(a sermon for July 19, 2015, the 8th Sunday after Pentecost; forth in a series, based on Luke 17:11-19)
The item appeared a number of years ago in the Dublin-based newspaper the Irish Times, but it could have just as well appeared in any of our own local papers. Reporting on the events surrounding a traffic accident in that city, the driver charged with causing the accident was interviewed about what had happened, and was asked who might be able to corroborate his story; but the driver could only answer the reporter, “There were plenty of onlookers, but no witnesses.”
Actually, his statement held more truth than perhaps even he realized, for it can easily be said of so much in this life that there are always plenty of onlookers, but relatively few witnesses; lots of people who see what’s happening, but not so many who will truly pay attention to what’s going on and then “bear witness” to it; people who get involved and act upon what they’ve seen and heard. It’s no accident that in moments of hardship or great tragedy, it’s the witnesses, as opposed to mere onlookers, who emerge as heroes, because they’re “in the moment,” right there doing what needs to be done with courage, by faith and in love; and, might I add, quite often at great personal risk.
They’re a rare breed; and the truth of it is, as much as we might wish it were different, most of us tend toward living our lives as onlookers rather than witnesses! Don’t misunderstand, that doesn’t make us bad people; it’s just that generally speaking, most of us are far too caught up in the concerns of our own lives and too busy navigating the course of each of our days to truly “bear witness” and to respond to all that’s going on around us. It is one of the great ironies of life, is it not, that it so often takes some kind of tragedy, or for that matter, a great and unexpected blessing – the birth of a child, the blood test coming back negative, a brush with injury or death that didn’t come to pass – to make us actually sit up and take notice of the moment at hand, suddenly understand what all is important about life; and further, what we should be doing about that!
And even then… the greatest thing ever can be happening right there before our very eyes, and the sad truth is that sometimes we just don’t “get it.”
Take our gospel reading for this morning, in which ten men afflicted with leprosy are encountered by Jesus “along the way” and are healed of their diseases (and yes, that’s plural, since in those days leprosy could refer to several related afflictions). So these were men who had not only long dealt with the infirmities of their illness, but also the loneliness and isolation that came with being forcibly ostracized from family, friends and society. So what happened when Jesus came along was a healing and restoration all in one; but you see, of the ten who were healed, only one of them – and a Samaritan, no less, who you might remember, was considered by the Jews of Jesus’ time to be foreigners among them and not to be trusted – it’s this one alone who returns to give thanks at Jesus’ feet; “praising God in a loud voice” for the blessing he had received. And it’s in light of this that Jesus asks the question we ask ourselves as well: “Were not ten made clean… the other nine, where are they?”
And it’s a good question; unfortunately, Luke doesn’t give us a whole lot of answers to that in his gospel. Historically speaking, we can speculate that if the other nine were devout Jews (which in and of itself we can only assume) then they would have gone directly to show themselves to the temple priests, so to be declared ritually “clean;” this would have been required for them to re-enter society and be reunited with their families. So in fact, we could argue here that that the so-called “other nine” simply did what they had to do according to the law and assumed that nothing more was required of them; so basically, they didn’t come back and give thanks because they didn’t have to!
Or maybe it was more complicated than that. In his wonderful little book of poems and short stories written way back in the seventies, The Way of the Wolf, Martin Bell suggests that each one of the nine may well have had their own reasons for not returning to give thanks. For instance, Bell writes that one of them didn’t give thanks because he didn’t understand what had just happened to him, and it scared him; so this man responded by immediately running off to find some place to hide! Another was angry about what he’d just been given; because some people just can’t accept a gift outright (even if it’s a gift of healing) especially when they don’t believe they ever earned that gift.
Still another, when all was said and done, really didn’t want to be healed; because “he did not know how to live or even who he was without his leprosy,” writes Bell. There was also the one who didn’t believe this healing was true, and refused to accept it, while yet another – who did believe – was so excited she ran like crazy to get home to see her family. And then, of course, there was the one who… well, forgot to say thank you. Go figure!
Bottom line is that they all had their reasons, whatever they were; some understandable under the circumstances, perhaps even valid. But the fact remains that of these ten lepers, only one – the Samaritan – comes back to give thanks; and it’s to him that Jesus says, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” So the question becomes then, what was it about the Samaritan that set him apart from the others? Certainly, he was the one who came back to say thank you; but why is it that this act of simple gratitude leads Jesus to say that it’s his faith that’s made him well?
Well, simply put, the difference between him and the others is that unlike the others, the Samaritan “got it.”
