United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

“The Wideness of God’s Mercy”

 Oct. 9th, 2022

 Rev. Rebecca Migliore


       “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.  There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty” wrote Frederick Faber in 1854.  That hymn came into my mind when I read our gospel lesson for today.  And along with the song came the image of a great fishing net, which scoops all kinds of creatures up in its catch.

       Jesus didn’t ask the lepers who approached him--at a careful distance, since they were unclean in Jewish eyes, and could make others unclean by touching them—about their faith credentials.  He saw, he heard, people in need, people asking for mercy, people asking for help, people who called out to him: “Jesus” (knowing his name), “Master” (knowing his role), “have mercy on us” (knowing his power).

       I’m struck by how the storyteller describes them only as ten lepers (it is only later that we are told one, the one who returns, is a Samaritan).  That is what the world sees.  Ten outcasts, living in a border region, a place where few would want to be.  Ten men who must always stay removed from society other than their own.  Ten people who most look away from, in fear that they might one day join their ranks. 

       Within this borderland, amidst the suffering and heartbreak of a progressive, debilitating, awful disease, these lepers find that everything else falls away.  There is no Jew nor Samaritan here (for these two groups who worshiped the same God though on different mountains had no love for one another)—but in the borderlands, everyone is huddled together.  They act together—they approach Jesus, they keep their distance, they call out with one voice, they go as he instructs them, and as they go they are all made clean.

     It is only as they run to reenter society, to get to see their families again, to get to do the jobs they had only dreamed about doing again, to return to life “before,” it is only then that the ten break apart.  Because one, one, turns back to give thanks.

       I kept thinking about this as “there’s a wideness in God’s mercy” swam along in my mind.  I kept mulling it over as a quote from Origin (an early church scholar and theologian) suggested by Seasons of the Spirit, “Holiness is seeing with the eyes of Christ” lodged in my brain.  Is the wideness of God’s mercy such that there are no divisions—does God sees us as that amalgamation of humans, struggling to be free?  Is the wideness of God’s mercy (which we are to try to mirror in our own lives) insistent on filtering out all those categories that we, that our society, that the media, that our brains, use to depict people as: like us/not like us; safe/dangerous; even good/bad.  You know what I’m talking about—sometimes it isn’t even deliberate—sometimes to see people with the eyes of Christ means stripping away our gut, our first impressions, our biases, our life experience—and see strengths and weaknesses, gifts and faults, successes and failures, in other words, to see one another as human, and so like us, and so caught up in the sweeping net of God’s mercy and God’s justice and God’s shalom.

       Most of us don’t spend a lot of time in the border spaces of our world.  Most of us don’t cultivate the eyes of Christ that just see need, or pleading, or desperation.  The term from Dr. Gurina-Rodriguez’s book “beggar-centric” has continued to haunt me.  As I think about who will be able to rebuild their lives in Florida and in so many other places of disaster.  As I am buffeted by ads on TV about how best to manage your “wealth.”  As I think about those in our world who have to struggle each day to have clean water (while I am mildly inconvenienced by water main breaks in the Newark water system that have necessitated boiling tap water for any use).  As I feel the coming colder weather and wonder where those who are unhoused will go to stay warm.

    As I see the word “luxury” plastered on every banner where there is new housing being erected in our area.  As we put together sustainable lunches for those near St. Andrews in Newark (who are bringing the question of the continuation of the soup kitchen to their vestry this month).  As I am revolted to hear of monies meant to be spent on poverty going elsewhere, and insurance companies and hospitals milking payments out of those who should have had free care. 

       I feel the gulf between those lepers, those who had been isolated, those who had so little that they no longer had separate identities, and where I am.  Yet, I too need to approach.  I too need to call out.  I too need to beg, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on me.”

       God’s mercy is wide.  God’s justice is liberty.  Jesus sees those who call on him, and meets their needs—physical and emotional and social.  He sends them to the priests, to the place where they can be declared clean and welcomed back into society.  And as they go, they are made clean.

       I’m fascinated by the faith of these people.  Even before their skin began to be “as it used to be,” they go.  Even before they can see the difference in their bodies, they go.  Even before they fully understand what has happened, they go.  Jesus says, “Go” and they do, and in their going, all they had hoped, all they had dreamed, all they had given up believing could happen, happened.  And they disappear from our sight. 

       All but one.  One who recognizes he is healed, turns back, and praises God in a loud voice.  The Seasons of the Spirit commentary makes an observation that I have never thought about before.  Because this one is a Samaritan, maybe he was a little wary of going to the priests.  Were there Samaritan priests nearby?  Now that they were healed, the anonymity of being outcast because of illness is broken.  But the outcast nature of being a Samaritan remains.  Let’s be clear, the 9 who go are doing exactly what Jesus told them to do.  Even if he asks where they are.  They have done nothing wrong.

