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Mercy to the Excluded

28th Sunday after Pentecost / Great-martyr Barbara; St. John Damascene / Col. 1.12-18; Luke 17.12-19

F/S/HS. Brothers and sisters, for the past two Sundays, and again this morning, I open my homily with the bright Nativity proclamation that God is for us, that God is not against us; that God has gone out of Himself to us as the Christ-Child Jesus, because He loves us; that in His great love for mankind He died on a Cross, trampling down death by His death; and that His Holy Spirit resides within as God’s abiding presence and love with us.

When the Disciple John penned one of the most beloved of all verses in Scripture—For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have ever-lasting life (John 3.16)—John was proclaiming to all of the world that in Jesus Christ no one is excluded from the love of God.    

Truly, it is exceedingly easy to entirely miss just how spiritually, culturally, and politically loaded were parts of these words uttered by John’s lips—That God so loved the world … that whoever believes in Him should not perish …—words that would have been fighting words both to those first ears that heard them back then, and to ears that hear them now. 

Why?  Why fighting words?  Because some religious individuals and religious groups, whether back then or now, view themselves as the exclusive domain, the exclusive recipients of God’s love, God’s chosen ones.  Back then it was the Jews, while you Gentiles, you Samaritans, are outsiders.     

Pause dear ones, pause and ask what it feels like to be excluded from someone’s love, to be on the outside, to not belong.  It’s a terrible feeling, a lonely and sad feeling, a feeling that arouses anger if not rage.

Whereas to feel included, to know that you belong, how beautiful such a feeling; the feeling of resting peacefully in another’s unconditional love for you.  And from that place of love and belonging, to give thanks in gratitude to the One who includes you and who loves you. 

So many of our Gospels during Nativity season, dear sisters and brothers, are exactly about these very themes.  Next Sunday our Gospel will narrate a story told by Jesus about a man who prepares a great festive banquet.  Only a select few are invited—a reference to the Jews, while excluding Gentile types.  Finally, the meal is ready.  But those select few cop excuse after excuse to not attend the banquet. 

As a display of just how expansive God’s love is in Jesus, the man then sends his servants back out into the streets, telling them to invite everyone to attend the banquet, including the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind (Lk. 14.21)—all code for the hitherto rejected Gentiles.  And the moral of Jesus’ story?  Henceforth, from this moment on, all are invited to the festive banquet and not just a select few only; all are invited into the kingdom of God.  And the biting moral of Jesus’ story?  If you find yourself excluded, it is because you excluded yourself.

And this morning’s Gospel, where the God-Man Jesus has merciful compassion on a group of ten lepers—ten persons who felt exiled from society due to their medical and skin condition, excluded from their families and their local houses of worship, excluded from getting close to anyone except fellow lepers. 

We can only imagine what these excluded ten felt when Jesus heard their cry to have mercy on them, and then drew near to them and spent some time with them.  Go, Jesus tells them, go and show yourselves to the priests.  And while the ten were on their way to see the priests, all of them were miraculously healed. 

And now the sobering news.  Would you not think that all ten of these lepers would then return and give thanks to Jesus, give glory to God for their healing?  Yet only one of the ten returns—only one … and that one a Samaritan outsider! Were there not ten cleansed?  Jesus asks this lone Samaritan.  But where are the nine?  Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner? (vss. 17-18).

Dear ones, all of us are included in the love of God.  Every human being is invited into the kingdom of God.  Our role is to respond to that love and that invitation by way of faith and belief in the God-Man Jesus.  Our role is to come to the banquet.  Our role is to express glory and thanksgiving to God.  Our role is to love God in return, and love those whom God loves.  Our role is to take up our cross and follow Him.

All of these pre-Nativity Gospel stories make clear that where persons are excluded, where God is dismayed at us, it is because we exclude ourselves through our excuses and our evasions, and because our hearts have grown cold and are without thanksgiving and gratitude to God.

I want to close this morning with a story that encompasses all of these themes.  Granted, it is a dramatic over-the-top story.  But a story that nonetheless captures how the darkness of sin can pervade a human heart, and how the great love of God can transform that heart into a heart of light and love.

In my Faith class at St. Basil Academy the older kids and I have been working our way through the Gospel of Matthew.  In recent weeks the class has become a bit squirrelly, I suspect because the holiday season is nearing and the kids are looking forward to the upcoming holiday break.  Something needed to change, lest I lose the kids.  So I decided to depart from our Gospel of Matthew study and turn instead to a book that some of you have likely read—Pascha Transforms Wolfman Tom.  How many of you have read this short gem?  This past Tuesday I read the first half of the book to my class, a book a mere 57 pages long, a book that could easily have been named Nativity Transforms Wolfman Tom.

