Our church office administrator, Karen, bought me a pretty mum and some comfortable cushions to go on my pastor’s porch. Every morning when I come to work, I smile because the porch feels so inviting and so colorful. It was her gift to me to celebrate my new role here as senior pastor, so when I see it, I also feel loved and supported. You can imagine my annoyance this past week when I realize that these fluffy pillows have been so inviting that some folks have been sleeping on my porch at night. The porch is sticky from spilled drinks and the pillows have dirt all over them. As it turns out, I’m also preaching a sermon series entitled, “What Would Jesus (Have You) Do?” and so that question has also been lingering in my mind. Should I remove the pillows? Should I leave a note and see if these folks need help? What would Jesus have me do? On Thursday morning I go out to check on the porch and see what evidence they’ve left behind, and what do I find? A nickel! Much to my surprise, even the homeless folks participated in our stewardship campaign this past week! Perhaps, it was their act of gratitude, their way of saying thanks. It was a moment of humility for me, a reminder that when encountering folks on the margins of our society, the question that should always guide me, even when they show up uninvited on my porch, is – What Would Jesus (Have You) Do?
In our text for today Jesus is still on the way to Jerusalem, and in this story he goes through the region between Samaria and Galilee. He is on the move. During this journey, he finds himself on the margins, encountering those on the edges of society, the kind of people who would be sleeping outside on church porches because they have no where else to go. Ten lepers spot him from a distance and immediately cry out for mercy: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” The longing that they must’ve felt is put into words in this prayer that we can imagine comes from the lips of modern day lepers: “Grace-filled God, lover of compassion, for all who walk the margins of this world’s insensitivity, meet us on the way to giving up the uphill road to hope, when no one dares come near. Hear our calling you by name. Hear our confessing you have power. Hear our playing you for grace. Only you can see us drawing near, not as we are but as we want to be.”[i]
The worse part of being a leper was the ostracism. Jews were commanded to kick lepers out of their community; as Numbers 5:2 says, “Command the Israelites to put out of the camp everyone who is leprous.” These lepers in Luke have found community with the only people they are allowed to be in community with – other unclean lepers. Lepers themselves were responsible for the enforcement of their ostracism. Leviticus 13:45-46 says, “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.” The lepers were obeying Jewish law; they kept their distance from Jesus and cried out to him from afar. But they didn’t cry out, “Unclean!” They had heard stories about Jesus and believed he could heal them from their leprosy so instead they cried out, “Have mercy!”
Jesus does not lay hands on them or heal them on the spot but tells them to go and show themselves to the priest. This is what the Jewish law required. Anyone who found themselves healed from leprosy was to go and show themselves to the priest so the priest could declare them clean again and thus they could re-enter community. As our text says, “And as they went, they were made clean.” They trusted Jesus’ word enough to make their way towards the priest before they were healed. In their movement, they declared their trust, and they were healed along the way. Then, one of them, a Samaritan, after noticing that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice, prostrating himself at Jesus’ feet and thanking him. The foreigner, the stranger, who could have never worshipped in the temple, is overcome with gratitude and worships Jesus by falling on his face at Jesus’ feet. Up until now, we should have no complaints with the other nine. After all, they recognized Jesus as master and knew he had the power to heal, and then they trusted him enough to go to the priest before they were even healed. In fact, the one who returns is disobeying Jesus or at least postponing obedience by not going straight to the priest! But now, Jesus’ words cause us to question their response to their healing. Jesus says to the one leper who returns, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
It is the one who is doubly outcast, doubly other who comes back to give thanks. This man is doubly outcast because he is both a leper and a Samaritan. Perhaps, this also means he is doubly grateful and doubly surprised by Jesus’ act of healing. Justo Gonzalez proposes that this man who is the “most marginal and excluded is most able to be grateful and may have a fuller understanding of the saving power of the gospel!” He says, “Those whose experience of community and rejection is most painful may well come to the gospel with an added sense of joy.”[ii] Jesus tells the grateful leper that his faith has made him well. So not only has he been physically healed from his leprosy, his gratitude has made him well. The Greek word for “well” is “sozo.” Some people translate it to mean “made well” or “made whole,” but the literal meaning is “to save.” This leper’s gratitude saved him. As Ann Voskamp says in her book, One Thousand Gifts, “To live sozo is to live the full life. Jesus came that we might live life to the full; He came to give us sozo. And when did the leper receive sozo – the saving to the full, whole life? When he returned and gave thanks. Our very saving is associated with our gratitude. We only enter into the full life if our faith gives thanks. Thanksgiving is inherent to a true salvation experience; thanksgiving is necessary to live the well, whole, fullest life.”[iii]
Hugh Hollowell, Pastor and Executive Director at Love Wins Ministries, blogged this week about an encounter with a modern day leper. His encounter with the modern day leper came about because another church refused to allow this leper to become a member of their community. One of the deacons at the church that refused membership came to have a conversation with Hugh, telling the following story:
A man named Andy had been coming to their church for the last few months. He had attended their adult Sunday School, and everyone liked him. Andy was an older man, in his late fifties, with a short beard and horn-rimmed glasses. He was well read, knew his Bible and listened with rapt attention in the service. He was thinking about joining the church, so he scheduled a meeting with the pastor. “That was when it went south. He told the preacher he was a sex offender, and he wanted to join the church,” the deacon said. The pastor told him he would have to do some research. He had then called the denomination’s regional office, who said that it was a no-go. The pastor then called a meeting of the deacons to let them know what was going on, and my friend said he would talk to me, since I probably had had this come up before. “I don’t know what to do. What would you do if a sex offender showed up at your church,” he asked. “Well, it happens almost every week. I would say, ‘I’m so glad you are here’, and then probably ask him if he wanted to help me serve communion, or lead us in prayer.” He responded, “So he could come to church with you guys, right? It wouldn’t be a problem?”
