Sunday, October 9, 2022
By: David May, Rector
This Gospel story about Jesus, this story of Good News for us, is a story about what it’s like to live life from a distance, at arm’s length from one another, from God, and even from your own truest self. And it is a story about what God is doing about that. And it raises questions about how many different ways there may be to live life at a distance and to how that happens. I want to tell you a story about a woman named Nell I once knew and who has since died and gone to glory. But let me ask you to hear her story for what it is til the end. For every one of our stories is sacred which means, in part, that however much we might think the stories of who we are are written in stone, they’re not. Not really. At least not as far as God is concerned.
So, with that initial disclaimer, let me tell you about Mrs. Nell Weinstein. She was a member of the parish I served at the time and she was probably in her early 80’s when I first met her twenty-five years ago. Nell lived her life, it seems, ‘at a distance’ or at least that’s what people told me. When I first got to the parish, other parishioners who knew Nell went to great lengths to say that if I got an angry phone call from her, or if she threatened to withhold her pledge, or chased off newcomers with an angry outburst in the pew or with a withering glare at a burbling baby, or wrote a letter to the Bishop about my ineffective leadership, that she was just being Nell and that I should never take it personally. Her older sister early on told me, ‘that’s just Nell. Been that way since birth. Don’t pay any attention to her.”
Don’t pay any attention to her. Got it. So that was the story we all inherited about Nell, written in stone. A set of rules already in place. It was like I had been handed a script, already written out to the end that we were to live by.
Living life ‘at a distance’ happens in many ways it seems. For the ten lepers in this story of Jesus, the script about how to do that was definitely already written. Living life ‘at a distance’ was the script these ten people received with no turning back once those first blemishes and discolorations began to appear on their bodies. I can imagine they tried to hide them at first holding off as long as possible the inevitable. A day was coming when they would be forced to walk away from everything and everyone and be given a new script to live by. This new script is a briefer story with no surprises, no adventures to look forward to, no crossroads to ponder, no new chapter to write someday with the birth of a child, or some new aspect of life opening up before them. This new script was really only a set of rules for how to live life at a distance from all of that, how to become invisible, how to build a wall around your heart, how to give up on ever being moved to joy from the warmth of an embrace or by wonder and delight at the mystery of a gorgeous clear night-sky filled with shimmering stars.
Now you may be thinking, ‘are you comparing this woman Nell with the lepers in this story of Jesus? Isn’t that’s cruel!’ And if that is what I was up to I’d agree with you. But I am only wondering how we sometimes end of living life at a distance from our true source of life in God and how that can end up happening in so many different ways.
Now, Nell again. I had been serving the parish for probably five or six years when Nell fell very ill and required surgery. I went to see Nell four times in the hospital following her surgery over the course of a couple of weeks. On the fourth visit, I was saying how well she seemed to be doing and how the color was returning to her skin. She would have none of that. She wasn’t feeling well, she was in pain, it made sense that she wasn’t able to see small improvements. I got that. So, I tried to simply ‘validate’ (as they say) her angry feelings: ‘of course you’re angry, I would be too, that makes sense’. Finally she looked me square in the eye which I realized with a start she had never done before in the years I had known her and she said, “why do you keep coming to see me?!” She didn’t break her gaze but just bore into me. I finally said sort of lamely, “well, I want to see how you’re doing, that’s all.” She said, “I’m fine!” I said, “ok. OK. I’ll just go on then. You probably just want to rest some anyway.” I thought it was probably best to go without asking if she would like for me to pray for her.
Nell died a few years later. And there was a large service for this matriarch of the parish and stories told about her and we commended her to God and for years her older sister took flowers to Nell’s grave on Nell’s birthday and on the anniversary of the day Nell died.
Living life ‘at a distance’ and what that means to God is part of the mystery opened up before our own hearts by this joyful, powerful story of Jesus.
When these ten lepers cry out to Jesus, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ was that simply a euphemism for asking for money? Or was it something more. Maybe it is a sign of Jesus holy life and work that he always hears that ‘something more’ in us.
‘Go show yourselves to the priest’ Jesus says, covering the distance and treating them as if they already have been healed. It is to their credit that they do as they have been told and as they go are healed indeed.
But one of them disobeys Jesus instructions and goes ‘off script’ and decides to bridge the distance between himself and Jesus first. He has to come to the one who has seen that ‘something more’ in him. Something more than obedience moved him. Something closer to love. And he turns back and comes to Jesus to say, ‘thank you’. Which at the end of the day may be what our good and gracious God most longs to hear from each of us. Thank you that I and my life in all its failures and joys are is not lived at a distance from you. Thank you.
Which is what we gather each Sunday to learn to do: to become this tenth man and decide to come close to God, not just from obedience by from our own ‘something more’, something closer to love. We have this formal liturgical word, Eucharist (which only really means ‘thank you’), Jesus life given and broken for us, food from the source of our life given that covers the distance between heaven and earth into our hands and into our bodies with the hope that it will call from us a holy ‘thank you’ on our lips. Sunday by Sunday, God shows us that ‘something more’ about each of us and our heart’s desire is to say ‘thank you’.
One final and brief postscript on Nell’s life. She ended her days in a very modest house that had been refitted to be a kind of nursing home where saints of God cared for some seven or eight residents like Nell. After seeing Nell one day, I ran into one of the care-givers who worked there. She stopped me and said, ‘were you visiting Nell?’ I said, ‘yes, ma’am’. She said, ‘well then I know you’re day is blessed. She is just the sweetest thing, isn’t she?’ I said, ‘Nell?’ ‘Yes,’ woman said, ‘I love taking care of her’. I said, ‘Nell? Mrs. Weinstein? Nell?” ‘Oh yes, she makes it so easy. She is so grateful for every little thing, always thanking me and asking for a hug’.
When had the story of Nell I had carved in stone been broken by grace? When had the Lord shown her that ‘something more’ in her own soul til she turned back to say, ‘thank you’?
Each of our stories is sacred which means that they are not over til they are not over in God. We are not meant to live life at a distance from God or from one another. And God himself draws close to us in Jesus, covers the distance for us, showing us the face of God longing to hear from us, not from obedience but love, thank you. Amen.