It is the true story of one of Russia’s most notorious serial killers, Thomas Ryzkov, who lived in the early 1800s in the town of Tobolsk, near the Ural Mountains.  The young Thomas was accused of a murder he never committed.  He was thrown into prison.  Constantly crying out that he was innocent, Thomas instantly became an outsider within the prison.  Fellow inmates and prison staff alike shunned Thomas.  He started to go crazy, to turn into a raging animal, much as St. Moses the Black became consumed with anger, much as St. Mary of Egypt was consumed with carnal lust.  And because of Thomas’ massive size and superhuman strength, everyone feared him; everyone avoided him.  Thomas was a man without friends, an outsider whom no one would let into their lives.  Wolfman Tom he came to be known as.

Then one day while on a work crew to save the prison from flooding waters, Thomas escaped into the nearby forest.  The authorities were sure that he would be devoured by wild beasts.  But soon the murders began.  In each case the victim’s heads were smashed by a blunt object.  Indiscriminately townspeople were murdered; prison officials were murdered.  Murder after murder, for years and years and years.  Everyone speculated that it must be Wolfman Tom.  Huge rewards for his capture, and teams of police experts sent from Kiev and St. Petersburg to capture or kill Thomas—all in futility.

More years passed.  And then one night—it was the night of Holy Pascha!—a particularly grizzly murder occurred within the mansion of some of the wealthy elite of Tobolsk, Alexis and Tatiana Sailovsky, who were out at a Pascha celebration banquet.  Upon their return they found that their maids and butlers had been killed, along with one of their children. 

Tatiana dashed through their home to the bedroom of her only son, Mikhail.  The young boy sat up in his bed and greeted his mother joyfully, sharing with her about a huge man who had entered his room earlier that night, and how he smiled at the man and reached beneath his pillow and held out the paschal egg that he had painted the day before, greeting the man: Dear mister, Khristos Voskrese (Christ is Risen!).   

Instantly Mikhail witnessed tears welling up in the man’s eyes.  He lowered the “toy” in his hand, held high over Mikhail, and laid it on the lampstand next to Mikhail.  Tears began streaming down the man’s cheeks.  Hesitantly he reached out and took the egg from Mikhail’s open hand, answering him: Voistinu voskrese (Truly He is Risen!).  The man turned away from Mikhail and left the room.  Tatiana picked up the toy—it was the murder weapon used by Thomas Ryzkov, a huge iron-studded ball.

That next morning all the town’s people were abuzz about the murders.  Yet they did not want to forsake the morning Liturgy that followed Holy Pascha.  Opening the doors of the church, they were shocked to find Thomas Ryzkov kneeling near the front of the church, before the icon of the Mother of God, weeping tears of repentance uncontrollably, muttering over and over Khristos Voskrese!  Khristos Voskrese!, Khristos Voskrese! Thomas’ hand was held up before the Theotokos, Mikhail’s Paschal egg residing in the palm of his hand.

Thomas was arrested and put on trial.  The only words he said throughout the entire trial were Khristos Voskrese!  Khristos Voskrese!  So overwhelming and so convincing was Thomas’ contrition of heart, his repentance, that miraculously, with the support of the town’s people of Tobolsk, Thomas was granted his freedom.  Henceforth everyone came to call Wolfman Tom Goodman Tom

For the next several years Goodman Tom served everyone in Tobolsk as a sacrificial Christ-like servant, helping all in need, tirelessly giving himself to any and all labors, especially those labors that no one wanted to do.

Thomas then disappeared.  Everyone assumed that he had been killed by the wild animals while walking in the woods, as was his habit.  Thirty more years passed.  Then one day a great prince came to Tobolsk to go hunting during the winter snows.  Deep in the woods, Prince Mistislav stumbled upon a dwelling, a primitive hut.  An old man, tall and thin and near death, greeted him three times, Khristos Voskrese!  The prince recognized him.  It was Thomas Ryzkov, whose face shone brilliant as the sun, who looked into the prince’s eyes and began his final words, words of confession—O Lord, O my Lord!  Open the gates of Heaven!  And concluded as he took his final breath, Christ, forgive … forgive my many sins.  O Lord my Lord!  Open unto me the gates of Heaven!”

Thomas’ transformation was complete.  Once an outsider sinner who belonged to no one, consumed by his hate, Wolfman Tom—like Saul becoming Paul—was transformed into Goodman Tom, a lover of God and a lover of people, all because he one day experienced the love of God, of belonging to God, and belonging to a community of people who grew to love him, in spite of his murderous ways amongst them.  So many good lessons for us here, dear sisters and brothers.  Thank God, thank God that He is for us and not against us; that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have ever-lasting life.  F/S/HS