Changing the Story

Revd Sarah
Sunday, October 9, 2016 - 6:15pm

Sermon – Proper 23 - Luke 17.11-19, 2 Kings 5:1-3 – Change the Story

 Are you changed by the stories of others?
Changed by God’s story? 

 My story was changed for this morning’s sermon when I heard the wise words of those who attended our Living Word group on Monday. Now, Living Word is a small gathering of anybody who turns up in the Bolton chapel at 8pm on Monday evenings. It’s an opportunity to reflect together on the readings for the following Sunday (come along any Monday & join in).  So today’s sermon weaves a few of last Monday’s LW voices into the story – words from Penny, Gill, & Helen, alongside Julian (of Norwich) and Francis (Pope). If you like, you can play a kind of reverse ‘Where’s Wally’ picture game this morning – trying to spot the wise words of others running through this sermon story.  

Our stories interweave with the stories of others, as we journey through life - changing us, and others, in relationship.

We’re given 2 wonderful stories this morning, Stories where people open in their vulnerabilities and weaknesses to others breaking into their lives. Stories of simple acts of faith, where people are healed and lifted up beyond all expectation. Where they change to see themselves, others, and the world differently, through the gaze of Christ. 

First, we heard the story of the great Naaman. His story doesn’t pan out as he expects. No grand healing with incense, ritual, and incantations; Elisha, the man of God, changes his story, sending him away to simply wash clean his leprosy, quietly, humbly, in faith, in the river. Servants come out well in this story, living in the simplicity of faith, leaving all the learning and testing to the powerful men. It’s the servants that save the day, give those words of simple truth which change Namaan inside and out in his relationship with God and with others. As Naaman opens his life and human weaknesses to God’s grace active in others, he’s changed by the story, changed by others, changed by God. He returns humble and grateful and sees differently.  

 Our other great story this morning tells of the 10 lepers, and 1 in particular whose simple act of faith turning in gratitude and joy, changes his life beyond all measure through the life-giving relationship Jesus offers. God doesn’t require us to jump through any hoops, or bring elaborate gifts or courageous acts, all God requires of us is simple faith so we can receive his healing and grace. Simple faith seeing God active in our lives and responding, expanding our hearts in relationship with others, changing how we see the world through our relationship in Christ.

 Change the story is the name of one of Christian Aid’s current campaigns. A simple message which offers a response to a common cry heard in our churches and prayers – what part can we play in helping people who are suffering in the great catastrophes of our time such as the desperate plight of millions of refugees. Christian Aid’s plea is simple – that we help change the story.  That we speak of the stories that uphold and affirm those escaping injustice and war. That we tell the stories that speak of the dignity and compassion and hospitality those seeking refuge need, deserve, and in some places are receiving in UK communities and churches. Tell stories that speak of the fellow human being not the label.

‘The refugee’ fleeing Aleppo and struggling to find safety in Syria, usually gets compassionate ‘press’ coverage, but if ‘the refugee’ makes it through the traffickers, across perilous seas, through barriers and containers strewn across Europe, and arrives in Winchester.....the press, the neighbours, the story changes. Winchester City Council and churches have taken up the government’s Community Sponsorship fund to settle just 2 families so far I think into homes in Winchester – yet where and who they are has to be kept secret, knowing the potential repercussions labeling as ‘refugees’ is likely to bring.

Labels destroy our human dignity. As ‘The refugee’, ‘The homeless’ - you might attract pity, or be shunned or feared – dehumanized by society. Justin from Somalia, now working to support other refugees in London, says: ‘I would like people to know that I am a human being. Maybe the difference is my colour, and my very soft voice, but I breathe the same air you breathe. I was a teacher back home. I had to leave. You lose so much and people don’t see it. people think that you have no education, no background. God is helping me. Without him, I would not be able to do it.

The 10 lepers who approach Jesus in that dangerous region between Samaria & Galilee, share a story and a label. They are ‘the lepers’, shunned and bound together in their rejection by family and community as soon as the signs of their leprosy became visible -blindness, facial disfigurement, 'clawing' or loss of hands and feet. It’s an horrific, biblical image....yet it’s an horrific 21st century reality. The story continues in India today, where thousands of new cases of leprosy are diagnosed each year.

In the bare earth grounds of the leprosy hospital near Vellore in India, live a wonderful community of people who have survived leprosy but remain shunned and excluded by their families and communities.  They have not been granted a path back, but have been given a new community where they are not defined by their leprosy. Now, they offer their wonderful hospitality and inspiration to many.  They change the story, and changed my’s the only time in my life anybody’s granted me the honour of a tree planting ceremony. The master of ceremonies, and the man who dug the hole, was the gardener Muniamma . He only has stumps for his arms but he brings life to the community, growing fresh tomatoes and potatoes from that dry earth. And was the giver of life and relationship for me planting that young tree set to grow for future generations and staying forever in my mind and vision. Leprosy is no respecter of persons. All manner of people have suffered with it but by the same token, the healing that comes from the hand of God and from Jesus’ words is also no respecter of persons. That healing is for all people regardless of where they’ve come from or where they belong. It was me, the wealthy white woman from England, who was given healing through the effects of leprosy that day through Muniamma’s, generosity of life-giving hospitality. My story was changed.

The stories we hear and the stories we tell say much about us. They open us to mutual relationship with others; they help us shape our thoughts, form our opinions and set the agenda. As our stories interweave, we open our lives and our hearts to others, sharing, lifting and changing each other’s stories in relationship.

Jesus changes our story. When our lives are transformed by the gospel, we see everything through a new lens. Transformed by the gospel, living in loving relationship with Christ, St Francis’ vision of the world was utterly changed. He shared his life and his love in the poverty, sickness and suffering of others, seeing Christ changing the story in all creation. As Pope Francis says: Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever Francis would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, his heart burst into song, drawing all into his praise, communing with all God’s creation.

As we open our lives to be changed by God’s story, we glimpse God’s loving relationship all around us: in the intricate beauty of the world, in the sudden and unexpected radiance of extraordinary human goodness. Our story changes as we are changed by God’s story, and live in the simplicity of faith where he can lift our hearts above the depths of earthly and vain sorrows, to rejoice in him (Julian of Norwich).