Scripture for this Sunday: Jeremiah 29.1, 4–7; Psalm 66.1–11; 2 Timothy 2.8–15; Luke 17.11–19
Let me tell you about a little piece of Venetian history, since we have just come back from a safeguarding training session in that city.
We took the tour of the Doge’s palace, the Palazio Ducale, and our guide was clearly an ardent Venetian. Apart from telling us that the Venetian republic was evidently a very stable form of government, since it lasted for more than 1000 years until M. Bonaparte appeared upon the scene (and we won’t repeat what she implied about his parentage!) and that to be a Venetian citizen one had to be at least the fifth generation born in Venice, she made it clear that the Venetian republic was very much founded upon the principles of sound commerce, with safeguards to prevent corruption, and maintained a very strict separation between state and church.
She also told us that the Doge, the head of state in title, had very little real power, since all legislation was enacted by an elected senate.
Well, despite all of that, we found ourselves lodged in a seminary next to a church that dominates the Venetian skyline, Santa Maria del Salute.
This church was built in the 17th century.
It as built because in 1630 an ambassador arrived in Venice showing symptoms of the plague. He was sent to a quarantine island, notwithstanding diplomatic privilege. But to make him comfortable, a carpenter was hired to make improvements to his situation.
He was an ambassador, after all. Well, the carpenter went back and forth between the quarantine island and Venice, and you probably don’t need me to tell you the rest.
Venice is built over a swamp.
There are lots of blood sucking insects, not just fleas.
My wife will attest to the prevalence of mosquitoes, even today!
An outbreak of the plague ensued.
So at that point, the Doge, a man with no power, remember, went to the Basilica of San Marco, basically the equivalent of the cathedral of Venice, and pledged that the city of Venice would build a church dedicated to Saint Mary when the plague had been eliminated.
A year later, the city was clear of the plague, and in thanksgiving, construction of the church began.
So this is a state that maintains a strict focus on commerce, keeps the church at bay, and a supposedly titular head of state commits to build a church in thanksgiving – and it actually happens.
And the church really does dominate the landscape in the city.
Why is it that there are times when we are presented with examples in scripture, history, or even life in general, wherein an unexpected source shows us something that we might otherwise overlook? Why are there often times when someone unexpected demonstrates thankfulness for something that we might be inclined to take for granted?
The Samaritan leper, healed by Jesus, is an iconic example. There are various aspects of his situation that might have affected his response. He would have been an outsider, not just excluded by his disease, which would have isolated him, but by being a Samaritan amongst Jews. In the expression of a deeper and truer belonging, he saw that his identity was tied to the healing and inclusion offered by Jesus. And so, in recognition of a greater meaning to his healing than simply being cured of his skin disease, the Samaritan is the one to be found giving glory to God.
This shows that outsiders can have something to teach us, because they have a different point of view, a different experience, that might just be broader than ours and expand our horizons and our understanding. So, beware the outsider … they may just be teaching us something!
And since there will be times when we find ourselves displaced and in the position of an outsider, we might consider the words of the prophet Jeremiah, who told exiled Jewish people to go on practising their faith wherever they found themselves – because God is not confined to a specific place in time or culture.
This all challenges us to consider when an outsider might be teaching us something; to be willing to receive and accept what comes from unexpected sources; to accept as a gift from God opportunities for learning or healing even when they take us by surprise.
Similarly for us, we should find ways to practise our faith wherever we find ourselves. And I wonder whether that might have been what the Samaritan was doing.
We may find ourselves in places where we are outsiders, and offered the opportunity for some kind of healing in the broadest sense. We might find that others who are outsiders to us have something to teach us. We might find that someone unexpected has something to offer to us – to teach us – about being thankful. And we might do well to be open to what we are offered in the way of learning or of healing from outsiders and unexpected people who are different from us.
And accept it all thankfully as truly a gift from God. Even if we are not in the position to build a dramatic church in a stunning location in response.
Because, in words that are to be found in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, “A simple thank-you will suffice.”