“Live By Faith: Praise God Loudly

10 October 2010

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

October 10, 2010

Luke 17:11-17

“Live By Faith: Praise God Loudly”

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

Legend has it that the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther was once asked to describe true worship. His answer?  “The tenth leper turning back.”  I was reading the full text of a sermon Luther preached on the 10th leper, way back in 1521, and I thought it was very timely.  Luther was all in favor of praising God loudly – he was notorious for writing hymns to favorite tavern tunes of the time.  Here’s what he says:  “…wavering and doubt offer sluggish prayers, it does not raise the voice nor go forward to meet Christ!  It indeed murmurs many words and chants many songs very unwillingly….But true faith does not doubt the good and gracious will of God. …its prayer is strong and firm like faith itself.”[1] Isn’t this still true today?  Growing up around ACC basketball, I often wondered what our churches would be like if we could’ve worked up as good a head of steam for Jesus as we did for Carolina and Maryland, the Blue Devils and the Demon Deacons.  Maybe that’s why Luther suggested that his proper German congregation should replace communion wine with beer – they might actually start to loosen up and praise God loudly!

I don’t know about you, but my first instinct when I’ve heard this parable in the past was to identify with that 10th leper who comes back to thank Jesus.  I mean, my momma brought me up to write thank-you notes, and I go to church on Sundays.  And we Congregationalists are a “Thanksgiving people,” right?  We can congratulate ourselves on a faith lineage that goes back to the Pilgrims and that first Thanksgiving here in the new world.  Our worship has always been full of praise and thanksgiving, the singing of Psalms and heartfelt personal prayers – we tend to avoid liturgy from traditional prayer books.  But before we get too smug about how we cast ourselves in the story, let’s stop to think about it:  When that 10th Samaritan leper turns back “praising God with a loud voice,” he prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet.  Does that really sound like us?  They don’t call us the “frozen chosen” for nothing – we are a quiet people, undemonstrative people.  We’re don’t usually praise God with loud voices – and we certainly don’t fall on our faces in prayer!

When you stop to think about it, don’t you feel a little sorry for the other 9 lepers?  I don’t think it’s fair to judge them for NOT turning back to thank Jesus. I mean, he did tell them to go and show themselves to the priests.  They were just doing as they were told.  They obeyed Jesus, without question – even though you have to admit it was kind of a strange healing method.  You know?  Jesus didn’t even touch them, much less give them any medicines or say any special prayers over them – that sort of thing.  I think it showed a lot of faith to just keep on walking in the direction they were pointed, believing that healing would come, some day.  They went, and Luke says it was just as it was with the Samaritan, “as they went, they were made clean.”  Let’s not forget they were all walking in the same direction – Jesus, the disciples, and the lepers – toward the Temple at Jerusalem.  The other 9 had faith too, and they were healed by it – although it sounds like their healing took place kind of slowly, since the walk to Jerusalem from that region in the Megiddo Valley between Galilee and Samaria would have taken several days. 

But here’s the point I Luke was trying to make by sharing this parable of the 10th leper.  That 10th leper was a Samaritan – just like the “Good Samaritan” in the other most famous parable of Jesus, which appears only in Luke’s Gospel.  The thing is, the most unexpected people can turn out to be the most full of faith, and the most joyful in their praise and worship.  By the time Luke was writing (some 60 years after the life and death of Jesus) these Samaritans and other Gentiles – who were so despised by the Jews back in the time of Jesus – were turning out to be some of the most welcoming and enthusiastic about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The Good News of God’s healing love was for them NEW news – it was kind of old news for the Jews, since they had so long understood themselves as God’s beloved children, the chosen people.  But to people who had been marginalized, and really left out, this wide new covenant of Jesus was a very great blessing, and a cause for loud praise – this Samaritan leper, as a disabled foreigner, had TWO strikes against him.

Do you know people like this?  People whose gratitude and faith surprise you?  The early church was full of happy and rejoicing slaves and women, people who were mentally and physically ill, people who had been put down and left out by a triumphant Roman Empire that (remember?) celebrated great men of art and philosophy and legendary heroes of sport – and war.  The church of Jesus Christ counts us all as brothers and sisters, welcomes us equally.

