Sunday, October 13, 2013

Praise God

Luke 17:11-17
October 13, 2013

            My mother was a stickler on manners, especially phone manners.  If she overheard me calling a friend and asking for said friend like this, “Is Andrea there?” or “Can I talk to Andrea?” she would immediately correct me.  “May I speak to Andrea please?”  She did this as many times as it took, until I began to ask in that way without being prompted.  Manners didn’t stop with phone etiquette.    
            There were table manners.  “Take your elbows off the table.”  “Chew with your mouth closed.”  “Were you raised in a barn?”
            There were the manners that went with sharing.  If I pulled out a stick of gum in front of my friends, I better have enough to share.  It was impolite to have something and not offer some to the others around you.  Having manners meant you didn’t interrupt people when they were talking, unless it was an absolute emergency.  Manners meant speaking politely in response to someone when you were spoken to.
            Of course there were the basics; “Please.”  “Thank you.”  “You’re welcome.”  “Excuse me.”  These were the “magic words.”  Whenever I would ask for someone or receive something, I was asked, “What’s the magic word?”  Please may I have that cookie?  Thank you for giving me a ride. 
            And if we didn’t mind our manners, we heard about it; not just from my parents.  Other adults were not shy about reminding my friends and me to mind our manners. 
            I hated the constant reminders to “mind my manners” when I was a kid.  Hated.  It.  I made a solemn vow never to put my own children through the same.  Then I actually had children.  Becoming a parent made me realize how important it is to teach my own children manners.  So, as my mother did to me, I drill manners into them.  I have since they were little.  I do it because good manners go a long way.
            This isn’t because I want to be the etiquette police.  I don’t push manners just to conform to some expected social convention.  Teaching manners is my way of teaching them to be gracious; to be respectful.  I want them to know that they have the power to turn an awkward situation into a joyful one.  They have the ability to transform a moment just by saying “thank you.”
            “Thank you” is the critical phrase in this passage from Luke’s gospel.  Two words, but they make a world of difference.  Jesus encounters ten lepers, heals them of their leprosy and out of those ten only one turns around and says “thank you” to Jesus for his healing.
            This isn’t the first time in Luke’s gospel or in any of the other three that Jesus meets lepers, but the idea of giving thanks to Jesus for healing is unique to this particular passage.  There doesn’t seem to be any other passage in any of the gospels where Jesus encourages the people he heals to turn around and say “thank you.”  I doubt Jesus healed someone, and then prompted that person with “what are the magic words?”  But in this instance, Jesus singles out the Samaritan leper because the Samaritan turned around and gave thanks.
            As I said, Jesus has met lepers before in other situations.  Lepers were some of the leading outcasts of this particular culture.  Not only was leprosy – and there were many different kinds of leprosy – considered to be a physical ailment, but it was also thought to be a spiritual misfortune as well.  Like other illnesses, it was considered to be a spiritual punishment brought on by the disregarding of the Law by the leper’s parents or an infraction or sin on the part of the leper himself.
            Lepers created their own colonies because they were forced to live outside of the main community.  When clean people approached their “space,” lepers were required to call out “unclean, unclean!”  This warned people to keep their distance.  Yet in spite of their uncleanness, they would sit near major traffic ways and beg for charity as a means to survive.
            It was probably not unusual to find this number of lepers together.  They may have been a colony unto themselves or just a small part of a larger one.  And although in normal circumstances Jews and Samaritans would never have associated with one another, their leprosy must have served as the great equalizer.  They were all unclean; what did it matter what religion or ethnicity they were?  But when these lepers see Jesus traveling in the distance, coming closer and closer their cry of “unclean, unclean” becomes a plea for help and healing.  “Jesus, Master!  Have mercy on us.”
            Jesus sees them and without hesitation sends them to the priest.  When a leper was healed and cleansed of leprosy, a visit to the priest was required.  The priest then declared the leper clean and able to return to the larger community.  The ten obediently respond to Jesus’ command and make their way to find the religious leader.  While on their way they are healed.  One, a Samaritan, happens to notice that his skin, his flesh has been made clean.  He immediately turns back to Jesus and begins praising God with a loud voice.  He prostrates himself before Jesus’ feet and thanks him.
            When the man does this, Jesus asks, “Didn’t I heal ten lepers, and only one came back?  What happened to the other nine? Only this foreigner saw fit to praise God and give thanks.”
