Can you think of a time when you were unexpectedly, shockingly blessed? Perhaps it was a time when you were really struggling and help came from and unexpected quarter. Perhaps you were mired in survival mode due to a crisis at work, at home, with your health or the health of someone close to you. Perhaps it was the time you didn’t know how you would make ends meet and somehow, somewhere, help arrived without you even asking. Perhaps the blessing came at a time when you had really and truly screwed up and forgiveness or understanding was more than you hoped for or deserved. Yet come it did, and it was even more than you could comprehend. Perhaps compassion came from a surprising source. Maybe there has been a time in your life when you have felt the dead weight of your brokenness and then someone entered your life and helped you return to life.
What does it feel like to experience unexpected blessing? And how do we respond?
In our gospel reading for today, we read this familiar story about the healing of the ten lepers. It’s a story about response to blessing, a story about thankfulness and healing, right? Just a few moments ago we read Jesus’ words to the Samaritan, the only former leper to return after being cured, “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?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
So what really happened here? What did happen to the other nine who were cured? Why didn’t they return, and why did the Samaritan?
So, lepers were both religiously and socially unclean. They had to announce their presence if anyone approached them in fact, by calling out, “Unclean! Unclean!” That was the law. It was the signal to the approaching person or group to take a detour, retreat, or otherwise avoid any risk of coming into contact with the lepers. If the approaching person was of a mind to do so, they might throw a few scraps of food to the lepers, or even a few coins. So these people were outcast, unclean, unable to care for themselves, and solely dependent on the charity of others. Charity that was hard to come by.
As Jesus approaches, they call out to him. They seem to know something about him, in fact, they call his name. But note that they don’t ask for healing. They ask for mercy. They also call him master, but that may simply be their way of cow-towing to someone who might be moved to throw a little something to them. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And with authority in his voice, Jesus responds, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” He must have said this with some authority, because for some reason, they follow his instructions. And “on their way,” we read, “they were made clean,” and we can just imagine the spots and lesions on their skin drying up and falling away. Suddenly, the disease that marks them as outcasts, as unacceptable, as less than human, disappears and immediately they are cured, and they. are. clean.
Now, according to the law, a leper or anyone else who was considered religiously unclean had to present themselves before the priests to be certified as being truly cured, before they could enter back into society or re-enter Jewish religious community life. So perhaps these lepers had some sense that they would be cured when Jesus spoke these words to them. Perhaps that is why they obeyed him, but none of the other nine seemed to make the connection between what had happened and Jesus himself, for none of them returned. Now, maybe they thanked God when they realized the leprosy had left them, as they danced on their way to see the priest; or perhaps they asked the priest to thank God on their behalf, but we never hear any more about them. Instead what we have is this detail about the one who did return.
This leper, a Samaritan, turned back when he saw that he was cured. He praised God with a loud voice as he prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet, showing him supreme honor and praise and devotion, and thanked him. This man made the connection between what Jesus did and his own healing. He made the connection between his healing and God’s blessing. He recognized Jesus as God’s power to heal and to restore. And he responded to this life-altering gift by giving thanks, by praising God, and by doing it at Jesus’ feet. This Samaritan, this foreigner, showed Jesus his profound gratitude and devotion. This man alone, the one who had been farthest out in the margins, being both Samaritan and leper, doubly cursed, doubly disadvantaged, doubly outcast, recognized his healing as coming from God through Jesus.
And as he was cured his eyes were opened, showing forth the reality of who Jesus was and what Jesus did. And his overwhelming response was to praise God at Jesus’ feet. And it was at that moment, that his faith made him whole. It is in that moment, that he believes. It is his belief in Jesus Christ as the power of God to heal and to transform his life that opens the door to true and everlasting healing.
It is then that Jesus responds to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” There is no talk about faith until after the man returns, after he prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet, after he give God thanks and praise for this healing. Could it be that what Jesus is saying here, a point we often miss in this “your faith has saved you” passage, is that the true demonstration of faith was not in calling out to Jesus for mercy, but in the bone-deep response of thanksgiving?
Could it be that that is where we demonstrate our faith as well? That it is in our recognition that all that we have and all that we are, that every blessing we receive in every form, even the ones that may not, at first look like blessings, comes from God through the power of Jesus? Could it be that it is then when we turn our thanks and praise to God in genuine gratitude for all that God has done for us, that our faith is lived out and we are made whole? Praising God and thanking Jesus go together.
One of my favorite commentators, Pr. Brian Stoffregen wrote: “In addition to defining faith as the response of thanksgiving, faith is also the ability to see what can't be seen -- to believe the unbelievable. The place to praise God is at the feet of Jesus of Nazareth. The place to see the power of God is at the foot of the cross with Jesus' blood dripping down.”
Just as Jesus transformed the life of the Samaritan, he transforms our lives as well. Our whole lives are transformed, first by the eradication our dis-ease, but then even more importantly, by of the enlightenment that we receive when we come to recognize the source of our blessing, when through our gratitude, we see Jesus for who he truly is. Learning to see is the key.
My friends, Christians have a unique kind of vision. We see the pattern of God’s activity throughout the scriptures – and we give thanks and praise. We see that throughout the history of humankind, it is God who always acts first, who moves toward us, who brings us the healing we so desperately need. We see God’s hand in everything – culminating in the incarnation of Jesus Christ - and we know that our proper response is always and in every way to give praise and thanksgiving.
And yet, sometimes, our blinders get in the way. Sometimes, our addiction, or our broken relationships, or our pain, or our worries and fears about things we have no control over, or our loneliness, or our poverty of spirit, or our sense of utter despair and isolation, and just plain sin, get in the way of seeing ourselves as blessed at all. It is in those moments, when we cry out “Lord, have mercy on us,” and know God’s blessing that we are moved to respond with our own praise and thanksgiving – or are we?
As Lutherans, our worship models for us the appropriate pattern of response – Just look at what we’ve done so far this morning. After gathering together, we acknowledged our helplessness in the face of our brokenness. We confessed that we do not always respond as we should to God’s love, nor act in loving ways ourselves, and we received forgiveness for our sins. Then in the Kyrie, we asked for Christ’s mercy. Like the lepers, we called out, Lord Jesus, have mercy on us! Then, responding to the mercy that we know to already be ours, the very next thing we did was to sing a hymn of praise. Here, at the beginning of our worship we acknowledge that God indeed richly blesses us, forgives us, and that our natural and heartfelt response is to praise and thank God, through Jesus. This and every expression of gratitude draws us out of ourselves, acknowledges that there is something larger than we could ever imagine or expect that joins us in every circumstance. And Jesus uses this faith to free us from our fear, our pain, and our neediness, and leads us to embrace life, transformed in God’s grace. We do not do this alone.
We are always and in every way joined in our lives by God’s love through Jesus Christ, the incarnate one, the one who lived so that he might join our living, the one who suffered so that he might join us in our suffering, the one who died in order to join us even in our dying and then would take the sting of death away by his glorious resurrection.
May our gratitude free us from fear, release us from anxiety, and give us the courage to boldly and in good faith face every challenge, respond in thanksgiving to every blessing, and return to Jesus, praising God from whom all good things flow. May our faith help us to shed new light on God’s merciful activity in the world. May our prayers of praise and thanksgiving help us to grow in grateful love and wholeness as God blesses us to live lives that demonstrate the new life that comes from graceful living. And the people of God say,
Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Easton, MD 10-13-13