     But this one, and this one is a Samaritan no less, has done something above and beyond what was required.  Taking the time to praise God, with a loud voice.  Witnessing to all that God had done for him.  Putting God before all other things.  Maybe this is why when Martin Luther was asked what “true worship” was he replied, “the tenth leper turning back.”

       Again, I get this nudge that this isn’t a story just about long ago—but talks to us, right here and right now.  Do we make time to turn back towards God, even when there are important things to do, even when we are on a deadline, even when it isn’t what everyone else is doing?  And how about our voices.  Do we whisper our thanks?  Or do we shout it from the rooftops?  Do we pay attention to all the blessings that seem to find us as we are doing other things?  Are we able to overcome our training, our routine, to sit at Jesus’ feet?  Are we willing to bend down and embrace his toes?  How often do we say, “Thank You”?

       My guess is not enough, for any of us.  Is this the point that Jesus is making by saying, “Were there not ten of you?  Where are the other nine?”  Even if we make time to raise a loud voice, praising God for all the blessings of this life, it will be only a portion of what we could do.

       I notice that even if Martin Luther says that true worship is the tenth leper turning back, Jesus is not satisfied to have someone breathing on his feet.  Jesus does not end the story there.  We cannot cloister ourselves in our safe spaces, in our Jesus adjacent protected places.  No, after recognizing the bounty of God’s mercy, after turning and taking the time to say thank you, we are still sent out, out of the border and into the real world, out of isolation into the jostle of competing ideologies, out of here and into out there.

       But, but, but, our no-longer-leper has changed.  As we have changed.  In that time and place outside of time and place, we have been given a glimpse of people stripped of all those labels.  We have been gifted with the image of God’s grace and mercy shown to all.  We have seen the changes in our own bodies.

     We have had a close encounter with Jesus.  We have been told that our faith, even if it be as small as a mustard seed, our faith has made us well.  We have been challenged, called, commanded to go. Yes, go into the world.  Yes, go back to our lives that will never be the same.  Yes, go into all those broken and diseased places, find all those broken and mangled people, and in whatever way you can, pass God’s mercy on.

       And now another song joins The Wideness of God’s mercy.  A song that puts the words of Jesus from the end of the gospel of Matthew to music.  “Go ye, go ye, into the world, and take the gospel to all the people.  Go ye, go ye, into the world, and I will be with you there!” 

       Jesus is telling us that it is important to see what is happening in our world, in our very nature.  Jesus is telling us that it is important to find time to praise God, and not to be apologetic or ashamed to do it in loud ways.  Jesus is telling us that God’s mercy is wide, and God’s healing and wholeness is something we participate in.  Jesus is telling us that we can’t sit on this knowledge as if it was a secret.  Jesus is propelling us out, away from comfort, but towards the other wilderness of life in our world.

       The last two plus years has been like a border land for most of us.  Routines long established have been disrupted.  Expectations have gone by the wayside.  The pandemic gave us time to think about what we rarely thought about.  It also exposed in harsher light the rifts in our communities; the disparities of wealth, of health care, of access to food, and internet, and electronics, and transportation; the swath of people who we need, in-person, on the front-lines, to make our society function; the toll that it all has left on us, mentally, emotionally, physically, societally.

       I hear the gospel this morning recognizing all that we have been through.  Pleading with us to hold onto the new insights we have discovered in our time off the grid of “everyday life.”  Promising that our faith, our small steps, our time with one another and with God, count for something.

     Smiling down on our feeble attempts to try to continue to praise God with a loud voice, even through imperfect technical devices.  Applauding our efforts to meet some of the human need we can see and do something about, while urging us to widen and deepen our commitment.  Challenging us to find ways to step out of our comfort zones, whether that be our living rooms, or our familiar sanctuary spaces, or our protected silos of friends and organizations.

       Do we see with the eyes of Christ?

       Are we able to put aside our filters?

Have we made time to truly worship the One whose grace has given us so much? 

       And are we willing to go, to be sent, into new ministries, grappling with unfamiliar ideas, continuing to step out in faith, knowing that when we do, “God will be with us there”?

       My prayer, for us all, is that God’s wide mercy acts like a funnel, channeling God’s love into the empty spaces of our lives and our world.  May we find ways, loud and soft, to lift up the goodness of God in our lives.  May our hearts be ever restless, may our feet be ever ready for the road, and may our minds churn with possibilities as we search for God’s Shalom.  And may our church be ever faithful in trying to work out God’s vision for us and our world.

              May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.