Faith, foreigners and fanks!
Are you proud of your country? This was the first in a series of questions that we asked those who attended this month’s Double Vision discussion evening last Monday as, with the help of Welsh Independence advocate Llywelyn ap Gwilym and our very own Ray Vincent, we discussed the positives and pitfalls of patriotism. Highlights on YouTube for those who want to catch up!
So, how would you answer the question? Are you proud of your country? And why or why not?
Of course, it depends in part in how you’d define nationhood but whether I consider myself English or British, there’s been much in the headlines this week that makes me lean towards a neutral, if not negative, response. The elitism of our political structures exposed once again in lobbying scandals; the fruit of our colonial past and contemporary isolationism witnessed in the rising tensions in Northern Ireland; our priorities in foreign policy revealed as we seek to cut our international aid program whilst increasing our selling of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Urgh! I, for one, won’t be flying a St. George’s flag next Friday.
But maybe you’ve got a different view of things. Maybe the pomp and public service on display at Prince Philip’s funeral evoked some pride. Maybe our vaccination research and roll out shows Britain at its best. And maybe you think there is a strong argument for reducing our foreign aid budget at a time of domestic economic challenge. After all, what’s wrong with looking after your own? Putting aside the many cross-party arguments for the benefits to the UK of a stronger international aid program, there is something to be said for focusing care on those in your immediate vicinity. This came up in Monday’s discussion too and put me in mind of the related view that it’s sometimes easier to love those who are far away than those who are next door – as shown with a fine bite in the book and film ‘The Help’ in which a group of upstanding white women in Mississippi go all out on the ‘African Children’s Benefit Ball’ whilst indulging in horrendously racist behaviour with their so-called ‘hired help’ in their own homes.
But what about Jesus?! Was he a patriot? (Another question asked on Monday!). Well, one could argue that his mission was pretty focused on the people of Israel and some of his declarations about gentiles and encounters with them, like the Syrophoenician woman, didn’t always seem to ring out with internationalism! Perhaps it’s a time to look at a specific meeting. Let’s go to the gospel according to Luke and see what Jesus and pals are up to as they walk the borderlands of their nation…
I love a passage like this one. Short and to the point…like some church secretaries! So what’s going on here? We have ten men who are suffering with leprosy living on the outskirts of a village in the north country. Following the demands of the law and expectations of society, they are kept at arm’s length from the rest of the community and are, I would expect, a tight group, scraping by together by begging for scraps and sympathy from the locals and any passing travellers. One of these travellers, a preacher from Nazareth, they’ve heard rumours about. Some say he’s a religious teacher; others a lefty revolutionary; others still that he’s been involved in some amazing acts of God. Perhaps they had faith in this Nazarene, perhaps they were just rolling their dice.
Either way, they ask for pity from this man who then instructs them, almost without blinking, to go show themselves to the priests. It was the priests, of course, who had the training to declare whether a skin disease had been healed – two whole chapters in the book of Leviticus deal exactly with this – and if a healing had occurred, the former outcasts would be permitted to re-join society – no longer ignored on the margins but allowed employment, community, family even. So when the wandering radical utters just six words to them, the men actually demonstrate wild hope and perhaps even faith in Jesus that, still diseased, they begin their journey to the priests when along the way, they are cleansed.
Now remember, cleansed or not, they still need the priests’ affirmation that they have been healed before their lives can take a different course, so off they go to get confirmation. They were in fact obeying Jesus’ initial command as they walked, or most probably, ran, to the religious leaders and the new life that awaited them.
Well, nine of them did. For the other one ran back to the one through whom he was healed, giving him thanks. You could argue that this thanks-giver didn’t follow the instruction originally given for he was so overjoyed by what had been done to him – the grace offered, the body revived, the new horizons opened – that he felt compelled to rush back and give thanks, thinking not of himself but of the one who helped him. It was in response to this action that Jesus, I imagine with a smile on his face and tears in his eyes, said ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well’. Oh, and here’s the kicker, the healed man was a Samaritan! You know, one of those foreign heretics who were so despised by most Jews of Jesus’ day that merely telling a story that in which one of them was good was considered a shocker!
