Ordinary 28C, October 13, 2013

Thank You Notes To God

Luke 17:11-19

11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Today we have a story about 10 guys who find themselves bound together not by blood or religion, but by something far more powerful.  Disgust.  People were disgusted by these 10 men who suffered from a skin disease the Bible refers to as “leprosy,” but was likely any number of skin diseases that would cause someone to look at these men and say, “yuck.”  Their families and friends were so disgusted by their appearance that these 10 guys were thrown out of their homes, relegated to living outside the village, disconnected from family, friends and their faith communities. 
As I was thinking about these 10 men in Luke, I remembered that Rachel went to high school with a young woman named Hunter Steinitz who has a skin disease called Harlequin ichthyosis.  A couple years ago, Rachel and I were in JFK airport, getting ready to fly home and Hunter walked up to us in the gate area to say hello to Rachel. 
To call Hunter’s physical appearance startling is really an understatement.  Hunter’s face is bright, bright pink and has the appearance of someone who had been severely burned.  Her skin is covered with thick, dry scales. Her hairline is constantly receding because her skin follicles on her scalp grow over every time a hair falls out, so she has trouble re-growing hair.  The places on her skin that aren’t flaky and dried out are downright slimy because Hunter has to apply a strong moisturizer every two hours just so she can move and even breathe. 
I didn’t know anything about Hunter or her skin disease when Rachel and I met up with her at the airport.  But I am ashamed to admit my strong visceral reaction to her.  I cannot tell you if I shook her hand or not when I was introduced, but I can tell you with all certainty that I didn’t want to.  Instead, I experienced that very primitive, feeble-dinosaur brain reaction of disgust. I probably tried to hide it, but I suspect Hunter scoped it out immediately.  People like Hunter are never fooled by people trying to hide their disgust.  Even at the age of tender age of 15, I bet Hunter could probably spot disgust at 20 paces.  As we were flying home, Rachel told me about Hunter and what a hard time kids gave her at school about her disfiguring illness, but that Hunter was actually a pretty cool and talented kid.  All of which made me feel even worse about how grossed out I had felt when I met her.
Coincidentally, when Rachel and I got home to Pittsburgh, there was a front page article in the Post-Gazette about Hunter which explained why we had met up with her in New York.  She had just finished making an appearance with National Geographic on a program about extraordinary human beings.  What made Hunter extraordinary was not just the severity of her disease, but her courageous commitment to NOT hide away from her peers but to educate people about herself and others like her with disfiguring skin diseases. 
That was three years ago.  This week I found out that Hunter is now a freshman at Westminster College studying theology and planning to become a Presbyterian minister.  She says she is going into ministry to teach people that everyone is as God intended them to be, and she believes her skin is going to be a vital part of that work.   Go Hunter.
It is not at all surprising that Hunter might see her skin as part of her call to ministry because the Bible is filled stories about people who are suffering from any number of physical conditions that make their existence a living hell.  Jon just read the story from 2 Kings about Naaman, the mighty warrior who seeks out the prophet Elisha’s help to be healed from his skin disease.   And it seems that a fair number of people with skin diseases manage to run into Jesus, including the 10 men we meet today in the gospel. 
Unlike many of the ostracized people we see in the New Testament who deal with their misery on their own, these 10 men in today’s text have formed a mutual support system on the outskirts of a village.  We know that one of them is a Samaritan and the rest of them are probably Jewish, which is a somewhat odd pairing. But it seems that their shared disability has broken down the barriers that would normally exist between observant Jews and Samaritans – a group of people most Jews would have considered to be unclean and downright disgusting heretics. 
In the meantime, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, wandering near territory that most observant Jews would also avoid, which is Samaria.  On a map, it would seem that Jesus might just be taking a short cut, but Jesus’ location seems to be a deliberate attempt by Luke to tell us something important about where Jesus is.  And Jesus is in no man’s land where no good Jew should be. 
There seems, in fact, no rhyme or reason to the way in which Jesus is traveling as we move with him to Jerusalem in Luke.  Which reminds us again that we can’t read the gospels as travel diaries or precise historical accounts of Jesus’ movements.  Jesus’ movements are more like theological journeys of heart, soul and spirit.  Jesus’ geography is theology; where Jesus is located helps us understand what Jesus is up to, particularly when he ends up in a surprising location like this in-between place, a region between Galilee and Samaria.  That geography tells us what is most true about Jesus – he crosses every boundary, even that seemingly uncrossable boundary of disgust that is still at the root of so much human misery. 
We don’t how the 10 men know Jesus as he comes toward them, but they do.  They know it is Jesus, but they also know the Levitical law that says that people in their condition must stay at least 50 yards away from any healthy person.  But instead of calling out, “Unclean, unclean,” as would be customary, they cry out for Jesus to show them mercy.  And Jesus, without a second thought, tells them to go to the priests and present themselves.  
I really think Luke wants us to notice all these details. Jesus is not disgusted by the men.  Jesus acknowledges their need immediately.  And Jesus invites them back into the community of God’s people by sending them straight to the priests – the most direct path to social acceptance in Jesus’ day.  Jesus doesn’t just heal their skin – he heals their lives by sending them on a path back to the community from which they have so long been excluded. 

