ST. PAUL’S CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH
Luke 17: 11-19, Jeremiah 29:1,4-7; October 13, 2019
Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Another multi-level story today in our gospel lesson – you’ve heard it before, a message of thanksgiving and gratitude – an important message that we need to hear over and over again for sure – but thanks to Kate Matthews, retired from the Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio, my understanding of this passage has been widened as I read her profound reflection on this story this week. I am grateful to share some of that with you. It’s been an unsettling, troubling difficult week, worldwide, nationally, and right here in our church community as well, and I’ve found her thoughts so very helpful and timely.
She begins, “Borders are places of danger and drama. Wars begin on borders, and armies cross them on their way to conquest or defeat.” We know this, don’t we - not only from our historical memories of World War I and II, but also from events reported this week in the Middle East. We are thinking of the refugee camps across the borders of Syria: as Turkey invades, where do the Kurdish refugees go? Where do those foreigners running for their lives find safety? This on top of the divisive, swirling political scene here in the United States during another long election season, with questions of immigration and "border security" uppermost in media coverage and campaign rhetoric.
On our southern border we attempt to put up all kinds of barriers--walls, guards, and surveillance cameras to keep people out who, we fear, "need" to be kept out. Isn’t one of the major divisive issues we deal with today centered on whether to build a stupendously expensive wall on the southern border of the United States, to protect the most powerful nation on earth from those who are seen as threats to its existence. Such "protection" comes with a price: not just the cost of this wall but also the terrible humanitarian cost borne by those seeking safety from the terror in their native lands.
Maybe it's human nature to draw lines, to separate ourselves from others, and, I suppose at least some of the time our motives are reasonable--the world, after all, is a dangerous place. But then, it so easily becomes "Us and Them," and "Them" are perceived as neither desirable nor good.
In Luke’s story, Jesus is somewhere "between Samaria and Galilee." The only place scarier than a border is an in-between place, where boundaries and borders aren't clear. The ten lepers in this story call out to Jesus across a line, the distance prescribed by the Law because of their ritual impurity. They don't approach him, for they know their place; these outcasts, living as beggars, dependent on the kindness of people passing by are united by their suffering and their exclusion from the wider, fearful community.
As Jesus crosses that border between Galilee and Samaria, maybe he and his disciples are remembering the Samaritan town earlier in the story that refused to welcome him (a "border" closed to him), and maybe they wonder if this village will reject him, too, on his way to Jerusalem and his death. Now, as he enters the town, he encounters this little band of ten lepers, but they don't come close, and he doesn't touch them, as he often does when healing the sick. Just a word from him, a command, sends them on their way in anticipation of what will happen on the road--healing!
They hurry to do what lepers are supposed to do when they're healed: go show themselves to the priest, as Jesus instructed them, and get him to stamp the certificate that says they're safe to re-enter society, a double experience of healing. (They have to make sure their paperwork is in order, and they're properly "documented.") While they're still on the road, they look at one another, and each one at himself, and--wonder of wonders--they see that they're already healed. One of them, a despised Samaritan, turns around, then, and goes back.
That’s what’s so interesting about this story. We hear that only one former leper turns back, praising God and thanking Jesus. He's so full of joy and gratitude that he throws himself on the ground at Jesus' feet; he's talking too loud, making a real spectacle of himself. We can only imagine the disciples there, feeling awkward, uncomfortable at this display. I mean, it's okay to feel grateful and all, but he doesn't need to get carried away, right?
Meanwhile, back on the road to the Temple, the nine lepers are obediently doing what Jesus told them to do and what they know the Law requires of them. They're being good, observant, faithful Jews. Jesus wonders where they are, but we know, and we assume he knows, that they're at the Temple, getting their certificates so they can go back to their lives, the sooner the better.
Remember, the outsider, the Samaritan, this "other," may be so seized by gratitude and joy that he turns back to Jesus, but the Temple isn't a place he'd be welcome even if he is cured of his leprosy. There's no cure for being a Samaritan, a big-time outsider. There's no certification by the priest that can make him acceptable, there’s nothing that can "rehabilitate" his otherness. Of all of them, he has plenty of time to say thank you to Jesus.
This story isn’t just a story about the importance of saying thank you – it’s a lesson in who's really an insider, and who's out. When Luke wrote his Gospel, he shaped the stories about Jesus that he had heard into one great big story that helped an early Christian community to understand the gospel in their own situation, to hear God speaking good news to them where they were, to shine a light on the problems their community was facing, just as we do today, as people of faith.
One of the things early Christians wrestled with was how to relate to the Jewish roots of their faith, and what they should do about all these Gentiles coming into their churches – what does that mean for the church? How will the church change when “outsiders” come in? They would have heard this story and maybe thought, “Wow, the outsider was the one who recognized Jesus for who he was. Not the nine from his own people.”
Kate observes here, “The challenges of church growth, it seems, are in every age; today we don’t struggle with the Jewish-Gentile question – but we have our own issues with church growth - Kate reports, “I’ve actually heard church members express hesitation about their church becoming "too black" or "too gay".
