Sermon on Luke 17:11-19; 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
I am beginning to know something of what it is like to be a leper.
As you may have noticed I have been regularly wearing my dog collar and walking around Epsom. I have been wearing it when I need to (when I am explicitly on church business saying morning and evening prayer, conducting pastoral visits and the like) and when I don’t (when going to the Post Office, Ryman’s, Staples, Maplin, Greggs., McDonald’s, various Public Houses). You will form an impression of the sort of person I am from the places I frequent. A busy person who doesn’t have much time for lunch but likes beer and gadgets and Post-Its.
Why am I doing this? – my children often ask me this.
I confess to mixed motives. It took me the best part of five years to get ordained, jumping through numerous ecclesiastical hoops, completing dozens of essays, and filling in countless forms – I feel I have earned it.
Secondly, I like wearing a uniform – I miss my school uniform – I like to know what I am wearing when I get up in the morning. I don’t like choices – even deciding which tie to wear can cause me great irritation.
Finally, and most importantly, it is a form of easy, low impact evangelism – both for the Gospel and for the Church of England.
Indeed, before my ordination both Andrew, Bishop of Guildford, and Paul Bryer, Archdeacon of Dorking, specifically asked me to wear my collar as much as possible.
By being seen to be a normal person doing normal things I am hopefully helping to remove some of the pre-conceptions that people have about the church of England and its priests. To transform people’s beliefs
And I know this is a genuine issue– I can tell because of the reactions I get – and this is where the leprosy parallel comes in.
Women with children often move their push chairs to the other side of the pavement – I like to think it is out of respect – I fear it is because they assume that a man dressed in a collar may be dangerous to their children.
Muslim men will also physically move away from me which is quite amusing. Am I for them Haram – unclean – or am I the representation of a Crusader? Something to be feared either way.
Children stare and parents take them by the arm as if I were some unfortunate
Some people cross themselves – what is that about? I am not an undertaker or a vampire.
That people behave so strangely suggests there is indeed a problem. Hopefully, the more they see me the less odd it will be and the more that they will think about the second part of this soft evangelism.
Because by being seen I am hopefully making people think about God – even for just a moment. To think about what they are doing in life and why – to have a sense that they are a small but important part of something much bigger. To remember to count their blessings and acknowledge their infirmity.
And I can see that also works – I can see that from the way that some people smile at me as if reassured by my presence while some people refuse to meet my eye and look away – some people have a problem with God – I would love to know why …
To do that I would need to stop and talk to them – to get to know them as people. But that is getting harder as we have fewer full time priests with the time to meet people where they are.
When I was reading the lectionary for this morning and in particular as I thought about Naaman and these 10 lepers I came to see that the Church of England itself is in danger of becoming a leper in its own community.
Increasingly shunned from hospitals and schools, even the leadership of the Church talks about it being in slow and ineleuctable decline as if it had a terminal and incurable illness.
Well, perhaps – and certainly if the Priesthood of the Church hide themselves away and if the management of the Church gives up on its position in society and builds smaller and smaller colonies for a smaller and smaller group of increasingly homogenous believers then the end is certain.
But I would not be happy with that and I doubt you would either.
So what can we learn from these bible stories of healing that may be relevant for the Church of England that it might be healed and given new life?
This is after all the challenge from the Bishop of Guildford with which we are wrestling at the moment to respond to his call for a Diocesan Mission Strategy – that we look to transform our church so that it can transform the lives of others.
And I think we can indeed learn from this morning’s stories of miraculous healing – from Naaman and from the 10 lepers.
First there is the all-important point of contact – of transmission of the Gospel: for Naaman the story of Elisha comes from a captive slave girl – even the most unlikely people can be evangelists.
Each of us can be the one who calls others to God. Indeed each of us should do this. But let us challenge ourselves. How many people have we invited to join us in church today? Just imagine if we had all brought juts one extra person with us.
How do we do that? Well how does Jesus meet the Samaritan leper? He gets out and meets the people – he travels from Galilee to travel to Jerusalem and meets the lepers on the way. We need to keep doing that – getting out and meeting people – meeting Jesus where he is – out there with the people.
Then there is the question of what we do, how we receive the Gospel – what do we do with it?
For Naaman it is obedience, humility – recognising that he does not have all the answers. He is healed by bathing in the river Jordan – the rivers of Damascus do not cut it. He has to be obedient to the word of God’s prophet Elisha, move out of his comfort zone and try something new.
Part of our transformation may lie in understanding what we can do ourselves and for what we need assistance from others. That we may need to move out of our comfort zone and ask for help.
So do we need to do things radically differently? Not at all – the transformation process does not need to be difficult. There is no need for complex ritual or liturgy. Whether for Naaman or the lepers it is just a question of hearing God’s word for us and doing it. Of listening to God and reacting. Keeping it simple.
That does not mean to say that we ignore tradition and what has gone before. Jesus who came to change ‘not one letter, not one stroke of a letter’ of the law, reminds the cleansed lepers that they need to see the priests as prescribed by the law of ancient law of Israel – read it for yourselves in Leviticus 13 and 14. (It’s a bit grim so you might want to save it to read until after lunch).
Finally, for the healed there is joy and thanksgiving. In Luke’s story it is the Samaritan Leper who comes back and says thank you – he rejoices – eucharizon in the Greek – the same word as our Eucharist – the celebration of our salvation through union with God in Jesus Christ – a celebration in which we shall shortly share in our communion.
And so his cleansing is moved to a deeper spiritual level because he has fully received his healing – in his heart as well as in his body. The Samaritan allows Christ to transform his view of the world, of how he sees himself in life. Ultimately, to feel the joy of being loved by God in Jesus Christ.
It is interesting and perhaps encouraging that even Jesus only converts one in ten of those whom he heals. That then is the target for us – that we make a lasting impression on one in ten of those who touch this place in the course of a year.
For we know that if we can but plant this mustard seed of faith in the hearts of a few, then with that faith they themselves will move mountains. Because at the heart of both healings is simple faith – of understanding that we all sit under God who loves us.
So what then are the lessons for us?
- To get out and meet people – to offer them to come and see.
- To submit to the will of God in honesty and humility – to get out of our comfort zones – acknowledging that we may need help to see through his mission for us
- To honour tradition but keep it simple – there is no need to reinvent the wheel
- Above all to allow ourselves to be transformed so that we may transform others
And what might that transformation look like?
Well let me share a vision that I have had:
In my three months here I have seen that this church is formed from many different groups and constituencies, different strands of faith if you will.
If we can agree on a common purpose for our work here then these fibres can be woven together to form a great rope, a hawser that we can use to drag the super-tanker that is the Church of England – to drag it closer to the people whom it serves – to move it faster than it ever believed possible – to turn the talk of decline to rejoicing for growth
How best to do that you must decide but you will see some ideas starting to take shape on the board at the back of church – for me it seems that doing more with the many children of this Parish is very likely to be a part of that vision.
I encourage you to share your ideas either by writing on the lovely multicolour Post-Its or by speaking with me, or Nick or the Church wardens
And my prayer is that, by uniting these many strands into a single great cable, we may in turn draw open the very gates of heaven that through them the people of this Parish may enter into the kingdom of God.
That would be a transforming church indeed. Amen
Sermon preached at St Martin’s, Epsom, by Christopher Hancock, 9th October, 2016
Collect for the Guildford Diocesan Mission Strategy
Transforming Church – Transforming Lives
God of our salvation, you sent your Son to draw all people into your abundant life:
grant that your church, empowered by your Spirit,
may be the instrument of your transforming purposes in the world,
that all may know your power to heal and to save.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN