Scripture: Psalm 107:1-9; Luke 17:11-19
Rev. Charles Svendsen, Oct 29, 2017
Today is our final Sunday together. I'm so excited about my next opportunity to serve in Costa Rica. Yes, Costa Rica is a beautiful land, gorgeous, fervent mountain landscapes, recreational enjoyments like thrilling zip lines, spectacular pristine beaches, blue-green waters, peaceful sandy shores. I'm really looking forward to going to Costa Rica. [Ed Smart says, "Charles, it's not Costa Rica, it is Costa Mesa!] Oh really, Costa Mesa? Well it's almost the same. Here's Fashion Island - more plaid shirts. Here's my lovely commute! And my new interim, the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant. Very sweet, and I'm delighted and honored to serve there in Costa Mesa as I have been delighted and honored to serve beloved Westminster these past 23 months and the presbytery of San Fernando.
But the church across the land and around the world today is talking about this man, Martin Luther 500 years ago, All Saints Eve, this Tuesday, October 31st posted his 95 theses or statements in his parish of Saxony, Germany. And if that weren't enough, he sent copies to his bishop and archbishop. The challenge was to debate the meaning of the repentance. Professor Luther ruined the indulgence program and launched the reformation in the European church saying, famously, when tried at the Diet of Worms, "Here I stand, I can do no other." And of course I have Luther's original socks saying just that! Here is Luther's All Saint's church in Wittenberg. Here is the original door to Luther's home near the University of Wittenberg where he taught in the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews - the original north door of the Castle Church is long gone. And here is Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, where Luther spent almost a year in hiding protected by Fredrick III. It was here in Wartburg Castle that Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German, and here he wrote many of his doctrinal and polemical works. You made it possible for me to travel through this area on my study leave last June, and I am grateful. So just before we leave the reformation, we have to mention the five great "solas", "alone," statements of the reformation:
- Sola Scripture (scripture alone):
The Bible alone is our highest authority
- Sola Fide (faith alone):
We are redeemed through faith alone in Jesus Christ
- Sola Gratia (grace alone):
We are redeemed by the grace of God alone
- Solus Christus (Christ alone):
Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior and King
- Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone)
We live for the glory of God alone
There... my seminary would be proud.
When I was in high school, my life was spiritually nourished by a youth ministry called "Young Life." You know "Young Life." We would meet weekly with leaders and friends, usually in someone's home, to sing and enjoy skits and listen to a talk. It was an opportunity to explore and even test our faith outside our own homes. On most of those Young Life evenings other people would do the speaking, but every once in a while there would be a "Say So Nite." On "Say So Nites" our leaders would encourage us to share what God was doing in our lives! The experience of speaking before our peers was exhilarating and frightening.
On "Say So Nite" we put ourselves on the line! But that experience of sharing our questions and affirmations of faith was life changing for many of us.
So, today's Gospel story is about the importance of "Saying So." And I love the balance, and even humor, of Luke, the Gospel writer. No sooner does Jesus, for Luke, finish a story about servants waiting on tables, doing what they are commanded and not to expect praise or thanks whatsoever, no sooner does Jesus finish a teaching about how unimportant it should be for us to receive appreciation then he turns around to tell a story about how important it is to express our thanks and praise to God and to others. This is a "Saying So" story!
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. This was one of the several journeys he made with his disciples from Galilee in the north down to Jerusalem in the south. The only description of Jesus' previous visit to Jerusalem, for Luke, was when Jesus was a boy of twelve. And you remember that Mary and Joseph unknowingly left him in the city after the Passover festival. They traveled a day thinking he was with relatives and friends. They looked for him. No Jesus! His parents, after a three-day search, found Jesus sitting among the teachers of the day - a 12-year old questioning, answering! And his parents were astonished.
Now, in today's lesson, as a seasoned teacher himself, Jesus is returning to Jerusalem. He is walking in the region between Samaria and Galilee. Judah is in the South with its capital, Jerusalem. Samaria is in the middle and Galilee is the region in the North where Jesus' hometown of Nazareth was. Samaritans were a mixed race of Jews and Canaanites. In Jesus' day the Samaritans were the descendants of the northern kingdom that did not get carried off in exile starting in 586 to Babylon. There were three waves of brutal deportation. Samaritans did not come to Jerusalem's rescue and they irreverently broke Jewish purity laws by inter-marrying with local Canaanite culture. Five centuries of bitterness were in place before Jesus' day, between Jews in the South and Samaritans to the mid-North.
By the time Jesus appears, there were established travel routes that Galileans could take to avoid setting foot in Samaria. And one day Jesus was walking on one such road. As he entered a village, he was met by 10 lepers. Leprosy, we know today, is Hansen's disease. Ancient leprosy was a name given to a range of maladies from mildew in houses and on clothes to skin diseases with no explanation and no treatment. So mysterious and threatening was leprosy that victims were met with outright fear and sad ignorance. Lepers were isolated from all domestic, religious, and commercial contact. The law said in Leviticus 13: "The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out "unclean, unclean! They shall live alone ... outside the camp." So in violation of the law by even approaching Jesus, these desperate 10 lepers on this border road between Samaria and Galilee called out one day, "Jesus, Master, have mercy upon us!" Jesus, as he had in other instances, did not heal them on the spot. He said, "Go show yourselves to the priests." Again, Jesus is obedient to Jewish law - a long a detailed procedure for a cleansed leper's re-entrance into civil and religious life as given in Leviticus 14. That work began with the lepers presenting themselves to the priests. The lepers knew the law, so all 10 hurried off to the priests. And as they went, Luke tells us they were made clean. It's an unusual healing story in that it has all the healing elements of other healing stories: a cry for help, Jesus response, the healing occurs - but in this story in Luke 17, the healing occurs in the act of obedience.
