CLICK HERE for a worship video for October 9.

Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 9, 2022

Luke 17:11-19

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Where is everybody?” Jesus asked. He had just healed ten lepers. This was a big deal! Leprosy was a horrible disease to have in the ancient world. It made your skin tighten and shrivel up around your extremities, causing fingers and toes and even noses to fall off! Once diagnosed, you were quarantined. There’s a word we know a lot more about, right? But this wasn’t a quarantine where you just stayed home and ordered take out and did things on Zoom. To be diagnosed with leprosy meant you were banished from your town, banished from your home, banished from your family, made to beg and roam about with other lepers. To be diagnosed with leprosy meant you would never again kiss your spouse. It meant you would never again hold your son or daughters’ hand. It meant you would never again be embraced by a friend. For Jews, to be diagnosed with leprosy also meant you could no longer worship. You could no longer make sacrifices of atonement for your sin. This meant that, for all practical purposes, you were cut off from God. Leprosy was a big deal!

Jesus healed ten lepers. He sent them back to the priests for the required verification which would enable them to return to their community, their homes, their families. Once cleared, they could return to worship. Jesus gave these ten lepers their lives back – and yet, only one turned back to give praise to God. Only one turned back to say thank you.

This one who turned back was a Samaritan. Samaritans were those former Jews from the northern kingdom who had intermarried with the Assyrians and adopted many of their customs, including aspects of their religion. Jews and Samaritans usually didn’t intermingle. Samaritans were despised as traitors and heretics by the Jews of the southern kingdom and deemed unclean. But this particular Samaritan seems to have joined up with these nine Jews. Once you have leprosy, who cares, right? Everybody’s unclean at that point! What is so unexpected here is that while the “true Jews” ran off to go to the priest, the traitor and heretic Samaritan fell at Jesus’ feet and worshipped him as God.

“Where is everybody?” Jesus asked. “Were not ten made clean? Where are the other nine? Was none of them found to return to give praise to God except this foreigner?” And then, turning to the Samaritan, Jesus said, “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.” This Samaritan had a faith in Jesus that went beyond his healing powers. He assumed a posture of worship before Jesus, worshipping him as God. And this faith, expressed as it was in gratitude and praise and worship, made him well. He was not only healed of his disease, but he also now knew the deeper wellness of being in right relationship with the living God.

“Where is everybody?” Jesus asked. It is a question we could ask too. We have been through our own time of contagiousness and quarantines. And while COVID is not gone, the President himself has said the pandemic is over. Even here in hypervigilant Washington state, the state of emergency is expiring at last. Many of us have people dear to us who have been very sick with COVID and I don’t mean to make light of it, but restrictions have been lifted for months now and life is returning to normal.

But across the church, many are asking, “Where is everybody?” Many church leaders once imagined a triumphant return to our sanctuaries, with a grateful population filling the pews to give praise God. Instead, most congregations across the country are reporting that many people just aren’t coming back. The average seems to be that about one-third of worshippers have not returned to worship. That’s better than the one out of ten lepers, to be sure, but it is still a disappointment, and so many Christians are asking, “Where is everybody?” I ran into some former OHLC members at WSU last weekend who are experiencing the same thing at their new congregation, and they wondered out loud, “After all we’ve been through and with all that is going on in the world right now, why aren’t more people in church? You’d think people would be turning to God in droves!”

But the question isn’t just “Where is everybody?” It is also, “Where is the gratitude?”

When we were still in the thick of the pandemic and mostly quarantined I wrote a newsletter article entitled, “When This is Over.” In it, I imagined all the things we would do when the pandemic was over. We would sing all the hymns. We would have potlucks every month. We would give each other big, sloppy kisses during the passing of the peace. (OK, I admit I got a little carried away.) I also wrote that we would never take any of this for granted again. I shared the article on social media too and had an incredible response to it. Everyone was giddy at the idea of getting our lives back.

But the reality has been different. Frankly, many of the people who told me my article brought them to tears haven’t been in worship all that often. Not only are we not having monthly potlucks, but we’ve struggled to even get the basics of coffee hours and the Lord’s Supper back on the table. And, I’m afraid we have started to take things for granted again.

In fact, I’ll be the first one to admit it. I remember how on the first Sunday of in-person worship after many weeks without it being overwhelmed with joy at the sound of Christians saying the Lord’s Prayer together. I recall saying I would never take that beautiful sound for granted again. But I have to confess that while every word of the liturgy is holy and personally precious to me, I recently realized that saying the Lord’s Prayer together has gone back to sounding kind of normal again. It doesn’t get me choked up anymore, and I get choked up easily!

Like the nine lepers, we have got our lives back for the most part, but where is the gratitude? How quickly it fades.

We all have something in common with the nine lepers. Part of what God is doing with his living Word this morning is holding a mirror up to our ever-waning gratitude, poking at us so that we would repent of it.

But we also have something in common with the Samaritan. We are here today to worship Jesus, are we not? Like the Samaritan, we have histories that put us at odds with the true and holy God. Like the Samaritan, we have festering wounds – maybe not on our skin, but in our hearts and our souls that we long to have healed. Like the Samaritan, our idolatrous and heretical hearts render us unclean before God. Like the Samaritan, we often feel alienated and anxious and alone as we make our way through life.

But like the Samaritan, we see in Jesus someone who is more than a supernatural dermatologist. Like the Samaritan, we see in Jesus that God himself has come to us. We see in Jesus God’s compassion and mercy. We see in Jesus the power of God to heal us – sometimes in our bodies, but always in our hearts and our souls. We see that in Jesus, God has come close to us.

My wife and I were watching the season premiere of our favorite show, “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” There was a video of an ice cream truck coming down the road with its old-timey music blaring. A little girl ran out to her yard and, keeping her distance, yelled to the driver, “We can’t get any ‘cause we all gots COVID!”

She was keeping her distance, just as the lepers kept their distance from Jesus. Except for the Samarian. When he saw that he was healed, he turned back. He drew close to Jesus. He fell at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And Jesus didn’t flinch. He didn’t back away. He didn’t put on an N95. Jesus asked where the other nine were, and then he praised the one who had praised him, telling the Samaritan that his faith had made him well.

In spite of our spiritual disease of sin, there is no distance now between us and God. Christ Jesus has come to heal us and make us whole. He has come to willingly catch what we have, taking our sin upon himself, in order to save us. There is nothing so embarrassing or shameful that you should be reluctant to bring to him. There is nothing you need to hide from him, as if you could. He is more than a supernatural dermatologist. He has come to be your savior. He has come to bring you mercy. He has come to heal your deepest wounds. He has come to show you God’s gracious and compassionate heart. He has come to restore you, to give you your life back, better than it was before. He has come to forgive your waning gratitude and reset your heart to profound joy and praise.

We can continue to pray that more people come back to church. We should certainly be about the work of inviting and evangelizing. But let’s not get too caught up or weighed down with asking where everybody is. (I’m speaking to myself here too.)

What is important is that Jesus is here. Through the church’s liturgy, we join the lepers in crying out the Kyrie: “Lord, have mercy.” And he does have mercy, again and again and again. He forgives us. He speaks his word to us, a word that renews and restores us. He heals us in the deepest way possible. He gives us so much to be grateful for.

It is faith in him that makes us truly well.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church