How often do you feel that you are an outsider; someone who doesn’t quite fit or, at its more acute end, someone whom others push away? Is this something that you do feel at times or have a memory of? It can be lonely and unpleasant, even if the reason for being excluded is for a stand you have had to take or because something that you know needs to happen is not welcomed and social exclusion is a power game some play. It is easy to feel an outsider who doesn’t fit, even in a crowd or in a group.
Our first reading (2 Kings 5:1-15) and the Gospel (Luke 17:11-19) this morning gave us people suffering from leprosy. Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, was once thought to be highly contagious, but is now known to be hard to spread, especially with certain precautions. It is treatable with antibiotics, though in the first century was not so easily treated. The fear of the disease meant that those who had it were pushed to the edges. Naaman, in our first reading was a high-ranking military officer, but still he had the disease and wanted relief. The lepers in the Gospel would have been excluded from much of society, expected to live outside large gatherings and pushed away.
Jesus healing the lepers does more than treat a medical condition. He takes outsiders and makes them insiders. They are brought through his healing love from the outside to the inside. The wonderful works, the healings, in the stories of Jesus, are not just to be taken at face value, they are always signs of something deeper. As he cures them, he brings them back into the fold and so they become a symbol of the grace of God at work in and through him. They become a sign for the rest of us. Jesus takes all of us, who would otherwise be outsiders, and makes us insiders. It is John Newton’s phrase in his hymn Amazing Grace, ‘I once was lost, but now am found’. All of us have been lost, outside, and through the grace of God have entered into the fold.
It goes more deeply. This is what Christ does for humanity and creation. The scale keeps expanding. Christ, the Word of God made flesh among us, is the one who bridges the gulf between an eternal creator and transitory mortal life. He does this because this is what God does. There is really no gap, because it has been shown to be filled by the only one who can, and that is the very heart and mind of God in Christ Jesus – whom John’s Gospel calls ‘The Word’. So, when we say at the end of the readings ‘For the word of the Lord: Thanks be to God’, we are saying so much more than thanks for the reading. We thank God for wisdom, for bridging the gap, for bringing creation into being from outside to inside the heart and love of God.
Making outsiders into insiders is the ministry of reconciliation. It is how penitents find release from their sins and are not condemned forever. It is how those at enmity can find a way to build peace and avoid mutually assured destruction – something that is needed with the war over Ukraine. It happens when there is conflict in communities. Outsiders have to become insiders, a new relationship has to emerge, one characterised by love and not hate, by hope and not fear, by inclusion and not exclusion, by making space and giving voice rather than closing off and silencing. Each of these could be a sermon in itself.
Today is also Homelessness Sunday. This is literally something that comes to our doors here and through the winter night shelter outsiders have been made insiders. I know from projects elsewhere that has changed lives. This hasn’t been able to run for a several years and we are working in partnership with others to see if it can start again. There is a new management at Edengate, which has improved the ways it operates and work is progressing. There is no council funding this year for it, unlike in past years, so funding has to be found. But we are stepping out in faith that it will be.
What we aim to do with projects like this, is not just patch up the cracks, though when someone has nothing, that is needed. But through the warmth of human love and contact, through the kindness of a bed for the night, through a hot meal shared, those who have become outsiders in so many ways, are helped to become insiders again. And these people have not been born homeless, they have become it, so ‘curing’ means they cease to be. And we know there is no magic wand; it takes the time it takes.
The stories of Naaman and the gospel lepers both end with thanks. Naaman wants to give a gift in return for his healing. One of the ten lepers returns to say thank you and in a further twist, this leper is revealed to have been even more of an outsider to the hearers of the story, for he is a Samaritan – a group regarded as being outsiders and not insiders. Thanks and praise is a sign that the welcoming in has been adopted and a change has taken place, or begun to take place. Thanks and praise change us all on the inside, on the inside of our hearts.
Whether you feel an outsider – sometimes, often or rarely – we are all as children of God welcomed inside into the heavenly courts and loving embrace of Christ’s love for the world. ‘I once was lost, but now am found’. The healing of lepers is a sign that God’s love changes us now and eternally.
Sermon for Trinity 17, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 9th October 2022