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Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C (2)
What is the loudest event you’ve been to lately? Was it a ballgame, a concert, a family dinner, a party? I ask because I read an article this week about the incredibly strange way that the employees at Yahoo Inc., the Internet service provider company, chose to celebrate their 20-year business anniversary. They had a group yodel. And not just any group yodel. They gathered 3,432 employees at their California headquarters and had everyone participate in a 1-minute yodel. I don’t know about you, but for people who have hearing sensitivities, that would be the longest one minute of their lives. The Yahoo folks didn’t just do this for fun. They were trying to set a world record. They succeeded. In 2015, they were awarded the Guinness World Record for “Largest Group Yodel.” As of 2021, that record still stands. (1)
A lot of us get loud when we’re having fun. But we generally know when to tone it down. I was surprised about a story that came out of Seattle a few years ago about a man named Anthony Ercolano who sued the Seattle Mariners baseball team because he was asked to quiet down his cheering.
Ercolano is an employee of Microsoft Corp., and he paid $32,000 for “Diamond Club” season tickets just a few rows behind the Mariners’ home plate. Players and other fans claim that Ercolano’s yelling is so loud and obnoxious that it interferes with their ability to concentrate or enjoy the game. And it’s not just his yelling. Ercolano also makes loud crying noises at batters who argue with the umpire, and yells at short players to “Stand up!”
Ercolano’s loud yelling became so disruptive that the team’s Executive Vice President called and asked him to either tone it down or move to another section farther away from the team. In response, Ercolano sued the team for violating his freedom of speech. He asked the judge for monetary damages, a guarantee that his season tickets would not be taken away, and a guarantee that he would not be ejected from any games. There’s no record online on the conclusion of his lawsuit. (2)
As I read through the stories of Jesus’ life, I notice how often he is surrounded by noise. Throughout much of his ministry, he has large crowds following him. If you’ve ever tried to shush a large crowd of people, you know you’re probably just wasting your breath. But I also notice how many people in the Bible stories yell for Jesus’ attention. If you want to get a lot of attention, there’s no faster route than making a lot of noise. But so many people who yelled for Jesus’ attention were also people who were standing on the margins of society. The sick. The demon-possessed. The “sinners.” The rejects. So, let’s keep them out of our social circles, out of our churches. That’s how it was in Jesus’ day. When society has decided that you should be invisible, that you shouldn’t have a voice, then you are left with two choices: disappear, or get very loud. So that’s the strategy a group of lepers used in our Bible story today. Let’s see how it worked out for them.
Our story from Luke 17 begins, “Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee.” Let me stop right there for a moment. Luke began this story in a very specific way and for a very specific reason. The people hearing this story in Jesus’ day would have been surprised to hear that Jesus took this route. Jesus grew up in Nazareth, which was around Galilee. It was familiar territory to him. His comfort zone. People from the South might say that Galilee was Jesus’ “stomping ground.” That phrase originally referred to a place where herds of animals typically gathered. (3)
Most of Jesus’ ministry took place in the region of Galilee. But sometimes Jesus went rogue. At least in the eyes of the religious establishment. The animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans can be traced back to at least 700 years before Jesus’ birth, when the Assyrians conquered the Jewish city of Samaria. Marriage between the pagan Assyrians and the Samaritan Jews led to changes in the way that Samaritans practiced their faith. Samaritans were considered impure, heretics, sinners to be avoided at all costs. In Jesus’ day, devout Jews avoided Samaria. They deliberately planned their travel routes to go around that area, not through it.
Dr. Courts Redford, a pastor and former president of a Baptist university, wrote about visiting a poor, run-down neighborhood in St. Louis. As he walked the streets, Dr. Redford met a dejected-looking man standing on a street corner. He struck up a conversation with the man and began telling him about the peace and hope he found in following Jesus.
The man responded, “Mister, nobody with peace and hope ever comes down here. I guess even Jesus would not come here.” (4)
But Jesus did go there. He went exactly to the people and the places that everyone else avoided. Why? Because Jesus loves those whom the world rejects. That’s the first insight we get from today’s lesson. He loves those who are at the margins of society. Jesus’ first public sermon in his hometown synagogue (Luke 4:16-30) came from the writings of the prophet Isaiah and began like this: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (NRSV)
Jesus never hid his agenda. He couldn’t have cared less what the religious establishment said, or what would make him popular with the crowds. He cared about bringing God’s love to everyone. And he didn’t wait for anyone to come to him. No, Jesus went outside his stomping grounds, into the “bad neighborhoods” to find the people who needed to see that love in the flesh. That is why I am here. I am looking for Jesus. I have had glimpses of Jesus in some of the Social Workers, Nurses and doctors and even in the people who deliver the food.
