21st Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 28
October 13, 2013
Luke 17: 11-19
What’s the measure? I find myself asking that question a lot lately. What is the measure you want to use to see if what you are passionate about, immersed in, spending all your time on is worth it?
The question comes to me most when I think about church growth – a hot topic these days. Traditional membership is declining in every denomination in North America, as it has been in Western Europe. Traditionally we used numbers to count our strength: how many members in the pews on Sunday morning, how much money flowing in to finance our budget. Are we doomed to sit on the sidelines and watch those numbers go down until there’s not anything left to measure, or is there another way to think of ministry beyond butts and dollars? Faithful people grapple with meaning and measures, and I find myself wondering if, in our growing concern about the church we love, we have looked in the wrong places for answers. Maybe the story of Jesus’ revolutionary ministry and it’s effects on the people we find in the Gospel readings can shed some light on our hand-wringing.
Luke reminds us where Jesus is as this little story opens. He’s on his way to Jerusalem. He has ‘set his face like flint,’ towards the brutal end that awaits him, perpetrated largely by the religious authorities of his day. They find him way too radical as his teaching calls into question the very structure that the authorities have sworn to uphold and maintain. He’s calling into question the very foundations of the church that exists in his day, and it makes him beloved by those on the outside of church more than those on the inside. Don’t’ kid yourself; Jesus is fully aware of what’s in store for him, even if those around him don’t really get it. When today’s story opens Jesus is in dangerous territory, on the border between Galilee and Samaria. Jews and Samaritans did not get along. They were like Sunnis and Shiites, hating each other for generations, and you could easily die a brutal death by being in the wrong place. Out of nowhere comes a band of lepers, consigned to living on the margins of society because they were contagious and scary. They call out for healing, using language that recognizes Jesus’ power to heal them and send them home. And Jesus simply sends them to the authorities to be determined clean enough to be restored to full life. Which is what happened, as they were healed on the way. Notice who comes back. Just one man. And a Samaritan. Since he is singled out, I gather that all the rest were Jews. None of them had any right to expect that they would be healed, and none of them promised anything in exchange for what they wanted. They asked for mercy, and they all got it.
But the Samaritan turned around and came all the way back to throw himself at Jesus’ feet, praising God and thanking Jesus for the gift of healing and salvation from his exile and his disease. So what happened to the others? “Wasn’t anyone grateful but this foreigner,” asks Jesus. I can just see Jesus lifting this man up from the ground and dusting him off, sending him on his way and saying, “your faith has made you well, go in peace.” All of the lepers were healed by trusting that following Jesus’ command would heal them. What is it about this man that makes his healing stand out? It’s his gratitude. It’s his recognition that God has saved him from the horrors of death outside his home and family. It’s his willingness to fall down on his face before his healer to acknowledge his enormous debt and the new life that has been given him. I think that when Jesus says his faith has saved him, he’s not just talking about healing or the man’s being saved from being an outcast. He’s saying that recognizing the gift of your salvation has given you a whole new way of living. Now you will live out of gratitude for getting your life back. That is the healing, that is the restoration to wholeness that this man is acknowledging and receiving.
Do you imagine that this Samaritan went home quietly and didn’t have anything to say about what had happened to him? I’ll bet that that you could not shut him up, that he told everyone the story of this Jewish Rabbi who included him in the healing even though he was an outsider. I’ll bet he was kinder to everyone who was a stranger, because he’d received such generosity. I’ll bet he tried to make every day worthwhile, because he knew that his life had been handed back to him and he wanted to repay the favor however he could.
What this little story has to teach us is that gratitude is a life-changer. Imagine what worship would be like if each of us gathered here felt that our lives had been given back to us, that our sorrows and sicknesses were healed. Imaging what our lives would be like if we lived every day out of the joy of being part of God’s family, of knowing that who we are is just what God loves, of knowing that we are a gift God is giving to the world, and that our peace in God is guaranteed forever. By coming into our history as Jesus, God has embraced our humanity, even in it’s imperfection. God has promised that we are never alone in the world and that even death will never separate us from God’s love. God has given us the love that casts out fear and surrounded us with a community that shares our joy. And then God sends us out, saying, “I have given you a new life to live with joy. Go and share it with everyone!” Let that be the measure we use for our lives and for the life of our church. Amen.