by Ellen Sims
texts: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Luke 17:11-19
Last Sunday we read that faith as minuscule as a mustard seed can accomplish amazing things. In this brief story, four key movements could represent how Jesus followers move forward in faith toward Jesus and out into the world. But we’ll start by noticing Jesus’s signature movement.
The story begins with a phrase like many used in Luke’s Gospel to transition from one story to the next: “On the way to Jerusalem” as in “On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” Elsewhere Luke prefaces a story with similar transitions like “as he made his way to Jerusalem” (17:11) or “set[ting] his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). Story after story, the narrator reminds us that Jesus’s destination and destiny are in Jerusalem, where he’ll meet his death once he reaches that seat of power.
Jesus voluntarily moves toward risk. He knowingly crosses borders into controversial territory—in the case of today’s story, a disputed area that was neither Samaria nor Galilee. Before we pay attention to the movement of the men who seek healing from Jesus, we recognize that Jesus’s sacred journey continually violates boundaries others have erected, moves into controversial and disputed territory, ignores neat categories for people, and embraces the outcasts. This risky movement Godward ignores borders in order to reach the rejected ones. When Jesus finally arrives in Jerusalem, he will be rejected. But along the way, he will continually move toward others to include and restore them to their communities. As he does with the ten who’ve been labeled lepers.
Let’s now focus on the movements of the lepers.
By recalling today’s Hebrew Bible reading from Jeremiah, the first thing that strikes me in our Gospel lection about the so-called lepers Jesus healed is that they were in a type of exile. Having been forced to leave their community, prevented from having contact with others, they are required to declare their leprous condition to anyone they encountered so others would not be made ritually impure from contact with them. The movement implicit in their condition is their movement away from community into a forced exile. They were a people without a place of refuge and welcome, somewhat like Jeremiah’s people in Babylonian exile. But Jesus, who sought out the outcasts, “made them clean” so they could return home.
The ten men took a first step out of exile when they voluntarily moved toward Jesus. Probably they’d experienced many encounters with others who’d enforced their exile and driven them out of town. Villagers may have thrown stones at them. Some lepers were consigned to live in caves or among graves. It took an act of faith to move toward Jesus. But maybe these poor souls were able to move in faith because “they approached him” (v. 12) as a group. I wonder if, like many of us, they dared to do something as a group they might not have had the courage to do alone. They dared to believe that someone cared and that this traveling healer just might be able to help. So together they “approached him.” No wonder the early, often persecuted church forged strong communities: they came to Jesus TOGETHER. They experienced the divine in community.
Think about a time in your life when you took a risk to move toward God. It might have been the risk you took at one point to visit Open Table . . . or dust off the Bible you stopped reading years ago . . . or ask big questions . . . or see the world in more nuanced and gracious ways. You took some step that was not comfortable but brought you a sense of being in closer contact with Love’s very source.
It’s Gospel stories like this one and my own lived experiences that make me believe that being part of a faith community is the best way to develop spiritually. I admit in many respects it is hard to see God in churches that inevitably are made up of imperfect people (present company and myself INCLUDED). Others tell me they’re just not into church because they experience God better through private spiritual practices.
But that was definitely not the Jesus way. He sent those lepers back to their priests. He called people into community. He traveled with twelve companions. I agree that having private devotions is healthy and necessary. But avoiding the inevitable messiness of a faith community made up of diverse and imperfect people robs us of the messy experiences that are so instructive. We don’t grow without learning to deal with challenges that come with all human relatedness. And we won’t know deep care if we aren’t willing to invest our lives in a committed and caring group. That’s the kind of faith community we aspire to be. Here is a place that will support you in taking a risk to move toward God—but will never coerce you into theological conformity. Here is a community that may challenge you to mature, call you to do a holy and healing thing–and support you as you try. The lepers came to Jesus TOGETHER.
What happened next may have happened to you: the exiled ones approached Jesus, but then stopped (v. 12) to maintain some distance. Let me admit that I always have some concern about folks who come to Open Table and fall in love with us instantly but don’t know much about us. Sometimes they have misread us and leave. Sometimes they stick.