Well. We are called to listen for what God has to say to us, here and now, about the things we face and questions we have in our own journey of faith – as individuals and as church. Who are the “us” and “them” today?
Where is our place in this story? Maybe we're the disciples, watching all this and wanting to get back on the road and not wanting this Samaritan to hold things up. After all, we are on a mission from God. Or maybe we're in the crowd watching it all happen and wondering, "Who is this fellow, anyway, who can cure lepers with a word?"
Or maybe we're one of the nine lepers, and hey, we're trying to be good lepers and good religious folks who obey the religious authorities and Laws…and we feel so happy to be healed that we just can't wait to get to the Temple to be examined by the priest and then hurry back to our families and friends and have a big party and get on with our lives. Even if that means that we, uh, forget to thank the one who made it all happen.
And maybe, just maybe, at least once or twice in our lives, we know what it feels like to be the tenth leper. The one who has nothing to lose in turning away from the path to the Temple - sometimes we feel that institutional religion has nothing to offer us, really--nothing to lose in going back to the man who made it possible for him to just be a human being again. A healthy and whole human being.
He may be an outsider here; a "them" to the crowd around Jesus, but a word from Jesus, spoken in compassionate concern, gives him salvation, that is, healing, because it tears down the wall that has kept him from being a member of any community except that of the lepers, on the edge of society. We can assume he returns to his own people, once he finishes that display there, at the feet of Jesus. But we can also assume his life will never be the same.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her sermon on this passage, agrees that the nine were fulfilling expectations and doing their duty by obeying the Law. She writes that "Ten behaved like good lepers, good Jews; only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love." A man in love with the One who healed him! She reflects about how hard she tries to fulfill expectations and obey rules and be a good church-going person. "I know how to be obedient," she writes, "but I do not know how to be in love."
We are all commanded to “love God” and our efforts to do that are often expressed in faithful actions and regular prayer. And that’s a good thing. But how often do we really act as if we’re in love? The way we act matches our obedience; quiet, subdued, more internal than external. Most folks are rather contained during worship – and we can get a little nervous when people talk too energetically or passionately about their faith – or pray with “too much” enthusiasm.
When did our faith become something so subdued and contained? Why did we have to learn to be so quiet in church, so still, so reserved? When did we stop responding with deep joy and gratitude, responding in love, to our faith?
Worship is not a spectator sport – it’s very much participatory. There’s an energy that can happen during worship when there’s an engagement among the entire gathered body – remember when Freeman Palmer was here? We couldn’t help but respond, could we. Or when we’re moved by an especially beautiful piece of music and we wipe away tears or applaud. And I always loved preaching to the folks from Integrity – they talked back! Maybe with an amen or a quiet sound – times when we expressed our gratitude to God for being with us through the highs and lows of our lives. A response that expresses our love for the God who loves us all!
I know some people are uncomfortable when someone talks about their faith outside church, or even in church if they show their feelings or, God forbid, if they get "carried away," like that tenth leper. But you know, I sometimes get uncomfortable, too. My first response can be to tense up because some folks who talk about being Christian are most often fundamentalists and evangelicals, and I have all sorts of preconceptions about how "they" are. They're not like me. And to be honest, I figure that if they knew who I am, they wouldn't be too happy about it, and they wouldn't think I was a Christian like they are. "Us" and "Them": the lines are certainly drawn today just as they were then. They're just drawn in different places.
Sometimes it takes someone else, unexpected, to open our eyes to blessings and wonders in our lives. A person on the margins, on the outside, may have a better vantage point to look inside and see the heart of the matter. When has someone else, unexpectedly, helped you to see something important? In this story we meet an likely teacher: "an outsider whose unrestrained and spontaneous appreciation shows the essence of faith and who disrupts an otherwise easy perception that we know who the real insiders are.
Where do you find yourself in this story? What are divisive problems that we wrestle with in the church today, and where are the borders that we draw, visible or invisible, but are surely felt? Why do you think the Samaritan was the only one who returned to thank Jesus? What are "borders" in your own life, where you feel perhaps vulnerable or uncertain rather than secure and safe?
Imagine the conversation among this group of ten lepers as they made the decision to ask Jesus for mercy. Did they all agree that it was a good idea, or did some cynically claim that it wouldn't work? We can wonder what they did afterward; did they have reunions and remember when they were together, back on the other side of the line? Had they grown to depend on one another during the time they were outcasts, to identify with themselves solely by a skin condition rather than as father, brother, son, or friend?
And I wonder too, why the Samaritan was allowed to be part of their group, when Samaritans themselves were outcast by the Jewish community. Once they were healed, would the nine have accepted the tenth back again as an equal, when they were no longer desperate or outcast themselves? And what was the conversation like when they looked at one another and saw that they had been healed? Would they have said, "It must have been that man, Jesus?" We can only imagine, and pray for open eyes and open hearts so that we, too, might know healing, and rejoice and give thanks when we do.
Meister Eckhart wrote in the 14th century "If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough."
And then, as Maya Angelou wrote, “As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal somebody else."
Let’s live by these words: Thank you, God. Now help me to share your awesome good news. Amen!