Sermon: Two Steps Forward...Two Steps Back

14 October 2007

The  Rev. Jennifer Whipple
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
October 14, 2007

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Two Steps Forward...Two Steps Back

Luke 17:11-19

Prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

            There are a few different ways to characterize this morning’s scripture passage from the gospel of Luke.  It is known as the healing of the ten lepers, the gratitude and faith of the Samaritan leper, the story of the ungrateful nine, and the other Good Samaritan.  And for as many things as are written to explain this story and what takes place, there are as many questions that are left unanswered.   Why was there only one Samaritan in the story when Jesus was by Samaria?  Do the others presume healing to be their due because they are Israelites?  Was the healing only truly completed by the action of returning and praising God?  After all Jesus 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?” 

There are many themes that run throughout the stories in the Bible, and one that keeps coming back is that God often works or teaches us through the actions of the least expected.  Clearly Jesus had expected the other nine lepers, those who were assumed to be good Jewish folk, to come back to offer thanks and praise for the cure that they were afforded through the instruction of Jesus Christ.  And yet the one person who does come back is perhaps the least expected. 

Certainly there is something to be learned from the Samaritan who takes a few steps back to give thanks and praise for the healing that had taken place.  After all, we would expect perhaps that all of the people who had been healed would have given thanks in some way or another.  After all there are explanations throughout the Bible of the extent to which people who were “diagnosed” with leprosy were cast out of their communities, how they were to behave in their infirmity, and the lengths to which they had to go in order to be accepted back in after they were healed if they were lucky enough to be so.  One commentator shared, “In those days, sufferers with contagious skin-diseases were like the living-dead.  They couldn’t go into villages or have any normal contact with others.  There was no cure for their disease.  Their plea was the lament of those as good as dead!  No one could be poorer than these social outcasts.  Jesus saw them and told them to show themselves to the priests.  In other words He tells them to go and ask for a certificate of clean health from the authorities, so they could again be members of the human community.”  The priest was the person who diagnosed the condition and named the person affected ceremonially unclean.  And the purification ritual involved sacrificing birds, shaving off all hair, bathing in water, washing clothes, living outside the tent for seven days, as well as guilt offerings & other sacrifices.

So here are these ten people who are cured of their disease.  That is not to say that they did not have a long way to go in order to be accepted back into their communities, but it was certainly two steps forward – not only were they cured but they had the blessing of the priests who named them clean.  But only the Samaritan takes the two steps back to say “thank you.”  And he does this not in a quiet manner but rather he goes back giving thanks and praise to God at the top of his lungs.  So what is it that prompts him to come back?  What is it that helps any of us decide whether we need to say thank you or not?

In his reflection Ten Lepers Healed, Brian Kershisnik writes the following:

“I could have thanked you but:

    1. my dinner was burning
    2. my kids were crying
    3. my business needed me
    4. I didn’t have any note cards
    5. I didn’t want to embarrass you
    6. I thought you knew
    7. I was tired
    8. I was so excited
    9. I forgot

I wonder why the foreigner did return and the others did not, Kershisnik continues.  It occurred to me that when all were suffering from a common disease, they were bonded by their outcast status.  When they were all healed, the nine returned to their life: their ethnic and religious life.  The foreigner only had Jesus at that point – he could not merge so easily into his old life.  And perhaps he had found his true home.” 

           We know from other stories in the Bible, namely the original “Good Samaritan,” that the Samaritans were outsiders.  They were not accepted by the Israelites because they did not follow the rules and laws of the Jewish faith.  But this story speaks to us about Jesus’ universal mission and acceptance.  Samaritan or not, the man who came back was recognized as a person of faith.  “Your faith has made you well,” says Jesus.  The Samaritan had found a home in his faith in God through Jesus Christ.  As Michelle Bruzesse writes in her reflections for Sojourners magazine, “Spiritual wholeness depends not on birthright but on our response to God’s grace.  There is no one outside God’s invitation to new life.  All that is required is our consent.”  All that is required is our consent – our consent to let God work in and through our lives. 

Once we have given that consent – once we have realized what God does within and through us, we should take two steps back…two steps back allow us time for reflection on the things that we are thankful for.  We are able to take some time in reflection and worship, for it is right and good to give thanks to God for the many amazing blessings we are afforded in our lives—blessings that are both large and small alike.  And worship does not have to happen within the confines of these walls.  We can pray to God – offering our prayers and concerns to God, as well as offering God our thanks and praise no matter where we are.

