Sermon Seeds: Expressing Gratitude
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 23
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 with Psalm 66:1-12 or
2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c with Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Additional reflection on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 available in Sermon Seeds Year C, from The Pilgrim Press.
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
Borders are places of drama and danger. Wars begin on borders, and armies cross them on their way to victory or defeat; we know this not only from historical memories like World War I and II, but also from recent events like the conflicts in the Middle East (think, for example, of the refugee camps across the border of Syria, in nations that struggle to accommodate a dramatic influx of foreigners running for their lives). On our borders, we feel vulnerable, exposed, so we put up all sorts of barriers: walls, guard towers, surveillance cameras to keep people out who, we are sure, “need” to be kept out. Maybe it’s human nature to draw lines, to separate ourselves from others, and at least some of the time our motives are reasonable – the world, after all, is a dangerous place. But then, it so easily becomes “Us and Them,” and “Them” are perceived as neither desirable nor good. In our story from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is somewhere “between Samaria and Galilee.” The only place scarier than a border is an in-between place, where boundaries and borders aren’t clear.
The ten lepers in this story call out to Jesus across a line, the distance prescribed by the Law because of their ritual impurity. They know their place, and their people: the other outcasts, united by their suffering and their exclusion from the wider community. Religion and government didn’t help unlucky folks with skin diseases, who had to depend on the kindness of people passing by, at a safe distance, of course. In those days, lepers had to live as beggars. (One of the most heart-breakingly memorable scenes from the classic movie, Ben-Hur, is set in the terrible place where the lepers had to live, away from their families and the rest of society.)
As Jesus crosses that border between Galilee and Samaria, in that in-between place, maybe he and his disciples are remembering the Samaritan town a little while back that refused to welcome him (a “border” closed to him), and maybe they wonder if this village will reject him, too, on his way to Jerusalem and his death. As he enters the town, he encounters this little band of ten lepers. They don’t come close, and he doesn’t touch them, as he often does when healing the sick. Just a word, a command sends them on their way to do what lepers are supposed to do when they’re healed – go show themselves to the priest and get him to stamp the certificate that says they’re safe to re-enter society. (They have to make sure their paperwork is in order, and they’re properly documented.) But while they’re still on the road, they look at one another, and each one at himself, and they see that they’re healed. Only one of them, a despised Samaritan, comes back to say thank you.
That’s what is so interesting about this story. We hear that one former leper turns back, praising God and thanking Jesus. He’s so full of joy and gratitude that he throws himself on the ground at Jesus’ feet, and he’s talking too loud, and really making a spectacle of himself. We can only imagine the disciples standing around, feeling uncomfortable at the display. I mean, it’s okay to feel grateful and all, but he doesn’t need to get carried away, right?
Meanwhile, back on the road to the Temple, the nine lepers are obediently doing what Jesus told them to do and what they know the Law requires of them. They’re being good, observant, faithful Jews. Jesus wonders where they are, but we know, and we assume he knows, that they’re at the Temple, getting their certificates so they can go back to their lives, and the sooner the better. This outsider, this Samaritan, this “them,” may be so seized by gratitude and joy that he turns back to Jesus, but on the other hand, the Temple isn’t a place he’d be welcome even if he is cured of his leprosy. There’s no cure for being a Samaritan, a big-time outsider. There’s no certification by the priest that can make him acceptable, and there’s no ex-Samaritan program he can enter to change that, that can “rehabilitate” his otherness. Of all of them, he has plenty of time to say thank you to Jesus.
Of course, as Charles B. Cousar reminds us, this isn’t really a story about the importance of thank-you notes; rather, it’s a lesson in who’s really an insider, and who’s out (Texts for Preaching Year C). When Luke wrote his Gospel, he shaped the stories about Jesus that he had heard into a narrative that helped an early Christian community to understand the gospel in their own situation, to hear God speaking good news to them where they were, to shine a light on the problems their community was facing (this applies to us today as well). One of the things they wrestled with in that day was how to relate to the Jewish roots of their faith, and what they should do about all these Gentiles coming into their churches; the challenges of church growth can be interesting in every age. Many of the gospel stories are told in this light, and they reflect the early Christian community, working out the problem of who they were, and why all of the Jewish people didn’t follow Jesus, as they had. They would have heard this story in that light, and presumably they would have thought, “Wow, the outsider was the one who recognized Jesus for who he was. Not the nine from his own people.”
Today, our churches are not struggling with the Jewish-Gentile question, although we do carry an awful history of two thousand years of persecuting the Jews over misinterpretations of the gospel. Still, we listen to this story for how God is still speaking to us, here and now, about the things that we face and the struggles and questions we have in our journey of faith. One way to approach this text is to find our place in the story. Maybe we’re the disciples, watching all this and wanting to get back on the road and not wanting this Samaritan to hold things up. Maybe we’re in the crowd watching it all happen and wondering, “Who is this fellow, anyway, who can cure lepers with a word?” Maybe we’re one of the nine lepers, and hey, we’re trying to be good lepers and good religious folks who follow the rules and the practices of our church and obey the religious authorities and Laws…and we feel so happy to be healed that we just can’t wait to get to the Temple to be examined by the priest and then hurry back to our families and friends and have a big party and get on with our lives. Even if that means that we, uh, forget to thank the one who made it all happen.
