Do you know where you are this morning? I hope the answer is yes, at least in the most obvious sense. You're in Seal Church - TN15 0AT. If you thought you were somewhere else, or were meant to be somewhere else, I won’t be offended if you leave…
Knowing where we are is very important, but it’s not just about geography. These days we can pinpoint our physical locations using the GPS on our phones, and we have maps that are accurate to a very fine degree, but we can still feel disorientated. We may have been bereaved, or diagnosed with a life-altering illness or gone through the breakdown of a relationship or lost a job. “I just don’t know where I am anymore” we say. “I don’t know whether I’m coming or going”. The familiar landmarks in our lives are gone, and it takes us a while to recognise and negotiate the new landscape.
Locating ourselves can be about relationships too. We like to “know where we stand” with people – that’s about position too. We talk about “knowing our place”, knowing where we are in the pecking order.
Place is very important in our Bible readings today. There are people in them who feel out of place and disorientated, just as we sometimes do, people who are catapulted into new landscapes and struggle to find new ways through them.
First there’s Naaman, in our Old Testament reading, the commander of the armies of the King of Aram. Here was a man who, up till now, had been quite sure where he was and where he stood, in the top tier of his society. Aram, roughly where modern-day Syria is, was a powerful nation, and he held one of the most powerful positions in it. He was one of the King’s right hand men. But then he caught leprosy and that changed everything. Leprosy didn’t just make you ill, it also meant you would be ostracised, shunned, shut out of the normal life of the community. People were afraid of catching it, and they thought it was a divine punishment. It was a social and spiritual disaster, as well as a physical one. What place would Naaman have now? As the disease took hold he faced being thrown from the inner circles of power out to the margins of his world. If ever there was a man who was entitled to feel disorientated, it was Naaman.
But a recommendation from a little slave girl, captured on a raid in neighbouring Israel, seemed to hold out at least a glimmer of hope. She knew of a holy man, Elisha, in her own land, who could help. After some delicate diplomatic negotiation, Naaman set off. But when he got there his disorientation became even more acute. He was used to being respected, honoured, or at least feared. But this Elisha – a member of a nation which was far weaker than Aram – didn’t even bother to come out to greet him. And instead of some complicated ritual, which would at least have felt like Elisha was taking his illness seriously, all Naaman got was a rather off-hand message telling him to bathe in the River Jordan seven times. Naaman wasn’t used to being treated like this. Maybe it seemed like a taste of his future – no longer the capable, proud commander, but someone who others avoided? It was a whole new landscape for him, and he didn’t know the way through it. His first reaction was to stomp back off to the land he knew and bathe in its rivers, even if there was no hope of them curing him. At least he’d feel at home.
His servants persuaded him to give it a try, though. He’d come this far. He had nothing to lose! You can hear their frustration. And to his surprise, it worked. He was cured, and, more than that, he realised that it was the God of Israel who had done it. In those days, people generally assumed that their gods were territorial; their power was limited to their own lands, like a tribal chief’s power. Naaman would never have thought to look for healing from a foreign God, in a foreign place – why should someone else’s God care about him? But he discovered that it was only when he was as far out of place as he could be that he could receive the healing he needed.
Place is also significant in today’s Gospel story. The ten lepers Jesus met were living on the edge of their village, banished from their homes because of their disease. Not only that, they were in a region which is in itself between places. Luke describes it as “between Samaria and Galilee.” The Galileans, who were Jewish, distrusted the Samaritans, and vice versa. They both worshipped the same God, but each thought the other had got it badly wrong. There were lots of similarities between between them, but that only made the differences stand out. Jews worshipped in Jerusalem; Samaritans on their sacred mountain Gerizim, for example. They usually went out of their way to avoid each other. These lepers, a mix of Jews and Samaritans, had been thrown together in an uneasy alliance by their disease, though, their religious identities blurred. They were living on the edge in every sense, on the edge of a town which was itself in a border land, on the edge of their society and religion, on the edge of life itself as their disease progressed. They were about as marginal as you could be, and they knew it.
When they saw Jesus, they kept their distance. They knew their place, and it wasn’t amidst healthy, respectable people, those who were still in the centre of everything. But obviously they’d heard that Jesus had a reputation as a healer, so they cried out to him anyway, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And his response was instant, as if he was expecting them, as if he’d come here on purpose to see them. “Go and show yourselves to the priests”, he said. That might seem an odd thing to do, but the law said that only a priest could declare that a leper was healed. So off they went, and as they headed into the village, they looked at each other and realise that the tell-tale signs of leprosy had vanished. But what would they do now?
Nine of them just kept going, back to their old lives. That might seem quite reasonable – they just wanted to get back to normal, to get back to where they were. But one of them realised that nothing was ever going to be normal again – there was no going back.
This story is often told – especially to children – as if its main message is that we should always remember to say thank you. That’s a very good thing to do, of course, but it’s profoundly not what this story is about. The leper who returned did thank Jesus, but it wasn’t the thanks that Jesus focused on. It was the fact that he came back to Jesus “to give praise to God”. The tenth leper – who happened to be a Samaritan, we are told, rather pointedly - was the only one who seemed to realise that whatever had happened, had happened because of the presence of God in this man, this carpenter’s son, Jesus.
As I said, one of the main differences between the Jews and Samaritans was where their chief holy place was, God’s headquarters on earth, if you like. Did you go to Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim to encounter him? But this tenth leper saw that God wasn’t confined to a holy hill – whether it was in Jerusalem or Samaria. He was found in the flesh and blood of this man, Jesus, who had come out into no-man’s-land to find and heal him, out beyond the boundaries of respectable society. God was at work in a new place.
“The word of God is not chained” wrote the author of the letter to Timothy we heard this morning – it’s probably not by Paul, despite the traditional ascription to him, but it contains words that could easily have been his, and these are an example. “The word of God is not chained” – Paul was imprisoned many times, but God’s word couldn’t be confined. Paul’s central message was that in Christ, God had broken down the barriers that divided people from one another and from God. In Christ, God came to us where we were, even, or especially, if that was out beyond the pale, far from home, in the wilderness, lost and wandering. He wasn’t shut up in a Temple or barricaded behind walls of laws and tradition. He was wherever people needed him, where the sick needed healing, the poor needed lifting up, oppression needed challenging.
When Jesus died on the cross, one of the thieves crucified with him mocked him, but the other told him to leave Jesus alone. “This man has done nothing wrong”, he said. In the original Greek the word he uses is atopos, which literally means “out of place”. Jesus had done nothing “out of place” and yet here he was, out of place on the cross, out beyond the city walls, hanging in a grim and terrifying execution site. He became “out of place” to save those who had been pushed “out of place” through sin, through illness, through simply not fitting into their society. The word of God was not chained, not restricted to safe, religious enclosures, just for an inner circle. In the person of Jesus, the Word made flesh, it came to us where we needed it, with hope, with love, with healing.
So, where are you today? That’s a question you might need more than a Satnav or a GPS signal to answer. But wherever you are, God is in that place too. That’s the promise of the Gospel. No place is “out of place” to him. He’s with us when we are disorientated, lost, wandering, stubbornly heading in the wrong direction, longing for home, but not knowing how to get there. He makes his home in whatever distant, back of beyond, middle of nowhere place we happen to be, and because of that we can be at home anywhere, safe, and rooted firmly in his love.