In my first years of ministry, as many of you know, I did youth and campus ministry in Berkeley.  We had two reasonably large youth groups as we do here, for middle- and high-schoolers – but the big challenge was this campus ministry I was trying to revive.  That church was founded in the 1860s by Congregational missionaries from New England who wanted to be “a moral presence” for the university.  Active in our church in the 1990s we still had many members who had been graduates of Cal-Berkeley who could well remember the old days, during the 40s and 50s, when the Congregational Church had been the center of campus life.  Several of our members had met at church-sponsored dances and other social events, and later got married in our sanctuary.  But as you know campus life changed a little bit in the 1960s and ‘70s.  That generation of activist students had not seen any need to get up early on Sunday mornings to sing the old hymns from the Pilgrim hymnal.  The hymns they were singing loudly at the time were “Give Peace a Chance” and “We Shall Overcome” and “Can’t Get No… Satisfaction.” 

When I started my campus ministry “Bagels and Bibles” after Sunday worship in the old parsonage across the parking lot, some of the older members wanted to know why we didn’t just stage a dance or student social, because those had been the big draws back in their day.  So I had to struggle to tell them the story of our group.  By the 1990s just to be a campus Christian was a bit of an alternative lifestyle choice – not far from social leprosy for many of my group.  They weren’t interested in dances.  I had students in wheelchairs planting gardens at the new transitional house for the homeless.

As an early Open and Affirming Congregation of the United Church of Christ, my campus ministry was full of remarkable young people that were full of joy and thanksgiving for the extravagant welcome they were getting at church – an inclusive and healing love that they were not experiencing everywhere else in their lives.  Berkeley was one of the first campus towns to really work to accommodate people with disabilities, so we had a number of disabled students.  One of them you met when she came to our Hartford General Synod in 2007 – The Rev. Sophia DeWitt.  She officiated at the communion table with me that summer.  Back then, though, she was a college freshman. She has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around.  Some of you have heard me tell the story of when we took our group to plant a garden for the homeless shelter and she insisted we help her out of her wheelchair so she could get down and dig in the dirt with everybody else.

We had another brilliant student, a man with much more severe CP than Sophia, in a motorized wheelchair (like Stephen Hawking), and we had another young woman who had lost a leg to bone cancer as a teenager.  We also had a student, a young man going back to college in his late 20s after serving a 7-year jail term for vehicular manslaughter – the result of a bad night of drinking on the night of his high school prom.  His high school sweetheart was the prom date who didn’t get out of the car alive.  And we had a young South Vietnamese woman who, as a child had fled her country in a crowded boat full of refugees.  And we had a Chinese-American lesbian who had been so shamed by her family, she was in the closet to everyone but our group.  There are many forms of “leprosy” today that the church is still healing.  But Jesus still circles the margins of society, walking along the road with us, loving us back to fullness of life.

I’ve been talking a lot to people who actually have been healed recently of actual physical illness – Joe Rocky, in his wheelchair, and many of our cancer survivors – and the word from them is that as much as we appreciate the miracles of modern healing science, the best blessing for all of them was the support groups they found, whether at a treatment center, in the workplace, among best friends, or at church – in any case the miracle comes in the human connection where God’s love is made real.  That’s what incarnation means – God made flesh, alive in Christ and living among us.  Answered prayer might be one where a fleshy friend helps make the connection to the right doctor with the right treatment. 

The faith those 10 lepers found along the Jerusalem road was a reconnection with enfleshed human life – through Jesus who walked with them on the way as they were likely passing through the valley of Megiddo.  That place, by the way, was a vast and historic former battlefield – it would have been known to Jesus’s people as Gettysburg is to us.  As a “no man’s land” in between two provinces, the world Megiddo comes from the Hebrew root gadad[2] which means "cut off."  People who are cut off from their communities – who are not included – are spiritually in a valley of death, our scripture tells us.  And that gay Rutgers student who recently took his own life was literally in the valley of death.  But this parable calls us out of those valleys – and invites us to keep walking in the direction Jesus sends us.  And if we have it in us (like the Samaritan) we might turn around and get even closer to Christ, singing loud praises as we go.  That’s what many of us are doing.

I loved yesterday visiting Gert Ewing again at Bethel Healthcare – she can barely stand the idea that she might be stuck there for the fair, because she loves our church so much.  I met two of her Candlewood Lake Club friends while I was there, and you should have seen their reaction when they heard I was Gert’s pastor – “Oh, she just can’t stop talking about her wonderful new church!”  Even one of the aides stopped in to see me, saying she had been coming here to visit and couldn’t wait to come back. 

It’s true.  Life becomes full and joyful when we truly do “live by faith” and create a healthy, life-giving “climate of grace” in our church.  We are loved, and more and more we are celebrating that love – if not loudly – at least a little less quietly.  Because God’s grace is so very good, and has the power to heal this broken world. 

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.



Luke 17:11-19

11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”



[1] Sermon by Martin Luther; taken from his Church Postil of 1521.

[2] Strong's Concordance number #H1413


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