In other words, then, Jesus listened to, pronounced healing on, and praised the faith of a foreigner… which…come to think of it…he did with the Roman centurion…and the Canaanite woman…and there was that whole ‘God works outside of Israel’ speech with which he announced his whole public ministry and very nearly got him killed, back in chapter 4. Yeah…okay…I think it’s safe to say that, whilst Jesus was very much embedded in his immediate context, Jesus’ ministry, compassion, and healing included those of different ethnicities, religions, and nationalities and so, therefore, should ours. ‘For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind’.
More of that hymn later…but for now, perhaps it’s not just Jesus whose actions we’re encouraged to emulate in that passage but the foreigner’s. Perhaps he’s not simply a passive player in the story but an active exemplar of the kind of faith Jesus wants us to have.
And some of you will be way ahead of me on this, given Jesus’ words and all…but to make sure we’re all up to speed here…when the man healed from leprosy runs back to thank Jesus…like proper thanks…shouty praise, falling at feet, ugly crying kind of thanks…it’s then that Jesus says ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well’. Just think, the guy had already been healed…like his nine other friends…and Jesus had no clue about the man’s beliefs – other than the fact that he would have been considered a heretic by most Jews – and yet Jesus, with the man in pieces at his feet, chooses that point to say ‘your faith has made you well’. We could get into all sorts of discussions about what’s really going on here but, personally, I think the baseline is pretty clear. Jesus seems to be saying that whilst God healed the man of his leprosy, it was the man’s faith – witnessed not in the doctrine to which he ascribed but rather in the thanksgiving with which he overflowed – that brought him wellness, that gave him peace.
And I wonder if that’s not pretty radical! That Jesus might be intimating that whilst we can get side-tracked with doctrine and structure and liturgy, it’s those who are living lives of gratitude who are on the right track; those who overflow with thanks for all that God gives us who have faith that makes them – and others – well. Jesus certainly seemed to live out such a view. Even when preparing his friends for his death on the night before his execution, Jesus showed his friends how they were to remember him through a meal of thanksgiving…and you Ancient Greek fans – you know who you are – will be interested to know that the Greek term used for the Samaritan’s thanksgiving in today’s passage is actually eucharisto…as in Eucharist…as in Jesus’ meal of thanksgiving. This Samaritan is so on message!
So maybe today’s scripture reminds us that gratitude is the healthiest response to grace. Maybe it tells us that the practice of gratitude transforms lives. That practicing gratitude changes our care for sisters and brothers – both domestic and foreign – from an ethical obligation to the work of grateful hearts and hands.
Today, then, as we reaffirm our support of the Leprosy Mission and all those who work tirelessly to heal and help those still suffering from leprosy today, perhaps we might give not in duty but in joy. Perhaps our gratitude that the last indigenous case of leprosy in the UK was way back in 1798 might inspire us to give. Perhaps our gratitude for the NHS and for our fast and free receipt of life-saving Covid-19 vaccinations might inspire us to give. Perhaps our gratitude to God for our life, our breath, our very being might inspire us to give.
And if we do then maybe we can also regain, if not pride in our country, at least a more well-rounded view of the nature of modern Britain as, up until next Friday, any money we give will be matched by the UK Government. It costs £24 to cure someone of leprosy, giving them the chance to live free from disability and rejection. So if you give just £12, that’s one person cured and if, in gratitude, you give £24 that’s two! (Look at me showing off my maths skills!)
You see, the truth is that nationhood is complicated; foreign policy is complicated; questions of faith are complicated…but gratitude doesn’t have to be. So let’s try to listen to Jesus, give thanks to God, and live lives of gratitude. Amen.
Prayers for ourselves and others
Ever-present God, you often meet us in the borderlands of our lives, at times when we are well out of our comfort zone. Even if we don’t know where we’re going, when we feel most lost, you are there: Thank you, God.
Saviour Jesus, your life, death and resurrection revealed your love for all people, whatever their nationality or ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality. That you love and welcome each of us as we are: Thank you, God.
Surprising Spirit, you revive our bodies and souls through hope and healing. That you revive us and reform us today: Thank you, God.
We pray for your Church. As the elders of our communities consider how best to provide safe and faithful worship over the coming months, give them wisdom. As friends grieve lost loved ones, give them comfort. As we face the monotony and magnificence of our daily living, give us glimpses of joy to share. Help us to be a people known for our gratitude.
We pray, too for those who hunger, those who thirst, those who cry out for justice,
those who live under the threat of terror, those who are ill, those without a place to lay their head.
Help them hear of joy and gladness, that those who are burdened may rejoice.