We do not know if their skin cleared up on the spot.  The text says that, “as they went, they were made clean.”  It would have taken them several days to get to the priests in Jerusalem, so perhaps the healing process was a gradual one as they went on their way.  Perhaps it took time for their skin to smooth out.  All we know for sure is that those nine disconnected men were given a second chance.  Not for a perfect life, but a life in which they had at least a decent shot at being reconnected to the community of faith that had once excluded them. 
But I think that the nine who immediately ran off to see the priests will always be missing something. They will only believe in their healing when someone else believes it.  They are the kind of people who seek acceptance from others.  And we know from our own experience that acceptance can takes time.  Even if the nine men now have skin as smooth as glass, there will always be people won’t forget how disgusting they used to be.  Maybe even some in their own family will not be able accept them.  Ask a recovering alcoholic, an ex-addict, someone just being released from prison – all of them will tell you how difficult it is to re-enter a society that had pretty much given you up for dead. 
Only one of them, the Samaritan, recognizes the full extent what Jesus has done.  Only he pays enough attention to recognize the astounding presence of God.  He pays enough attention to feel gratitude and thanksgiving and praise.  Only one of the ten men doesn’t take the healing for granted as something he deserved or earned or entitled to after years of suffering.   Only one of the ten men turns around and says, “Thanks.” 
In our midweek study this week, Jon Stellfox said that his father taught him to always look closely at questions in scripture.  Always look at the questions Jesus asks and you’ll begin to unlock the meaning of the text.   I think that approach is particularly wise in approaching this story because when I began really looking hard at the Jesus’ questions, I realized that I really stink at this gratitude thing.  Because so many of my prayers focus on what I do not have, or what others do not have, or what this church does not have, instead of being grateful for what we do have.  I realized I would probably be one of those nine guys running away with whatever blessing I can get, fearful that it will not last.  Too often, we end up in the 90% who forget where the good stuff comes from, as Jesus so astutely observes when he wonders out loud about what happened to the other guys.
In fact, we live in a time when it is much easier and maybe even cooler to complain than be grateful.   And there are a whole lot of reasons for us to be straight-up crying for mercy most of the time.  A grid-locked Congress and a shut down government.  Too much unemployment and too few good jobs.  Not to mention so many challenges we face in our own congregation and in our own family situations.  Despair is definitely the theme of our age.  And I am willing to wager that 90% of the prayers we utter on any given day have more to do with wistfulness for what we want rather than thankfulness for what we have.  And there’s nothing wrong with being honest with God about how lousy things are and how much better things should be.  Just like the 90% did nothing wrong by doing exactly what Jesus told them to do. 
But the ones who left missed out on the best part.  Just as certainly as we miss out, every day, by not taking the time to see Jesus at work, healing and restoring the most hopeless situations.  We miss out when we become so wrapped up in our despair that we forget to give thanks for every single blessing that falls on our worried heads. 
I mean, can you imagine how good the Samaritan felt when he turned around and saw himself in the eyes of Jesus as a whole, healed and beloved child of God?  He was blown away.  For the first time in his miserable life, he wasn’t an outsider anymore.  He was no longer a beggar on the street, wrapped up in anxiety and fear.  In that moment of sheer grace, the man who gave thanks knew exactly who we was and whose he was.  For the first time, he was beautiful.  What else could he do but give God thanks and praise?  I don’t know about you, but I would much rather be in the 10%, knowing exactly who I am as a beloved child of God,  than waiting around with the other 90% for someone to accept me.
Our gratitude has nothing to do with getting what we want or getting rid of what we don’t want.   Gratitude is acknowledging how blessed we have been through our whole lives, how blessed we are right now, and the promise of God’s blessing into the future.  Gratitude has the power to make life richer, deeper and more joyful than we can possibly imagine.  The practice of gratitude makes us whole human beings. 
God is not some heavenly egomaniac, waiting around for a thank you note.   God doesn’t need our praise.  God doesn’t need our thankfulness.  In truth, God doesn’t need our money.  God can do anything God wants to do because God is sovereign, God is Lord, God knows exactly how to get things done.  God will always be generous — giving and providing and healing because that’s just who God is.  Because we are made in God’s image, I suspect we are created to be generous too.

God requires our praise because God knows we need to praise.  God wants our thankfulness because God knows that thankfulness makes us more able to see Christ at work in the world.  And God wants us to give generously because giving to God reminds us where all these good things came from.  In giving, we acknowledge that everything we have, everything we are, and everything we will be is all God’s gift to us. 
I know a lot of people who live as if they are dying.  And I know a lot of churches that live that way as well.  Those ten guys hanging around outside the village were living like ones who were dying until Jesus showed up and they recognized the source of all life standing right in front of them.  All ten of them received healing.  Nine of them took new life and ran with it, which is probably what most of us would do.  But one saw new life as the incredible gift it is.  Only the one man — the outsider, the foreigner, the Samaritan – only he received a second blessing, the complete healing that comes from simply saying, “Thank you.” 
Let us pray:
You are the giver of all good things.
            All good things are sent from heaven above,
                        rain and sun,
                        day and night,
                        justice and righteousness,
                        bread to the eater and
                        seed to the sower,
                        peace to the old,
                        energy to the young,
                        joy to the babes.
We are takers, who take from you,
            day by day, daily bread,
            taking all we need as you supply
            taking in gratitude and wonder and joy.
And then taking more,
            taking more than you give us,
            taking from our sisters and brothers…
                        taking because we are frightened, and so greedy,
                        taking because we are anxious, and so fearful,
                        taking because we are driven, and so uncaring.
Give us peace beyond our fear, and so end our greed.
Give us well-being beyond our anxiety, and so end our fear.
Give us abundance beyond our driven-ness,
                        and so end our uncaring.
Turn our taking into giving…since we are in your giving image:
            Make us giving like you…,
                                                giving as he gave himself up for us all,
                                                giving, never taking. Amen.
                                                — Walter Brueggemann

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