Minister's Sermon - 13th October 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenSermon for Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church

Sunday 13th October 2019 10.30am

Reading 1: Jeremiah 29.1,4-7

Reading 2: Luke 17.11-19

This week I’ve read three fascinating newspaper articles. On Wednesday I read the news that the Stirling Prize - the annual prize for the best new building in the UK – was given to a council housing project. It’s usually won by a prominent public building, so a “modest masterpiece” of 105 houses, was an unusual choice. Goldsmith Street in Norwich was praised, not only for its high-quality architecture, but also because it is socially and environmentally conscious. Energy costs are 70% cheaper than average and there’s plenty of communal space where children can play. What the judges saw in this housing scheme, was what the future of social housing, could be.

The second article that caught my attention was the news of a new exhibition in the British Museum. It’s called “Inspired by the East” and it explores the impact the Islamic world has had on Western art since the 15th century. It includes ceramics, glass, jewellery, clothing and paintings. I’ve stopped reading the reviews of exhibitions in London, since we moved, but this one struck me because its headline was so different from other headlines about Islam or Muslim countries. The exhibition is a reminder that instead of being enemies, the Christian and Muslin worlds, used to look “at each other with mutual fascination.” (1)

The third article was by Afua Hirsch. Afua is a Booker Prize judge this year and she was writing about the experience of reading 151 books in 6 months. She doesn’t recommend it! But I think that what she discovered is important. “What I found,” she wrote, “is that if you only read the kind of novel you have always read, you can only think the kind of things you usually think. The greatest insights I experienced… came from books I would never have chosen. I found new things to love in the most unexpected places: an English schoolboy who didn’t fit in; a couple of Irish gangsters scouring a Spanish port; a Vietnamese mother and son making sense of life in the US; the minute details of the life of a Swiss orphan who went on to become Madame Tussaud.” (2)

Well, fascinating as this all is, you’re probably wondering what it has to do with today’s readings! There were three words in the articles that I noticed. And they’re all about sight. About seeing what the future for social housing could be. About the West and the Middle East looking at each other differently. And about the insight we gain from reading the books we’re not usually drawn to. And I was struck by those words, because seeing, looking and insight is at the heart of today’s Gospel reading. Though this is revealed in details in the reading that we don’t usually notice. David Lose, an American Lutheran pastor, points to four. (3)

The story begins with Luke telling us that “On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” Now this is strange, because Samaria and Galilee border each other, so there is no “region between” to go through. And even if there was, it’d be an odd route, to take to Jerusalem. Quibbling with Luke’s grasp of geography might sound picky. But the fact that he’s got is wrong, suggests it didn’t matter, because he wasn’t making a geographical point. The point he wanted to make is theological. That as Jesus is on his way to the cross in Jerusalem, each of the encounters he has along the way, reveals something about the kingdom he has come to establish. This encounter takes place in a sort of no-mans-land and involved two old enemies. The Jews and the Samaritans. They’d originally belonged to the same community, but in the 8 centuries before Jesus was born, they become separated and then grown further and further apart. They developed different religious traditions. And with time, as the Samaritans became more isolated, the hostility between the two communities grew until they saw each other as enemies. So, even ‘though there wasn’t a physical “region in between” Samaria and Galilee, there was a great gulf. Yet the Gospels, make it clear that Jesus ignored it, as time and time again, he’s found with Samaritans. Healing them, welcoming them, speaking with them. And the theological point that Luke is making in this story, is that the kingdom comes close when our hostilities are being healed, and that begins with Jesus.

Maybe it’s clearer now, why the exhibition at the British Museum, caught my attention. In today’s world, Islam is often seen as an enemy of the civilised, Western world. Whether it’s called El Queda, the Taliban, Islamic State, radical Islamic groups in Europe, or states like Iran or Turkey. Out attitude towards Muslims, in this country and around the world, is often rooted in hostility. Of course, most ordinary people, don’t see Muslims with the rampant Islamophobia, that radical right-wing groups hold to. Yet, there is still a tendency to be fearful, to identify Islam with terrorism and to “other” them because they are different. And that increases whenever we see Muslim countries at war. As Turkey is now with the Kurdish-controlled lands in Syria. So, there’s work to be done, because we’re far from the kingdom of God where all hostility is ended. And if we’re to ever get there, we need “in between places,” places where we meet each other and talk with each other, or failing that, places like the British Museum’s exhibition, which invites us to think differently.