This is one of those passages of scripture that we appropriately lift up around the Thanksgiving holiday, as a reminder of our need to truly “give thanks” to God who is the source of our many blessings. But I want to suggest to you this morning that an “attitude of gratitude” is only part of what’s going on in this passage; this is also a story about humility; it’s about the great importance of breaking away from the self-sufficient and self-absorbed norm of human life, and humbly acknowledging God and God alone as the source of healing and wholeness… and existence!
This is what the Samaritan, and apparently only the Samaritan, understood! Running back to drop at Jesus’ feet, and to shout out praises to God for this miracle; understand that there was a lot more going on here than simply an enthusiastic expression of gratitude; and it was far more than some elaborate display of public piety. No, for the Samaritan this was an act of personal humility; it was his way of passionately acknowledging God as the source of his healing and of his very life! It’s interesting, by the way, that when Jesus says to the Samaritan, “your faith has made you well,” the Greek word that’s used in the gospel is sozo, which not only means “to be healed,” but also translates as “to be made whole,” or “to be saved.” So, then, what set the Samaritan apart from the other nine is that in addition to simply being healed, he was also “made whole,” and that came from faith; a faith that came out of a relationship with God!
Ten lepers were healed, yes; but only one of them truly “got it,” an understanding that the heart of true faith celebrates God’s mercy, joyfully praises God, and bears witness in and through all of life to God’s wondrous love in Jesus Christ.
And you know what? We could learn a lot from that Samaritan.
It seems to me that one of the big mistakes we make as Christians is that we sometimes tend to regard faith as merely something that which helps us to live a normal life; as though our relationship with God, not to mention our place in the community of God’s people, is simply one more necessary component of our daily lives, like a balanced breakfast or reliable transportation. As a result, there are a whole lot of folks – especially people in the church – who compartmentalize their faith to the point of where it is one very distinct, separate and wholly appropriate section of their lives, but nothing more or less than that! And that’s sad, because the Christian faith, beloved, is never to be about how to live a normal life, but how to live life well beyond what passes for normal in this world!
Our faith is about a new life that transforms that which is ordinary into something remarkable; it is the blessedness of knowing that God’s hand and God’s heart is in each and every new day we’re given. So how can we possibly experience that in our own lives and still be normal? How can we compartmentalize faith and not react to that love in all the varied sections of our lives? How can we not bear witness to the truth that has set us free?
Well, there’s a whole lot of people who don’t; people who live as though the truth has not come to them, people who live as though they’d rather not be healed, people who go through their days as though they are afraid of what might happen if they were to wholly embrace what God has to give them. This world is filled to capacity with those who never act on faith, and thus never truly live out of it.
But then, there are the ones who “get it.” The ones who have had cultivated within them a thankful heart and whose very lives proclaim God with loud voices; the ones who take the risks to help lift up the fallen and bring comfort those who have no hope; the ones who make it their business to love the unlovable and make every effort to reach out to those who seem unreachable; the ones who are not content to let politics or greed or tradition or propriety stand in the way of doing the Lord’s work where it needs to be done and how it needs to be done; the ones who don’t stay silent when something good needs to be said, and who don’t step back into the old routine when God’s Spirit calls them forward, but boldly act upon that which they have already seen and experienced. These are no mere onlookers, beloved; these are the ones who by their very lives bear witness to God’s wonder and love. They “get it,” and that understanding changes every aspect of their lives for the better.
I ask you this morning, friends: do you get it?
Can it be said of you that because of your faith, nothing is normal about your life? That the fact of God’s love touching every piece of your existence has a profound effect on your family life, your work, your play, your sense of devotion and duty and charity and commitment? Does your life bear witness to what you believe?
Because let me tell you this friends: the world has plenty of people who are content to be onlookers, and who thrive on keeping things nice and normal and undisturbed; but we’re living in times that demand more from us than just that. We live in an age when God’s word needs to be proclaimed and his love and peace stirred up from the places of power to the corners of fear. Right now our world, our community and yes, our church stands in the need of witnesses, the ones who know where true love and mercy and wholeness comes from, and who will proclaim that knowledge with loud voices and even louder lives! Right now, we need joyous praise manifest in open hearts and strong, outstretched hands that take delight in doing God’s work here and now.
I hope and pray, beloved, that we are among the ones who get it; because the world needs that sense of wholeness and spirit now more than ever, and God is calling us forward to set the example.
Thanks be to God who gives us his mercy and healing.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry