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And Then There Was One

Sermon – 10/31/04
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 17:11-19

We have as our text this morning another one of those unique stories from the gospel of Luke that is not found elsewhere in the gospels.  A more familiar story, I think, than the one we looked at last week. 

I want to start with just a couple of background notes on the text before I read it.  First, the story concerns leprosy.  In ancient times, you may know, leprosy was any skin disease.  And because those diseases were considered to be highly contagious, lepers were required to live in their own colonies outside of the town or the village or the city.  If a leper was healed, or recovered, if the condition goes away, then he or she was required to present themselves to a priest.  It was only when the priest confirmed that they were cured that they were then allowed to come back into the community, and once again engage folk. 

Second, the story takes place on the border between Samaria and Galilee. Samaria of course was a region that had been populated by other folk. The Hebrew people from of old had intermarried, intermingled, and were considered to be ‘half-Jews’ at best. Samaritans were pretty much despised by the rest of the Jewish population because they did not adhere to the same traditions.  In particular, they did not worship at the temple in Jerusalem, instead had their own temple in Samaria.

Thus, to be a Samaritan and a leper was the worst of all possible conditions.  It was like being a drug dealer, a pimp, and a Washington Husky! J  (My colleague over at Northwood Christian Church is a devout Husky fan and was at the game yesterday, poor soul.  Well we need to be nice to our brothers and sisters from the North, they’re having a tough time as their football program has fallen on hard times.  Ask me if I care J, but . . . . .we do need to be nice.)

Now here this story from the 17th chapter of Luke with that in mind:

On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.  As he entered a village, 10 lepers approached him.  Keeping their distance, they called out saying “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us”.  When he saw them he said to them ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests’.  And as they went, they were made clean.  Then one of them when he saw that he was healed turned back, praising God with a loud voice.  He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.  And he was a Samaritan.  Then Jesus asked ‘Were not 10 made clean?  But the other 9, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’  Then he said to them:  ‘Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well’.

 

The story intentionally contrasts the actions of the nine with that of the one.  And any time that happens, when it’s nine against one or 99 to one in the gospels, you know that’s a setup.  The one is going to be the hero, if you will, of the story.  Or, it is the one that we are to emulate in some way.  And the irony is, the nine in this story actually do precisely what they are told to do.  And not only that, they do what is required of them by the law.  By our standards, they would be models of faith.  Jesus tells them to go and present themselves to the priest, and they do.  Why would they do that if they did not believe that they were going to be cured?  There would be no reason otherwise for them to present themselves to a priest.

In most churches I know, most pastors I know, would die to have members like these lepers!  You know, say ‘jump’ and I’ll jump, say ‘teach Sunday school’ and I’ll teach Sunday school, say ‘serve on that committee’ and I’ll serve on that committee, say ‘tithe’ and I’ll tithe!  Amen?  Well, that was a little weak (from the congregation!).  Hit me where it counts.

I know even a few parents who would gladly trade their children for these, leprosy and all.  To have kids that do what they tell you to do.  Not seriously, of course.  So not only are these nine doing as they were told to do, they are doing precisely what was required of them.  In other words, they’re fulfilling their duty before the law.  We talk a lot about the virtue of duty in election time.  The president and the senator both made a case for how they have fulfilled their duty to the nation.  And we emphasize that our duty as citizens is to vote, and I hope all of you have fulfilled or will fulfill by Tuesday that duty.  In our pledge campaign, be it for the church or be it for public radio or your club, or what have you, we talk about the importance of everyone carrying their fair share, of doing their duty.  And I know some people who come to church out of a sense of duty.  You recognize them, they’re easy to recognize – they are the folks that walk around like this [hunched over], carrying the weight of that duty, that obligation, all the time. 

And that’s all fine and good but you see duty is not the best motivation, is it?  Because duty comes as something imposed on us.  A burden we have to carry, rather than something that comes from within and lifts us up.  Worse is when we do our duty, we follow all of the instructions, we obey the letter of the law and then what happens?  The one oddball in the crowd, the foreigner who never ‘fitted in’. turns out to be the one that Jesus praises.  Now, is that fair?

