Sermon Proper 23C 2019 Aimee Hill
Gospel of Luke 17:11-19
11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
I remember the first time I walked into an Episcopal Church. It was St. James Episcopal in Pasadena, California. My friend warned me prior to walking in that there would be a lot of standing and kneeling and I might be confused at first, but to hang in there, because it’s worth it. And you know something? He was right.
I was confused. I stood a few seconds later than everyone else and accidentally dropped the kneeler down a little too hard so it made that loud “Thud.” I didn’t know the hymns and wasn’t sure when to sing and when to talk. I have never passed the peace before and wasn’t quite sure what that even meant. I was out of place.
But he was also right when he said it would be worth it. One thing I love about church is that it brings people together who otherwise might never speak to each other. And the liturgy, while it can be confusing at first, gives us a shared language. Enables those of us from all different backgrounds and perspectives to come together and connect with God as a community.
There are certain things in life that bring together people who might otherwise never meet. Church is one of those places. Sports seem to do that as well. All a person has to do is say “OH” and you’ll either hear an enthusiastic “IO” or a loud groan from a Michigan fan.
If shared experiences bring people together, shared tragedy seems to do so, on an even deeper level. This past spring, after the tornado hit my husband Aaron volunteered to help with the cleanup. He came home after a long day of volunteer work physically tired but emotionally energized. He told me how he volunteered with a large group of people of all different faiths and political backgrounds. And in the midst of this tragedy, people who might be more likely to yell at each other on Facebook than grab a cup of coffee worked together towards bringing wholeness back to the neighborhood.
It’s an odd thing that occurs during tragedy. The lines that we draw between us get blurred. And for a brief time, we are able to see our shared humanity in those who we usually consider too different from us to have any sort of relationship.
In our story today we have an unlikely combination of people, drawn together by their shared suffering. We learn that one of the lepers was a Samaritan. As many of you know, the Samaritans and Jews did not like each other. In fact, their disdain verged on hatred and at times resulted in violence.
There are historical, religious, and political reasons why, but for time’s sake, an overly simplistic explanation is that many Jews did not consider the Samaritans a true part of the chosen people, but rather those who had strayed from God’s commands.
And yet here, a Samaritan and Jews live together. Yes, the Samaritan was an outcast, but leprosy made them all outcasts. While the term “leprosy” in Scripture could describe a number of skin diseases, at that time, the result was the same- anyone with this sort of disease was ostracized from their community and barring a miracle, unable to ever step foot in the temple or embrace their friends or family again.
As if to pour salt in the literal wound, they had to yell “unclean” to keep people away who might unknowingly walk near them.
Beyond the physical pain, the predominant belief at the time was that if you were sick or involved in some sort of tragedy, you must have upset the gods, or in the case of the Jewish nation, the God. So not only did you experience physical pain but emotional and mental torment as well, always wondering what you or your family did that was so wrong to cause God to hurt you.
And this is where today’s Gospel story begins. We read that Jesus “continued on towards Jerusalem,” when he came across this group of people with leprosy. Following the Jewish Law at the time, they kept their distance from Jesus as even as they shouted out, pleading for mercy.
Now, in many other healing stories, Jesus often responds with a question or compassionate phrase. Here, Jesus simply tells them to go to the priest. Jewish law stated that if a person with leprosy somehow managed to get rid of it, they should show themselves to the priest who could officially declare them “clean.” In telling them to go to the priest, Jesus was letting them know that he was willing to heal them.
And that’s exactly what happened. As they began their journey to the priest, they all experienced healing.
And 9 of them did as they were told. They followed not only Jesus’ instructions, but the commands found in their Scripture, and headed toward the priest. This is what was expected. This is what God required, and I imagine after wondering for so long what they did to displease God and get sick in the first place, they were inclined to follow the Law to a T.
But one man, the Samaritan, when he realized what had happened, stopped journeying to the temple, disobeyed both Jesus’ instructions and the Law, and instead turned back to Jesus, the one who had healed him.
Somehow, he was able to see something in Jesus that the other 9 missed. And as he comes back, Jesus says to him, “Your faith has made you well.”
At the surface, this seems like an odd thing to say. Weren’t the other nine healed as well?
Interestingly, this phrase, “your faith has made you well,” is literally, “your faith has saved you.” And it occurs three other times in the book of Luke. To understand what Jesus is saying here, we need to look at those other instances.
First, in Luke 7:50 a Pharisee, one who knew and taught the Scriptures, invites Jesus to eat with him. In the middle of supper, a woman interrupts the dinner. All we know about her is that she is described as a sinner. She washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and hair and anoints his feet with the perfume. The Pharisee is appalled and yet Jesus says to her, “your faith has saved you.”
Luke 8 tells the story of the woman who bled for 12 years and in the midst of a crowd, she touches the hem of Jesus’ garment, something she should not have done, and Jesus tells her, “your faith has saved you.”
In chapter 18 a blind beggar hears that Jesus is nearby. Everyone tells him to be quiet yet in their discouragement, he yells all the louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus uses this same phrase, “your faith has saved you.”
All of these people, the woman with the perfume, the one who bled, blind beggar and in our story today, the Samaritan – they were all in some way the outsiders, they were the ones who according to society should have kept their heads down and been thankful for whatever they got. But they saw Jesus in a way the insiders just couldn’t, and Jesus proclaims over each of them, “Your faith has saved you.”
In the book of Luke, Jesus is consistently encouraging the outsider. Perhaps it’s because, in Jesus, God too became an outsider. The beginning of today’s story reminds us Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. The truth is, he’s been on his way to Jerusalem for a while. We are in chapter 17 and he has been on his way to Jerusalem since chapter 9.
He already welcomed too many outsiders and already angered the religious rulers of the day to an irreversible extent. And in the events that happen in Jerusalem, Jesus makes himself an outsider, to let all outsiders know that they are welcome. And as followers of Jesus, we are to do the same.
I found the Episcopal Church as an adult and I’m so glad I did. I have fallen in love with the liturgy. I treasure that every movement in the service has a purpose. Every word has been carefully considered. And that we are praying the same prayers as thousands of people across the country and even the world.
But these precious prayers…this gorgeous liturgy…it’s only soul-filling as long as it draws us to God. If we ever get so comfortable with our liturgy that we forget its intent is to open us up to more fully love God and others, we become the 9 who, yes, are still blessed by God and healed from their leprosy but they missed the opportunity for holistic healing. Unlike the Samaritan, they weren’t made well.
I think it’s important to note that in this story God isn’t transactional. The predominant view of the day may have been that sickness came as punishment from the gods or God, but we see here that’s not the case. Jesus did not curse the 9 or give them their leprosy back because they neglected to turn back and thank him. They were still healed. They just missed a deeper holistic healing that comes when people truly behold Christ.
After the wake of the tornado, my husband volunteered with a group of people who otherwise probably would not have spoken with each other.
What would it look like if we accepted people before a tragedy? What if we were willing to blur the lines that kept us apart without something like leprosy or a tornado forcing us to do so?
Seeing Jesus as the outsider who accepted outsiders guides us to pause and ask who are the outsiders we are neglecting to care for? And how might they understand who Jesus is in ways that we don’t? May we recognize that we can find Jesus in these walls and also in the most unexpected places. May we have the courage to see Jesus in those people and places that we don’t find as comfortable or familiar. May we be willing to blur the lines between those we consider to be “us” and those we consider to be “them.” And may we not stop at healing when God wants to make us well. Amen.