The second detail in the story, is a reminder that this brief encounter between Jesus and the lepers, is typical of healing stories. There’s nothing unique about this one. The lepers plead for healing – like others have done earlier - and Jesus tells them to go to the priest. Jesus has done this before and he’ll do the same again. Nor is the response from the one who returns unique. Others also, praise God for being healed, kneel before Jesus, and thank him. Both elements of this story appear in other healing stories. Which makes it an ordinary story. So, the second detail reminds us, that God acts in and through the ordinary.

I guess that’s why I like the Stirling Prize so much this year. These are houses for ordinary people. I gather that most of the other firms that tendered for the contract planned blocks of flats. They’re more usual for council housing because we assume they makes best use of ground space. But not always. And by using terraced housing - the sort of housing that was cleared from cities and towns up and down the country to make way for blocks of flats – the architects built more houses in a better environment. Every house has a small outdoor space. Between the houses at the back, there are spaces for children to play, and for adults to meet and talk. And all the front doors face another. Which means that people see each other, as they come and go, and a sense of community is developing. These are all the ordinary things people missed when terraced houses were replaced by tower blocks. So, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the reasons Goldsmith Street’s new residents like it are really simple. “The place just seems safe… To see my little girl playing outside the front door makes me cry… We made instant friends across the street… I feel like I don’t rent it, I own it…” (4) This is God’s kingdom coming close.

The third detail in the Gospel story relates to the identity of the leper who returns. We know that one of them was a Samaritan, and it’s him and not one of the nine Jewish lepers, who returns. We need to be careful here, because in the past, commentators have drawn all sorts of anti-Semitic conclusions from this. Conclusions that neither stack up. Nor have anything to do with the purpose of the story. ‘Though that might be, because we’re uncomfortable with Jesus’ question to the Samaritan, which makes him look as if he’s somehow better than the others. Because Jesus asks the leper who returned – who is only identified as a Samarian at this point – where the others are. Given that Jesus told the ten to go to the priest in order to follow the law, his question about where the other nine are, seems odd. The answer is obvious. They’re doing what you told them to do! So, why does Jesus ask? I think the simplest answer, is that he wants to draw the attention of those who were witnessing these events, to the fact that the one who returns is a Samaritan or, as Jesus describes him, a foreigner. In other words, he’s someone a first-century Jew, would not normally look to as an example of trust or faithfulness. And that challenges them to see that in the midst of an ordinary healing miracle, “something has changed.” Because if things are to change, for transformation, we need to open our eyes to see that the potential for change is present in the ordinary things of life and faith.

I want to return to Goldsmith Street, because as well as being quite ordinary, it was chosen for the prize because there is something new. Something different. Something that had changed. These council houses are not like usual council houses. They’re not built in the cheapest way possible making them hard to heat. They’ve been built with energy efficiency in mind so they don’t cost the earth to live in. They have letterboxes in external porches, rather than the front doors, to reduce draughts. All the houses face south to get as much sunlight as possible. The walls are more than 60cm thick. And the roofs are tilted so they avoid blocking sunlight from the neighbours. So, not only are they cheaper to run than an average house, they’re also more environmentally friendly and that’s more important than ever. These aren’t the first environmentally friendly homes to be built. But they are opening people’s eyes to what’s possible. And when we see what’s possible that begins to change what we do and how we live. And that’s also the point Afua Hirsch makes about reading books we wouldn’t normally chose to read. She says that she realised that she tends to choose books that reflect the world she already knows. So, there’s little opportunity to be surprised, to be changed. But “reading stories that I would never have chosen, mistakenly believing them to be uninteresting or too remote from my concerns, reading them intensely… making sure I gave them the time that they deserved: this slowly began to change me.” “Now I totally get book clubs,” she says, “They open your eyes.” (2) Because the books they invite us to read, aren’t the usual ones we’d choose, our eyes are opened to new things, extraordinary things, and that seeing has the potential to change us. When Jesus pointed out that it was only the Samaritan leper, only the foreigner who’d returned, he was inviting those who with him to see something different and be challenged by it.

The fourth detail, in the story of the ten lepers, is in Jesus words to the Samaritan. The NRSV says, “Your faith has made you well.” The Message, “your faith has healed and saved you.” And the King James Version, “Your faith has made you whole.” All of these translations are correct. The Greek work for “made you well” can be translated as healed, made well, saved, or made you whole. So, which-ever ways it’s translated, it’s clear that “there is more at stake here than mere healing.” (3) The exhibition in the British Museum invites us to see Islam differently, to turn away from hostility, and consider what we can learn from each other. The Stirling Prize offers a new way of seeing housing, not just as places to live, but as buildings that enhance to social cohesion and limit our impact on the environment. While books, that we wouldn’t choose to read, extend our imagination and introduce us to new worlds. For me, these are all about healing and wholeness for us, and individuals, and communities. And they’re about wholeness developing in “in between places,” in ordinary ways in ordinary places, in ways that change how we see.