The text says, "as they went, they were healed." Ten were off, they looked down at their hands and feet, and we can see them in our mind's eye tearing into their old ripped clothing and seeing fresh new soft skin! Their lives had been given back to them! They could return to their synagogues, return to their occupations, their friends, and family. "But one leper," Luke tells us, "turned back." I love the phrase "and praised God with a loud voice." -- not a Presbyterian, for sure, maybe a Pentecostal. He praised God with a loud voice, fell at Jesus' feet and he thanked him. And then the other shoe drops. Jesus added, "And he was a Samaritan!" Why did Jesus (and Luke) say that? And why did Jesus say "were not ten made clean?" The other nine, where are they? No one came back to praise God but this foreigner? And then a real tough one: "Get up! Go on your way! Your faith has made you well."
I have some questions! Was the Samaritan living outside the requirements of Judaism? Why was he included in the command to go to a priest? And, why get after the nine others for not returning? They were just following orders to go to the local priest. And why say to the Samaritan: "Your faith has made you well." All ten were healed. Weren't all ten well?
Well, I'll let you wrestle with some of these questions. I do want to offer three truths about this story of healing and faith. And I trust they will stay with you in your walk of Christian faith this week.
Albert Schweitzer, the medical missionary to Africa, wrote in 1925 that when he looked back upon the early years of his life, he was "haunted," his word, haunted by his not expressing appreciation to those who gave so much of their lives to him - teachers, mentors, even his parents! Young Schweitzer never really thanked them properly for pouring their lives into his. On this Luke 17 story, Schweitzer wrote, "I have never interpreted this Parable of the Ten Lepers to mean that only one was grateful. All ten surely were grateful, not nine hurried home, but one turned back, sought out the One who helped him and thanked him." Saying so! Jesus, early in Luke 17, just finished a story about servants who need no thanks. Now this parable is about how critical it is to say thank-you. Our take on these two stories, "The Dutiful Servant" and "The Ten Lepers", is for us not to expect gratitude ourselves but to always express gratitude to others. Saying so!
Second truth: the thanking man was a Samaritan man! Now the story takes a dramatic turn! The original listeners and readers were no doubt jolted by this piece of information - "and he was a Samaritan." We in the 21st century are too far removed from the brunt of this ancient racism, but if we could imagine a person or group of people who sticks in our throat or gnaws at our gut like: "And he was a Samaritan." For the Armenians of 1915: "And he was a Turk." For the Jews of 1940: "And he was a Nazi." Let's bring it close to home. For the Americans of 2001: "And he was a terrorist." For 2017: "And he was an ambusher from Niger or Las Vegas."
Jesus chooses the ultimate outsider to make us see that a grateful person, a thinking person, a "praising-God' person, is to be an example of saving faith, your faith has saved you. That thanking, worshiping, faithful person is an example of faith no matter what their race or culture or orientation, political persuasion, or otherwise. Of course, we are not saying that bad people don't do bad things. But here Jesus is commending someone who most of his disciples hated! Why? Because in saying so, worshiping so, praising so, honoring God in Christ so, who you are doesn't matter.
The third truth is that in the lepers' camp and in the realm of God, there is no difference between "Jews and Samaritans." This was a leper colony! All of society was segregated in the first century - Jews, aristocrats, the poor men and women, women of the night, Samaritans. The only integrated group was the lepers in the leper colony! So, ironically, the people that reflected the realm of God as a community were lepers.
Nine Jews and one Samaritan came to see Jesus. The came together and were healed together and left together. And they split up when they were healed! So Jesus said, "Where are the other nine?" That is a probing question! It's a question I want to leave with us today. Yes we need to say "thank you." And yes it is a shock that the faithful and grateful leper was a Samaritan, but the haunting question is "where are the other nine?" And, if you will, the church is the "other nine." So where are the "other nine" in the Conejo Valley? Where are the "other nine" in the sad and lonely. Where are the "other nine' in disasters in our country and the world?
We need to "say so." We need to erase barriers, all barriers, and we need to show up in places where Jesus is. What a surprising parable! May it challenge all of us who have been healed to never stay the same!
So, thank you for our almost two years of transitional ministry together. We have enjoyed accomplishments and faced challenges, but most importantly we have heard and acted upon the Gospel that God has reconciled the world to God - not counting our transgressions against us. So if God doesn't keep count, why should we? Nineteenth century London preacher Charles Spurgeon told his congregation, "You will often hear a Gospel better preached, but you will never hear preached a better Gospel."
Thank you for this mile of our journey of Christian faith. I am grateful to you.
For the grass withers and the flower fades but the promises of God abide forever.
Westminster Presbyterian Church