Respond, Luke 17:11-19
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, October 13, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer
The man’s 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 the 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 her 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 pray here. Will you say the prayer for us?” Then she turned and looked at the rest of the people in the restaurant and said, “Bow your heads.” And 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, let us thank him for our food. Amen.”
The prayer changed the whole atmosphere. People began to talk with one another. The waitress said, “We should do that every morning.”
And all of the sudden,” said our friend, “My whole frame of mind started to improve. From that little girl’s example, I started to thank God for what I DID have and stopped majoring in what I didn’t have. I started to be grateful” (in Living Life on Purpose, by Greg Anderson).
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 gratitude. Someone gives them a gift and we say, “Now, what do you say?” After putting on their scary clothes, ringing our doorbells and demanding “Trick or treat!” mom or dad, or big brother or sister remind the little goblin to say, “Thank you!” We appreciate being thanked. We all know how it feels to be appreciated for what we’ve done. And yet, too often we forget. Too often, we miss the mark: in offering thanks to one another, and in offering thanks to God.
In this text from Luke 17, the story begins as Jesus continues his travels on his way to Jerusalem and enters a village. He’s been on this journey since chapter 9, and we’ve gotten a little lost along the way as to where he is, and wonder if maybe he’s gotten a little lost, too, or wonder if maybe they’ve been going around in circles for a while. Maybe Mary Magdalene has been suggesting for a while that they ask for directions, but Peter has responded, “No. It’s starting to look familiar now—I know right where we are.”
So, we don’t quite know where Jesus and the disciples are, whether they’ve entered a Jewish or a Samaritan village, but 10 men who have leprosy see him…they recognize him…they know who he is. They stand their distance as is required of them, and they call out saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Let’s talk about leprosy a bit, as understood in scripture. Leviticus 13 describes the condition in detail, so priests could correctly identify it. Its symptoms included a white rash or swelling or boil that spread, especially if it turned the body hair white, with or without itching. Leviticus doesn’t attempt to address the cause of the disease, although there are instances of leprosy in the Old Testament where it’s perceived as a curse or a punishment, but it’s not assumed that all lepers are sinners cursed by God.
Still, whatever its cause, it made the individual “unclean,” which required a whole process of healing, cleansing and sacrifice in order to be pronounced clean again—to be allowed back into community, to be allowed back into worship. The Law considered leprosy to be a difficult uncleanliness to eliminate, and so the person with the condition had to be quarantined, to not contaminate others. Leviticus instructs lepers to “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” (13:45-46).
We know today that the leprosy described in scripture wasn’t the Hansen’s Disease we know today, but might have included any disfiguring condition. The person with this condition had to deal not only with the physical issues and the pain or discomfort of the condition—but also with the social consequences of isolation and loneliness and humiliation. Any life or family or hopes or dreams they once had were now gone.
But somehow, these men had found one another.
Seeing Jesus and knowing who he is—rather than asking him for alms—they ask for healing. Jesus responds by telling them to show themselves to the priest. They set out to do what he says, and discover they’ve been healed.
Can you imagine how amazing that must have been? To suddenly realize the pain is gone; that awful itch that couldn’t be relieved isn’t there anymore? To look down and see their skin is now normal? The rash is gone, the swelling is gone, the color is normal?
Nine of the men look down, see the change—smile, laugh, and then hurry on: to the priest, to the life that once was. What a good day!
One turns back. Only one.
And this man, for the first time in some time—uses his voice—not to warn others away, but to give thanks to God that he’s been healed. He throws himself at the feet of Jesus and thanks him. Scripture tells us at this point in the story that this man—the one who turns back—the one who offers his thanks—is a Samaritan. A foreigner. He is one who has been “doubly outcast” by good Jews. He’s the wrong race and religion, and he’s had this dreaded disease. And yet he is the one who returns to Jesus and offers his thanks. He’s the one Jesus sends away saying, “Your faith has made you well.”
He’s been healed as the others have been healed. But his faith has made him well.
It’s pretty easy for us to think poorly of the 9 who didn’t return to give thanks to Jesus. But really, it seems they’re just doing what Jesus has told them to do. And yet Jesus marvels that this faithful gratitude has come from ‘this foreigner.’ The other 9 are surely grateful as well, anxious to get their lives back—but they don’t acknowledge the one who made the miracle possible.
We can’t know exactly what Jesus was thinking and how he would have defined the difference between being healed and being well. We can see that gratitude wasn’t a prerequisite for being healed. It’s not like suddenly the other 9 had leprosy again. We don’t know what happened to them, but there’s no reason to think that they didn’t return to their priests, to their homes and to their lives. Back to normal. They melded back into what once was. And surely that was very good.
But I can’t help but wonder if the Samaritan suddenly realized that this small and sad community that he had so unfortunately become a part of—bound together by the common bond of an awful disease that placed them all on the same level, was now gone. He would now return to that place where he had come: still rejected, still perceived as an outsider. He would still—he would always be unclean because he was a Samaritan. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t bother with the priests, but instead, turned back to find Jesus.