Singer and songwriter Rich Mullins could have made a lot of money and gained much fame in the Christian music industry. He wrote best-selling songs for some of the top Christian singers in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. He could have had a comfortable life as a Christian celebrity. But instead of seeking fame and attention, Mullins gave away most of his money, shunned the spotlight, and dedicated the last years of his life to teaching music to children on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Tragically, Rich died in a car accident in 1997 at the age of forty-two.
In 1996, while performing at a Christian music festival in Kentucky, a fan asked Mullins if God had called him to the Navajo reservation to share his faith and convert the Native Americans. Mullins responded, “No. I think I just got tired of a White, Evangelical, middle-class perspective on God, and I thought I would have more luck finding Christ among the Pagan Navajos.” (5)
Rich also said in another interview, “If we want to meet Jesus it won’t likely be at church, although I’m a big believer in going to church. I think that when we meet Christ it will be somewhere outside the camp. It will be where people have been marginalized, people who have been literally imprisoned. We will meet [God] where we least expect to.” (6)
If we want to meet Jesus, it will be somewhere outside the camp. It will be where people have been marginalized, where people have been imprisoned. Who is crazy enough to believe that we are likely to meet God among the marginalized and imprisoned? Anyone who has read the New Testament.
Jesus, who revealed to us the very heart of God, loves those whom the world rejects. The folks standing on the margins of society. The sick. The invisible. The “sinners.” The rejects. Jesus didn’t just see them. He went looking for them. Which tells me that those ten men with leprosy didn’t have to yell at Jesus. And neither do we. He already knows our need.
Our Bible passage continues at verse 12: “As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’
“When he saw them, he said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed.”
That brings to a second insight we get from this passage: Jesus, God in the flesh, loves to show mercy to those who are hurting. That word translated “pity” in verse 12 also means “mercy” or “compassion.” There are seven instances in the Gospels—in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—in which people come to Jesus and ask for mercy. And in every instance, 7 out of 7, Jesus responded. He never turned them away. That’s the whole reason he was walking along the border between Galilee and Samaria in the first place: because he knew someone there needed mercy, and the Healer goes to where the hurting are.
The play Green Pastures won the 1930 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was ground-breaking in many ways, but especially because it featured the first all-Black cast for a Broadway play.
There is a scene in the play where God disguises Himself as a poor country preacher and walks among God’s people on the earth. God meets a man who begins telling Him about how he worships the Lord God of Hosea. Hosea, if you recall, was an Old Testament prophet who preached a message of mercy and sacrificial love. God called Hosea to marry Gomer, an unfaithful woman who left Hosea and ended up being sold into servitude in the local marketplace. God commands Hosea to buy her out of servitude and restore her as his wife. In this way, Hosea serves as a witness to the mercy, sacrificial love and restoration of God. But back to our story:
The Lord asks, “What kind of God is He (this God of Hosea)?”
The man answers, “Well, He is a God of mercy.”
“Where did your Hosea learn that?”
And the man answers, “Why, the same way anyone ever learns it—through suffering.” (7)
Until you have suffered, until you have been cut off from the life and hope you used to know, you cannot appreciate the mercy of God. There are only two instances in the Gospels where people hesitated to approach Jesus: the woman who was hemorrhaging blood who reached out to touch the border of Jesus’ robe (Luke 8: 43-48) and Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector who was despised by the Jewish believers (Luke 19: 1-10). In the first case, Jesus saw the woman, spoke to her, and, of course, healed her. In the second instance, Jesus approached Zacchaeus and invited himself over for lunch. In both cases, Jesus approached them and offered them mercy. Even when they didn’t ask for it. Even when they didn’t know that they needed it. Jesus, God in the flesh, loves to show mercy to those who are hurting.
And that brings us to the final insight we get from today’s story: the ultimate goal of Jesus’ mercy is our salvation. As the ten lepers were on their way to the see the priests, they discovered they had been healed. Let’s read the end of this story, starting with verse 15: “One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
“Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’”
In verse 14, as the ten lepers were on their way to see the priests, they were “cleansed” of their leprosy. In verse 15, the one leper who returned did so because he saw that he had been “healed” or “cured.” But in verse 19, when that one Samaritan leper returned with loud praises and threw himself at Jesus’ feet, Jesus used a very different Greek word to describe his condition. When Jesus says, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well,” he uses a verb that means “saved, delivered, or made whole.” Yes, Jesus’ mercy can cleanse us. It can even heal us. But ultimately, Jesus’ mercy is intended to save us, deliver us and make us whole.
