Sermon for the Eighteen Sunday after Pentecost – October 13, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
A few years ago, Christian author Anne Lamott published a book called, “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” I think the title alone is indeed a nice summary of Christian prayer. We do indeed turn to God for help. We give God our thanks. As we ponder the mysteries and majesty of God, sometimes all we can say is, “wow!”
I also think these three words provide a nice summary of our gospel reading for today.
Help! That’s what the lepers needed! Leprosy was a devastating diagnosis in the ancient world. Not only were the physical effects of weakened and withering appendages a horrible thing to go through, but people experienced all of this utterly cut off from others. There are sections of the book of Leviticus which serve as strict public health regulations for people who contracted leprosy: they were to leave their spouses, their families, their town, their community, and live all by themselves. They were strictly forbidden from coming closer than 50 feet from another human being. The situation was so dire, with such little hope for restoration to the community, that some families would actually hold funerals for their loved ones with leprosy even while they were still alive! People with leprosy were perpetually, and in most cases permanently, unclean. They were thus banned from worship with the community, which meant they were effectively cut off from God.
Jesus was passing through the region between Samaria and Galilee. It was literally neither here nor there. It was one of those in-between places where lepers were made to live as they were pushed to the margins of society. Keeping the distance required by the law they called out to Jesus from afar, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” In other words, “Help!”
When Jesus saw them, he told them to go and show themselves to the priests. They knew what this meant! In those rare cases when people did recover from leprosy (or were perhaps misdiagnosed in the first place and found their skin had cleared up) there was a process by which they could be restored to the community. And the first stop in this process was to go to the priests. The lepers knew this! And so off they went – and as they went, they were made clean. They were physically healed. One of the ten turned back to Jesus. He laid down at Jesus’ feet and said, “Thank you.”
Next comes the “wow.” The “wow” comes when we pay close attention to a couple of very important details. First of all, the one leper who turned to Jesus and gave thanks was a Samaritan. Samaritans were seen by Jewish people as the worst kind of traitors. They had intermarried with their enemies, and over time had adopted aspects of their religion. Because of these deep betrayals of the God of their ancestors, they were seen as beyond the scope of God’s care or attention, worthy of nothing but his wrath. But here is one of these outsiders, these foreigners, being healed. And of the ten lepers who were healed, it was the despised Samaritan who turned back to give thanks and praise to God. Wow! Jesus himself notes how unusual this is! Wow!
But there’s another wow! Because you see, Jesus says something very specific to describe what has happened to this Samaritan. St. Luke, as he narrates the story, tells us that all ten were made clean. He tells us that they were physically healed. But when Jesus addresses this Samaritan, he says that because of his faith, something even deeper has happened. The Bible translation we hear this morning simply says, “Your faith has made you well,” but there’s a lot more going on here than the fact that his skin has cleared up! This man has been “made whole,” which is how the King James translates this verse. He has been “healed and saved,” which is how Eugene Peterson translates it in “The Message.” The root word translated here as being “made well” is the root word for salvation! Because of his faith in Jesus Christ this man was not only restored to good health, he was not only restored to human community, this leprous Samaritan was also restored to right relationship with God. He received salvation in the deepest sense of the word! Wow!
Help, thanks, wow. These three words really summarize the story, don’t they? And they don’t just do that. They also summarize our pattern of life as Christians here today.
We start almost every worship service as Christians with the Kyrie. There’s a reason for that. Every time we sing the words kyrie eleison, we are singing the exact same words the lepers cried out when they came into the presence of Jesus. Kyrie eleison is Greek for “Lord, have mercy.” We sing “Lord, have mercy on us,” because we need help! We need help just like the lepers did! There are times in all of our lives when we need help from God. There are times in all of our lives when we know that same sense of isolation, or that same sense of hopelessness, or that same sense of desperation that the lepers experienced. The illness of leprosy might be blessedly rare in our day, but the illness of sin affects us all. And so we know what it is like to feel alienated from others and alienated from God. Many Christian traditions like to begin every service with twenty minutes of praise. I am glad to be in a branch of Christianity that still recognizes that much of the time the first thing we need to say to God is “help!”
And of course, our cries of help always give way to saying thank you, because God is faithful. God is good. Sometimes we say thanks to God for cures. Physical healing sometimes happens – sometimes in ways we can’t explain! But it should also be said that God doesn’t always give us exactly what we want. Sometimes people aren’t cured. Sometimes healing comes in a different way. I think of my friend, Pastor Deb Benson over at Anacortes Lutheran, since her cancer diagnosis. There isn’t much hope for a cure for her at this point. You never know what God has in store, but most of the medical measures being taken at this point don’t suggest a cure is coming for her. Pastor Deb has been very open about her experiences these past few weeks, sharing them regularly on her Caring Bridge website, and what has come through for me in her writings there lately more than anything else is her incredible gratitude. Even in the midst of her sickness, she is exuberantly thankful – thankful for every moment, thankful for the life she has led, thankful for her family, thankful for the support of her congregation and her friends, thankful for the work of the doctors and nurses who are caring for her. Deb is honest about the times she is sad or scared too, but she is also so very thankful to God for the many ways he has been so good to her. Sometimes healing happens even when there is no cure! And so she reminds me of another part of the liturgy, the Preface before communion, when we say: “It is indeed right, our duty, and our joy, that we should at all times and in all places, give thanks and praise to you, almighty and merciful God, through our savior Jesus Christ.”
And then there is the “wow.” You see, Jesus didn’t come into the world just to heal a few people physically and then go back to heaven. He didn’t come to open a traveling dermatology practice, temporarily curing nasty skin diseases so a handful of people could die of old age instead of leprosy.
Jesus came to conquer death completely. He came to conquer sin completely. He came to conquer everything that separates us from God, so that we could live in right relationship with him, now and forever.
The healing of the leprous Samaritan shows us that no one is beyond the care and concern of our gracious heavenly Father. It is a sign of Jesus’ greater purpose to bring life and wholeness and restoration to all people. It is a sign the greater healing he came to bring. It is a sign of the salvation he came to bring us through the forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life.
Jesus has done all of this for you. Your faith in him makes you well.
There is nothing left to say but “wow!”
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church