Mary and Martha, you may recall, had Jesus over as a dinner guest.  And they prepared a nice big meal.  Took a lot of work.  And Martha’s in the kitchen, cleaning up after the meal, and Mary’s there sitting at the feet of Jesus.  Martha, rightly, complains.  And Jesus says ‘Martha, you’ve chosen to work in the kitchen, Mary has chosen to be with me, she has made the better choice’.  Is that fair? 

A foreman goes into town and hires a bunch of guys at 7:00 a.m.  Says he’ll pay them $100 a day.  Goes back at noon to get some more, there’s still more work to be done.  He goes back at 4:00 p.m. and hires some more.  And at the end of the day he pays them all $100!  Is that fair?  Is it fair, here, that the nine who do what they are told to do are ignored, that Jesus praises the one, who doesn’t follow his instructions?  What’s going on?  Is Jesus trying to tell us something about our efforts to live by the rules, to make everything conform to the basic principles of fairness? 

Judy has an older sister who was married several years before we were married, and the wedding cost X amount, a couple thousand, whatever it was.  I’m sure not as much as they cost today.  Judy and I did our wedding on the ‘cheap’ – we got married at the church but we had our reception there next to the church in the graveyard, actually.  New England church, and the graveyard is right next to the church.  Our reception was right there, because it was cheap.  I got my Dad to perform the ceremony, didn’t have to pay him.  And so the wedding cost quite a bit less than her sister’s. Judy’s parents wanted to be fair and they gave us a gift of the difference.  I said ‘wait a second, what about inflation?!’.  Not really.

So you strive consciously to be fair and to be obedient and to live by the rules that when we get our just rewards we discover that the rewards given by God are not based on fairness, and goodness, and obedience.  Indeed, more often than not, our efforts backfire.  We work so hard to be ‘right’, we become self-righteous.  And we begin to see ourselves as better than those who do not live by our standards.  The solution to this dilemma is to live not as the nine but as the one who does the right thing, not out of duty and obligation, not by being obedient and following the rules, but out of gratitude.  By following his heart. 

Now before we elevate this one to heroic status, we need to stop and think carefully about who he is and who he represents.  The Samaritan leper is the convicted felon with AIDS.  He’s the homeless mentally ill.  He’s the illegal, non-English speaking immigrant sneaking across our border.  Name your own category of outcast.  You see, it’s precisely his identity, not only as a leper but as a Samaritan, that makes this story so remarkable.  In both parable and action, Jesus makes this point that had to come as a shock to most of his audience.  Remember that story about the Good Samaritan?  You see, in their minds, it was the ‘no good Samaritan’.  Because to be a Samaritan is to be no good.  That’s the contrast of the story.  That he was the one after the righteous ‘good’ people passed the leper by, that this no good Samaritan should turn out to be the one who does the right thing.

The sinful tax collector, and everyone knows how evil tax collectors are J, becomes the model of prayer in his humility and the righteous religious leader who out of his pride and showing off is the goat of that story.  The Gentile pagan soldier said by Jesus to have greater faith than all others in Israel because he believed that Jesus could heal his servant.  And now the faithful nine, doing their duty and following Jesus’ command who are chastised.  Meanwhile the one who not only has little use for Jewish custom,  he had no point in going to the priest – I’m sure as they were on their way to show themselves to the priest when something came to him and he said, ‘What am I doing?!  There’s no point in me going to a priest, the priest isn’t going to name me as clean, by definition I’m unclean by his standards.’  And so he goes back to Jesus, to thank the one who is responsible for his healing.  You see, not only is this a story of gratitude, it is a story of grace and inclusion.  To emphasize yet again that God knows no ‘foreigners’.  God recognizes no boundaries.  God sees no differences between us. 

