First Congregational Church
October 9, 2015
21st Sunday after Pentecost
“Completing the Circle”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Before we can say Rumplestiltskin, the holiday season will be on us. But with the scripture passage for today, there were some introductory remarks that couldn’t be avoided. From the “Ten Things to Say about a Gift You Don’t Like,” No. 9, “Well, well, well.” No. 7, “This is perfect for wearing around the basement.” No. 5, “If the dog buries this, I'll be furious!” No. 4, “I love it - but I fear the jealousy it will inspire.” No. 3, “Sadly, tomorrow I enter the Federal Witness Protection Program.”
This morning’s passage is from the Top Ten Bible Stories about Jesus, the one about the healing of the ten lepers. The writer of Luke placed this story after Jesus had been telling a number of parables dealing with the idea of “lost and found.”
Today’s passage begins with Jesus making his way between the Samaritan and Galilean borders - to Jerusalem. “Galileans” was not so much a derogatory name as an identification by the Roman emperors. Centuries before this they had been one people, all Jews, living in different areas. But after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem nearly 600 years before Christ’s birth, changes and tensions from the Jewish exile and return put them at odds with one another - regarding beliefs about scripture, worship, what it meant to be holy, etc. I think our modern understanding of this clash might be most easily understood in the clash between the Irish Catholics and Protestants in the last century.
This road Jesus was on was neither inside nor outside Jewish territory, but a border land of unsafe territory - a no man’s land, as it were - perhaps something like the valley of the shadow of death. Whether Jesus knew - at that moment - about his path leading to impending violence and death - or not - he was walking through this valley - because sometimes it is not so much about the destination, as it is the journey.
Luke 17:11-19 NIV
11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Thank you, Bob. One of the classic children’s letters to God is the one from little Joyce that says, “Dear God, thank you for the brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.” For those who are early to bed, comedian Jimmy Falon, of the Tonight Show fame, has a little segment of Fridays in which he writes thank you notes - with a slight bit of sarcasm - for the overlooked in our world. So one week his note was to the owner of a Dodge caravan. He said, “Thank you for informing me that you have a stick figure family of 6. Your minivan had me under the impression that you were wild and single.”
In the 1980s, there were approximately 5.2 million cases of leprosy worldwide, and due to the now free treatments from the World Health Organization, in 2012, the number of leprosy cases was down to roughly 120,00, with 200 of those cases in the US. Spread between people, leprosy is not highly contagious, although that was not the understanding in the ancient world.
Leprosy in Jesus’ day was like a deadly sin and made a person unclean and an outcast. If a leper left his or her isolation colony, they were required to announce their presence ahead of themselves, which is the reason for the note in today’s passage, the ten men standing “at a distance and calling in a loud voice.”
In those days, if a person were so fortunate to be healed of the otherwise deadly disease, it wasn’t so simple to take up their pallet and go back home. A person hoping they were cured would have to go to the priests - the health departments of the day - who would inspect the skin - all of the skin - to determine if any indicators remained. If any white, scaly areas remained, it was back to the leper colony. If the skin was healthy, the individual had to go through the purification process for one who became ceremonially unclean - as for those who touched dead people, which is a whole other story you can read in Leviticus 14 on a day when the sermon you are listening to is boring.
Big Sven was furious when his steak arrived too rare. "Waiter," he shouted, "Didn't you hear me say 'well done'?" "I can't thank you enough, sir," replied the waiter. "We hardly ever get compliments here.”
Thank you signs can be so good. Please be safe. Do not stand, sit, climb or lean on fences. If you fall, animals could eat you and that might make them sick. Thank you.
And thank yous can be so unexpected, too. It’s so awkward when you say goodbye to loved ones on the phone and you’re like “I love you” and they’re like “Thank you for choosing Dominoes.” If I make you breakfast in bed, a simple “thank you” is all I need. Not all this “How in the world did you get into my house” business.
The big deal about today’s passage, however, lies with the singular man who went with the other nine to get an official clearance from the priests. They all did what Jesus asked of them. Regardless of their background, their political or religious views, without having to prove their worth or who they were, Jesus healed each one the same as they made their way to the priests - perhaps not an instantaneous miracle, but one that happened over a little time. But one man went out of his way to go back to Jesus, and he was made well.
