Something New and Unheard Of

Something New and Unheard Of

by Nathaniel Brown
Sermon preached at Trinity Episcopal, Seattle, October 14, 2001

It is hard for us today to realize how shocking the Gospel story we have just heard is.

Of the ten lepers who were cured, only the Samaritan returned to give thanks, and Jesus holds him up as an example. Hearing this must have raised some eyebrows and made more than a few of Jesus' hearers very angry.

Because you see, in Jesus' time, a Samaritan was untouchable. For a Jew to talk to a Samaritan was unthinkable. And as for having anything to do with a leper, it was like touching a dead body or eating forbidden food -- quite apart from health considerations, a person who did such a thing would incur deep ritual pollution, and it would take elaborate and sometimes expensive, certainly time-consuming, purification before that person would be "clean" again. In our enlightened times, we cannot imagine how having to do with such untouchables would disgust and repel good, God-fearing Jews.

And yet not only does Jesus heal a Samaritan leper, he also points out that of the ten, only the Samaritan was grateful. Jesus does this in other parts of the Gospels as well: he holds the Good Samaritan up as an example of how to behave towards our fellow humans. He talks to the Samaritan woman at the well. How Jesus must have shocked everyone! Unthinkable!

It was something new and unheard of. Jesus was showing that God's love is not won through obeying complex rules and observing elaborate taboos. He was showing us that God's love reaches out to all of us and brings us all in, even those who are beyond the pale.

In fact, the whole New Testament is a record of radical acts that must have deeply unsettled many of those who saw what Jesus and his disciples were doing: they were treating the outcast and the unclean just the same way they were treating good, solid members of the community. Let me remind you of several other examples:

There is Peter's dream of the sheet, where God tells him to take and eat all manner of things that no Jew would ever dream of eating. Following this dream, Peter goes to the Centurion, enters his home, and eats with his household, even though no good Jew would enter the house of a gentile, let alone eat with him and his family, and probably eat forbidden foods! All unthinkable, forbidden acts. It must have been unimaginably difficult for Peter to bring himself to do all this.

Then there is the story of Philip, sent by an angel to go down the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. There he sees an Ethiopian eunuch sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah. Philip goes up to the man asks him if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch admits that he does not understand, and invites Philip to sit with him in his chariot and explain the scripture to him. As they go on their way they come to a stream, and when the eunuch asks if there is any reason why he should not be baptized, Philip says there is not. "And they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him."

It's a beautiful story, full of chariots and exotic strangers, and a happy ending. So we tend to overlook that what Philip has done is as drastic and disturbing as Jesus healing lepers and Samaritans: the eunuch was a foreigner, an outsider. To a Jew, he was simply outside any consideration as a member of the faith. In addition, and perhaps worse, the man was a eunuch, and as such, unclean and utterly disqualified from having any place within the community. And yet Philip has reached out, and brought the man in, through baptism. Again, it is hard for us to comprehend how shocking all this is!

And yet Philip was not the only one to bring in the unthinkable. The remainder of the New Testament is largely the long, patient story of Paul reaching out to the gentiles, at first strongly resisted by the Christian "establishment" in Jerusalem. Gentiles simply did not, could not, belong! Only Jews could be followers of Jesus -- or so many of the earliest followers of Jesus thought. Some early Christians, deeply troubled by the actions of Philip and Paul and Peter, were on the verge of splitting away. It was a close-fought thing, but in the end, the apostles who were reaching out won the battle, and Christianity as we have come to know it was born: not a Jewish sect, but a faith based on a fundamental belief in God's love for all human kind.

This is why today's Gospel is so valuable to us: it is good for us to remember the once-great powers of these ancient taboos and exclusions, because this must remind us that we are all gentiles, we are all recipients of the grace of Jesus Christ. It must remind us that "In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile." God is accepting us all.