I wrote in our column for our newsletter this month about a trip I took as a high-school sophomore, to Washington D.C., with youth from around the region and other Disciple churches.  On that same trip I went to New York City, where we attended a worship service – a Jazz service in Manhattan.  You have to keep in mind that I grew up in Albany (Oregon), I’m from a small town.  I knew nothing about differences or diversity, we had such a homogeneous culture that we had one African-American student for one year, my junior year in high school.  And I hadn’t been a junior yet, so I knew nothing about that, and here I am in the midst of New York City and all of that diversity and it was overwhelming.  We went to this evening service, this Jazz service, and it was going to be a full service so we went early and found a place down front, and right next to me in the pew there was an empty spot.  Part way into the service this ‘being’ came in.  I think she was a human being.  Like nothing I’d ever seen before, at least not in Albany.  Flaming red hair that stuck out, and up, and make-up caked on that looked like something out of Halloween.  And a dress that I wasn’t even sure was a dress, and she came in and looked completely zoned out and I said ‘Oh, Lord, please don’t let her sit next to me’. 

To prove that God has a sense of humor, she of course sat next to me!  I scooted over as far as I could, afraid I was going to pick up some disease.  The service continued and then the preacher stopped and said ‘Now we’re blessed to have Madam such & such with us that’s going to share with us some of her music’.  And I’ll be danged if this creature next to me didn’t get up!  She went down and sat at the piano and began to pour out her soul on those black & white keys.  Out came this incredible music, that we all worshiped to.  And then after that, he taught us a song, that went like this:

Help me Jesus
To love my neighbor as myself
Help me Jesus
To love my neighbor as myself 
He don’t care about the color of your skin
Or what religion you’ve been in
Help me Jesus
To love my neighbor as myself

[Everyone joins in, snapping fingers]

Help me Jesus
To love my neighbor as myself
Help me Jesus
To love my neighbor as myself 
He don’t care about the color of your skin
Or what religion you’ve been in
Help me Jesus
To love my neighbor as myself

Can’t you feel the spirit in that?  It was such an incredible thing, 32 years later I’ve never forgotten that song, or that experience.  And I’ve carried that lesson with me ever since. 

Please note, this is crucial:  that woman, that woman was to me the Samaritan leper.  I heard Jesus say to her that day, ‘your faith has made you well’.  And you see, it was not what this leper believed that saved him.  There’s nothing in this story about his belief.  The nine showed belief – they believed Jesus.  That’s why they went to the priest.  What saved this Samaritan leper is the faith he shows through his gratitude, not his belief. 

It is gratitude, not duty, that saves us because gratitude comes from within us.  Gratitude is the response of our heart to that inclusive love of God that includes us.  Gratitude comes from knowing inside of us it doesn’t matter if you’re a foreigner.  It doesn’t matter if you’re an outcast.  It doesn’t matter who has excluded you.  It doesn’t matter how different you look, or how different act.  It doesn’t matter that you haven’t followed all the rules – maybe you’ve even broken them all.  It doesn’t matter, even, what team you root for.  So great is God’s love.  All that matters is Christ has saved you, has made you whole.  And for a leper, you see, that’s not just some religious notion of a better life after this one.  It had real implications in this life, now.  It meant that they could once again be a part of society.  Could be included, could mingle with people, could be accepted as a person, as a human being.

There are just as real implications for us today, when that healing and that wholeness in Christ makes us a part of this community because with it comes the caring community.  With it comes acceptance for who you are, as you are.  With it comes the voice of God’s justice for the outcast.  With it comes the reign of God here on earth as in heaven, that peace of God’s realm, the glimpse of the divine community.  And I believe that this is that kind of divine community.

Next Sunday we’re going to have an opportunity to see it, in it’s totality, or as close as we can come to it in our Go and See festival after the service, with over 30 ministries on display in one way or another.  And I hope you will be able to participate in that and to see all those things, it’s just a wonderful opportunity to learn about what your church is doing.  And when you see all those things, and you combine all those things with the way that God has touched you in your life, then I hope your response will be like that of the Samaritan leper. 

That out of gratitude, you will throw yourself at the feet of Jesus.  For when we show our gratitude to God by giving ourselves to Christ, of our time and our talents and our treasures, and I’m not talking about some token gift here – the Samaritan leper doesn’t make a token gesture to Jesus, he throws himself at the feet of Jesus – he gives his whole self to Jesus.  And when you give of your whole self in that way, you give from your heart, and it’s a gift that shows the depth of your gratitude. 

When we do that, I believe that we will hear Jesus say to us:  ‘Go, your faith has saved you’.  May it be.

 


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