Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Tenth Leper

Today's gospel reading comes from the seventeenth chapter of Luke's Gospel. I have a Sunday off and am not preaching this weekend, but I'm reprinting a sermon below (slightly edited) that I preached the last time it came up in the lectionary, three years ago at St. Francis Church in Holden

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When asked to describe the nature of true worship, Martin Luther responded succinctly: “the tenth leper turning back.” Since celebrating the Feast of Pentecost twenty-one weeks ago, we have been “on the way” in Luke’s Gospel with Jesus and his followers, making our way to Jerusalem. Luke has organized these encounters that Jesus and the disciples have “on the way” to reveal something about the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim and establish.

Today, however, we seem to have taken a detour. Luke in fact begins by reminding us that we are still “on the way” to Jerusalem, but then adds that Jesus is now "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 not really on the way!

There are three possibilities for such a detour. One is that Jesus has gotten lost, which is highly unlikely. In fact, since faithful Jews aren’t supposed to be anywhere near Samarian 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 quite 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 across a boundary where ethnic and religious tensions are palpable. Think about a detour to Belfast when tensions were highest between Catholic and Protestant Christians there or to Los Angeles after the Rodney King beating or maybe in East Jerusalem today, where tensions between Muslims and Jews remain intense. 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, and is in 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 2x4 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 “normal 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 easily translates 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!” And 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 October to not notice. We are part of a faith community that nurtures and sustains our faith. We experience, even on the most difficult of days, blessing upon blessing. And so we gather here each weekend to share the Eucharist which means “thank you God.” We recite the ancient words that are rooted in the Passover story from Exodus, to thank God for bringing us out of the bondage of slavery and to the Promised Land. We gather to thank God for this good earth and the gifts of bread and wine. As we’ll say in a few minutes: “It is right and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere, to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”    

We come here to say our prayers in order to become more like the one who turned back, because it takes us to the very heart of the gospel. Ten were healed of their leprosy: their skin got better and they were all presumably pronounced ritually clean and allowed to re-enter society. But only one of them truly got well. He isn’t just “not sick” anymore. He’s alive. He's grateful.

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 before us today suggests that we take hold of that new life—we are made whole—when we cultivate gratitude in our lives. That part, at least, of this reading is really very simple. Sometimes we come to Church and the readings make no sense immediately: our cultural and historical distance from them makes them hard to understand. We don’t immediately know that this village is not literally “on the way to Jerusalem” or that what we call Hanson’s Disease today carried with it a social stigma that isolated people from the wider community.

But really those are just details that make it real: the point of this story happens every day. It happens in the waiting rooms of ICU at our local hospitals; it happens around our dinner tables or picking apples or hiking up Mount Wachusett on an autumn day. Miracles abound. That doesn’t mean that life isn’t sometimes hard, although it’s hard to imagine any life 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, must get to class, must get to the doctor, must get supper ready, must even sometimes get to church. Focused on the next thing, it’s too easy for us to 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.  

Let me then close with the words of one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamotte. She 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: “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Those are 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.

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