October 13, 2013 – Pentecost 21

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Oct 13, 2013   (Ps 111, Jer 29:1,4-7, Luke 9:51-56)  Luke 17:11-19  The Other Nine

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Jesus and his followers are on the road, traveling through the region between Samaria and Galilee, we’re told.  But Galilee, the disciple’s home province, and Samaria directly border each other. There’s nothing between them geographically. So St Luke the gospel writer must be talking spiritual geography – letting us know we’re in the grey zone between mainline and marginal, familiar and unfamiliar — represented by Galilee, the northern end of Jewish country, and Samaria, just south of there, once part of Israel, now foreign territory…

The disciples and Jesus are traveling towards Jerusalem — Faith Central Headquarters for Jews, and as they travel, ten lepers approach — and, as the law of Moses requires, these lepers keep their distance as they cry, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

And Jesus says, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”  And as they go, all are made clean — healed of disease.

The biblical word ‘leprosy’ covers a wide range of skin conditions and infections (like psoriasis). Household molds are also covered under this same topic heading of ritual purity in Leviticus chapters 13 and14 – which can be fascinating reading. A bit like reading pharmaceutical product labels. In both cases it’s important to read the small print, as side-effects tend to be significant.

Leprosy in the bible seldom if ever means the serious disease we call leprosy or Hansen’s Disease today – though biblical leprosy was considered contagious. Those afflicted had to live apart from family and community. When they  approached others they were required to cry out, ‘unclean, unclean,’ warning others lest they become infected with ritual impurity through contact.

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The closest I can recall to feeling like a leper is probably back in my early teen years, when I was periodically stricken with pimples, with accompanying acute symptoms of feeling doomed to a life of social isolation. In other words, my social exclusion experience has been relatively limited.

Even in the worst moments of my junior high school days, none of us were required to walk around saying “pimples, pimples…” Our affliction wasn’t considered contagious. And thanks God, my pimples eventually passed, my nerdy-ness receded enough for me to be more-or-less certifiable as reasonably cool, according to the cultural high priests of my high school. (The popular kids.)

When healing of lepers occurred (as it probably usually did, most of the time, eventually), lepers had to be certified ritually clean by a priest before they could reenter society. Priestly certification was the passport back to life in community. Till then, lepers had to live apart, out on the outskirts of town, begging, or supported by families from a distance.

Now Jesus heals ten lepers — releasing them from exile. Now once they get checked out by the priest, they’ll be able to go home.

And one, among the ten, seeing he’s healed — turns back and throws himself down in front of Jesus, thanking him, praising God.  And he’s a Samaritan.

Samaritans and Jews were descended from the same ancestors, but separated by long centuries of bad history. Earlier in Luke’s gospel Jesus and disciples are refused hospitality by a Samaritan village, and disciples ask Jesus if they can please call down fire from heaven to turn that village into toast. Jesus has to rebuke and correct his followers… But —

Now, later on this same journey, the only one who comes back to give thanks to Jesus turns out to be a Samaritan. (The last shall be first — and some who were first shall be last.)

And Jesus says “were not all ten healed? Where’s the other nine? What’s up with  no one coming back to praise God except this foreigner?” Then, to the Samaritan, he says, “Rise, and go. Your faith has made you well.”

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What about the other nine? Why is it only one outsider comes back to give thanks?

St Luke doesn’t tell us directly. There’s more than one possibility, I suppose.

Maybe the other nine don’t come back because they’re following instructions to the letter. Jesus didn’t say, “come back and say thank you.” He just said, “go, show yourselves to the priests.” So they went to see the priests and didn’t come back… because Jesus didn’t say ‘come back.’

Or maybe the nine didn’t come back because they got so excited to be healed — in such a hurry, now, to get to the priests, get certified, get home to their families — and in all their excitement, now they’re forgetting to say “thank you, Jesus…”

And we’re told only one saw he was healed. Maybe the other nine didn’t come back and say thank you Jesus, because they really didn’t see what God has done for them.  They noticed they were clean — they knew they were healed. But they didn’t really see the extent of what Jesus has done…

Jesus tells the one who does come back “your faith has made you whole.” All ten are cleansed. All ten are healed… But only one is made whole… Only one completes the process of healing….by giving thanks from the heart…to the Healer.

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Last week while out fishing I did something very foolish that I know not to do and probably haven’t ever done before. I waded too far into the current of a tidal river, and ended up swimming, waders, partly full of water, back to land…

There was a pair of other fishermen nearby that evening, one of whom I’d met before… As I got out of the water, dripping wet and cold, the first thing that fisherman said to me was “Well your glasses stayed on – be thankful for that!”

I knew, of course, he was right. But I just wasn’t thankful yet… I’d been eager to fish, eager to get where I had been hooking fish the week before. Now I was soaking wet and cold and knew I needed to get home, get warm and dry, or risk hypothermia….I tried saying ‘thank you Jesus’ a little in the car on the way home, but I didn’t have much heart in it…

Only after I got home, showered, got into dry clothes, ate warm soup, and began to think about how much worse it could have been — did I begin to say thank you Jesus — and really mean it.

Thank you, Jesus, I didn’t lose my glasses… Thank you Jesus, I didn’t get swept further out and scare myself and others… Thank you Jesus, my wife and daughter welcomed me home and didn’t scold me much…

And maybe that’s kind of how it was with the other nine? Maybe it took awhile for it all to sink in — how very much Jesus has done for them, and for us. How very much we have to thank God for…

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Only one comes back to say ‘thank you, Jesus,’ and he’s a leper and a Samaritan. Reminding me of —

When I moved down to Boston from Vermont to go to seminary, I would sometimes hear God speaking a word similar to what Jeremiah heard today, about seeking the good of the city in which I was exiled. As I began to pray for my new neighbors and their welfare and well-being, I began to also notice more of the blessings happening around me.

All over Boston there are old large churches that were nearly empty, often for decades — now filling up again, with immigrant churches cohabiting in old church buildings. In the Brighton Methodist church where I interned, Ghanaian and Brazilian congregations rented church space and the Brazilians used the church much more than we did. A block from my apartment in Alston, an old Congregational church that seated 400 comfortably had a host congregation of two dozen or less now — but  Chinese, Brazilian, and Korean congregations used the church nearly every night of the week and also Sunday afternoons.

All these immigrant congregations were larger than their host congregations, and most were growing — friends in some of these churches told me —  because life wasn’t easy — and members were very aware of their need for God.  And very grateful for God’s gifts and graces, including especially the church.

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I don’t think our story today is about guilt-tripping us into gratitude. (Though a little guilt can be a good motivator. And our mothers were right — we should always say “thank you”, especially to God…especially to Jesus… )

But considering how Jesus asks – what about the other nine?

I do think Jesus is telling us to cultivate an attitude-of-gratitude. Like John Wesley last week, learning faith by preaching faith till he got faith — Jesus is telling us — practice giving thanks to God till we know to be thanking God… Then keep thanking God because now we know to always be thanking God…

Some of you know this much better than I do…. And I’m learning from you…

How important it is to practice being the one who remembers all Jesus has done for us —

Till remembering how much Jesus has done for us becomes second nature.

How important it is to practice being one who keeps coming back to the feet of Jesus to say from the heart, “Thank you Jesus! Thank you Jesus, very much!”

Because the more we learn to thank Jesus… till we’re thanking him from the heart —  the more we know…

How much we have to thank him for….

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Let’s practice together as we sing the songs — till singing the songs becomes second nature…

Thank you Jesus, Amen (#2081) — and In the Lord I’ll be Ever Thankful (#2195)