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The Rev. Martha Sterne The Rev. Martha Sterne

The Rev. Martha Sterne is an Episcopal priest and author. She lives in Atlanta, GA.

Member of:

The Episcopal Church

Representative of:

Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, GA


Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 17:11-19

October 13, 2001

This past spring on a kind of coolish afternoon with maybe a hint of rain heading our way, I was taking a walk with my friend Roger by the river that runs near my house. We were chatting about this and that, and all of a sudden a bush on the riverbank just erupted. It was kind of like Moses and the burning bush, only there were no flames; but, instead, there was this squabble noise-startling and loud-squabble, squabble, squabble, squabble. And out of this incredibly loud, truly deafening bush exploded the two noisiest, fluffiest, yellow baby geese you ever saw. They took one look at us and started waddling as fast as their little web feet would carry them--straight for us, locked in on us like two fuzzy missiles. I think they thought I was their mother, who was unhappily nowhere to be seen, or maybe they thought Roger was their mother, which was an even bigger stretch.

What to do? We sat down by the river to think the thing through. By this time, they were chewing on my shoelaces and crawling up in Roger's lap. And we said, "Isn't it strange that they would come to us?" What is this impulse to trust which is built into warmblooded babies? What is this openhearted trust even in the stranger, even in the alien that is built into a baby bear or lion or a goose or the little baby flirting with you at the checkout line at the grocery store? It's such a miracle that a tiny baby would turn toward the stranger, not away, not shrinking back, but instead turning toward the alien, expecting goodness and mercy.

But you have heard and I have, too, that to survive in this world, in this food-chain kind of planet, surely, very quickly, babies must be very carefully taught to hide from the predator--to avoid the alien and to stay away from strangers.

At the beach this summer, I watched some very different birds than our goosey companions. I saw a pair of bald eagles nesting in a huge, dead pine tree down the road from our house. They blew me away, these rulers of the sky, so magnificent and fierce. We would see them hunting through the day, catching fat, silver fish in the sea and little brown critters on the run in the marsh, hooking them with their great, yellow talons and then swinging their squirming prizes below those giant wings, winging toward home like some Greek war gods of old. They were taking their prey back to the nests to feed their babies, who, by the way, would probably have already murdered his sibling. Because if there were two babies hatched, one would have killed the other early on--with no interference from parents--since that is what eaglets do. "There won't be enough so kill or be killed" is hard-wired into them and thus as soon as the egg cracks open, the creature is confronted with the question: Pray or predator? Which will I be?

But what about us? If you peel back off the incidentals, if you look deep into the heart and mind of any human being, what is there? Are we just more or less aggressive, more or less smart, sophisticated animals, living our lives as cleverly as possible, darting and dodging, but mainly standing triumphant on top of the great food chain? Or is there really something soulful going on in us?

I think that the creationist folks have picked the wrong end of Darwin to get upset over. The adaptation of life forms as they evolve through time and circumstance does not, for me, threaten the majesty and power and beauty of the mind of God. Instead, what we need to get upset about with Darwin and Malthus and their ilk is that they have taught us to discount the very qualities of human existence, the capacity for imagination, compassion, joy, wonder and sacrificial love which allow us to believe that we are indeed made in the image of God.

Darwin and the others did not believe that we human beings are created to care for the planet and to love the neighbor and welcome the stranger and sacrifice our individual desires for the common good. They made an idol out of mere facts and did not see or seek the richer, deeper truth underlying us all, that we are created by Love to love for Love's sake. Now that's worth getting upset about.

And, besides, we Christians have a different story, like the story in the Gospel this morning. On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus was going through rough country, border territory. On the one side was home, Galilee, and family and friends and the touchstones of thirty years of living with all those long traditions and daily rituals woven through every moment of working and resting and bathing and eating and praying and everything the people did. Even oppressed by the mightiest empire of the world, the people had kept their ways, hung on to their identity and knew that they were chosen and clean and most precious in God's eyes. Though if anybody in the tribe couldn't measure up, couldn't keep the rules or stay clean and pure, well, of course, out they went for the good of the others. So on that one side of the border were the chosen people and the familiar world where Jesus grew up, and on the other side of the border was everybody else. And for Jews, of all the everybody elses living in the world, the Samaritans were the most distrusted. And of all the everybody elses living in the world, a leprous Samaritan would be just about the most despised, the most alien, and the most to be avoided for God's sake and for your own.

So on the way to Jerusalem, walking through rough borderlands, who does Jesus run into? Not just one but ten lepers. They were filthy, forlorn animals, hideous, miserable distortions of the human condition with their cries of "Unclean! Unclean!" And they had been pushed out of their communities for fear of contagion and pollution and left to wander beyond the care of others, beyond the border of family and friends. And they see Jesus and somewhere in their wretched beings, hope wells up and keeping their distance, of course, they yell and they holler at this stranger; they'd heard of him, they know his name, and they yell and they holler, "Have mercy!" And he does. Miracle of miracles, he does have mercy.

And he sends them home to the faith communities and the families and all of the little worlds who had given them up for lost and cast them out in fear of contagion. (Survival of the fittest was going on long before Darwin named it.) But Jesus sends them home, and on the way home, the story says, they are made clean. And, oh, the thrill, the joy, and they begin to run -- run back towards whatever little village, whatever little tribe, little den, little pack they'd been kicked out of, running to tell the story. So they are evangelists, really. They run back out of the borderlands back home to reenter their lives--thanks be to God and thanks be to the stranger--hale and hearty and well.

All run home except the one. The Samaritan who'd been running home just like the others and looking down and his sores are healing and his flesh is starting to glow with health, and he looks down, and he says, "My God!" And he stops running back to his little tribe and he turns around and heads back to the one who is beyond any tribe, any border. He runs back to the stranger who is Love and he kneels and honors Jesus and adores him and gives the most extraordinary, the most human gift of all, the gift of thanks.

And the young Jewish rabbi looks at him and says, "Well, well. Look who we have here. The heathen. The dirty one. The enemy. And he's the one who gets it. Where are the thanksgivings of the other nine? Where are the thanksgivings of the members of the tribe? Never mind. You are here in peace, in trust, in love. Now, you go, not just healed of body but whole of soul. And know that wherever you go you are at one with that which has no enemy, no fear, no need to arm. You are at one with Love."

And so it is that the leprous Samaritan in this strange, little story and the Good Samaritan and the Samaritan woman at the well and the worthless prodigal son and the Roman centurion and the various rascally tax collectors and the pitiful cripples and the demon-possessed crazies and all the rest of the ragtag heroes that are in the Gospels, particularly Luke's Gospel. Well, they are our teachers and our confirmation, of something so powerful going on in the human heart, so touched by the holy, so close to God that even the weakest, strangest among us--maybe, especially, the weakest, strangest among us--can cross borders and strengthen victims and cure the unclean and transform predators and turn enemies into friends.

Because when we peel back all the layers of the human condition-when we get to the heart of the matter-you know, we need to be amazed. Because by the grace of God, we are amazing. We are made in the image of God, who is Love.

And if you have forgotten how to love or you are too sick or hungry or worn out to love, then for God's sake, look around the borders of your life. Just where you least expect it, you might just run into grace, to healing, to Love. For in the end, we are made by Love to love for Love's sake. That's the promise, and that's the truth. And isn't that amazing?

Oh, God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength. By the might of your spirit, lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


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