The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him…
On almost every Monday morning—after I’ve gotten up and brewed the coffee, said my prayers and read my Bible, gone for a five-mile run and made the oatmeal—I sit down at the kitchen table and open my laptop and while I’m having breakfast give some thought to the sermon for the following Sunday. I used to do it on Monday afternoon, but then our worship planning team moved its weekly meeting from Tuesday to Monday and I had to start thinking about the sermon earlier, which is fine; earlier is almost always better. Last Monday I had the good sense to read the Gospel lesson before I went for my run so I could think about it along the way and by the time I sat down to breakfast I had some thoughts. This is what I wrote to the worship planning team: “I don’t think this week’s Gospel lesson is mostly about leprosy or Samaritans, even though each of those might find a place in the sermon. I think it is mostly about gratitude and our ability to express it.”
“Gratitude and our ability to express it.” When I wrote those words I thought about how important thank-you notes were to my grandmother, who was raised in some form of polite society in the early part of the last century and who kept her 1922 First Edition copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette right next to her Bible. Because thank-you notes were important to her they were important to my mother, who insisted that if we ever received a gift from our grandmother we should sit down and write a thank-you note immediately. I think she wanted her mother to believe that even though my brothers and I were being raised in near-poverty in rural Appalachia, in a home with no running water and no indoor plumbing, we were still being raised right. There was a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette in our home, too, where we found examples of thank-you notes like this one for a wedding present:
Dear Mrs. Worldly:
All my life I have wanted a piece of jade, but in my wanting I have never imagined one quite so beautiful as the one you have sent me. It was wonderfully sweet of you and I thank you more than I can tell you for the pleasure you have given me.
Or this one written by a man who had been convalescing at a friend’s house:
I certainly hated taking that train this morning and realizing that the end had come to my peaceful days. You and John and the children, and your place, which is the essence of all that a “home” ought to be, have put me on my feet again. I thank you much—much more than I can say for the wonderful goodness of all of you.
But nowhere in that book were there any examples of how to thank the person who has just cured you of your leprosy. To find that we have to turn to the pages of scripture, and to this morning’s Gospel lesson from Luke 17:11-19.
Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem, and apparently on the road that followed the course of the Jordan River as it made its way from the Sea of Galilee down to the Dead Sea. He was going through the region “between” Galilee and Samaria, which is a little hard to find on a map, but which may explain why at least one of the ten lepers he encountered was a Samaritan: one of those half-breed descendants of the Eighth-Century Israelites and their Assyrian conquerors. There he was, standing outside his village along with the other nine (who were presumably Jews), and that’s just where he should have been. According to Leviticus 13, “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…his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lev. 13:45-46).
So, there they were, these ten, obeying the Law of Moses and keeping to themselves in a kind of leper colony outside their village. They approached Jesus as he entered but were careful to practice social distancing. And then they covered their upper lips (which may have been an early form of masking) and called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” What does Jesus do? He says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Why? Well, again, because of Leviticus, chapter 13. That’s where you can find all the rules and regulations about leprosy (if you’re looking for them), and there it clearly states that when people have been cured of leprosy or when it has abated on its own they must show themselves to the priests in order to be pronounced “clean.” “Go and do that,” Jesus says, as if there might be a good reason.
And so they do what he says (these ten are nothing if not obedient). But along the way something happens. Along the way they are made clean. And that’s when one of them stops doing what he’s told. If you pay attention to what he does you can tell that he has never read Emily Post’s Etiquette because he does not sit down to write a thank-you note, instead:
- He saw that he was healed. In a sermon on this same passage Barbara Brown Taylor says: “As these lepers went to do as they were told they were cleansed—the scabs disappeared, the color returned, the feeling came back into limbs that had been numb for years.”[ii] I’m sure all ten of them noticed the difference, but one of them did something about it. When he saw that he had been healed he,
- Turned back. Which is not what he had been ordered to do. Jesus had told them to go and show themselves to the priests. I’m assuming the other nine did exactly that. But not this one. This one’s sense of gratitude was overwhelming. It turned him around and sent him back to Jesus. And as he went he,
- Praised God with a loud voice. Can you picture him? Marveling at his newly restored skin, saying, “Thank you, Lord! Thank you!” I don’t know what gratitude looks like to you but to me it looks like this—like this former leper praising God at the top of his lungs as he makes his way back to the place where it happened and to the person who healed him. When he got there he
- Prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet. The Greek text says that he “fell on his face,” but you get the picture. He didn’t saunter back, stick out his hand, and say, “Hey, thanks a million.” He turned back, fell at Jesus’ feet, and lying there with his face in the dirt, he
- Thanked him. In Greek this is a present active participle. It describes something that happens during the action of the main verb. Which means that while the man lay prostrate at Jesus’ feet he was thanking him. And you can almost see him, can’t you? Sobbing and saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
And that’s when Luke tells us that he was a Samaritan, which may not be the most important detail in the story, but it is nonetheless remarkable enough to elicit a response from Jesus. He says, “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’s a haunting question, isn’t it? It makes me wonder if I am one of the nine, going my own way and minding my own business rather than returning and giving praise to God. In a book called Let Your Life Speak Parker Palmer writes about a condition that is far too common among Christians. He calls it “functional atheism,” and explains: “This is the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen—a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.”[iii] He goes on to say that it is a debilitating condition, one that can lead to burnout, depression, and despair. But along with believing that it’s all up to us functional atheism can manifest itself in the belief that everything we have we got for ourselves.