Today, we bring before you those who have leprosy and who live in isolation and poverty as a result.
Help The Leprosy Mission and other like-minded organisations who are actively fighting the case of those who have leprosy. Empower their efforts so that on the ground they can change hearts and minds, in the courtroom they can change laws, and with national governments they can change policies. We thank you for Pat Howell for who she is and what she does to encourage our care for those suffering with leprosy. Thank you for all the saints such as she who transform the world with quiet but constant acts of compassion.
In a moment of stillness, we pray for those known to us who are in particular need of healing, wholeness, hope today…
Gracious God, we praise your name and bring this time of prayer to an end with the Leprosy Mission Prayer –
Almighty Father, the giver of life and health, look mercifully on those who suffer from leprosy. Stretch out your hand to touch and heal them as Jesus did during his earthly life. Grant wisdom and insight to those who are seeking the prevention and cure of the disease; Give skill and sympathy to those who minister to the patients; Reunite the separated with their families and friends; And inspire your people with the task set before The Leprosy Mission, that it may never lack either the staff or the means to carry on its healing work, in accordance with your will, and to the glory of your holy name. We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord. Amen
For all that God can do within us, for all that God can do without us, Thanks be to God.
For all in whom Christ lived before us, for all in whom Christ lives beside us, Thanks be to God.
For all the Spirit wants to bring us, for where the Spirit wants to send us, Thanks be to God.
May we go to serve God, blessed and brimming with grace and gratitude…for there is a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in his justice which is more than liberty…
Hymn: There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Leprosy Mission Sunday
Leprosy is a disease often considered confined to Biblical times. But did you know there are almost a quarter of a million new leprosy cases diagnosed each year? Even though there is a cure for leprosy, for every person treated there are a hidden 20 needing the cure.
Leprosy hides in remote villages like Namatua, where Zaina lives in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s most northern province. There are no doctors in Namatua, and medical care is scarce. Leprosy is shrouded by fear and misunderstanding, which means people with the disease face extreme discrimination.
For too long, leprosy has disrupted and disabled lives. It has separated loved ones and torn families apart. But through the power of unconditional love, life in Mozambique, is changing.
The Leprosy Mission is raising up people like Zaina to become Leprosy Changemakers, to lead the fight against leprosy. They are part of a sea change, paving the way for a Mozambique free of leprosy and discrimination.
Zaina was shown God’s unconditional love through the kindness of a stranger. Forever grateful, Zaina’s love for others walking the same path as her knows no bounds. She goes the extra mile to find those who are hidden away and fearful so that they too have the freedom of a new life.
Zaina was a young mum when she first noticed discoloured patches on her skin. She didn’t know what they were, but when they became visible to other people in her home village of Namatua, they recognised the signs of leprosy. Because of age-old myths surrounding disease, some of the villagers banished her to the forest, chanting “go to the bush” over and over.
Together with her young son, Zaina was forced to live in the forest. If that wasn’t hard enough, a group of villagers came to take her little boy away. Zaina was heartbroken. Hungry and without medicine, her body became increasingly weak.
By the grace of God a stranger found Zaina in the forest. He built her a hut to shelter from the rain and took her to a health post where her leprosy was cured. Leprosy Changemakers, trained by The Leprosy Mission, were able to go to Namatua and teach the villagers about leprosy and how it is easily cured.
Zaina was able to take back her future into her own hands and is now a thriving member of her community. Determined others shouldn’t have to suffer a similar fate, Zaina has trained as a Leprosy Changemaker. She is able to recognise the early signs of leprosy and has made it her mission to encourage others affected by the disease.
The Unconditional Appeal sees churches in the UK partner with communities in Mozambique to build community hubs.
A community hub, or a Hub of Hope, gives a beating heart to a village like Namatua, a place from which to lead the fight against leprosy. A place where Leprosy Changemakers, like Zaina, can learn to recognise early symptoms of the disease. Crucially, a Hub of Hope is a place where people affected by leprosy are welcomed unconditionally.
Will you become a Leprosy Changemaker today by sharing Jesus’s unconditional love for people with leprosy?
There is a wonderful opportunity, thanks to UK Aid Match, for your unconditional love to go twice as far. Gifts to The Unconditional Appeal made before 24 April 2021 will be DOUBLED by the UK government.
Please donate online – or contact someone who can help you with this (Marcia Hurley is generously willing once again) – at