And maybe, just maybe, at least once or twice in our lives, we know what it feels like to be the tenth leper. The one who, in a sense, has nothing to lose in turning away from the path to the Temple – organized religion has nothing to offer him, really – nothing to lose in going back to the man who made it possible for him to just be a human being again. A healthy and whole human being. He may be an outsider here; a “them” to the crowd around Jesus, but a word from Jesus, spoken in compassionate concern, gives him salvation, that is, healing, because it tears down the wall that has kept him from being a member of any community except that of the lepers, on the edge of society. We can assume he returns to his own people, once he finishes the little display there at the feet of Jesus. We can assume his life will never be the same.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her beautiful sermon on this text, agrees that the nine were fulfilling expectations and doing their duty by obeying the Law. She writes that “Ten behaved like good lepers, good Jews; only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love.” She thinks then about how hard she tries to fulfill expectations and obey rules and be a good church-going person, like so many of us. “I know how to be obedient,” she writes, “but I do not know how to be in love” (The Preaching Life).
We’re commanded to “love God,” and our efforts to do so are usually expressed in faithful actions and regular prayer. Not that that’s a bad thing…but how often does anyone in our churches really act as if we’re in love? Our decorum matches our obedience, quiet, subdued, more internal than external. It seems, for example, that in the United Church of Christ, most folks (but not all) are rather contained during worship. We get a little nervous when people talk too energetically or passionately about their faith, or pray with “too much” enthusiasm. Would it be possible to explore that boundary, between obedience and “in love,” and find a way to have (to do, to be) both?
When did our faith become something so subdued and contained? Why did we have to learn to be so quiet in church, so still, so reserved? How did we earn that awful name, “The Frozen Chosen”? Most folks I know are uncomfortable when someone just talks about their faith outside church, or even in church if they show their feelings or, God forbid, if they get carried away, like that tenth leper. I confess that I sometimes get uncomfortable, too. Whenever I’m out in public or in a social situation and someone tells me they’re a Christian, my first response is to tense up, because the people I meet who talk about being Christians outside church are most often fundamentalists and evangelicals, and I have all sorts of preconceptions about how “they” are. They’re not like me. And to be honest, I figure that if they knew who I am, they wouldn’t be too happy about it, and they sure wouldn’t think I was a Christian like they are. The lines are certainly drawn today just as they were then. They’re just drawn in different places.
We might imagine the conversation among this group of ten lepers as they made the decision to ask Jesus for mercy. Did they all agree that it was a good idea, or did some cynically claim that it wouldn’t work? And we can wonder what they did afterward; did they have reunions and remember when they were together, back on the other side of the line? Had they grown to depend on one another during the time they were outcasts, to identify with themselves solely by a skin condition rather than as father, brother, son, or friend? Why was the Samaritan allowed to be part of their group, when Samaritans themselves were outcast by the Jewish community? Once they were healed, would the nine have accepted the tenth back again as an equal? And what was the conversation like when they looked at one another and saw that they had been healed? Would they have said, “It must have been that man, Jesus?” We can only imagine, and pray for open eyes and open hearts so that we, too, might know healing, and rejoice and give thanks when we do.
Once again, the Gospel provides the most unlikely teacher for us. Sometimes it takes someone else, unexpected, to open our eyes to blessings and wonders in our lives. A person on the margins, on the outside, may have a better vantage point to look inside and see the heart of the matter. When has someone else, unexpectedly, helped you to see something important?
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Make a joyful noise to God,
all the earth;
sing the glory of God’s name;
give to God glorious praise.
Say to God,
“How awesome are your deeds!
Because of your power,
your enemies cringe before you.
“All the earth worships you;
they sing praises to you,
sing praises to your name.”
Come and see what God has done:
God is awesome in deeds among mortals.
God turned the sea into dry land;
they passed through the river on foot.
There we rejoiced in God,
who rules by God’s might forever,
whose eyes keep watch on the nations—
let the rebellious not exalt themselves.
Bless our God, O peoples,
let the sound of God’s praise be heard,
who has kept us among the living,
and has not let our feet slip.
For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net;
you laid burdens on our backs;
you let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.”
Praise God! I will give thanks to God
with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright,
in the congregation.
Great are the works of God,
studied by all who delight in them.
Full of honor and majesty is God’s work,
and God’s righteousness endures forever.
God has gained renown
by God’s wonderful deeds;
God is gracious and merciful.
God provides food
for those who fear God;
God is ever mindful
of God’s covenant.
God has shown God’s people
the power of God’s works,
in giving them the heritage of the nations.
The works of God’s hands are faithful and just;
all God’s precepts are trustworthy.
They are established forever and ever,
to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
God sent redemption to God’s people;
God has commanded God’s covenant forever.
Holy and awesome is God’s name.
The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding.
God’s praise endures forever.
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “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.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading (Series 1) through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings (Series 2). It is suggested that a congregation choose one option and follow it.