            Only this foreigner.  The one leper who turned back to Jesus had a double whammy against him.  He was a leper, therefore an outcast.  He was a Samaritan, therefore an outcast.  In Jewish society, he was unwelcome either way.  But it was the foreigner who turned around and cried out his praise and thanks.  It was the alien in the land, the Samaritan, who showed an attitude of gratitude.  He was the only one who came back.  And the result of this was not only was he cleansed of his leprosy, but Jesus also blessed his faith.  The Greek verb translated here as made well can and has been translated as to be saved.  Jesus healed ten lepers and saved this one foreigner. 
            Throughout the gospel of Luke we’ve had one point driven home time and time again.  Jesus came for the Jews, the chosen ones.  He came as Emmanuel – God with us.  Jesus was a Jew and a good one at that.  He knew the Law of Moses backward and forward. 
            Jesus respected and loved the Law, but he also understood that the underlying motivation of the Law was not to hold people down to picayune details.  It was to set them free in love to love.  The bottom line of the Law was love, and Jesus acted on that love in every aspect of his life and ministry.  It got him into loads of trouble.  But what really angered and shocked so many people was not that he acted in love toward others.   Nor was it that he put compassion for the person over and above the rules of the Law.  People were angered by the different “who’s” Jesus loved.  Showing compassion and love to the good, upright Jews was fine.  But Jesus showed compassion not only to good Jews, but to disreputable Jews and non-Jews.  He showed compassion to the outcasts.  He loved the sinners.  He ate with the tax collectors and the lowly.  He healed the lepers and reached out to the foreigners and generally loved the most unlovable people of that time.  Jesus showed them through his words and his deeds that he was God’s love living on earth, and that God’s love was a gift for all people, not just one particular group.
            But if you were part of that particular chosen group, the ones for whom Jesus came; this supposed gift of God in Jesus must have challenged every belief and idea and preconceived notion you had about God, the coming Messiah and yourself.  It challenges us, doesn’t it?  It probably doesn’t offend many of us today to realize that God loves the outcasts of our society, the homeless, the poor, the sick and the lonely.  We do our best to love them too.  But I know that I run into people every day who I find exceptionally hard to love.  Truth be told, I really don’t want to love them.  In fact, I often rebel against it.
            I heard a story once about Martin Luther.  I don’t know if its legend or fact, but supposedly when Luther was faced with someone he really disliked, he used to pray saying, “God, I know I’m supposed to love all people, but if you want me to love this person, you’re going to have to turn my heart, because I can’t do it myself.”
            I could probably make a list of people and groups for whom I need to pray this prayer.  And as I’ve said before, I can well imagine there are many people who are praying this in reference to me. 
            But it is this foreigner, the Samaritan, the social outcast who receives the full blessing from Jesus that day.  Preacher and scholar Fred Craddock writes that this “story anticipates what is yet to come in Acts: a growing blindness in Israel, a receptivity among Gentiles.  Why was this the case?  Israel’s special place in God’s plan for the world had turned in upon itself, duty had become privilege, and frequent favors had settled into blinding familiarity.”
            Isn’t it the foreigner among us, the stranger, who has the power to make what was familiar and routine new again?  Maybe it is those strangers, those people I find so hard to love who can make me notice the blessings of God that I take for granted.  Maybe it is the stranger, the one who disturbs my complacency and disrupts my comfort, who can make me see the ways God continues to actively work in my life.  Maybe it is the stranger I struggle so to love who will be the one to vividly remind me that my cursory “thanks God” if and when I remember is not enough.  In this passage Jesus heals ten lepers and saves one.  And that one, that stranger, was so grateful for his healing that he prostrated himself before Jesus giving thanks and praise in a loud voice.
            Maybe we in the mainstream, the regular attendees, the ones on the inside of the church walls, the ones who sometimes glibly declare our faith, need to spend some time bent low before the Lord – like this stranger did.  Maybe we need to spend more time just praising God.  In last week’s sermon, I talked about the idea that discipleship is doing what is necessary and right without need for a reward.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a great need to praise God, to give thanks, to show our gratitude for the blessings we know are in abundance.  Maybe we need to take a lesson from this outcast, leprous Samaritan and offer our thanks to God in a loud voice, recognizing with our whole hearts and minds that we have been healed – and saved.  Let us be like that leper, that Samaritan and praise God.  Let all God’s children say in a loud voice, “Praise God!”  “Alleluia!”  “Amen.”

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