Saturday, November 18, 2017

The One Who Went Back

The Gospel Reading for Thanksgiving Day is Luke 17:11-19. It's about the healing of ten lepers and the one who went back to say "thank you." It's a great text. I preached a sermon on it seven years ago, on October 10, 2010 at St. Francis, Holden; not on Thanksgiving, but on the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost when this text also comes up. I've revised that original sermon for this post, perhaps as a help to those who will be preaching on Thursday and also for those who may not make it to Church that day but are still feeling grateful. 

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When asked to describe the nature of true worship, Martin Luther responded succinctly: “the tenth leper turning back.”

Luke has organized his gospel in such a way that Jesus and his disciples are "on the way" to Jerusalem from Galilee, and along the way they have various encounters that  reveal something about the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim and establish.

In the seventeenth chapter, however, we seem to have taken a detour. Luke reminds us that we are still “on the way” to Jerusalem, but then adds that now Jesus “is going through that region between Samaria and Galilee.” We should pay attention. It’d be like saying that on the way from Worcester to Boston they stopped in Providence. It’s out of the way!

There are three possibilities for such a detour. One is that Jesus has gotten lost, which is possible but unlikely. In fact, since faithful Jews aren’t supposed to be anywhere near Samaritan soil, it seems Jesus is making a point here. 

A second possibility is that Luke doesn’t have a very good sense of first-century Palestinian geography. Since all of the gospels, including Luke, were written decades after the events being recounted, it is in fact possible that Luke has gotten his geography wrong. 

But most scholars think there is a far more likely third possibility, and I agree with them: that both Jesus and Luke know exactly what they are doing and a serious theological point is being made here. Jesus is stepping into a boundary where ethnic and religious tensions are palpable. Think about a detour to beyond the wall in Israel to the West Bank, or to Belfast when tensions were highest between Catholic and Protestant Christians there or to Los Angeles after the Rodney King beating or maybe to the DMZ in North Korea today. Luke is putting us on notice: while we are still “on the way” to Jerusalem, something important that reveals something about the Kingdom of God is going to happen in this little village…

Only Luke gives us that other famous Samaritan story, the one about the so-called Good Samaritan. For any self-respecting first-century Jew, of course, that phrase, Good Samaritan, would have been considered an oxymoron. Everybody knew that Samaritans represented that which was never good: that which was to be feared as unholy and polluted. Jesus has crossed the tracks to the part of town where when you hit a red light you don’t stop. He’s traveling through that region between Samaria and Galilee when they come to a village.

Now in case anyone reading Luke’s Gospel has missed the point, we get hit over the head a second time by a 2 x 4 when Jesus encounters a group of lepers there. Not only is he in a place considered unclean, but now there are lepers everywhere. People with leprosy were considered to be ritually unclean and not allowed to come into contact with healthy people. Hence the leper colonies where they lived away from the community. They keep their distance because coming into contact with someone who had this ailment would make you ritually unclean. In fact, as you approached a leper, they were required to shout out: “unclean, unclean” as a kind of warning, just to be sure that you don’t walk up to them accidentally to ask for directions. Imagine such a life: suffering not only from a terrible disease but being socially ostracized as well. And then notice that while they do approach Jesus, Luke makes it clear that they “kept their distance from him.”

Keeping their distance, they shout out to Jesus for mercy. And then Jesus sends them along to the priests, because the Torah says that before they can re-enter the community the priest must pronounce them ritually clean. As they turn to leave they find their skin disease is healed. But they still need that “OK” from the Temple authorities before they can re-enter society. They know that, and everyone with Jesus knows that; and besides Jesus has just told them to do that. So off they go.

But one of them turned back. Now it may be fair enough as you hear this to say, “Hey, cut the nine some slack because they are just doing what Jesus said to do.” But that really isn’t the point of the story. The point here is something that every parent I know tries to teach their children from a very young age. And even when you don’t know much about Middle Eastern geography or the ritual laws about leprosy, this part of the story translates pretty easily from first-century culture to our own day: it doesn’t cost you anything to say “thank you.” They can get on their way soon enough. But their lives have just been radically changed. This is huge! 

And yet they have tunnel vision: must get to priests! Only one of them takes the time to turn back and say, “thank you!” That is what Luther meant when he said that true worship is to be like this one. Or as Meister Eckhart put it: “if the only prayer you ever say is ‘thank you’ it would be enough.”

We all know this. But it takes practice. We are surrounded by miracles and you would have to be blind to live in New England in autumn not to not notice. We experience, even on the most difficult of days, blessing upon blessing. The one who turned back, takes us to the very heart of the gospel. Ten were healed of their leprosy: their skin got better and they were all presumably soon pronounced ritually clean and allowed to re-enter society. But only one of them got well. He isn’t just “not sick” anymore; he’s been made whole. He’s alive.

Can I say it this way: he’s saved? That word makes Episcopalians squirm a little bit and I get why: it’s a little like the word “evangelism” or “stewardship.” Often when someone asks us whether or not we are “saved,” we may be tempted to run the other way. But that is in fact the Greek word used here: the root sozo literally means “to be saved” or “to be made well.” In the old King James Version it says, “Your faith has made you whole," which of course is what salvation is really all about.

Being saved isn’t about something that happens to us after we die. The abundant life that Christ promises begins here and now and this story suggests that we take hold of that new life. We really are made whole when we cultivate gratitude in our lives. That part, at least, of this reading is really very simple. 

Miracles abound. That doesn’t mean life isn’t sometimes hard, although it’s hard to imagine a life any more difficult than being a leper in a small Samaritan village. But too often we’re too busy moving on to the next thing; the miracles are all around us but we must get to work or get to class or get to the doctor or even get to church. We need to get supper ready or do the laundry. All these things matter but if we aren't careful we begin to live our lives focused on the next thing rather than the thing we are doing right now. And too often we forget to stop and say: “thank you, God.” 

So I think Luther had it just right: true worship is the one who returned. Discipleship is about cultivating gratitude, until we learn to become givers ourselves.  

Anne Lamotte says that she has two favorite prayers that she tries to pray every day: one in the morning and one at night. When she gets out of bed, she simply prays: “Help me. Help me. Help me.” And at the end of the day, before her head hits the pillow, she prays: “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Those are both really good prayers. And they will take you a long way down the path of being made whole, if that is what you seek. They will take you a long way toward embracing the saving love that is in fact already ours in Jesus Christ.