Do you remember the story about Abraham going up on the mountain to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice? It’s in Genesis 22, one of the darkest chapters in the Bible. God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a sacrifice on one of the mountains I will show you.” And Abraham doesn’t say a mumbling word. He takes Isaac and goes to the mountain, a three-day journey away. Together the two of them climb to the top and there Abraham builds an altar, binds Isaac, heaves him up onto it, and then lifts his knife to slay his son. Only then does the Angel of the Lord say, “Stop! Don’t do it!” And when Abraham lifts his eyes he sees a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. He offers the ram as a sacrifice instead of his son and on the way down the mountain he calls the name of that place Jehovah Jireh, meaning, “the Lord provides.”
I’ve often tried to make sense of that story, and one way I do it is by imagining that Abraham had fallen into a kind of functional atheism, that when he sat at the door of his tent and looked around at all that he had acquired in the land of Canaan he began to congratulate himself, thinking, “My flocks, my herds, my servants, my son…” so that God had to remind him who had given him that son. Only as Abraham comes down from the mountain, only as he remembers that Isaac was then and always had been a gift from God, does Abraham think to call the name of that place, “The Lord provides.”
I think that’s what happened for the Samaritan leper. On his way to see the priest he was healed, and as soon as he saw it he knew he hadn’t done it for himself. He may have been a functional atheist up until that moment but in that moment he knew that it wasn’t all up to him and that he hadn’t gotten everything for himself. This was a miracle! This was the power of God working through the person of Jesus. And so he stopped, turned around, and made his way back to where it had all begun, praising God with a loud voice. He fell at Jesus’ feet with his face in the dust and if you had asked him he might have said that for him the name of that place would be from now on Jehovah Jireh: “The Lord provides.” Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “[Nine of those lepers did exactly what they were told]. They behaved like good lepers, good Jews; only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love.”[iv]
And maybe that’s why Jesus says to him at the end of this passage, “Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.” In a previous sermon I pointed out that the word Jesus uses here is the Greek word sozo, which can mean “your faith has cleansed you, healed you, made you well, made you whole” but which can also mean (and literally does mean), “your faith has saved you.” And I think that’s how this former leper might have described it. He wasn’t only healed of his disease. By returning to Jesus, by falling at his feet and praising God, by acting like a fool in love he was healed of his functional atheism. He realized he couldn’t save himself. He realized that only God could save him and miraculously God had. “Get up and go your way,” Jesus said. “Your faith has made you well.”
Before I close, can I tell you how hard it’s been to keep this sermon from turning into a lesson on tithing? Because it would be so easy. Ten lepers were healed; one came back to thank Jesus. It could almost be a children’s sermon about the ten little dollars that went out into the world and the one that came back to church. But a sermon like that would not do justice to a story like this, which is not about feeling a sense of obligation, but about being overwhelmed by gratitude. It’s not about counting out your dollars at the kitchen table and putting one out of ten in an offering envelope; it’s about acting like a fool in love; it’s about praising God with a loud voice, and running back to Jesus, and falling at his feet. This is not a story about tithing, but the next time you make out a check to the church you could think of it as a thank-you note, and you could write:
For too long now I have behaved like a functional atheist, saying I believed in you but acting as if it were all up to me. It’s exhausting. I’m ready to stop. And even though I have thanked you for what I have I still probably believe that I wouldn’t have most of it without my own hard work. I’m ready to give that up, too. You are the one who provides. You are the one who helps, and heals, and saves. So, I’m writing this check like a thank-you note, and I’m thanking you for what you have done for me. Ten percent wouldn’t begin to cover my gratitude. If I could give you everything I’ve got I would. But I’m giving what I can and I hope you will receive it in the spirit with which it is given: a spirit of overwhelming gratitude.
Yours, now and forever,
You won’t find that letter anywhere in Emily Post’s Etiquette. My prayer for you is that you will find it in your heart.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] From the First Edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, published in 1922 and available online in PDF format at Project Gutenberg (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/14314/14314-h/14314-h.htm#Page_448).
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 109.
[iii] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, p. 88.
[iv] Taylor, Preaching Life, pp. 109 and 110.