In years past,you could count on a human interest story on page two of the local news. These stories shared how someone overcame the odds to do something great. This week I found at least three of those stories online.
The first takes place here in Camillus, Andrew Bowman was crowned Homecoming King at West Genesee High School. For those who do not know Andrew, he is an affable and friendly young man who happens to have Downs Syndrome. He is also known as the Mayor of West Genesee because he knows everybody, and everybody knows Andrew. In his final year of high school, Andrew participates on the swim team, in drama club, and is part of the music department. There is little doubt Andrew’s success is the result of his parents. His mother has often said Andrew is her son first, he only happens to have Downs Syndrome.
Also in the news this week is the story of a sixteen year old Guatemalan adoptee living in New Jersey now playing on his high school soccer team. What makes his story unique is he also happened to have had both his arms and legs amputated when he was three years old. When asked about his athletic success, the young man simply stated he did not perceive himself as disabled and always plays to the best of his ability.
And finally, on the first anniversary of her assassination attempt by the Taliban, Malala has been prominently featured on ABC News. Despite being shot point blank in the face, Malala has recovered from her ordeal and continues to fight for women’s rights to education.
As I have read and listened to each of these amazing stories, I realize they all have what I like to call the Kent Hogan affect, the belief in focusing on what you are able to do by not focusing on what you cannot do, or better yet the belief that despite their brokenness, they are whole.
For those who do not remember Ken, he was an active part of St. Luke’s until his death several years ago. While stationed with the army in Alaska, one night Ken took the keys to a motorcycle from a drunk friend and while riding the motorcycle home, lost control and slammed into a tree. The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. Yes, as Ken would tell you, he spent many years after his accident feeling sorry for himself. And then, with the birth of his first child, Ken realized he had to get it together if he wanted to be a father. It wasn’t long before Ken figured out what he could and could not do, and then capitalized on what he could do. Over time, Ken became an international Para-Olympic swimmer, found work as an advocate for disabled veterans, and became a leading advocate for Americans with Disabilities. It is because of Ken’s design consultation, our building is fully accessible. He accomplished all of this because he learned to see himself as whole not broken,and as he had learned and advised others, he focused on what he could do and not on what he couldn’t.
In this morning’s Gospel, we heard of Jesus’ encounter with the ten lepers. All ten were healed and sent to the Priest to be declared clean, but only one, a Samaritan, returns to offer gratitude. To this, Jesus tells him his faith has made him well. As modern readers, we often miss two salient points in the story. The first, in ancient times, anyone with a skin disease was deemed a leper. No matter what one’s social status was, if you were deemed a leper, you were ostracized from the community and forced to live in the leper colony outside of the village, because people feared you were contagious.
Second, Samaritans, of ancient Palestine were perceived as unclean or impure Jews. Yes they were Jewish, but their lineage and practices were out of accord with Deuteronomic law. This meant the Samaritan, even though healed, would never be declared clean by the Temple Priests and allowed to be a full member of Jewish Society. Instead, he would return to the ghettos where other Samaritans were allowed to live. But this did not matter to the Samaritan, he skipped seeing the priest and returned to where Jesus was and offered his gratitude because he knew now, in God’s eyes, he was clean and whole.
Somehow and in some way each and every one of us is like the Samaritan, impure, dis-eased and or broken. Every day we are bombarded with messages through the media and each other as to how we fail to measure up, and where our weaknesses are. And it is easy to get bogged down in what is wrong with us and forget to focus on what is right and good about us. This leaves us feeling inadequate at best. When we succumb to societal pressures, we feel broken and we lose sight of how we are seen through the eyes of God . . . as perfect and beloved children. In this morning’s Gospel, the Samaritan did not care what the Temple Priest declared about him, through his encounter with Jesus, he came to realize that he too was cherished by God. And for this, he was grateful.
As part of creation, God has given each of us gifts and talents to be used towards the building of the Kingdom, and each of us is a valued and a unique part of the Kingdom.
During the beginning exercises of the Ignation 19th annotation, participants are asked to focus on their being individually loved by God. Most of us have a hard time believing God can actually love us. Even for those who can accept being loved by God. They often find it hard to trust in that love. Being loved by God, is the message of the cross. As St. John writes,” God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” This means God came to be among us out of love for each of us. What the Samaritan realized when he was healed was, despite being told his whole life he was not worthy of God’s love, his encounter with Jesus told him otherwise.
What greater moment is there in life than when we come to know and accept that we are loved by God? John Newton, the 19th century slave merchant and poet, penned the words to Amazing Grace after he realized despite his unscrupulous past, he was still loved by God.
Knowing and accepting that we are loved by God is what makes us whole, despite whatever our brokenness might be. This is what Andrew, Malala, and Ken all came to know and celebrate in their lives. God’s love for us as Jesus indicates to the Samaritan is the foundation of our faith. And this is what we come to celebrate here each week as is indicated by these words from Eucharistic Prayer A, “It is a right, and a good and a joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”
Identifying and celebrating the ways in which God loves us is the focus of the second week of the 19th Annotation. Through scripture and prayer retreatants are asked to identify how God has loved them, and like the Samaritan, to celebrate God’s love for them by offering thanks to God. Andrew Bowman celebrates God’s love by unconditionally accepting others, Malala celebrates God’s love by continuing her crusade for women’s rights to education, and Ken celebrated God’s love by encouraging others to focus on what they can do, not on what they can’t do.
As I reflect on this morning’s Gospel, I realize we are faced with a question. . .how do we celebrate God’s love for us in our words and through our actions?