Sunday Week 28 Year C

Sometimes we have to go a long way from home to meet the God who has been with us since the beginning.
I remember, six years ago, dreading the thought of leaving England to come here to America. I remember looking to the west and seeing only darkness, thinking, “There’s no one there I know, not a person within 10,000 miles.” And though that was quite true, I was surprised from the beginning of being here how much it felt like home, more like home than home did. But you know what surprised more than anything was that God was already here when I arrived. And not just floating around vaguely but solidly in one specific place. I would be walking around the Campus in Berkeley just marvelling at being here and I would feel this warm breeze that would get my attention and it would feel like nothing so much as being breathed upon. Breathed upon by God. God was breathing on me out of these green bushes, round the corners of paths, crossing over bridges. I’d feel this warm breath and I’d stop and feel blessed. I’d feel welcomed. And I’d feel in the right place. And it has been the right place.
Sometimes we have to go a long way from home to meet the God who has loved us since the beginning. Two years ago I took a couple of friends around some of the holy places of my country. One was Rievaulx, a beautiful ruined Cistercian Abbey, built in the twelfth century and demolished in the sixteenth. It’s quiet there and green and the stones, in the sun, glow golden. One of my friends sat down in the shade on one of those stones … and sat and sat … He said it was as if the stone had roots that went down to the middle of the earth and he could feel the slow ages of prayer that it had overheard. A peace grew up from the earth and drew him deep down to his own roots, to a place where he could tell truth from lies, and doubt from desire. A place with no plastic—only stone and a faithful God he could trust.
My other friend wandered around absorbed in his thoughts until his daydreams seemed to come alive wondering about the monks who had once been in this place. He found himself imagining talking to one of them about what his life was like and found his own yearning for companionship answered in him. That imagined monk goes with him still, whispering God’s trust in him.
Myself I met Aelred, 8 centuries ago the abbot of the place, and I left a part of me there in his care, for his healing. On holy ground.
Sometimes we have to go a long way from home to meet the God who has been beside us from the beginning. But when we meet him we never want to let him go. Like Naaman in the bible we want to take home a whole pile of dirt so we have our own holy ground to pray on. My two friends took home souvenirs: posters, books, but above all stone and earth—the physical substance of the place. And they took home a real experience of God.
Do you know what I mean? Has that ever happened to you? Has God ever surprised you by turning up unexpectedly? I believe we all have some story to tell. And so often our stories involve being in a strange place, of being foreigners in a foreign land, because so often we get so used to where we live that we don’t see its strangeness and so used to God’s presence that we no longer notice. But when we are away from home maybe God gets a chance to sneak up on us unawares.
If we’ve gotten this far, if we have our own stories to tell of unexpected, holy places, we’ve gotten about as far as those ten lepers cured by Jesus. All ten are deeply blessed. Presumably they all jumped for joy at what happened. Probably they all told the story for the rest of their lives. But what marks out the one guy who came back to Jesus is just that—he came back to the place where it all happened and he didn’t let it the story be finished. He wanted the story to continue.
I doubt it’s a coincidence that he was a foreigner—even among outcasts—but by going back he ceased to be a stranger. He saw Jesus face to face. He stopped being part of a crowd and became a person. But Jesus too stopped being a name he’d heard about and became a person. Someone with a face and a voice and a smell.
That’s our invitation always. To meet the God who is always with us wherever he turns up. And to keep on coming back to that place until we know his face and know his voice and know his smell.