Sermon for 18th Sunday after Pentecost 2019
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15 Psalms 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15 Luke 17:11-19
An evangelist and a pastor are out hunting, when suddenly, out of nowhere, a grizzly bear appears. They sprint back to their hut as fast as they can, with the bear close on their heels. The evangelist gets there first and pulls open the door. The pastor goes hurtling inside with the bear right behind, then the evangelist slams the door shut from the outside. There is an anguished cry as the pastor screams "What are you doing?" The evangelist replies: "I just bring them in - once they're inside, they're your responsibility!"
Why let a job description and a little pride get in the way? Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army and a leper, almost missed out because of his pride. Naaman had an expectation of what Elisha would do when he arrived at the prophet’s house with his impressive entourage. For who knows what reason, Elisha did not meet the Syrian commander personally. He told him, through a messenger to go wash himself in the Jordan. Naaman was offended. The Jordan, the same river that in later years John would baptize Jesus, the Jordan, a small dirty unimpressive river. It was beneath his position to wash is such a pitiful river, why not one of the mighty rivers of his homeland. Naaman was furious at the slight. The cure seemed foolish, he felt inconvenienced, and Elisha’s ignorance of proper protocol was outrageous. The faith of a little servant girl got him there and the voices of servants encourage him to do such a small thing to be healed. Sure enough Naaman takes their advice and he was cured, and humbled. He returned to Elisha, entourage in tow, and affirmed “that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel. Maybe under his breath he said, “It’s hard to be humble when you are as great as I am.”
In our Gospel lesson, ten lepers called to Jesus as he entered a village in the area between Samaria and Galilee. As with Naaman and Elisha, Jesus did not meet directly with the men, but told them to “show yourselves to the priests.” They complied, perhaps pleased with any advice and attention. Not all biblical healings involve a command to follow an instruction – a call to obedience – but in these two stories, healing came as the result of the person’s willingness to do something that on first sight might seem irrelevant.
The lepers all received healing. What a happy shock that must have been -the promise of a new life. But only one, a Samaritan, returned and thanked Jesus. The text didn’t specify the nationality of the other nine, but by calling him a “foreigner,” Jesus expressed an irony. Earlier in Luke (4:27), Jesus alluded to the uniqueness of Naaman’s healing during the time of Elisha; Jesus already knew that his mission would extend beyond Israel. In these verses (17 and 18), we glimpse a hint of wistfulness that Jesus’ compassion went unrecognized – except by someone who was not one of Jesus’ own people. As in the story of Naaman, a Gentile praised the God of Israel and showed humble gratitude.
The character of both Naaman and the Samaritan leper prove to be interesting. The Samaritan was grateful for his healing and displayed spontaneous thanks. Of course, we don’t know the fellow’s name, let alone the emotional journey behind the gratitude that made him a Bible lesson for all these centuries. We assume that his malady, his separation from community, made him desperate to try anything, but when healing did come, he was not so consumed by his experience of pain and ostracism that he was oblivious to the source of his freedom.
Many of us will identify as much with Naaman as with the Samaritan. His experience, after all, was about feeling foolish when he acted arrogantly. But for Naaman, although he was irritated, he was humble enough to listen to the advice of his servants. Once healed, he gave the proper thanks to God. Like many of us, he grew in humility when he realized that God doesn’t act according to our personal expectations, but according to God’s desires for us.
It’s customary to affirm that God’s ways and thoughts are unlike ours. We affirm God’s unpredictable blessings throughout the Christian year, especially during certain seasons when, for instance, we point out the commonness of John the Baptizer among the world’s mighty, at other times, the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth and then the confusion of a crucified Messiah. Yet we often go about our own obedient discipleship with the assumption that God works within parameters we’ve set and expectations we impose. Ironically, being obedient to God’s direction may increase our sense of entitlement: I’m a church leader, I’ve spent time praying and doing God’s will, surely God will do a great thing exactly as I expect – exactly as I ask.
It is the realization that Jesus meets us where we are, even if we are rude, or arrogant, or proud. He will not cut down the garment of God’s glory to fit our unrealistic expectations. What a terrible self-imposed burden for us to assume that God’s work is based on our expectations and our efforts. What an opportunity for disappointment. Humility is a way that we gain new eyes about God’s work among us. Humility not only characterizes our attitude toward God and others but also provides a fresh sense of discernment about what God is doing in and through whom God is working. Sometimes it surprises us.
Because leprosy was contagious, people who had leprosy were required to stay away from other people and announce their presence as they got closer. Frequently, it was their shouting, “unclean, unclean, unclean,” as they walked. Sometimes leprosy would go into remission. If the leper thought his leprosy was gone, he had to present himself to the priest to be declared clean. Jesus sent the ten lepers to the priest before they were healed – and they went. They responded in faith and Jesus healed them on the way. How is our trust in God – is it strong enough to move us even before we see any sign of healing?
Jesus healed all ten lepers, but only one came back to thank him. We don’t know about the others. Did they get distracted by returning to their friends and family? Did they not care how they were healed, just that they were? Did they think that they had done something to heal themselves? Only the thankful man learned that his faith had played a role in his healing. Only grateful Christians grow in understanding God’s grace.
Not only was this man a leper, but he was a Samaritan – a race despised by the Jews. The Jews saw themselves as pure descendants of Abraham, while the Samaritans were a mixed race produced when Jews from the northern kingdom intermarried with other people from Israel’s exile. They were the “other”, not like them.
What would we do? Would we have enough faith to act before we saw a sign? To act because we were supposed to? Would we stop to thank Jesus, or would we run to reengage in our lives? Sometimes we maintain a tricky balance. God often calls us to do certain things so that God’s will may be accomplished. Yet God’s power, God’s mercy and the lessons are far more unexpected and all-encompassing than we’d ever dream. This keeps us from thinking that God acts according to our expectations. Discerning God’s will while growing in both humility and gratitude become two sides of the same coin; growing in the faith that heals.
Over and over again, Jesus calls the community of faith, in our life together, to consider an alterative way, a way of servanthood, a way of humility, a way not involving power, pride, arrogance or domination. In our lives, when is it that we know who God is for us? When do we express our gratitude for the gift of God’s grace in our lives? Jesus said….Go in peace, for your faith has made you …complete, healed and whole, well, all that you can be. Thanks be to God. Amen.