Well, that is the background to what I wanted to tell you, and I will come back to it. But I wanted to talk not only of grace and love, but also a little of fear and hatred, and I had three reasons that I wanted to preach today:

The first reason I asked to preach is because October 11 is National Coming Out Day, a day when gay and lesbian Americans give witness to our lives. I wanted to tell you that we are teachers, engineers, pilots, policemen and women, Olympic athletes and coaches, students -- I know gay people who are all of these. And for those of us who are Christians, October 11 is a day to bear witness to the working of God's grace and love in our lives.

The second reason I asked to preach today is because October 12, 1998, was the day that Matthew Shepard died. Matthew was an openly gay student at the University of Wyoming. He was kidnapped, brutally beaten, and tied to a fence outside of Laramie, where he was left through the night in sub-freezing temperatures. He was found the next by a passing biker, and taken to hospital. He never regained consciousness. The Episcopal priest who came to his bedside said that Matthew was beaten so badly as to be unrecognizable, and that the only part of his face not covered with blood was where the tears had run down his cheek. He must have known what was happening, and been helpless. He died on the 12th, an event which can still bring tears to my eyes when I remember it.

Finally, I asked to preach today because one year ago, on the anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death, I looked into the face or raw, naked hatred: Fred Phelps, a minister from Topeka, was in Seattle with a group of his followers to celebrate Matthew Shepard's death. I will not repeat the obscenities that Phelp's followers shouted over their bull horns, nor will I mention the unspeakable things they propagate on their website at -- the name says it all. But I had never seen such unswerving, deep hatred in my life, or had it directed at me, and I was shaken by it.

Rabbi Heschel, in God's Search for Man, writes that awe, rather than faith, is the cardinal virtue of the religious person. To hate is to loose sight of that awe which we must feel when we are confronted with the miracle of another human being. To hate another person is to reject the spirit of God, which is freely given to all of us, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, intelligence level or income. To hate another person is to deny God's love, it is to deny Jesus, and it is to deny grace. Hatred is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Yet many of us have had to learn to live with hatred.

I want to tell you one more story: in Loosing Matt Shepard, Beth Lofreda writes of interviewing a young gay Native American a year after the Shepard murder. The young man's first comment was that now the white population had some idea what it was like to be American Indian. His next remark was that on the way to the interview he had been taken for Mexican, and a woman had hissed the word "pick" at him as he stopped at a grocery store. These racial hatreds outweighed the young man's identity as a gay person -- an identity which is in itself enough to teach many what it is to learn to live with fear. We are surrounded by "reasons" to hate.

So we go back to today's Gospel. I began by saying that it is hard for us to understand today the taboos that counted a Samaritan or a foreigner or a eunuch as an untouchable outsider, beyond God's grace and reach.

Or is it? On the anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death and on Coming Out Day, I have to say that it is not. But exclusion is never the Christian way, and hatred is never acceptable among those confess the name of Jesus.

We must guard against rejecting the grace that is a gift to every one of us. Our baptismal identity must give Christians the patience and the humility to disagree but to love as God loves us. It is not easy, but it is the job that Jesus has given us to do. We are commanded to love one another.

That love is hard work. It means not always having our own way. It means, at times, exercising restraint and patience. It means practicing humility. It means respecting our neighbor as an active matter of principle. It means not only believing in love, which is easy, but practicing it, which is often very difficult. It means working to preserve a sense of awe at God's presence in all people.

For we must remember that we are all recipients of the unconditional love of God. We are included into Israel without entitlement because "In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile." God is doing something amazing: he is accepting us all, and as Christians we must labor to bring something new into the World: love: where there is no Jew or Gentile, no Muslim or Christian, no inferior race or people, no gay or straight -- no untouchable.

Dr. Jonathan Sachs, the Head Rabbi of Britain, has said, "If religion doesn't become part of the solution, it stands in great danger of becoming part of the problem." We have seen what perversions of religion can lead to. We cannot -- must not -- allow religion to lead to hate or to the endorsement of hate.

We cannot - must not - ignore the work of the Holy Spirit in all lives.

We cannot -- must not -- loose the awe that we should feel in the presence of our brothers and sisters. To do so may put salvation and membership in the body of Christ at peril.

I want to leave you with two verses that keep me going, Romans 8:38-39:

"For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."


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