One of our priests in this Diocese, the Rev. Stephen Moore, wrote on Facebook recently while working on a sermon for an upcoming Sunday worship service: “I’m writing a sermon that is behaving like a baby that doesn't want to be born.” This brought several responses from his friends, such as:
“I hate it when that happens.”
“Then turn it so it is upside down - head first is the best way to go at birth.”
“Will it be "delivered" by C-Section?”
“Babies pick their own birthdays...”
“Perhaps that's a clue. How about a sermon about a baby that doesn't want to be born? All of us must sometimes be brought, kicking and screaming, from warm comfort to cold, hard reality.”
“Now that sounds painful... If that's the case I pray for an epidural and a sermon with strong lung capacity”
“If it's on that Gospel from Luke, yes, I understand. It's a doozy.”
“Boys don’t get epidurals.”
“Have you considered inducing labor?”
I guarantee this--many of the sermons we work on week by week at times seem to go through this experience. By Sunday, though, the sermons are born and we deliver them!
In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, we got to hear yet another story from Jesus. That is what Luke does—tells us about Jesus’ preaching and teaching through parables and stories!
The setting was this--Jesus was on his way toward Jerusalem, after completing a lot of ministry work around Nazareth and Galilee. Jesus was in a region between Galilee and Samaria, which means he was traveling a route that was not the normal direct one going south to get to Jerusalem from Galilee. The trip to Jerusalem today using the route Jesus likely took is about 120 miles in length, winding through desert and mountainous areas with few trees and very rough conditions. He did not take this route for his own sake, but in order to preach as much as possible and be of service to many people. He journeyed in these lands to appear publicly, that people might come to him from all sides to hear him and obtain his help and message.
As he entered a village, a group of ten lepers approached him but stayed at a distance. Apparently having heard about Jesus’ preaching and especially his healings, they called out, asking Jesus to, “Have mercy on them!” His response, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” So, in faith and obedience, they headed off to find the priest. As they proceeded, they then figured out that they were already healed (or made clean!). One of them, a Samaritan, turned back and praised God in a loud voice, prostrating himself, and thanked Jesus. Jesus asked him where the others were, and weren’t they all healed? Then Jesus told the Samaritan, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well!”
In that time, lepers were excluded from society, as their condition was very contagious and a horrible disease; today it has almost been eradiated from society. Their culture, in combination with their religion, said that lepers were ritually unclean and possessed by evil spirits, probably even inflicted for the punishment of some particular sin, and, more than other diseases, this disease was a mark of God's displeasure. The lepers tended to live together in groups, apart from everyone else. As required by Moses’ law, in order for any of them to be able to get back into “normal” society, they would need to somehow be healed and then go to a priest and obtain a certificate of official pronouncement of cleanliness.
It’s interesting that Jesus told this story using a Samaritan as the one who showed gratitude for being healed. During an ancient war for this area, most of the Israelis living up north inSamaria from Jerusalem were killed or taken into exile. However, a few of them, who were so unimportant that nobody wanted them, were left in Samaria. 2 Kings 17 tells us that the conquering king forced people from five foreign cities/nations to settle in Samaria. These foreigners inter-married with the Israelis and they brought in the worship of their own gods. By Jesus' time, Samaritans were considered half-breeds by the "true" Israelis from the south, later called the “Jews”. They had perverted the race and the religion. They looked toMt.Gerizim as their place to worship God, not Jerusalem. And, they interpreted the Torah differently than the Jews. The animosity between the Jews and Samaritans was so great that some Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid walking on Samaritan territory. Likely, though, both Jews and Samaritans lived in this area by this time, and each worshipped as they chose.
There is another interesting point about Jesus picking this story. Back in Luke 4, which tells us about Jesus preaching in his hometown of Nazareth in his early days of ministry (on the Sabbath no less), he was asked to heal some of his own people like they had heard he had done at Capernaum. He reminded the synagogue worshippers there of the story from II Kings about Naaman, the Syrian, who was the only one healed of leprosy by God during Elisha the prophet’s time, even though there were many Israelis with leprosy. Jesus ticked off the people of Nazareth by basically saying they do not even recognize who he is (other than as one of their own people), and they did not deserve to be healed. Now here he was again telling a story where several are healed, but the only truly grateful one was a foreigner.
Some commentaries say that this story of Jesus healing a Samaritan tells us that outsiders, even the lowliest of people, can receive the gift of salvation. They say that we should believe that those we think have no chance for salvation, perhaps even ourselves, can be part of this gift. I think this too simple a message; there is more to this story of faith. I think the more useful message is not about who, but how to receive and respond to the grace of God and the message of salvation through Jesus.
To be fair, the other nine healed lepers (likely Jews, either by birth or in practice) probably went on to the temple and saw the priest because that was what their law said to do, to give thanks to God there according to their religion, and collect their cleanliness certificates. For the Samaritan, he did not have that option; as he would have been turned away and even despised as a non-Jew, so he did the next, and even better thing--he returned to the one who had healed him to give thanks, recognized who Jesus really represented.
When Luke wrote this Gospel (about 60 years after Jesus lived it!), he wrote to a Gentile audience. The Gentiles would have been the outsiders in their culture at that time; the Jews were the main people living there, and their religion was the prominent one, even under Roman rule. The Gentiles had no Christian church building or priests to present themselves to, or any organized religion to practice --but they had recognized Jesus as the Son of God. Their praise and thanksgiving to God was directed through the person of Jesus--not simply by fulfillment of certain religious rites. By using the Samaritan, the despised, the outsider, as the example of the one who showed gratitude for his healing to Jesus, Luke helped the Gentiles to understand how they as outsiders had a valid way for their faith and response to Jesus to be shown.
I really like this story--for this reason! It gives us an example of what real faith and response to the love of God is all about. The other nine healed lepers acted according to what their religious laws said to do, but the Samaritan healed leper acted without any laws or religion to follow; he acted “in his heart, by faith, with thanksgiving”.
I feel that is similar to how we in our church community see our individual and common faith. We probably each have not had a specific disease we have asked to be healed of, and because we were healed, we then decided to be here in this St. Mark’s community (although that would be a great motivation to do so). We are not here on Sunday mornings for worship, prayer and Christian fellowship because it is our duty as Christians to do so. We do not preside, preach, play the organ, read the lectionary, prepare the altar, or minister and pray for each other in our worship services because we have church law telling us to do this. We do not attend Bible study, visit the sick, bring a message of hope to women in jail, teach children, maintain the property, keep the finances, prepare newsletters or keep up the website, lead the church, invite others to join us, or do things in our community to help those less fortunate because it is our Christian duty. We do not even give a set amount of money or time to this church (a 10% tithe, or some other specific amount) because we’re given a bill for it.
We do all of these things because somewhere along the way, we recognized what God’s grace and love has done for us, and we respond in praise and worship to God, in love to each other, and in faith look to the eternal salvation we are heirs to receive one day. Let us continue to focus on all that we receive from God, and do those things that model what Jesus would do to make God’s kingdom on earth a better place for everyone. AMEN.