Author Phillip Yancey tells of visiting with his close friends, Drs. Paul and Margaret Brand, medical missionaries to India who specialized in working with leprosy patients. The Brands introduced Yancey to a former patient named Sadan. Sadan had suffered serious damage to his hands and feet before he ever met the Brands. He endured disability and heartbreaking prejudice because of his leprosy. He was an outcast in his own society, rejected by almost everyone he met. With the Brands’ help, he was able to regain some function in his damaged limbs, and even get a job to support himself. But he received so much more than that.
Sadan described how Dr. Paul Brand was the first doctor who was willing to touch his damaged feet. The Brands even let Sadan stay at their house. Sadan commented, “. . . I must say that I am now happy that I had this disease . . . Apart from leprosy, I would have been a normal man with a normal family, chasing wealth and a higher position in society. I would never have known such wonderful people as Dr. Paul and Dr. Margaret, and I would never have known the God who lives in them.” (8)
We have so many ways of withholding mercy from one another, don’t we? Even in the church, we struggle to see others the way God sees us. But Jesus makes God’s character and God’s priorities crystal clear. He loved those whom the world rejects. He loved to show mercy to those who are hurting. And the ultimate goal of his mercy is our salvation and wholeness. If you are hurting, please trust in God’s mercy. Please don’t be afraid to approach Jesus to ask him. You don’t have to yell. Jesus’ mercy is available to everyone, and he is waiting to make you whole.
2. “Fan Sues after Team Tells Him to Shut up,” Seattle Times, 28 August 2002, Randy Cassingham’s True Stella Awards. https://stellaawards.com/.
3. “Stomping Ground” by Michael Shapiro, October 28, 2013, LanguageLore.Net, https://languagelore.net/2013/10/28/stomping-ground-folk-etymology/.
4. Spiritual Frontiers by Dr. Courts Redford (Ardmore, OK: Southern Baptist Convention), 1948.
5. “Rich Mullins Interview, Ichthus Festival 1996,” cited in Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rich_Mullins.
6. Songwriter Rich Mullins. Cited in Soul 2 Soul by Christopher L. Coppernoll, Word Publishing, Nashville, 1998, p.122.
7. Duncan E. Littlefair, Sin Comes Of Age (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975).
8. (Soul Survivor, pp. 83-84). Copyright 2003 by Rev. Sarah Buteux, http://www.swedenborgchapel.org/read_sa_sb2003_6.html.
Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C (1)
In the book, Living Life on Purpose , it tells a story about a man whose wife had left him. He was completely depressed. He had lost faith in himself, in other people, in God–he found no joy in living. One rainy morning this man went to a small neighborhood restaurant for breakfast. Although several people were at the diner, no one was speaking to anyone else. Our miserable friend hunched over the counter, stirring his coffee with a spoon.
In one of the small booths along the window was a young mother with a little girl. They had just been served their food when the little girl broke the sad silence by almost shouting, “Momma, why don’t we say our prayers here?” The waitress who had just served their breakfast turned around and said, “Sure, honey, we can pray here. Will you say the prayer for us?” And she turned and looked at the rest of the people in the restaurant and said, “Bow your heads.” Surprisingly, one by one, the heads went down. The little girl then bowed her head, folded her hands, and said, “God is great, God is good, and we thank him for our food. Amen.”
That prayer changed the entire atmosphere. People began to talk with one another. The waitress said, “We should do that every morning.”
“All of a sudden,” said our friend, “my whole frame of mind started to improve. From that little girl’s example, I started to thank God for all that I did have and stopped majoring in all that I didn’t have. I started to be grateful.”
We all understand and appreciate the importance of gratitude. How it can radically change relationships. In fact, one of the first things we were taught and that we teach our children is to express their gratitude. Some one gives them some candy and we say: “Now what do you say?” And the child learns from an early age the answer “Thank you.” And certainly we all know as adults that we appreciate being thanked. Yet, when it comes to giving thanks to our heavenly father, we so often miss the mark.
And when it comes to giving our thanks to God, I don’t suppose there is any story in the Bible that is so endearing to us, so timelessly appropriate, as the story of Jesus healing the ten lepers. We have all heard the story many times, but like so many Bible stories, we never tire of it.
