Monday, October 15, 2007

More Than Gratitude

More Than Gratitude
Luke 17:11-19
October 14, 2007
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

© 2007 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: Ten lepers receive healing, but only one returns back toward Jesus, “praising God with a loud voice” (Luke 17:15). Does this text impress upon us the importance of gratitude? Yes. But more importantly, the passage tells us something essential about Jesus the Christ.

Sermon Function: To give listeners the evangelistic message that Jesus Christ is the high priest to all, especially those who feel as if they are obstructed from reaching Jesus by the barriers erected by our individualistic society.

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We continue our exploration of Luke’s gospel this week with the story of the ten lepers. I never cease to be amazed at the deep meaning that can be discovered in just a few short verses.

I say this because there is an understandable temptation to reduce this particular story down to one word – “Gratitude.” Gratitude is indeed a key part of the story, but reducing the text to this one word does a disservice to us and to the church. I believe we need to show gratitude all the time for all of the gifts God has given to us, but the text this week is about much more than gratitude. The text tells us much about the God we worship in Jesus Christ. When reading the text, I invite you to think specifically about what this scripture passage tells us about Jesus. What is he doing in the story? What role is he filling? What might the text be telling us about Jesus’ relationship to society, and to those who are outcast? Keep these questions in mind.

Let us now listen to God’s word.

[Read Scripture - Luke 17:11-19]

Opening Remarks and Illustration

The past several weeks have been energetic ones at the church. We’ve just cleaned up after a successful garage sale that netted over $1,500 for the church. We had a successful class about the sacraments of the church. The members of this congregation were a huge part of the successful afternoon World Communion Sunday service at Parkway Presbyterian Church in Corpus Christi. The Women of the Church hosted a wonderfully attended bible study on the Book of Jonah. The Children’s Enrichment Center is flourishing, and motivated participants have created a new Parents and Friends organization with that will be meeting soon for a big kickoff fun night later this month.

Last Wednesday, the Session met for what was a big moment in the life of this church. They received from the Pastor Nominating Committee the church’s new mission statement and Church Information Form. The mission statement reads as follows:

“The mission of First Presbyterian Church of Portland, Texas is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ by reaching out to others and inviting them into a new relationship with Him. We commit ourselves as a family of believers working together in Christian fellowship, love, and faith, to glorify God.”

As it happens, giving glory to God is a big component of today’s scripture passage. Jesus and his disciples, still on their way to Jerusalem and the Last Supper, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, come upon ten men who are suffering from leprosy. In the Bible, leprosy can refer to one of several potential diseases of the skin, including what we know today as leprosy, an unbelievably terrifying condition that causes lesions that lead to paralysis, sensory loss, and limb disfigurement. Regardless of which condition our ten men suffer from, the proscribed rules are the same. According to Leviticus 13:35:
The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Lev 13:45-46 NRSV)
Today, we can understand “outside the camp” as being outside society, apart from the people you love. Apart from your home, hearth, and bed. Being ejected outside of the camp meant a life of social isolation and loneliness. It also meant a life apart from Temple worship. In order to avoid making others ritually unclean, the leper was expected to let everyone know about his or her condition, and to maintain an appropriate distance so as to keep those who are ritually clean, clean.

The stigma of disease and illness is still with us. We know now, in our enlightened modern lives, much more about disease and pathology. We know about washing hands. We know about these things. But social exclusion still exists. In a culture the places an extraordinary premium on radical individualism, we can loose sight or what it means to be in communion with someone else, to truly know them and to be truly known. The usual barriers of race, class, and gender must still be dealt with. But these classifications sometimes pale in comparison with the way we bureaucratize friendships with technology. Even as we overcome one set of barriers on our way to finding true unity in Christ, we still come up with new ways of defining who is in and out of the social order. Today, we are also isolated by technology. Ironically, this is also the same technology that is meant to make connections with one another easier.

How does social isolation occur when we use technology? Here’s one example. I was reading an interesting editorial in the Wall Street Journal about the connections people try to develop with web sites like MySpace, Facebook, and Friendster. One social scientist, researching people who use these sites to find “friends,” noticed that while someone may have a massive number of “friends” on one of these popular websites, “the actual number of close friends is approximately the same in the face to face real world.” Rather than leading to true connections and fellowship, the name of the game on these websites is the number of “friends” one has. Do you have 1,200 “friends” on MySpace? Congratulations, you’re the online equivalent of a rock star. Only have 5 or six “friends” on Facebook? Sorry, you’re a “virtual loser” in the world of friend accumulation.