For those of us with faith, ‘though, there is more. God’s kingdom is about more than physical or social or environmental healing. And each of the details in the reading, suggests that Jesus is telling his followers that faith doesn’t start with believing or trusting, but that it begins with seeing. All the lepers were healed. But only one returned. So only one was really changed. Because the Samaritan leper saw more than clean skin, he recognised that Jesus was more than a healer, and so he glimpses God’s kingdom. Because the Samaritan leper sees what has happened, he is thankful, and praises God. And because he sees all of this the Samaritan leper changes direction. He turns away from the priest and returns to Jesus. And Jesus praises his faith – his trust – his seeing. For when we see like him we’re more able to make a difference. In our communities, in the wider world and within ourselves, and also in the church.

If our churches are to be expressions of God’s kingdom, ‘though, we’ll have to go to “in-between” places where our hostilities can be healed. Now, if you think there are no hostilities in this church, that will sound strange. But I doubt that there are any churches without hostilities or disagreements. They’re human. And churches are human institutions. Let me use the example of our conversations with each other. Conversations that I’m going to call gossip. There are two forms of gossip. Gossip that can help others to see. And gossip that gets in the way of seeing. When our gossip is Gospel-gossip, it can help people see where God is at work in the world, today. Through it, we witness to how God is changing us, and other people. But gossip can also be negative and hostile. When we talk about people in derogatory ways. And when we listen to stories uncritically and pass them on. Our gossip undermines the healing and the wholeness that God’s kingdom is about. Few of us never gossip. So, we all need to learn to change, and one of the ways we can begin to do that is to talk directly to those we have a disagreement with. That might not be easy or comfortable, but the “in-between regions,” are places of challenge and insight.

In January, we will begin “Holy Habits,” a programme we’ll be exploring together over the next 2 years. Holy Habits is designed to deepen our discipleship and to enable us all to share more fully in God’s mission to the world. Although the habits are called “Holy,” and that might make them sound special, they’re actually quite ordinary habits. The things Christians do every day that enable us to become “Holy.” By that, I don’t mean “holier than thou,” or superior. I mean following God’s command to the people of Israel to become holy as God is holy. Which is what Jeremiah tells the exiles in Babylon to do, when he says, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” The habits that will enable us to grow in holiness are: fellowship, prayer, eating together, worship, generosity, service, learning from the bible, breaking bread together, giving and sharing our faith. Since there’s nothing extraordinary about them,and since they’re things we’re all doing anyway, you might wonder why we’re doing the programme. Well, I think there are times when all of us need an opportunity, to look again at the habits our of faith. To see them anew. To look at them differently. To gain new insights and be open to be changed by them.

A few weeks ago, my sermon was about our worship, and some of it is in The Link. I’ve had some helpful feedback. Some welcomed it. Some thought I was getting at them. I’m sorry, if that was the case, because what I intended to do was to invite everyone to let go of our own need for our services to always be what we want them to be. To widen who “we” are, to include people who aren’t part of the church, yet. And let go of the things that get in the way of God’s kingdom. A group of us met earlier this week to talk about worship. But we didn’t begin by talking about our worship. We took a step back so we could think about what worship is. For worship isn’t simply about praising God or hearing God's story. The point of hearing God’s story through readings and in the sermon, and the point of praising God through songs and prayers, is that we learn to see God at work in our lives and the world. That’s why my sermons intertwine the readings with stories of what’s happening in the world. They’re stories of where I see God at work. David Lose says, “Perhaps this is the key to the Christian life. Before we are called to believe or confess or help or do we are called simply to see... to name grace wherever we are…” (3)

At the beginning of today’s Gospel story, ten men are stuck, living “in-between,” in the no-mans-land of social, religious, and physical exclusion. By the end of the story, all ten are made well. But one has something more. He’s has seen Jesus and the kingdom of God. He’s recognised the source of his healing. Seeing, leads him to change direction, and because he’s really seen, he isn’t only healed, he’s made whole, restored, and drawn back into relationship with God and humanity. I pray that as we learn to see more deeply we will be too. Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen

13th October 2019

(1) Jonathan Jones, The Guardian Tuesday 8th October 2019, p19

(2) Afua Hirsch The Guardian Comment Thursday 10th October

(3) https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=783

(4) Simon Jenkins, The Guardian Comment Friday 11th October

References

(1) Jonathan Jones, The Guardian Tuesday 8th October 2019, p19

(2) Afua Hirsch The Guardian Comment Thursday 10th October

(3) https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=783

(4) Simon Jenkins, The Guardian Comment Friday 11th October