Sermon – October 9, 2016 – Bethlehem Lutheran Church
Text – Luke 17:11-19
Grace and peace to you, from our loving God, through Christ Jesus. Amen.
Earlier this week, I thought this lesson was your standard lead-into-stewardship-time text. Be grateful. Check. Remember to say thank you. Check.
But I was reminded that seeing nothing more that what is evident on the surface is what quickly leads towards law and away from gospel.
In the past, I’ve always heard this lesson as “it’s important to say thank you.” But when I returned to it this week, it began to sound as if it were being read by the playground monitor in elementary school. As if this were one more item in a list of Rules You Need To Follow In Order To Be A Follower Of Jesus. And to paraphrase Dr. Phil, that just isn’t working for me.
While the importance of the leper returning to thank Jesus must not be underplayed, I submit that there’s quite a bit more going on here. I think I may have said that in nearly every sermon I’ve preached since returning to Bethlehem, so that should tell you something about the gospel of Luke! Today’s text, however, seems to me to carry distinct aspects of worship – aspects that remind me of the work we did together around worship this summer. And that is what really caught my eye.
Let’s take a look.
One of the really important things to do when reading Scripture is get an understanding of the context. We are told that Jesus is “going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” There’s just one problem here: Samaria and Galilee don’t have ANYTHING between them, other than a border. So it’s not so much that Jesus is on his way from one to the other, but that he is along the border.
We live close enough to a border that we know how unstable such an area can be. But Jesus, true to form, is smack dab in the middle of the instability. Side note – that’s where he’s needed.
Add to this – as we’ve heard in other stories – that Jews and Samaritans did not get along. This goes back to land issues that arose after the exile to and return from Babylon.
Again, not an issue for Jesus. According to Luther, Jesus is taking this particular route to Jerusalem – a very circuitous one – in order to reach maximum efficacy. That is, to bring the inbreaking kingdom of God near to as many folks as possible.
Jesus comes into an unnamed village, and the first thing he encounters in this village is a group of ten lepers. Note that the gender of these lepers is unknown, other than the one who returns. Perhaps this is because the identity of lepers in ancient Israel went no further than their disease.
Instead of “men” or “women” they are simply “lepers”. They aren’t identified by any name. And they are completely cast out from the community.
When Jesus comes into this village, the lepers approach him – and Luke is careful to mark that they keep their distance. They’re really not supposed to interact with anyone at all. But what do they say? “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
They are speaking the words of the Kyrie, one of the elements we might use at the beginning of worship. “Lord, have mercy. Kyrie eleison. Christ, have mercy. Christe eleison.” Words that we use, framing a confession, to name and claim that we’ve messed up. And yet, even as we utter the words, the mercy and forgiveness is already ours.
The lepers don’t have that assurance. They are hoping beyond hope that this Jesus they’ve heard about might be able to help them. The community has cast them out, told them how they are deficient in the community’s eyes. Do they perhaps also think they are deficient in God’s eyes? The text does not address this – and I think the reason for that is that ultimately, it’s not important.
You see, when the lepers get Jesus’ attention, there is nothing related about Jesus doing or saying anything other than “go show yourselves to the priests” which was the ritual action required for a person healed of a disease, to be allowed to re-enter the community. As the lepers turn to go, they find that they are healed. The mercy is already theirs, even as they utter the words.
Now, if it had been important whether the lepers saw themselves as deficient in God’s eyes, I think we would be reading an extended dialogue between Jesus and the lepers. It would probably be a dialogue that was a whole lot of law, such as hey lepers, what did you do wrong, I’m gonna need a list and you’re gonna need to do these things first – instead of what we see here: nothing but gospel. Jesus, the living Word, is made real by hearing and experience – the same as occurs every Sunday in the part of our liturgy entitled “Word.”
I believe God was already at work in the lepers’ lives. Luther writes that the Holy Spirit is that aspect of God that ignites and enlivens faith. The fact that the lepers took the risk of being in public, just to see Jesus, tells me it’s entirely possible God was already active. We hear it in our words of confession and forgiveness: God, who is rich in mercy, loved us while we were still in sin….. In other words, what God desires of us is not that we satisfy a particular rule, but that we return to full and right relationship with God. Jesus’ directions to the lepers are already directing them to the NEXT step – restoration of relationship with the community. This is a mirror of our exchange of peace.
Then we come to the differentiating factor in this text: the one leper who returns to give thanks. He was a Samaritan! our text emphasizes.