The story begins: “And as he entered a certain village there met him ten lepers, and they stood at a far distance.” Don’t ever think for a moment that death is the worst thing that can happen to a person. It’s not. And the scene this morning is a case in point. These ten men walked the earth. They breathed and ate. They had hopes and fears and aspirations and feelings just like you and me. Yet, there was a tragic sense in which they were already dead. They were walking dead. Leprosy was the most dreaded of all ancient diseases. It ate away at the body and left its victim maimed and disfigured. There was no known cure. In their hopes for a family life, a useful occupation, plans for the future—they were dead men.
Their situation was made worse because leprosy was believed to be highly contagious. Actually, we know today that it is not. But tell that to ancient superstition. The scripture made it quite clear that as these lepers approached Jesus they stood at a far distance. Jewish law clearly prescribed that a leper could not get within fifty yards of a clean person. Everywhere these poor men journeyed they heard familiar words yelled out: “Unclean,” “Leper.” And then some would hurl stones at them to keep them away. Leprosy was a serious public health concern but it was tinged with the religious element of ritual uncleanness. So it was that they not only had to live with their physical handicap, but they were also isolated. They had to live in the hell of loneliness. St Damian went to Hawaii with his religious community and he volunteered to minister to the leper colony. He did so for years, touching the lepers and did not contract the disease, but when he went to live with them and share their food he became a leper. To many this was a curse but to him it was a blessing. As our Lord took upon humanity to dwell this us. He became a leper to minister to lepers.
But even in the midst of this horrible situation these lepers had something to be thankful for. In their common misery they had banded together. They had found each other. It is interesting to note that one of these ten lepers was a Samaritan. Now a good Jew in that day in time would have no dealings at all with a Samaritan. They looked upon Samaritans as dogs. See while some of the Jews were take into Captivity others were left behind. Those left behind without the priests to keep the religion authentic let pagan customs come in and that is why the Jews did not accept the Samaritans even though they belonged to Jewish tribes as Jews.. Yet, in the common misery of their leprosy these men had forgotten that they were Jew and Samaritan and realized only that they were men in need. Some of you might say, well it was a case of misery loves company. Maybe so. But I know that there is power in fellowship, especially the fellowship of people who have a common need. Even lepers found it so.
Which, I think, brings us to the first point of the story, which is simply this: even in the midst of our problems there is always something to be thankful for. Some of you may be thinking: Well, that’s easy to say, but you don’t know the problems and circumstances that I am dealing with now. And, I am sure there are many in this nation who suggest at this time in our nation’s history there is very little for which to be grateful. Certainly I cannot deny the reality of the problems that exist. In many cases very deep and troubling pains and sorrows. But friends, there is no one sitting here this morning who has it worse than these ten men did. We may be ill, we may have lost family and friends but we still have the Church. What could possibly be worse than that situation? Yet, they had something to be thankful for.
The closing hymn for this morning is one of the great songs of Thanksgiving, entitled “Now Thank We All Our God.” Lutheran pastor Martin Reinkard wrote this hymn in 1637 at the time of the Thirty Years War in Germany. A wall fortified the city of Eilenburg in which he was a pastor, so it became a haven for refugees seeking safety from the fighting. But soon, the city became too crowded, food supplies dwindled, a famine hit and then a terrible plague and Eilenburg became a giant morgue. In that single year, over 6000 persons in Reinkard’s German village, including his wife and all of his children, died from the plague. He alone conducted 4,500 funerals in that year alone including his wife’s. Remarkably, it was in the midst of that catastrophic personal and social loss that Reinkard sat down and wrote the great hymn of thanksgiving: “Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices.”
Have you ever wondered what the first Pilgrims had to be thankful for? The familiar painting of Pilgrims and Indians feasting together before mountains of food does not adequately tell the story. The first thanksgiving for the Pilgrims found half their numbers dead. They had not even the barest of comforts. They were men without land. Yet, in the midst of all of that there was gratitude to God. The Pilgrims thanksgiving was not for the materialistic things of life; the pilgrim’s thanksgiving was one of hope and faith.
