When we hear this gospel reading sometimes we focus on the nine lepers who do not return to thank Jesus for their healing. Jesus mentions them. He certainly notices their absence. And yet the thrust of the passage is on the one foreigner who does return to give thanks for the healing.
Sometimes at church we find ourselves fixated on the nine folks who did not return. We look at the empty chairs of people who used to worship here. Some may have died or moved away. Others no longer felt an attachment to the church community or directed their attention in other places. There are good reasons to mourn the nine people who are no longer here. It is healthy to name that, that church looks different now. A pandemic disrupts that sense of church even more because we are unable to gather together in the same way we did before.
It is healthy and healing to mourn people who are no longer in our midst. Some of you recently lost family members and friends and grieving very personal losses. It is good to take time to grieve.
As a congregation it is also healthy and healing to remember the one person who returned. Often the foreigner, the person we least expected, returns looking for a church home. We’ve had several folks check out ministry at Church of the Cross looking for a progressive church home. Some are folks who attended evangelical churches, but were looking for a church that is overtly queer affirming. We’ve had people without a church background contact us to ask about ways they can get involved.
Inclusive Christian at UVic
I remember in August, a time when a lot of people are on vacation, I got a phone call from a student at UVic who doesn’t worship here, but had some questions for me.
He asked, do you help support Inclusive Christians at UVic?
Yes, I replied.
Why aren’t you doing more?
Why aren’t we doing more what? I answered.
Why aren’t you communicating with more students on the campus? You know there are evangelical students dissatisfied with their current campus ministry groups who want to find a more progressive Christian presence, but don’t know you exist or how to find you.
These are all good questions, I replied. Perhaps you can help us boost our profile.
And then slowly a handful of additional students emerged, some of them with evangelical church backgrounds, who want to be louder and bolder about sharing the gospel of Jesus in ways that are anti-racist and queer affirming. These aren’t just future church leaders. These are today’s church leaders and they’re leading the way on our behalf, in ways we are not able to.
Overt welcoming presence
When we wonder, who will continue the ministries of the church, who will grow a Christian presence in this neighbourhood, there are already people raising their hands. People who are in search of healing waters, away from churches that openly or tacitly peddle conversion therapy. Churches that say, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Whereas we know queer folks are holy and made in the image of God. We refuse to look the other way while white supremacy grows stronger in our communities and in churches. There are people excited to proclaim a gospel of love and compassion, a gospel that is anti-racist and queer-affirming.
The reason we have to proclaim it so loudly is because we find ourselves in an odd, but creative space as a progressive church. We find ourselves between a society that says secularism is progressive and churches are not. There is plenty of evidence to back up this stereotype. In Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, a pastor recently hosted a Covid super spreader event with people singing in church without masks. And he went on to say he wishes people would rather come to church for prayer, rather than seeing a doctor if they have Covid. People see that kind of headline and that’s what they think church is. Magical thinking.
Another recent news headline revolves around whether the mayor of Hamilton, Ontario participated in or endorsed the practice of conversion therapy, having served as a youth pastor and worshipped at a church that publicly condemns queer folks. The church’s response has been to take down sermons posted on-line, rather than apologize for the many ways in which they continue actively to harm queer folks.
We know these kinds of extremist Christian groups exist in BC and on the island too. Recently a trans woman asked me, “Lyndon I know you and the congregation you serve are doing good work, but how are you building bridges with the wider church community to make Greater Victoria and Vancouver Island safer for all queer folks?” They are right. Our goal is to build up the church community here in the congregation and also to strengthen Christian witness across the city and the island. Think about how many partners we have to work with, including other Lutherans, Anglicans, United Church, Presbyterians, Unitarians and more.
The Anglicans on the island just elected a new bishop, Anna Greenwood-Lee, and if you’re on Twitter I recommend following her. She recently wrote an op-ed in the Calgary Herald advocating the city adopt strategies to address climate change. On social media she directly calls out political leaders for failing to protect vulnerable members of the community. It is an approach to church leadership we seldom see in Canada from mainline churches, boldly taking up space, direct advocacy, proclaiming a gospel that is alive and at work in the world.
This is what we are hearing a lot of people looking for a church home. While we wring our hands that it’s harder to attract people to church who are under 50, there are a whole host of people eager to participate in church, but they’re waiting to be invited. They’re waiting for space to be created for them, that they feel welcome.
I am excited that we already engaging in ways of being church in the world. We are already welcoming refugees, holding public conversations with Indigenous folks around reconciliation. We are supporting Shelbourne Community Kitchen and neighbours experiencing food security, including food people have brought for the Thanksgiving food collection. We host a scholarship for students, we offer student housing at Luther House next door, there is the multigenerational housing project that is in process, Queer Boardgames, Campus Ministry, the ways in which we attend to the worship arts when we gather in song and prayer, and so much more.
All this to say we are already in motion through the Spirit as a congregation and I thank you for your willingness to participate in that work.
Inviting people to church
Thinking about the role of evangelism in the church today, the single greatest thing any of us can do to grow the church is to invite neighbours, friends, and family either to church, check out the worship livestream, small group, study group, queer Boardgames, help with the Shelbourne Community Kitchen, etc. I know this makes us uncomfortable but it works. Please consider sharing some activity in the church in the next three days.
Liking posts we share. Sharing a social media post is an easy, low bar way, to do this. Share one of the posts of the church sign, work with the Kitchen, photo you find fun, a photo of Riley the unofficial mascot of Church of the Cross, etc. [Why don’t we take a minute to do that now? I put up a post on the church Facebook page titled “You are loved.”]
“As they went, they were made clean”
Let us come back to the question of faith. In the gospel reading we hear Jesus asks the ten lepers to go and show themselves to the priests. “As they went, they were made clean.” It is on the way, answering Jesus’ call that the healing takes place. It is in this answering the call that the Spirit is at work in our lives as well.
Maybe today you need a word of grace that the pandemic is too much. People close to have you died and this is too much. The political and climate news isn’t great and that is too much. There are an abundance of reasons to take a break and recharge. This too is part of life together, that while others answer Jesus’ call through work others need to refrain from work. Resistance includes loving ourselves and loving one another, living to fight the good fight another day.
We also give thanks and celebrate with people who are recently married, who have recently had a baby, while lifting up those you yearn to be married, and yearn to have a baby but are thwarted in different ways. Life is messy and so we lift up one another in these times.
Sometimes we too experience moments of healing and grace on the way.
Wrapping up, let us remember that too often we fixate on the nine people who never returned, rather than the one person in our midst looking for a church home.
Let us be open to learning from other Christian traditions, including the evangelical church that isn’t afraid of Christian witness in public settings. Let us be bold, take up space, and witness to the same Jesus who abounds with grace and love.
Receive the breath of the Spirit when you need to take time either for rejoicing or mourning. Time for recharging or time to climb a mountain.
Let us celebrate our joys and mourn our losses together as body of Christ, trusting in Jesus’ love for us all. Amen.