person—there’s usually more than one, but one person, at least—who I know will be experiencing the liturgies of Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, observed in all their symbolic richness, for the very first time. I discipline myself to look at my experience through the eyes of an “outsider,” and this renews and refreshes the experience for the benefit of my own soul.
But the liturgical observance of Holy Week is a relatively trivial concern when weighed against the fundamental and everyday experiences which are also vulnerable to going stale and flat and becoming more of a chore than a joy. Many of us have been blessed to have found daily work that we consider to be truly a vocation, a calling. I am among those; I feel like I have absolutely the best job in the world! Yet, even among those who are so blessed, there are days when our work feels like drudgery, and we’d rather be doing any number of other things. Many of us are or have been a partner in a marriage that was once fantastic, but later became just okay—still on solid ground—or so we hope—but kind of ho-hum, lacking the pizazz that it once had. Many of us are faithful in saying our prayers daily, and may have had profound experiences in the past of God’s presence and involvement in our lives, but lately our prayer life is kind of flat and uninspiring. Many of us are commendably regular in our attendance at public worship, and make an honest effort to participate in the liturgy with heart and mind and soul. Yet, when Sunday morning comes along, we find ourselves drawn in other directions. There was a mother once who knocked on her son’s bedroom door and said, “Son, it’s Sunday. Time to get up and go to church.” The son responded, “But I don’t want to go to church. I want to stay in bed.” The mother responded, “But you have to go to church. So get up and get dressed.” “But, Mom, why? Why do I have to get up and go to church?” “Well, son, I’ll give you two reasons. First, because I’m your mother, and I said so. Second, because you’re the rector and they’re paying you to be there.
Prayer and worship had evidently become a little flat for that particular priest! But it can happen to any of us, and, as we have seen, in a number of different ways. And we are most vulnerable to this experience of life and work and marriage and prayer and worship feeling stale and dry and confining when we are focused inward, looking only at ourselves. And when this happens, when our gaze is inward, when our perception is limited to our own perspective, our own point of view, then it becomes alarmingly easy for us to stray from our faith and commitments in these areas. This is what lies underneath mid-life career crises and infidelity to marriage vows and the abandonment of worship and prayer.
When this happens to us as individuals, life becomes “all about me.” We descend into a psychology of victimhood, and obsess on how we are being ill-treated by the world. But it also happens to communities—nations, cities, corporations, and, of course, churches. When institutions and communities get stuck looking inward on themselves, seeing themselves and the world only from an “insider” point of view, they indulge in an inordinate focus on the past, and are easily consumed by survival anxiety. Group morale sags because there is very little sense of mission, and it becomes an inexorable downward spiral into oblivion.
What would happen, though, if we began to train ourselves to look at our experience, not through the weary and glazed-over eyes of an insider, but through the fresh and wondering eyes of a stranger, a foreigner? In St Luke’s gospel, we encounter a compelling example of seeing the familiar through the eyes of the unfamiliar. Jesus encountered ten men with the dreaded skin disease of leprosy. Lepers in that culture were complete pariahs, social outcasts. It was a terrible existence. Jesus, in his mercy, healed all ten men of their leprosy. Only one, however, returned to praise God and offer thanks. And this one, it turns out, was a foreigner, an outsider—a Samaritan. And if there was anything worse than just being a leper, it was to have been a Samaritan leper! Yet, this Samaritan, who had every reason to be suspicious of Jesus, a Jew, because of the tremendous ethnic hostility between the two groups—this Samaritan, an outsider, came and fell at Jesus’ feet and poured out gratitude from a heart that was now wonderfully appreciative of all things Jewish.
And what we see in the Samaritan leper, most of us have seen with our own eyes. We have all either known or at least heard about a naturalized American citizen who is more patriotic than most native-born Americans. Many of us have known people who come to faith in Christ as adults, and whose devotion and enthusiasm puts to shame many who have always known the Lord, who have never been unbelievers. And within the Christian family, when someone discovers a particular expression of the faith that makes him feel like he has found the home he never knew existed—well, there’s no zeal like that of a convert! I encountered the Anglican tradition as a young adult, and that describes my feelings. Now that I’ve been an Episcopalian for nearly 40 years, I feel very much an insider—susceptible to jaded cynicism, so when I encounter someone who is eager to learn about our glorious Anglican inheritance, it lifts my spirits to see my “old” reality through that person’s “new” eyes.
This is a move we all need to make, time and time again. The Samaritan leper stands before us today as an invitation to see our old reality, not through our tired insiders’ eyes, but through his fresh outsiders’ eyes. He invites us to shift our attention outward, to involve ourselves authentically in the lives of those around us, to be consumed by the mission to which God has called us, both as individuals and as a community, to re-connect with our vocation with the same sense of wonder we felt when we first knew ourselves to be called to it, to not settle for an “okay” marriage but to insist on a superior one, to nurture our love affair with the Lord so that prayer is not simply a chore but the very air we breathe, and wild stallions couldn’t prevent us from worshiping at the Lord’s own altar with the Lord’s own people on the Lord’s own day. And in the process, we become more appreciative of the advantages and blessings that are ours. Among Anglicans who have had some sustained experience with the services of Morning and Evening Prayer, the words of the General Thanksgiving come to mind here: “We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life, but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.” As we view our experience through the eyes of the Samaritan leper and the stranger in our midst, our personal holiness is refined through the development of an “attitude of gratitude,” a habitual mindset of thanksgiving, and on that day when all secrets are revealed and the piercing eye of the Holy One looks into every human heart, our hearts will reflect back to him his own image, brought to perfection through his Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ. To him be all praise and glory.