Just outside of a small, quiet, town called Thaxton, Virginia, there is a quiet mountain tucked amongst the rising mountain tops of the Blue Ridge. On top of this quiet mountain is a small, quiet, church called Cool Spring Presbyterian Church. The members of this church have been worshiping on top of this mountain for a long time. Like the town, the mountain, and the church, they are a quiet, peaceful bunch. Geoff Hubbard has served as the pastor there for a while now; likewise he reflects the town, the mountain, the church, and its members. Geoff is an unassuming, humble man, with a servant’s heart.
Well Cool Spring is an appropriate name for this tiny church. Yes, there are some refreshing springs on the mountain (it was historically known for its moonshine after all), but there is more to Cool Spring Presbyterian Church than meets the eye. Just this year pastor Geoff shared with the Presbytery a story of a similar small quiet community, much like his own. This community, however, is not in Appalachia, but in Africa! That’s right, pastor Geoff shared with us about a mission partnership between Cool Spring Presbyterian Church, and a small community in the nation of Uganda. In his unassuming way, he shared with us pictures of a recent visit he was able to make to local towns that his church is in partnership with. He shared about this amazing project of being able to provide the opportunity to dig wells so that the townspeople may have access to clean water. He also shared something else about this particular community in Uganda: many of its residents suffer from leprosy. These wells will help bring clean water to many who simply have no physical way of accessing water in other locations. And on one of his last slides during his presentation is a picture of a well. And next to this well in Uganda is a large plaque that reads: ‘In appreciation to Cool Spring Presbyterian Church USA.’
Now, you may be asking a few questions here:
- How in the world is a small mountain church in southwestern Virginia able to bring fresh water to Uganda?
- There are still leper colonies? Like in the Bible? But in Uganda?
Yes, there are still lepers in this world; around 300,000 according to the World Health Organization. And there are still every day miracles like small churches in rural Virginia reaching out across the globe to share in helping to provide clean water for many who have been pushed to the outskirts of society. Cool Spring is certainly living up to its name.
There is a problem with this feel good story, of course. There is still leprosy in this world! In many of the poorest places around the globe, not just Uganda, there are still entire communities that do not have access to the medical supplies and practices that you and I here in the US take for granted each day. In Uganda, for example, there is only enough financial support to treat leprosy amongst individuals until it is no longer contagious; anything beyond that is deemed unnecessary and financially unviable. This news does not make the headlines every day, but there are still many in this world, especially children, who are permanently maimed or even die from preventable diseases. On top of this, there are still entire communities that do not have access to clean drinking water on a daily basis; one of the primary factors in preventing disease.
Many of our congregations do wonderfully generous things like spending mission dollars around the world to help with many similar efforts like that of Cool Spring. We do our part; just like the Bible tells us. We are good Christians that live by the book. Yet each day innocent people are suffering and dying around this world, and the church, and we as individuals, seem to have no response.
Are we missing something about following Jesus? Have we somehow lost our focus or our priorities in this world? Or maybe we are just as broken as others around the world. Are we living our lives like that of the lepers in this story from the Gospel of Luke? And if so, are we part of the nine who left Jesus, or are we the one who returned?
Sometimes I wonder what our faith lives should really look like in our daily lives. Is being a Christian as easy as showing up to church each Sunday, saying the right prayers, and putting a few dollars in the offering plate each week? Should we give away all of our possessions and live a life of poverty in service to the poor? Or is following Christ about something else…something more?
Today’s scripture story teaches and inspires on so many levels; so let’s get into the story a bit and listen for God’s voice to our hearts this morning as we seek the source of God’s Good News today.
We pick up in the Gospel of Luke as Jesus is with his disciples on their way to Jerusalem. As we have learned from the previous chapters in Luke, Jesus is all about sharing with others about the Kingdom of God. What will it look like? Who will be there? How will we be judged by our Creator? This all must have been going through the minds of the disciples, as they walked the roads, engaged in conversations with strangers, were questioned by community leaders, and had their own private conversations with Jesus.
All of a sudden, as they are entering a town, ten lepers approached Jesus. This was not terribly uncommon in such places; lepers usually lived within their own communities nearby heavily trafficked areas so that they had a place to receive charity from passersby. Lepers are known for their physical deformities, especially to the limbs of the human body, so the mere sight of such physical conditions was enough back then to expel victims of this disease to the outskirts of society.