Since Jesus’ day, some observations have been made regarding gratitude. Ingratitude, little by little, kills those who never receive the gratitude they deserve in life. And anything that kills others is not exactly healthy for the person who fails to say “Thanks” either.
Failing to express gratitude sooner or later coarsens us even as it fosters an undue sense of entitlement. After a time of such entitlement, we can become loath to say “Thank you” to various workers in our lives because we may feel we deserve the service they’ve rendered. We’ve earned it. We’ve paid our dues, laid down our cash, slaved away at our own job to make this dinner out, this vacation, this shopping spree possible. To say “Thank you” to certain people would be to admit that maybe what we’re getting in life is less our accomplishment and more part and parcel of the larger gift of God. The sad truth is that sometimes we can get “dulled” to God’s provisions - all of them.
In a time, too, when a good lament might seem more appropriate, perhaps were are more in need of gratitude than we may realize. There is more than enough in a single newspaper or news feed to freeze us in fear, wrap us in worry and anesthetize us into anxiety. One way, we as Christians, can help to heal this country is to take an inventory of our gratitude stores, making sure we are restocking when supplies are low.
In German, if you thank someone by saying “Danke,” the person whom you are thanking is likely to respond with “Bitte,” which is the German equivalent of “You’re welcome.” Except that “bitte” is also the word for “please” and is further a cognate of the verb “bitten,” which means to ask for something, to make a request. This idea of “thank you” with a reply of a presumed “welcome” also happens in Italian, with “grazie” and “prego.”
Lately, in emailing or texting my Minnesotan sister, I’ve noticed that she will often end an exchange with YW - which stands for “you’re welcome.” It’s not necessary for her to say “you’re welcome” after I’ve thanked her for her opinion or information, and frankly, I’ve been a bit mystified by it. Except that she works in Human Resources, so I thought that maybe it’s a carry-over from her professional world. Except that the more I thought about it, it completes the circle we try to instill in our littlest ones: Please. Thank you. You’re welcome.
After expressing his wonderment at the fact that only 1 out of 10 had returned with thanksgiving, Jesus said to the Samaritan who did come back, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” The New International Version we heard from Bob says that the guy was made whole. But the Greek word there is means that his gratitude SAVED him. That’s what it literally says in the Greek, although other Bibles translate it as “healed you” or perhaps “has made you whole.” All ten lepers were healed, but there is that hint in Jesus’ final words that it was the one who came back to say “Thank you” that gave Jesus the opportunity to say, “you’re welcome,” saving him in some deeper sense.
The other nine did nothing wrong: they received the blessing promised them, and their lives were probably fairly normal after that healing. But the one, who got the same healing and blessing as the nine, got a second blessing.
Gratitude draws us out of ourselves into something larger, bigger, and grander than we could imagine and joins us to the font of blessing itself. But maybe, just maybe, gratitude is also the most powerful emotion, as it frees us from fear, releases us from anxiety, and emboldens us to do more and dare more than we'd ever imagined. Even to return to a Jewish rabbi to pay homage when you are a Samaritan because you've realized that you are more than a Samaritan, or a leper, or even a healed leper; you are a child of God, whole and accepted and beautiful just as you are.
Steve Garnaas Holmes gives us great direction in his poem from earlier this week. “Take nothing for granted, even sunlight or breathing. Don't let your privilege blind you to the sheer underserved miracle of your blessings. Don't think you're entitled to colors or conversation. Let gratitude overwhelm you, sneak up behind you and lift you off your feet. Pick anything to practice on—the sunlight on the poorly painted ledge of the apartment across from yours, standing as if ready to leap off into your arms—pick something, and give thanks. When someone asks you how you are today say, “Grateful,” then use the surprised pause to think of what for. The person looking at you quizzically may give you a hint.
It is that recognition of completing the gratitude circle, allowing that expression in our lives, that can do so much in bringing about the healing that is needed by so many. For such important work, let us pray.
Gracious God, we are grateful for all your blessings, and we’re mindful today of the importance of that gratitude. Help us to allow others to see our gratitude, to show others in the cracks of our personas and the miracles you have worked in us, allowing us to be whole and complete in you. None of your birds or blossoms or trees in autumn splendor are bashful about the beauty that’s been given them. Help all of us to allow your glory to shine through all of us in ways that are so much greater than our own. And all your children say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.