Belonging is…Being Changed by Relationship

Sunday, October 15, 2023
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner 

Luke 17:11-19

Let’s pray together…

A few years ago, one of my co-workers at Zumbro found “Maya” crying in the bathroom. She was from the Southeast Asia. She had been hired by a wealthy Mideast family as a nanny and domestic worker. She was promised enough money to live well while she worked for them, and she would be able to support her ailing father and her nine-year-old daughter back home.

Except, a few months after she arrived in the Middle East to work the family stopped paying her. She was physically and verbally abused by the family and was required to work 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week. By the time she showed up at the church, she hadn’t been paid in three years. She was a modern-day slave. She’d been intentionally isolated from anyone who cared for her and taken advantage of because of her lack of status. She had come to the US with the family a couple months earlier because one of them needed medical care in Rochester.

The morning I met “Maya” she had summoned the courage to escape the merciless, dehumanizing situation she was in. Something in her gave her enough confidence to see that her current situation was not all there was for her life. She had planned her escape for

three weeks, and finally saw the opportunity. When she left before dawn that morning, the only place she thought to seek refuge was a church. At first, she hid in the bathroom because she wasn’t sure anyone would help her or if we would turn her in, or if someone would find her. After one of my co-workers found her, gave her some breakfast, and assured her that we would help in whatever way we could, she came into the office and told us her whole story. Even though she had a plan, she knew she’d have to rely on the mercy of strangers to make a new life for herself. And my colleagues and I knew that we couldn’t guarantee her safety and freedom long term. All we could do was offer her the mercy of our presence as she figured out her next step.

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

The lepers in the gospel too were seeking mercy. They had been isolated from community support, uncertain if even Jesus could or would help them. They didn’t approach him – but shouted from a distance – as if they couldn’t get their hopes up too high that he would help them.

It’s human nature to believe that once you’ve been kept out of relationship long enough, that belonging will never happen again, that healing in whatever form we seek, may be out of reach – until someone shows enough mercy to give us hope to believe something


Jesus’ response to the lepers may not have actually sounded like mercy at first. He said, “Go, present yourselves to the priest.” This was the conventional way someone with a skin disease could be restored to the community in ancient society. What he said may have been disappointing. They had probably been to the priest before, to see if they could be restored, only to be told they were still unclean and not fit to belong to the community. Jesus didn’t ask questions. He didn’t show an extraordinary level of compassion in his interaction with them. But somehow, as they were on the way to the priests, they were healed. It was mercy embodied.

Perhaps they didn’t have the courage to ask Jesus to be healed when they first saw him. Perhaps just being seen and acknowledged was all they hoped for. Or maybe in asking for mercy, and not healing, they trusted that Jesus knew better what mercy was for them than even they could know at the time.

When I was in college, I worked as an intern in the ELCA Youth Gathering office one summer. My job ahead of the Gathering was to field calls from youth directors and pastors who had logistics questions about their group. Unfortunately, there had also been a lot of challenges with registration that summer and I mostly fielded questions and complaints from frustrated pastors and youth directors who didn’t get the hotel area they registered for, or the week they

were planning on. One afternoon, I came out of the conference room after a particularly difficult morning of phone calls. I must have looked a little frazzled. The director of the Gathering asked me if I was okay. I told him it had been a hard morning and I explained some of the situations I was dealing with. Then he said, “Sometimes, the best prayer we can pray is, ‘Lord, have mercy.’ And then we leave what mercy looks like up to Jesus.” At first, I thought that was pretty weak spiritual advice. As a 21-year-old, it felt formulaic, and rote. But the more I thought about it and the more I practiced it, the more it called me into relationship with Jesus, and I came to trust that Jesus knows what mercy looks like for us more than we do. It changed the way I interacted with people on the phone and led me to want to be more merciful too.

The biggest difference between being healed and being made well or whole is that the mercy we receive from Jesus changes those who are made well. The gospel focuses on the one leper, a Samaritan, who came back in gratitude to Jesus, and in praise to God. We don’t know what happened to the other nine. We know they were healed, but were they changed? Did this healing really restore them to their community and to God? We don’t know.

We do know the one who returned with gratitude was changed. He trusted that his encounter with Jesus gave him all he needed not just to be healed, but to be made well. Jesus says to him, “Your faith has made you well.” In the original Greek, “made well” is the same as

“saved”. Your faith (in my mercy) has saved you, Jesus says. Much like we heard last week, when Jesus met Zacchaeus, and “salvation came to his house.” Faith is the generous response to the grace and mercy we receive from God.

I wonder though if the greatest gift we experience when we encounter Jesus’ mercy is that we finally see ourselves as Jesus always sees us in the first place – as whole and worthy creations of God. That our natural state of being is to be in relationship with the God we meet in Christ. So often, we are told that the starting point of faith is that Jesus came to fix something inherently broken or sinful in us. As if our nature is to be separated from God. Yes, we encounter so many things in life that can break us.. We only have to look to the devastation and loss of life taking place between Israel and Gaza this week to see how things are broken. But the healing that takes place in us is a healing that returns us to who God has created us to be in the first place. We are not physical beings with a spiritual life. We are spiritual beings with a physical life. And when we recognize the gift God gives and adopt a spirit of gratitude it leads to well-being. We are changed from being mercy seekers to mercy makers. We become the visible sign of Christ’s healing, hope-filled mission in the world.

Author and Episcopal priest, Cynthia Bourgeault, writes, “Hope is not imaginary or illusory. It is the sonar by which the body of Christ holds together and finds its way. If we, as living members of the body of

Christ, can surrender our hearts … and listen for that sonar with all we are worth, it will again guide us, both individually and corporately, to the future for which we are intended. And the body of Christ will live, and thrive, and hold us in belonging.”

Christ has saved you, saved us – the whole church – to be hope for the world. It begins with trusting Christ’s mercy is more than enough, and surrendering to that gift so that our lives, our whole lives, are poured out in gratitude to God. Amen.

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