Oct. 9, 2022
What’s this gospel passage about? I’m going to invite you to sit in silence for a moment to think about it.
When I first read it for the sake of today’s sermon I was struck by the layers of potential interpretive pages upon which you could write a sermon.
My first thought was that this is a story about faithfulness or obedience. You may know that leprosy was the name given to a number of contagious skin conditions that were also in many cases were devastatingly severe. Those with the diagnosis were sequestered and required to call out “unclean, unclean” to any who might approach in help. In today’s passage they see Jesus and while keeping their distance they call out something different, “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.” As you heard, Jesus tells them to go and present themselves to the priests. What impressed me was that they actually went. They didn’t say, “What’s a priest going to do? We’ve already seen the priests? They’ll just send us away. Can’t you help us instead?” Rather, they do what he tells them to do. They go and they are made clean. They trust Jesus’ guidance, and despite past experience or reasons not to trust, they do as he instructs them. And, I thought: this is a passage that challenges us to trust and obey and to do as he says.
But, then I noticed that line: “And, he was a Samaritan.” The one that comes back to offer his thanks to Jesus after being healed was a Samaritan, which at the very least meant to the Israelites that he was doubly unclean. The hero of this story, offered as instruction to those who would follow Jesus, is once again the type of person who wasn’t supposed to play that role. Jesus keeps doing that. He makes heroes out of sinners and tax collectors and people like that, and so it occurred to me that this is a lesson about God’s embrace of the marginalized, God’s preferential love for the poor and disenfranchised, and Jesus’ call for the church to be more like God.
And, of course, with God there’s a certain kind of generosity at play. All ten lepers were cured. Jesus didn’t hold back healing because most wouldn’t express their thanks. Just like rain, the grace pours down regardless of receptivity or reciprocity. So there’s that theme as well. My friend at lectionary said, “It’s God, once again, just spewing out grace,” which it seems could be the topic of another whole sermon.
But, we could also focus on the gratitude. First, there’s the lack of it. Why would 9 out of ten not turn right back and thank the source of not only their healing but also their restoration and relief from all that isolation? Maybe the story serves in some way to remind us of our own inclinations to move on to the next thing, to lack adequate reflection and thankfulness. Maybe! Maybe is it something of a mirror, but I believe the punch line of the passage comes at the very end when Jesus says, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” The parable ends on a positive note. It is wellness. (Actually the same word for saved.) Everyone is healed, but the Samaritan is saved. Everyone is cured, but he gets to go on in a state of being whole.
It’s such a small passage; isn’t it amazing how much you can get out of it, how many legitimate interpretive moves we might make for meaning and insight? That’s part of what makes scripture unique and special, I think.
As I dwell on the passage I continue to come back to this sense that the gist of it has to do with the quality of faith that followers of Jesus are encouraged to have. I think it’s not just trust and obedience; I think it is gratitude. Meister Eckhart, the 14th century mystic, wrote, “If the only prayer you said was ‘thank you,’ that would be enough. According to AA Milne, “Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.” More specific to our passage for today, Pastor David Lose comments, [of the ten] “…one not only felt thankful but [also] decided to actually give voice to those emotions, to express his gratitude to Jesus and to God. Gratitude is indeed a response to the blessings
of life, but it is also a choice to see those blessings, name them, and express our gratitude in word and deed.” In short, the expression of praise and gratitude magnifies the blessing. (Repeat)
One of my good friends writes, “It is one thing to go along knowing vaguely that we are fortunate, privileged, even blessed, and another to pay really close attention and thankfully name the grace bestowed on us. When we speak our gratitude and act upon it, we open ourselves to knowing, more deeply, that we are loved by God in our whole being.” (Rev. Paul Jacobson)
That, I believe, is what Jesus wants for his disciples and what he’s telling them in today’s parable.
But, I think we need to be careful when talking about gratitude, when talking about what it is that we are thankful for. Are we thankful to God for our big, beautiful homes? What about if our homes aren’t so big and beautiful? What about those who have no homes?
Are we thankful for our health? But, what does it mean when we lose our health? Has God taken it away?
Are we thankful for our families? If our families are broken is it God who has denied us that gift while granting it to others?
What comes to mind is a phrase by Simon Tugwell, a priest and author, who talks about the “poverty of God.” God, he says, is poor. God has only one word to speak and one thing to give. All that God has to give is Godself.
So, it’s kind of a trick to call God poor, because that one gift turns out to be an abundance we can neither measure or imagine. It is the kind of gift that colors our worlds and adds sprit to life because it is a gift offered regardless of circumstance. It is also the gift that is ours endlessly to be discovered. And, that’s really what I’m getting at and why gratitude is so important. What we are thankful for is God and nothing less. We are thankful for a God who manifests in ways we cannot count, but in ways that we can name and share and give thanks for, and the more we do just that the more we will find ourselves to be made well and whole just like our friend the leper.
Being saved, as the term is used in the passage, is about the quality of a lived life. It is about our capacity to receive the gift of God, and what I don’t mean to do is negate the options for God’s manifestations. Instead, what I’m saying is that we are part of a dynamic ongoing process in which those manifestations are happening in different ways to all of us every day. As we express our thanks in recognition of the gift of God’s self in one moment we build our capacity to experience it in another. One more quote, just because I can’t resis:
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life…it makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” (Melodie Beattie, (Greatful, by DIANA Butler Bass, p. 49)
And so, I’ve been practicing. I’m thankful for the meeting we had on Monday. I’m thankful for the gathering of church volunteers who met together to share their thoughts out of deep care for this congregation. I’m thankful for Eric who shared how access to the church has meant so much to him during his treatments. I’m thankful to Caroly who came into my office singing a goofy retreat song that was also awesome and joyful and a taste of the playfulness that emerged as grace during her time apart with people. I’m thankful for my clergy group whose faith always opens my eyes to my own faith. I’m thankful for an unexpected generosity that was extended to me from family members who have been consistently generous throughout my life. There’s God given to me in all of these and in other ways that I know I’ll see as gratitude continues to be my practice.
I invite you to make it your practice too. I would like it to be our church’s practice as we live into all this is unknown. One thing is certain: God will give Godself because that is what God does. And, we will know ourselves to be made well when we’ve built the capacity to receive that gift.