Well, I believe God was at work already in his life, too.
Throughout his gospel, Luke uses the unexpected person (generally termed by others as a “sinner”) as the one in whom the gospel takes root and brings about change. We wouldn’t call the leper a sinner, since we know this as a disease – but in his society he was not only an outcast as a leper, but as a Samaritan. Jesus says to him, essentially, “Rise up – go – you are freed – you are saved by faith.” But the other thing we see here is yet another example of an economy of grace, a recurring theme in Luke. The leper can’t pay Jesus back for this one! Instead of Jesus deciding whether it’s worth his time to heal the lepers, he just does. This man seems to realize that even though he can never return the favor, he has to say thank you. Sometimes we say “thank you so much, I owe you one” but here the economy of grace doesn’t even ask the leper to pay it forward – let alone pay it back.
Even still…..the Samaritan leper’s experience is incomplete. He is healed – but he will not be fully restored to the community because he is a Samaritan.
He doesn’t seem to have given the matter much thought, but his actions suggest to me that he is returning not only to give thanks, but because he knows that he is unconditionally loved and accepted by Jesus.
I’m reminded here of our Lenten gospel acclamation: Return to God, with all your heart – the source of grace and mercy. Come seek the tender faithfulness of God.
Even then, even when we sing those words together, acknowledging our deep need for God’s saving grace in our broken lives, God is already at work in our lives and in the world. God ain’t waitin’ for us! God goes ahead of us to prepare a way. And sends Jesus to walk alongside us on that way.
Already. Not yet.
So the leper returns and throws himself at Jesus’ feet in gratitude.
And the Greek verb for thanks used by the leper is the same verb used for this meal: eukharistia. Eucharist.
Another aspect of our worship. Our Great Thanksgiving, the Eucharist. Eukharistia means thanksgiving.
The other thing we say about the Eucharist is that it is a foretaste of the feast to come.
And THAT is the community into which the Samaritan leper is completely and fully restored: the kingdom of God.
Because it doesn’t matter that he’s Samaritan. It doesn’t matter whether he thought he was good enough or not. It doesn’t matter whether the community in that area would welcome him back. GOD, in the person of Jesus the Christ, welcomes him to God’s community without conditions because that’s how God works.
There are times when I wish we had a “where are they now?” feature to the Bible.
I’d just LOVE to know what happened to the Samaritan leper – now the Samaritan formerly known as a leper.
Did he stay in the area? Try to make some kind of a living?
Did he go to Jerusalem and try his luck there?
Or did he make his way back to his homeland in the north of Israel? Perhaps be reunited with his family?
But ultimately, while that’s all rather interesting – it’s not important.
Because Jesus has welcomed this man into the inbreaking kingdom of God. And that is what we say happens every time we break bread together around the table of Christ – we catch a glimpse of that great feast that has no end. We are welcomed time and again into God’s in-breaking kingdom that is already AND not yet. And then WE are challenged as God’s people to do likewise – to welcome that Samaritan leper, or whomever WE might name as “other” to the table of Christ and the kingdom of God, and to all of life.
Your faith has made you well, says Jesus. Or, a more direct translation: your faith has saved you.
Where have we heard this?
Paul’s letter to the Romans: For we hold that a person is justified (or saved) by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
And in Luther’s writings: Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which, through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies (or saves) us through faith.
It was not anything the leper had done, but what God had already done in him, that saved him. The activation and igniting of his faith.
Rise up and go on your way. This of course is our sending rite.
And here is where our understanding of thanksgiving moves from the passive to the active: we are sent out, having been formed into the body of Christ and transformed for service to the neighbor. The leper was transformed by his encounter with the living Christ – and we are likewise transformed by our encounter here with the same living Christ.
Our baptismal rite says it succinctly: God through us welcomes the newly baptized into the Lord’s family (the kingdom of God) as we say in these or similar words:
Beloved child of God:
For you the Spirit of God moved over the waters at creation,
and God made covenants with God’s people.
It was for you that the Word of God became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.
For you Jesus Christ suffered death, crying out at the end, “It is finished!”
For you Christ triumphed over death, and rose in newness of life.
All of this was done for you, although you may not know it yet.
And we will continue to tell you this good news until it becomes your own,
because this good news is for you, and for us, and for all people.
And so the promise of Scripture is fulfilled: “We love because God first loved us.”
Rise up. Your faith has saved you. Go on your way. The journey awaits.