Immediately after the narrator tells us the lepers approached Jesus, the very next words qualify this movement. They drew nearer. But still kept their distance. You know that measure of caution toward connection. Can we trust this new person in our lives? Can we trust this church and what they say? That’s how our spiritual journeys feel: Progress, and then a set back. Start. Then stop. Daring. Then caution. Thankfully, even from a distance, the men with leprosy were able to cry out to Jesus for mercy. We don’t have to attain an advanced spiritual state to experience Love and Mercy. We don’t have to gain theological expertise to mature in our spiritual lives or receive healing in our relationships. From a distance, we can simply trust the mercy of God in order to receive mercy and become merciful. God is that force that draws us forward and brings us closer together in faith.
And then the men asked Jesus for mercy. His response might not have seemed merciful. He sent them back home to their priests—who might have simply condemned them to further exile. But they left. AND ON THE WAY, the lepers were healed. Healing happens “on the way.” Healing happens in the doing, in the living, in the interactions.
So to recap, these outcasts: 1) approached together, 2)stopped, 3) and went back to their communities after Jesus sent them to their priests, who could verify they’d been made clean. And on the way they were healed. They were not healed instantly. Instead, while the lepers traveled, they were healed.
While we are on the road, we are healed. While life is happening, God works in our lives. And sometimes we can’t move forward until we return (perhaps therapeutically) to a previous place where we’ve been hurt or have hurt others.
We are in process, and as we move forward in hope, in expectation of re-connection, in faith that we will be strengthened, we are, in fact, strengthened, reconnected, our hope restored. Some recommend “fake it till you make it.” Maybe. But I see our imperfect forays as tentative explorations until we eventually see we’re on down that road. And, as we’re doing right now, we take some time to see where we’ve been. And where we are now. And where we hope to be eventually.
Many of you are doing some difficult traveling. You may be at a crossroad in your journey. Your ideas about God might be shifting, your prayer practices evolving, your relationships adjusting to your spiritual changes. And maybe you can notice there might be some part of you that’s being healed, some relationship strengthened, some insight gained, some relinquishing, for example, of the need to be right, some strengthening of the desire to be kind to or really honest with yourself. Thanks be to God.
Once we pause along the road toward reunion and hope, we have the chance to do what only one of the ten lepers did. His fourth and final action is to turn back toward Jesus to say thanks. As we move toward Jesus, we might pause in our faith journey, return to a past place for purposes of healing or reunion, and finally give thanks as we move forward toward the God of our future.
Interestingly, it’s only at this point in the story that the narrator tells us that the one leper who returns to give thanks is a double outcast—an unexpected twist to the story. He’s a Samaritan as well as a leper.
The LAST person Jesus’s audience would want to commend—a foreigner of a different religion who was the enemy of the Jews and a despised leper to boot—gets praised for his faith! And without benefit of a religious authority to verify that he was clean, the Samaritan recognized what had changed within him and immediately “gave thanks with a loud voice.”
Gratitude is a mark of healing, this story suggests. And gratitude is also the means of healing. Don’t wait to give thanks after the healing. The thanksgiving may contribute to healing.
I want to end this sermonic journey with my thanks for our faith community. The gratitude I feel to God for you keeps me going. I was especially mindful of what you mean to me as I received an award on Monday because that award honored OUR ministry TOGETHER. You are people of faith who put faith into action. You move out into the world to bring healing to others. But you’re working on your own healing, too. And you appreciate the recursive role that sends us inward to grow spiritual resources–and out again to exercise our faith “out there.”
If you’d like to exercise the “gratitude attitude” now, I invite you spend a moment in silence to express to God your gratitude.
THANK YOU for being part of our communal experience of God.
PRAYER: God whose giving knows no ending, we continue to receive from you with grateful hearts. Thank you for the blessings of this church. May we never take for granted the love we find in you and among your imperfect children. Amen.