Hugh goes on to say he forgot about this encounter, but three weeks later, Andy showed up at his church. They were celebrating communion that day, and as Andy came up to the table, Hugh held out the bread and said, “Andy, the bread of life. And it’s for you.” With tears streaming down his face, Andy said to Hugh: “I can be here? You’re sure?” Andy had been healed. He was certainly outcast, other, someone who had been ostracized and was clearly doubly grateful to be healed, doubly grateful to belong. After noticing he was healed, he turned back and fell on his face before Jesus, expressing his immense gratitude. He had returned to give praise, and it would save his life.[iv]
What does it mean that the others didn’t say thank you? Did they think they deserved to be healed? Or did they just simply move on with life without acknowledging the magnitude of what just happened? Were they so caught up in their excitement about being returned to community that they forgot to come back and acknowledge the one who was responsible for their healing and restoration? When we don’t give thanks, we might start to believe that we’ve healed ourselves. When we don’t give thanks, we show that we are so caught up in our lives that we fail to be grateful to the one who makes it all possible. When we don’t give thanks, we show our lack of awareness of what God has done and who God is. Naaman the Syrian was healed from his leprosy when he listened to the words of the prophet Elisha who told him to go and wash in the Jordan seven times. He was not as trusting as the ten lepers in Luke because he doubted what washing in the Jordan would do and resented the prophet for not coming out and seeing him, laying hands on him and curing him immediately himself. But after Naaman decided to listen and was healed, he returned to Elisha and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”[v] He returned to give thanks, but in his thanks, he also gave praise to God. Similarly the grateful leper offered more than thanksgiving for physical healing; he offered praise. He recognized that Jesus was not just master but God, the one deserving of worship and praise. Perhaps, the fault of the nine is that they do not see God at work in and through Jesus.
How do we refuse to be made whole? When do we fail to return to give praise? How many times have we kept ourselves from salvation? In what ways do our lives show that we don’t think Jesus deserves praise? We refuse to be made whole when we act as if we can sustain ourselves with our money and our possessions. We fail to return to give praise when we don’t care enough about the community of God’s people to actually contribute to it financially. We keep ourselves from salvation when we wait until the church is doing something that we individually are passionate about before investing our time. We act like Jesus doesn’t deserve praise when we decide not to worship until the worship service is what we want it to be. One theologian says, “When Christians practice gratitude, they come to worship not just to ‘get something out of it,’ but to give thanks and praise to God. Stewardship is transformed from fundraising to the glad gratitude of joyful givers. The mission of the church changes from ethical duty to the work of grateful hands and hearts.”[vi]
So often coming to church turns into the last thing on a list that we need to get done. We begrudgingly get our tired, overworked, overstressed, overanxious bodies out of the bed. We envy the neighbor who is sitting on their back porch or on a long vacation. We lead the Sunday School lesson, complaining to ourselves how much time it took to prepare it. Or we preach the sermon, resentful of having to write it on our day off. We start wondering how much we could’ve accomplished if only we had just stayed home and not lost the entire morning. We are already healed. We know Jesus will not love us any less if we don’t come to worship. Why not just get some things done? Why not keep pretending that we produce our own wealth, security, and happiness? No, we are here. We have been healed, and we have returned to give our thanks and praise to God. We’ve given our dimes and have stretched ourselves to give our tithe, our ten percent, reminding us that nothing we have is ours. The ushers have taken up our gifts to God and walked back down the aisle, returning to give God praise. Our ushers are the grateful leper this morning. We have stood along with them as they’ve come back down the aisle to present our offerings and to give thanks by singing the familiar doxology, Old 100th, “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow; Praise God, all creatures here below; Praise God above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.”
Maybe the nine didn’t return to give praise because they were forgetful or they got busy or they were resentful that they didn’t get healed sooner. Maybe they were caught up in their complaints, and it’s hard to offer thanks and praise to God when you’re complaining. Jesus calls us to return to give praise even if we don’t feel like it and even if we approach it resentfully. It doesn’t matter how we feel, even the psychologists know that. As New York Times writer Arthur Brooks said, “Building the best life does not require fealty to feelings in the name of authenticity, but rather rebelling against negative impulses and acting right even when we don’t feel like it. In a nutshell, acting grateful can actually make you grateful.”[vii]
Through the story of the ten lepers, Jesus tells us that returning to give praise does more than make us grateful; it actually saves us. When we return to give praise, we acknowledge that Jesus is God. When we return to give praise, we recognize that we are not self-sufficient beings worthy of worship. When we return to give praise, we do not idolize our selves or our possessions. When we return to give praise, we affirm that it is God who heals us, makes us whole, and restores us to community. When we return to give praise, we do what Jesus would have us to do. We serve the right master. We tear down our gates and let the lepers in. We claim that our faith is in the one who can do the impossible. When we return to give praise with the one grateful leper, we too will hear from Jesus that we can get up and go on our way because our faith has made us well.
[i] Maren C. Tirabassi & Joan Jordan Grant, An Improbable Gift of Blessing: Prayers and Affirmations to Nurture the Spirit, 191.
[ii] Justo Gonzalez, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible – Luke, 206.
[iii] Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, 38-39.
[v] 2 Kings 5:1-14.
[vi] Kimberly Bracken Long in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4.