Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7 Luke 17: 11-19
I admire the trailblazers. You know: the ones who have an uncanny ability to figure out a new way of solving a problem, or have a fresh perspective on an age-old question, or who have a creative solution, a better solution, a unique solution – you know the type. They see sideways into the most difficult pockets of life and somehow make them right, knowing just what to do when no one else seems to have it figured out, and certainly not worrying if they’ll upend in the process. Maybe sometimes even hoping they will.
Jesus was a trailblazer. He was the one who could speak in circles and get listeners to walk in a straight line. He was the one who could see beyond boundaries and effect healing of all nations. He was the one who could anticipate agony and offer perfect peace. Jesus was the one who could see beyond the hypocrisy of cleanliness and make a group of people feel whole. In our lesson today, Jesus was the one who could hear a plea for mercy and turn it into salvation.
The Samaritan in our text today was a lot like Jesus. He was a trailblazer, too: breaking new ground, stopping mid-stride, praising the one who’d made him clean. You may know about Samaritans in relation to the Jews. From our Judeo-Christian background, we have the sense that the Samaritans are somehow less – outcasts, if you will. But they weren’t “less” at all, they were more like “other”.
In fact, the Samaritans were highly devout descendants from the house of Abraham. They were of the Tribe of Israel while the Jews were of the Tribe of Judah. Both Tribes followed the Pentateuch, but the Samaritans stopped with the first five books and their one prophet, Moses, while the Jews canonized the writings of all the prophets we read of today in the Tanakh. The Samaritans anchored their worship in Mt. Gerizim in Samaria; the Jews claimed Jerusalem 40 miles or so away. The Samaritans and the Jews despise each other, in large part, in dispute over who’s clean and who’s not in the eyes of the Lord. In equal truth they despise each other because of how they treated each other throughout history in an anger-perpetuating kind of way. (Finding the bones of sacrificed animals in our sanctuary wouldn’t feel like a prank to us, either.)
But nothing creates a mixed band of brothers faster than a leveling ground like leprosy. But our Samaritan today was outnumbered 9:1. So, he Samaritan became, in the eyes of the 9 Jewish lepers, a double outcast. He was an outcast from his community first; then, he was an outcast because he was not a Jew. Then Jesus (for some reason still circling around the 10 mile or so northern edge of Samaria on his way to Jerusalem to become the one ultimately outcast) hears a call-out from this mix-matched tribe. “Master, have mercy!” – and indiscriminately cleanses them all. Following Jesus’ orders to tell their respective priests, ten take off to become restored into the life they’d been missing while exiled.
But the Samaritan was a trailblazer. Not only was he inclined to band with the Jewish lepers rejected him out of hand, but he was inclined to jump track and circle back, likely leaving for good the religion and family and culture he knew to worship God at this Jewish Jesus’ feet. – So much for Mt. Gerizim or Jerusalem. The God of his restoration could be found right there. Our favorite Greek verb, σωσω – that wonderfully complex verb meaning to heal and to save, all at once – takes a commanding place as Jesus affirms that in the Samaritan’s circling back to praise God for cleansing him of leprosy, his faith has saved him, too.
We don’t know where the Samaritan went from here, but we do know from further reading through the Acts of the Apostles that the Samaritans become some of the earliest converts and builders of the Christian church.
Too often today, red follows red and blue follows blue and on the way we neglect to do what is right. There’s something like a herd mentality that keeps many of us from exercising our conscience. We hear competing authorities debate in our brain – follow the home crowd or follow Christ? In the process, we ultimately miss a chance to participate in a salvific future for maybe even a whole population of people. Every now and then, we learn about someone who’s willing to buck the trend and do what’s right. Such is the case in our lesson of the lepers. Such is the case in the lesson of Malala Yousafzai – another trailblazer we’ve heard a lot about over the last year.
Talk about a trailblazer. Of course, there are those Islamists who are against the education of girls. To them this places Malala and her girl friends in the category of outcast not far from where girls were in the United States not too long ago. But we also know that Islamic extremists are vehemently opposed – – violently opposed to the education of girls. This justified the Taliban to warn Malala to stop speaking in favor of girls’ education or else. Well, you know the story: Malala persisted, not really believing they would hurt a child.
The rest is history.
You’d’ve been hard pressed to turn on the news this week and not hear a reminder of the shooting of the now 16 year old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head exactly one year ago on Wednesday. We remember it like it was yesterday, the event even so incredulous that we’ve turned it over and over in our minds to internalize that it actually happened at all.