And that’s what has happened with some of these online communities. In the never-ending search for human connection, which I believe is hardwired into us by Almighty God, we end up commoditizing friendship. Social networking websites allow you to, for example, “manage” your friendships. Christine Rosen writes in her editorial:
There is something Orwellian about the management-speak on social networking sites: Denizens of MySpace make use of functions such as "Change my 'Top Friends,' " "View all of My Friends" and, for those times when our inner Stalins sense the need for a virtual purge, "Edit Friends." With a few mouse clicks one can elevate or downgrade (or entirely eliminate) a relationship. One can also advertise one's own desirability as a friend (or more) -- hence the T-shirt that declares, "I'm in your boyfriend's top 8."1
The commoditization of friendship has the effect, I think, creating further alienation. The kind of alienation that keeps on searching earnestly for a genuine connection with someone else, a connection that causes us to think of someone else other than ourselves.

Linking to Scripture

Many of us in this room feel isolated from wider society. Some are new to town or to this church, and don’t have their bearings yet. Others have struggles with family and friends, and are separated. People in our community have had to deal with painful separations and deaths. Some are separated from us by the unavoidable consequences of age. There is no measure of technological advancement that can replace what we need when we are isolated and alone.

In our story today, Jesus encounters ten men in dire straits. Their social interactions are limited to crying out “unclean, unclean” in order to warn people away from their diseased bodies. They see Jesus, who by now has a reputation for healing, and they cry out to him “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” I read this as a prayer. It reminds me of our own cries after the prayer of confession. “Oh lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” We’re sick, too, brothers and sisters. Sick from sin and separation and physical and mental ailments.

And in our illness and isolation, where can we turn? Responding to Jesus’ direction to present themselves to the temple priests, the men discover, no doubt to their incredulous joy, that they were healed. Presumably, nine of the men went on to the temple and received certification that there were “clean.” We can probably assume that the nine were all Jews. The tenth man went back to Jesus. The tenth man, in addition to the isolation of the disease, was a foreigner, a Samaritan. Samaritans, as you may know, don’t get along to well with Jews. Jews held to the belief that the only place of true worship was at the temple in Jerusalem. Samaritans believed the only place to worship God was at Mt. Gerizim. This fundamental theological incompatibility meant that interactions between Jews and Samaritans where cursory at best, and hostile at worst.

The Samaritan, we read, discovers that he has been made clean, and he goes to the source of his cleanliness, Jesus, and falls down prostrate before him in worship. Not only has the healing allowed this man back into society, but has unlocked something else in him, a longing to truly know God.

And that is what has happened in this story. You see, the Samaritan has gone to a priest, but in this case, the priest is Jesus. The promises God has made to the people of Israel have been taken for granted by the other nine, who have gone to Jerusalem. But now we get a new hint of the new promise we have in Christ – that God’s favor extends even to those who are not of the nation of Israel. The Samaritan comes back to glorify God, the God we know in Jesus Christ. In turn, Jesus, the High Priest of the world, declares the man clean, not by virtue of making the appropriate sacrifice, but by virtue of his faith, the faith that has brought him not only back into communion with his people and Palestinian society, but a faith that has put him directly in communion with God. The barriers that divide Jew from Gentile (for that is who I think the Samaritan represents - Gentiles) have been dissolved. The source of salvation and redemption, for both Jew and Gentile alike, is Jesus. He is the unity that bridges everything that might separate us from God. He is the reason we’re here today. Because we know by faith that we are able to see and encounter God in our worship. This is exactly why Sunday worship is so important to Christian life. We don’t go to church simply because it’s an association of like-minded people. We all know that church is rarely that. Instead, we go to church and worship because we suddenly find ourselves in the very midst of Almighty God, the one who created us from nothing, and who loves us and wants to be connected with us.


For some, the idea that God actually wants to hear from them can be terrifying. We all the time complain that we don’t know what to say in response. But we need not worry. The Samaritan gives us the model for our own response to Christ, to fall down prostrate and glorify God, the God who creates us and the God who works to save us.

Honest worship is marked by give praise, by confession and by thanksgiving. You will find, if you study our bulletin, that this is the exact order in which we do things right here. We open with praise, which causes us to remember our sin and confess, and then, in response to the Word, we give thanks.

One final remark about our story today. Have you noticed the “rate of return” on Jesus’ command to go to the priests? What percentage came back to offer thanks? Thankfully, the number of lepers in our story makes the calculation easy – 10%. As we enter this season of new life at this church, keep in mind the story of the one faithful leper, the one who wasn’t in the in crowd of Israel, the one who suffered ostracization because of a disease, and the one who recognized where true wholeness and healing can be found – In Jesus. In response, he prostrated himself in front of Jesus, shouting in a low voice his praise to almighty God. And Jesus, the breaker of all barriers and Master Healer, declared that he was, well, he wasn’t just made well, as we read in our English translation. You see, the Greek word in verse 19 that is translated that way is se÷swke÷n, the perfect form of the verb “to save.” It is in the perfect form, because what Jesus has done for the Samaritan leper, and for you and me, if effective now and with lasting, eternal effect. Praise be to Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Portland, Texas.

1Rosen, Christine. “More, But Not Merrier.” Wall Street Journal. October 5, 2007, page W11, or online here (subscription required).