Message Manuscript of “Learning from the Foreigner”
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, October 13, 2013
Audio of the sermon is here.
There I was, right on the front row, trying not to be too obviously white. A scene is running through my head from the movie, The Jerk, where Steve Martin’s character, Navin R. Johnson, is trying to learn how to dance but can’t even clap in rhythm. He is a white child living in a black family, but doesn’t know that he is white. The greatest moment in the movie and in his character’s life is when he learns to get on musical beat, snapping his fingers and moving his feet in rhythm. I felt like him as I stood there in the Sanctuary of Mt. Canaan Baptist Church in a Wednesday night service a few weeks ago. With a pretty big crowd of people clapping behind me, a big choir swaying smoothly in front of me, and with my fellow brothers and sisters there on the front pew clapping along side of me, I was not sure what to do. Things are bit quieter around here, you know. Even though we are a racially diverse congregation, anyone rhythmically challenged can show up here and go the whole service unrecognized. Not so that night at Mt. Canaan. They were making such a great offering of worship that I couldn’t help but stand out if I took my normal worship posture. I couldn’t help but want to join them. So, I looked at my fellow clappers, tapped my foot a little, put my hands together, and tried to copy them as best I could.
The next week, I happened to be in the Princeton Theological Seminary Chapel, on the beautiful campus of Princeton University in New Jersey. I was there for a week of continuing education for Chaplains of Volunteers of America. I had assumed that my experience there would be one that fit my stereotypical thinking about a Presbyterian seminary on an Ivy League campus. I love my Presbyterian friends dearly, but if you think our worship here is a bit on the orderly side, their’s puts ours to shame. They take the “order” part of Order of Worship as the 11th Commandment–Thou Shall Keep Order in Worship. But, as the first chapel service began, I was surprised by what I was seeing and hearing: Fanny Crosby hymns, a few hands raised in worship, people of color, languages from around the world, and other indications of a very diverse student body. I experienced this richly within our own group of Volunteers of America Chaplains that week as well. I was, again, outside of my normal experience of worship.
Both of these were great learning experiences, ones that cause me to recall how accustomed I get to worshipping in my own tradition; ones reminding me how I can so easily forget the powerful blessing that comes from the worship and experiences of other churches, other faiths, and other people. You could even say that I get so comfortable with the way I interact with God that I lose sight that there are other ways; ones just as real and maybe even better than mine. If I don’t ever step outside of what is normal for me, then these blessings remain foreign to me. And what a blessing I would be missing.
I can’t help but think of what a blessing the nine lepers in our text (Luke 17:11-19) today were missing by not going to worship with the one foreigner in their midst. Who knows why they didn’t follow him back to Jesus after their healing. Maybe they just had a preference for their own worship style back home. Maybe they were just so excited about their new skin that they didn’t even think about anyone but themselves. Maybe they were so glad to be away from the Samaritan foreigner in their midst that they easily took another direction. Or, perhaps, Jesus was also a foreigner, one within their own faith group but one whose ways were as foreign to them as anything they had ever seen. Whatever the reason, what we do know is that they didn’t return to offer their praise to God at the feet of Jesus, their healer. And Jesus noticed and said, . . . but the other nine, where are they?
Jesus observed aloud that the Samaritan, the foreigner, was the only one to return, one who did so dramatically. The description Luke provided here of this man’s worship at the feet of Jesus is with purpose, telling us of how, . . . one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. Imagine what that must have been like for this man. He has not only had to deal with his skin and body parts rotting and falling off, with his social status as an outcast, but he also has had to put up with being treated as a foreigner by the Jews who refused to recognize him as a Samaritan, as a child of God. Luke made his status stand out here in his Gospel, noting specifically, And he was a Samaritan. The Living Bible interprets Luke even more specifically, as a despised Samaritan. What Jesus, and later Luke, wanted others to understand is of the importance of the foreigner; of how God welcomes the foreigner and his worship; of how the other nine and anyone else can learn from the relationship people other than them have with God. Jesus stayed in lots of trouble with his own group for seeking to expand this understanding of and appreciation for the foreigner.
The Old Testament reading from Jeremiah 29 this morning reminds us that learning from the foreigner should have been somewhat natural for Jesus’ group. They had the experience of exile to a foreign land in their history and not so distant memory. While there, they were the foreigners, learning from the people of Babylon and fully living among them. God would provide revelation and blessing to both groups, providing ways for both to learn from each other more about Him.
Malala Yousfzai has been in the news a lot this past week. Have you heard that name? As news of the Nobel Peace Prize went out this week, there was speculation that Malala might be the winner. She didn’t win it, but her contribution to this world is no less significant. You may remember her as the young girl in Pakistan who was shot in the head by the Taliban, all because she was wanting to go to school and learn. The good news is that she survived and has become a champion for the education of girls in Pakistan. Why did someone want to take away her life? She was a child. She was female. She was, therefore, a foreigner in the eyes of the Taliban. The world has learned much from this foreigner, especially in this past week of news.
It is important that we learn to learn from people who are considered by us as foreigners. Who are the foreigners of today? Maybe the first group that comes into your mind are Mexican immigrants. Much has been said, written, done about them, mostly from a fear of their arrival in our country. Walls have been built, laws have been passed, guns have been loaded, families have been broken up, and politicians have been elected all because of these foreigners. Not enough has been said about what value they bring to our nation. Not enough of us have asked, What can we learn from them? What is it about their faith, their families, and their perseverance that we are missing in our own country and experience?
When you hear the word “foreigner,” you might also think of people of other religions, like Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus. Could it be that we view them as the despised Samaritan, that we would rather not acknowledge that God’s activity and power is experienced in and among them? I’m not sure why the nine Jewish lepers didn’t go back to thank Jesus, but I’m wondering if it was an act of disassociation with a Samaritan more than a lack of gratitude. I’m confident they missed out on what God wanted them to experience with the this man’s enthusiastic expression. And I am confident we miss out when we choose to separate ourselves from people of other faiths as well. Is God’s healing power and grace not great enough to heal them of their leprosy as much as it is for ours?
Other foreigners can be people who aren’t in your political party, your race, your sexual orientation, your denomination, your suburb, your school, your educational experience, your way of doing things, or your tax bracket. You may find yourself as the foreigner at times, in their world, wondering what you are doing there. Could it be that God has something for you to learn about Him there; from them? And could it be that God gets a good chuckle when we use that term “foreigner,” as if we aren’t all foreigners ourselves? Here we are, all of us as lepers, all of us in need of the help Jesus connects us to on the road of our helplessness. Here we are, the marginalized marginalizing the marginal.
Maybe part of the reason we disdain the foreigners among us is that we forget that we are all on the same road; that we are all connected by our utter dependence upon God and our need for healing. What a better world it would be if we had the heart of gratitude of this Samaritan man, allowing what God has done in each one of us combine together in an offering of praise. I love our God Sightings time in worship. It is always a blessing to hear how other people are seeing God in their week. It is a reminder that God is in my week and I need to be looking for him there. God is also there in other people’s week, and I need to see what they have seen. Your worship will be deeply enriched by the testimony of where and how others are seeing God.
Let us, then, go back to Jesus today, returning with the wholehearted praise and sincere gratitude of the foreigner.