Malala was riding on a school bus in her community of Swat Valley, Pakistan, when an Islamic militant stopped the bus and asked who was Malala. He didn’t wait for a response. Three shots were fired. Malala, who had been speaking out in favor of Pakistani girls’ rights to education since she was eleven, was left for dead. This very moment, Malala remains on the most hunted list of the Taliban.[i]
In addition to meeting with President and First Lady Obama – even speaking at the World Bank on Friday where some of you were in audience– maybe you saw one of Malala’s interviews on the television magazine circuit as she talked about her new autobiography and the world awaited news of whether she had won the Nobel Peace Prize. For the benefit of those who didn’t see the shows or hear the clips, here is her matter-of-fact comment that stunned audiences worldwide. Responding to Jon Stewart in an interview on the Daily Show, she said, “I wondered, ‘If the Talib would come, what would you do, Malala?’ Then I said, ‘Just take a shoe and kick him.’ But then I said, ‘If you hit the Talib, you show them there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty…you must reach others through peace and dialogue to educate.’ And then I’ll tell him, ‘I even want education for your children as well. That’s what I have to tell you, now do what you want.’” The Daily Show audience erupted in applause. The interview went on, with Malala describing ways the world can get more involved in helping girls get education – especially girls in Swat Valley.
And so it is ironic – yet not entirely unexpected – that this ardent advocate of education for all people, reportedly has become an outcast in her own village. According to yesterday’s article in the Times, when girls in their classroom at a school in Swat Valley were recently asked if they knew Malala, not one of them would raise her hand. Yet of course they all know of Malala! At first, one might think that they were were afraid to be associated with a girl who nearly died defending their right to an education. But the reporter delving further into the scene determined that her whole community is angry. They feel like Malala is doing nothing for them. One guy wondered if the whole thing hadn’t been made up, calling it a made-for-TV drama. Another man almost scolded, “…what has she done for Swat?”[ii]
Malala is a trailblazer for the right for all children to receive an education. This is a very good thing. Yet we can feel threatened by trailblazers. They interrupt the ordinary course of life. They call attention to situations that can unsettle us. Trailblazers effect change – and change that bucks the trend forwarded by the dominant class or culture or authorities can lead us toward a fearful end. What’s more, trailblazers implicitly interrupt our sense that we are already doing what is right. In a completely unconscious, non-judgmental kind of way, Trailblazers like the Samaritan and Malala call us on our stuff.
What would it mean for you to be a trailblazer? What would it mean for you to break with the herd – standing in the midst of competing authorities to do what is right in glory to your God? How would it change how you worship your Lord? Most of us want to do the right thing by one another and our God. But too often, we’re torn by competing authorities and we bow to the values of the herd. We let the herd tell us whom to value, what to protect, what course to follow.
But Jesus calls us to follow his lead. To GO! and be trailblazers, too. Jesus calls us to identify with the outcast and help to strengthen our common, core humanity. Jesus calls for us to allow ourselves to be the outcast for a cause that is of God. This reinforces our oneness as children of God who have been created in God’s image, equally good. For the Samaritan, this meant to respond with gratitude for the goodness and grace that was extended to him by a Jew named Jesus Christ and praise the God from whom all blessings flowed in a whole new way.
To be a trailblazer takes courage: courage to face threats to oneself and those we love and situations we love for the sake of the ideal. Our God who cleanses and saves calls upon us to let our Godly conscience be our guide in summoning our courage to affect what is good and right in spite of ourselves. By drawing upon our courage from God, we can affect the course of our lives and others’ to be changed for the good, for eternity.
As individuals and as a congregation we can summon our courage to continue to take trailblazing, leadership positions. But one thing we need to remember is that when we break from the crowd – when we follow our conscience granted by our God who is good – when we take leadership positions against the grain, we are sometimes required to pay the price.
It is an exercise in courage to stand up for what is right. It is an exercise in faith to know that honoring the authority of God will lead us along our road to salvation. What does it mean for you to break with the herd – standing in the midst of competing authorities to do what is right in glory to God? How would it change how you worship the Lord?
May our acts of faith – our trailblazing acts of faith that acknowledge our place amongst the outcasts of our day – embolden each one of us to do what is good and right, knowing that these acts of faith will save us for all eternity.
Thanks be to God!