The best example I know of this is my Aunt Barbara.  My Aunt Barbara has only been my aunt for a year and a half now, but I have known her since I was in high school.  We went to the same church together.  And when I was in Divinity School we took an adult education class together called “Unwrapping Your Spiritual Gifts.”  At the time we were in the class together Barbara was preparing to be divorced and to raise two children on her own.  Her father had died when she was very young.  Her sister had recently passed away as well from cancer, and her brother-in-law was just diagnosed.  Yet, despite all of the adversity, she was the most thankful person I knew.  She thanked God for waking her up in the morning, for giving her two beautiful children, for sending her to be a member in a community of care and support.  I must admit that I thought it was fake at first…after all, how could it be real?  But to this day my Aunt Barbara is the most thankful person I know…to the point that she thanks God each night for her king-sized bed as she crawls in!  Worshipping God wherever she is has taken on all new meaning!

Just as the cured leper came worshipping God in the middle of the road along the way on Jesus’ journey, there is nothing to stop us from worshipping God no matter where we are.  It is a gift that we have this place and this community to come to for formal worship – to spend time with one another in learning, service, prayer, and praise.  Yet worship is something that does not just happen amidst the ritual of a Sunday morning. 

God is not only worshipped externally with songs, offerings, communal prayers, and so on.  The best way we can worship God is in the conversion of our lives to a way of moral & ethical behavior—a turning to God in thought, word, and deed.  This type of worship requires not only that we pay attention to the decisions we are faced with in our everyday lives and the challenges and blessings that come our way as we take steps forward as Christian people in a world where we are constantly faced with one set of competing demands after another.  It also requires that we take time for reflection, service, prayer, and praise…that we take two steps back every now and again to come face to face with God. In the case of the 10 lepers, all were made well, but the Samaritan’s expression of gratitude showed the truth of his transformation – a transformation to faithfulness and thanksliving, a transformation to a true belief in God through the work and words of Jesus Christ.

Our concern with taking time to step back and offer God our thanks and praise begs the question of whether God needs that of us.  In a reflection on today’s scripture, pastor and theologian Anthony Robinson wrote, “Perhaps God doesn’t, strictly speaking, need our thanks, but we do need to give or express that thanks as a way of learning that the world does not revolve around us, that there is an Other?...Ultimately the point in our relationships with God is not the gifts but the Giver.”  We can spend time in reflection and thanksgiving, but the ultimate reason in doing so is to deepen our relationship with God, our Creator.  And deepening that relationship does require a bit of work on our part.  Just as the cure that Jesus promised to the lepers did not come in an instant as they stood before him, all that we ask of God does not come to us in an instant.  We must work at being true people of faith.  Just as the lepers had to go out on a limb, take the challenge of entering the town from which they had been outcast once again to speak with the priests, so too do we have to go out on a limb every now and again for our faith – standing up for what we believe in when we live in a world that believes in so many different things, including that our God does not even exist.

Another thing that this story points to is the difference between being cured and being healed.  That was one of the things we struggled with in my group of folks who did Clinical Pastoral Education together, working as intern chaplains in a small hospital here in CT.  For certainly there are people who cannot necessarily be cured of the diseases that afflict them, but that does not mean they cannot be healed.  The other nine lepers were perhaps cured of their afflictions, but we do not know whether they were healed – whether they returned to right relationship with others and with God.  We do know that the other Good Samaritan was healed – that he no longer had to live with his ailment, but that he also was able to give thanks and praise for the change this meant in his life.  In stories like these we not only see people cured, we see people healed.  We see people who have misconceptions about God – “God can cure me of this dreaded disease”-- gain all new genuine knowledge of God and God’s healing power – “God can change me from the inside out.”  We also see people who for no other reason than having faith in God gain the strength they need to give commands to people they would never dream of including Jesus Christ himself.  “Have mercy on us,” they pleaded.

            Even more surprising than the unexpected ways and people that God uses to teach us the lessons that we should live by in our lives, and even to heal each of us in our own brokenness, is the idea that God might use each of us to share healing love with others.  We may just be the vessels through which God speaks words of redemption or works miracles.  Just because God is working in our own lives each day in smaller and more unexpected ways, God’s work is no less amazing and God’s love is no less strong or sincere.  And that is something to be truly thankful for.  As God takes two steps forward to meet us where we are with the things that we need in our lives—things like breath, people and community, we are called to take two steps back every now and again – to give thanks to God that has afforded us more blessings than we may ever even know.  Let us be ever mindful of those things with which we are blessed.  Let us thank God for the good news that exists even this day in the world and speaks to our hearts and minds.  Let us give thanks to God for the healing power that can mean change and transformation for each and every one of us.  Amen.


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