Yet we are witnesses once again to a miracle as the lepers asked Jesus for healing: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” He told them to show themselves to the priests, and it is in the following of those words that they were made clean.
Now, here is where we, as readers and self-identified Christians, are challenged a bit. One of the ten turned back. Not only that, but the one that turned back was a Samaritan. We know about Samaritans; they were the people who are considered to be ‘dogs’ according to many of the Jewish communities at the time; less than human. They did not ascribe to the Jewish purity standards, and certainly did not worship appropriately.
Jesus notices the actions of this Samaritan.
17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?
18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
This last question is a little surprising, right? If we read the text, the other nine did not disobey Jesus; they did as they were told. Yet the Samaritan would be an example of faithfulness this day.
19Then Jesus said to the Samaritan, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Another way of interpreting the Greek of the last line is: ‘your faith has brought salvation.’
We are left with a challenging thought as this story comes to an end.
Yes, this is a story about lepers; we hear about lepers in other parts of the Bible. These individuals were considered the outcasts of society, being forced to live on the fringes of actual communities separated from the ‘normal’ people.
Yes, we read about a miracle healing of ten people by Jesus. They all did as they were told; ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’
Then we read about one individual who came back to Jesus to praise God. But this person was a Samaritan; one of the outcasts. In fact, he was a double outcast; not only of a community because of leprosy, but also because of being an ethnic outsider.
…and Jesus blesses this person?
So what is God doing here? What are we, as Christians today, supposed to learn from this story? Well, I think we are to learn about our spiritual orientation here. Here we have our Good News for today, and it comes in two parts.
- First, we are reminded once again that God’s saving love is not just for those of the Jewish faith; those who were born into the right family, who prayed the right way, or looked the right way. God’s love and grace reaches far beyond our preconceived notions who is ‘one of us’ and who isn’t; John Calvin would call it irresistible grace.
- Second, we learn from the Samaritan that an appropriate response to God’s healing work in the world is to give praise to God as the source of our faith and hope. It is the faith of the Samaritan that has made him well…that brought salvation.
So what is our response here at Fairlawn today in the year 2016? How will we turn back to the source of God’s love in Christ? How will this focus shape the way we worship, who we interact with, or how we understand God’s mission? How will we share God’s message of salvation with the world?
In a world that seems so out of control; so chaotic at times with global poverty, malnutrition, violence, and religious conflict, when we get past the religious and national identities, practices, and jargon, and we seek the source of our joy and peace, the world begins to make sense. We will be able to spiritually re-orient ourselves as we see the world with a kingdom perspective.
Much like the bubbling water source of a fresh cool spring, we are called to go to the source of God’s Word in Christ Jesus. We may get distracted by the meandering streams of our life’s journeys, the beautiful lakes of our successes, or the inspiring waterfalls of life’s accomplishments, but we are called to go to the source.
Life is also not always a positive experience. We may get tossed and turned about by the waves of life’s disappointments, the storms of life’s conflicts, or the floods of life’s calamities, but we are called to go to the source.
It’s when we are able to drink the living waters of the source, from Christ himself, that we are truly nourished and equipped for the journey ahead. The Samaritan was well aware of all of the religious practices of the Jewish tradition with the priests and the prayers, and the cleanliness rituals. The other nine individuals lived out those practices, and followed them as Jesus directed them to the priests in accordance with scripture. But it was the Samaritan who knew that while religious practice may be able to temporarily satiate one’s thirst, the ultimate source of life was in Christ Jesus, where the Word of God was being spoken and was being realized there on that day. He turned back to the source.
We are called to turn back to the source of God’s Word today. We are called to reorient ourselves towards the ultimate source of our salvation. And when we are able to turn back, we may be surprised to see just who else is there with us. We are invited to a Beloved Community that transcends ethnicity, age, cleanliness, health, physical or mental abilities, economics, national identity, or even religious practice. We are healed and loved, all as children of God. And we are given the life-giving waters of God’s grace; the source of our joy and peace.
May we be reminded to maintain our gaze upon God’s love, healing, and joy, God’s Kingdom, and to turn back, time and time again, to the source of our salvation. Amen.