And Jesus received him. Jesus said to him, “Your faith has made you well.” Your faith has “saved” you, that phrase is sometimes translated…
I’m not so sure Jesus was disappointed in the other 9, I’m not so sure he even considered that he would be thanked for what he did. And yet he was delighted when this man returned to him.
Your faith has made you well, Jesus said to him. Your faith has saved you.
Maybe Jesus was talking about a different kind of wellness. Maybe he meant that deep-seated divisions that exclude someone (like the Samaritan) are a more serious illness than the awful things that might happen to our bodies. Maybe he was saying that our souls can be far more sick than our bodies.
I don’t know exactly what Jesus was saying, but I do know that the Samaritan wouldn’t have received the blessing if he hadn’t gone back to Jesus and expressed his gratitude.
If he hadn’t gone back, even though his body had been healed, his life wouldn’t have been changed. (How can you not be changed when Jesus blesses you?)
Recognizing how we’ve been blessed is a big deal. To be aware, to notice, to recognize that we’re not the source of our blessings. It’s not about what we’ve done but about what God has done. About what God has given us.
I always think of the prayer Jimmy Stewart offered in the 1965 movie Shenandoah about a wealthy landowner who tried to avoid participation in the Civil War. Some of you weren’t born yet and I was more into the Flintstones when the movie came out, but I watched it at some point and think his Thanksgiving Prayer is sometimes our attitude about what we have, and perhaps how we give thanks:
We cleared this land;
We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it.
We cooked the harvest.
It wouldn't be here—we wouldn't be eating it—if we hadn't done it all ourselves.
We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel
But we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for this food we're about to eat.
Giving thanks for what we have is important for us. Humbly offering thanks for what we have, for what God has offered…the land, the seed, the tools, the harvest, the bounty that feeds us and others.
Giving thanks is important for us. To help us remember who we are and who God is.
But our giving thanks is important for others, as well. To let others know that we recognize that they’ve blessed us. That they are important to us. That they’ve perhaps changed our lives.
A group of classmates were reminiscing at a high school reunion about things and people they were grateful for. One man mentioned that he was particularly thankful for Mrs. Wendt, because 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 40 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” (In “A Window on the Mountain” by Winston Pierce).
Offering thanks, expressing gratitude.
It’s important for us to express it; it’s important for the one who has blessed us to hear.
As I was thinking about this scripture this week, I experienced one of those “lightbulb” moments. Thinking through and figuring out our fall stewardship campaign had left me dry, honestly. We worked so hard together on our Capital Campaign and were so pleased with the outcome. It was and still is an amazing thing, and I look forward to knowing what’s ahead and where God is leading us. I am convinced that God is still doing a good thing among us, and that something good is ahead as we keep focused on our mission and our ministry.
So many of us have committed and are giving our best toward our building and our budget. Both are needed. We can’t let either one go at the expense of the other.
What I realized as I was thinking and praying through this scripture, is that for our stewardship campaign this year we need to focus on our gratitude to God for what we’ve been given. For our rich heritage, for today, and for whatever God has in mind for us tomorrow. I want us to focus on giving thanks.
I think the text of 1 Thessalonians 5:18 is perfect for us here and now: In everything, give thanks.
In the next few days you’ll be receiving a letter from me offering the details so you don’t have to remember everything right now as I tell you about it, but here is the general plan: On November 3rd, All Saints Sunday, we’re going to give thanks for those who came before us. We’ll remember and name those saints/those loved ones of ours and God’s who have died in this past year. On November 10th, we’re going to give thanks for this church. For the relationships we’ve made, the small groups that have blessed us, for worship and celebration—for all of it. That will be the day we bring our commitment cards forward as well, dedicating ourselves to our continued life together in 2020. On November 17 it’s Mission Sunday. Those who have participated on a Mission team through the church will share their reflections, and perhaps as you listen you’ll hear an invitation from God to join in one of our groups as we head out into the world. On November 24th, we’ll have a combined worship service at 10 a.m. as Unclouded Day returns and shares. We will be blessed by music as we give thanks for the gift of worship and music.
While all of these things are happening on Sunday mornings, I want to invite you to be a part of something else that I think can be really good that will touch us throughout the week, and will remind us to be thankful. I received a lot of positive feedback on the daily emails we sent out with scripture and brief commentary during our Capital Campaign. I would like to offer a variation of that again, with your help. I am hereby proclaiming November as the month when we will—like the Samaritan—share our thankfulness with one another of how God has blessed us. I’m calling this (very creatively): 30 Days of Gratitude. I invite you to send me a few sentences or a paragraph of how God has blessed you—you are welcome to send me a particular scripture to go with it, or maybe even a quote that you’ve read that has been important to you. The focus is gratitude. It’s saying thank you to God. It’s being alert and aware of how God continues to touch our lives, our families, our church.
I think of the man who was healed, who came back to thank Jesus…about how that moment may have changed his life forever.
Perhaps the same can be true of us, when we see how blessed we are…when we live with our hearts filled with thanksgiving.
Giving thanks. Offering our gratitude. Let’s remember to do that every day. Amen.