It was that same sense of hope and faith that enable the apostle Paul to sit in a dingy prison cell in Rome and write: “First, I give thanks to God, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Perhaps Daniel Defoe gave us some good advice through his fictitious character Robinson Crusoe. The first thing that Crusoe did when he found himself on a deserted island was to make out a list. On one side of the list he wrote down all his problems. On the other side of the list he wrote down all of his blessings. On one side he wrote: I do not have any clothes. On the other side he wrote: But it’s warm and I don’t really need any. On one side he wrote: All of the provisions were lost. On the other side he wrote: But there’s plenty of fresh fruit and water on the island. And on down the list he went. In this fashion he discovered that for every negative aspect about his situation, there was a positive aspect, something to be thankful for. It is easy to find ourselves on an island of despair. Perhaps it is time that we sit down and take an inventory of our blessings.
Even in the middle of suffering reasons can be found to give thanks. That is the first lesson. But we cannot stop there. Finding reasons to be grateful is well and good but the second lesson of the story is far more important: In the midst of problems thanksgiving needs to be expressed.
Look at the story again with me. As Jesus entered this village this band of ten lepers sought him out. Word had already reached them that this itinerant miracle worker had cured a single leper in a village not distant from their own. As a group they approached him with the words: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Jesus responded: “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Initially that may sound strange to us, but the fact is that the priests of that day were also public health officers. If a person had been cured from an infectious disease, he had to present himself to the priest to receive a health certificate. No doubt the lepers were puzzled by Jesus’ command. To say that it was premature was an understatement. Why bother to get a certificate of health when you haven’t been cured? Yet, they believed his words and they did as he commanded.
I don’t know how to explain what happened next. I can’t begin to explain how it happened. But the fact is that as these ten lepers were on their way to the priest something happened to them. Their numbness began to pass. The wretched sores that scarred their hands and faces began to vanish. Their flagging strength began to return. Luke simply words it this way: “And it came to pass, as they went, they were healed.” As they had obeyed the command of Christ their longing for healing had come.
At this point we feel that we don’t have to even finish the story for we certainly know how it will end. These cured men will go running back to Jesus with the words: “Blessed healer”, “Great Physician”, “Praise be to Jesus.” But no. That’s not how the evangelist tells the story at all. Nine of the ten were never heard from again.
What a pitiful revelation of human nature. What rank ingratitude. Surely this is not typical! This can’t be a picture of 90% of the people in the world. But then again… Yet, according to a gallop Poll nine out of ten American families will not utter a prayer as they sit down to their Thanksgiving dinner. Jesus said: “Where are the nine? Will no one return and give thanks to God?” Are we really that much unlike them? I wonder. I wonder.
But there was one who returned. One came back and as the scriptures say he returned to “Praised God with a loud voice.”
What an ending! If you look at the percentages it’s a powerful picture of man’s ingratitude but a more powerful portrait of thanksgiving if you look at the one grateful leper. This enduring image of the one grateful leper reminds us to choose the better way. But wait. There is one more lesson here. It is an irony inserted at the very end. The one who returned was a Samaritan. The outcast, the Gentile, the one considered unholy, showed just how holy his heart really was. He expressed his gratitude. And to this man Christ gave not only a physical blessing but also a spiritual blessing. He said to him: “Go your way. Your faith has saved you.” The other nine, who were probably all Jews, had been freed from the misery of leprosy, but they were still in bondage to the misery of ingratitude. I am convinced that this small footnote to the story is there to remind us that God’s salvation is for all those outside the doors of this church. And for that we should all throw ourselves at the feet of Jesus and give thanks.
In the book “A Window on the Mountain,” Winston Pierce tells of his high school class reunion. A group of the old classmates were reminiscing about things and persons they were grateful for. One man mentioned that he was particularly thankful for Mrs. Wendt, for she more than anyone had introduced him to Tennyson and the beauty of poetry. Acting on a suggestion, the man wrote a letter of appreciation to Mrs. Wendt and addressed it to the high school. The note was forwarded and eventually found the old teacher. About a month later the man received a response. It was written in a feeble longhand and read as follows: “My dear Willie, I can’t tell you how much your letter meant to me. I am now in my nineties, living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely, and like the last leaf of fall lingering behind. You will be interested to know that I taught school for forty years and yours is the first letter of appreciation I ever received. It came on a blue, cold morning and it cheered me as nothing has for years. Willie, you have made my day.” On a personal note, I wrote letters to teachers that had an impact on my life to say thanks. Three I did not write to because 1 was deceased, my fourth grade teacher Mrs. McLaughlin, and two I could not locate.
As we approach this season, let us give thanks before Thanksgiving begins. May we remember the words of the apostle Paul: Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in everything; for this is the will of God in Christ concerning you. It is the will of God, says the apostle, to give thanks to God. I well imagine that there are some of us here this morning that are long, long overdue in expressing our thanks to God.