In Your Midst

Proper 23
Luke 17:11-19

Let’s review the story. Jesus is ‘walking on the border of Galilee and Samaria’ on his way to Jerusalem. That is important for two reasons. That he was on his way to Jerusalem is important because he was on his way to the Via Dolorosa–the way of the cross. He was on his final journey into the midst of those who were out to take his life. He was on his way to Jerusalem where he was to be betrayed, arrested, tortured, crowned with thorns and nailed to a cross. The ministry of Jesus begins to shift; from preaching, teaching and healing, to his journey to Golgotha.

Secondly, the route he took to Jerusalem is also important. He could have chosen a straight line. But he chose to walk on the borderland between Samaria and Jerusalem. I’ll remind you that the Samaritans were despised by the Jewish people because they were half Assyrian and half Jewish. They represented the compromise between the conquering Assyrians and the conquered northern kingdom of Israel. Based on our study of Amos a couple weeks ago, you remember that the Samaritans were pretty bad before they were conquered, but after they were conquered and even after they were restored to the land, they were forever considered those who mixed with the Goyim and the Goyim’s ways.

Not only that, Samaria as a land was not as fertile or prosperous as Galilee. The border between Samaria and Galilee was not unlike our border between the U.S. and Mexico or, closer to home, a the “border” that East Colfax represents for us. Or Sheridan if your coming from the west. Or Federal. On the border between Galilee and Samaria there was danger. You found things there that you wouldn’t elsewhere, kind of like East Colfax. On the border there was crime, sin and lepers.

Who were Lepers? Lepers were the ultimate outcasts. The disease of leprosy was (and is) a horrible and humiliating disease. Huge nodules grew on people’s bodies; nodules that discharged a foul smelling pus. Your eyebrows fell out, your eyes would glaze over. They lost nerve function and could not feel pain. Lepers were confined to colonies and were separated from the rest of humanity. They were a community of oozing sores, horrible smells and empty hearts. They lived lives of utter despair.

Author Julia Blackburn wrote a book called “Lepers Companion.” Listen to how she describes one woman’s encounter with a leper:
“Perhaps he has no hair…Perhaps he has a hand missing or holes in his body where the flesh has fallen away. He mustn’t touch my baby or he might kill it. He mustn’t speak to me except with the wind blowing against him. He mustn’t look at me because the sickness can jump out from a person’s eyes and catch hold of you” (Leper’s Companion).

But there was something special about this group of ten lepers. You see leprosy tends to make petty human differences irrelevant. For these lepers, the line of Jew/Samaritan was blurred. They were a community of the broken united by there common misery. William Barclay says, ‘here is an example of a great law of life. A common misfortune had broken down the racial and national barriers. In the common tragedy of their leprosy they had forgotten they were Jews and Samaritans and remembered only they were men in need.’

Adversity brings people together. Fr. Anderia tells me that in Sudan, and especially in the south, Christians do not make a big deal about their differences. While the Orthodox, Catholics and the Anglicans still have their differences, they all get together every week to pray together. Why? Because they share adversity and pain and loss together. And they bring it all to Jesus together.

The 10 lepers cried out to Jesus, ‘Jesus, Lord, have mercy on us.’ Here is a prayer that is both concise yet full of profound meaning. We can do no better, when life is filled with adversity and pain, to simply ask for mercy.
Jesus said, ‘Go show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were healed.
It took some faith for these lepers to do what Christ said. I’m sure they expected him to do something dramatic, to touch them or to command the sickness to leave. Instead, they had to take his word for it. Jesus simple word had to be enough.

I wonder what I would have done in such circumstances. Years of suffering and humiliation. Desperate for a touch from Jesus. Desperate for the healing that only he could provide and yet he does not say, ‘come here,’ but ‘go.’
Would we in such circumstances have had the faith simply to ‘take his word for it.’ So much of what we hold as truth as Christians we take on faith. Not that there is not good reason to believe, but when the rubber meets the road, we believe Jesus because we are stepping out in faith. The key challenge is, do we believe him when it is all on the line. Do we believe him when the odd are against us? When we are sick. When relationships are falling apart. When following him means sacrifice? Do we in the circumstances of our own life have the faith to ‘take his word for it?’
The lepers did take his word for it. And there life was restored. They were healed. The priest would confirm to them that they no longer had to live a life of shame. They no longer had to see the look of fear in others eyes whenever they came close to someone. They could once again touch the people they loved–and even better, receive human closeness and contact once again.

We’ll get to why the 9 didn’t come back in a minute. So why did the Samaritan come back? What was special about him? Was he just ‘raised right’ by his momma? Perhaps he remembered the stigma of being a Samaritan. Perhaps he needed more than just physical healing. Perhaps he saw his need for the Healer was just as great as the need for healing. It is often true that the further you are in despair, the more grateful you become. Because this man was a Samaritan, the pain of being a leper was doubled due to his social status–or lack thereof. One writer has said, ‘The idea of a Samaritan leper receiving God’s help was undoubtedly shocking to many, since they had written off the people of either category as being beyond help.’
Since he was ‘beyond help’ in the eyes of the world he was doubly grateful.
He knew that his physical healing was only one piece. He knew that the love of Jesus not only brought healing to his body, it brought healing to his broken soul and heart.

Then there is the 9 lepers. What happened? “Were not all 10 cleansed? Where are the other 9?” Says Jesus.
Why didn’t the other nine come back? Maybe because they got too busy with their new lives. Maybe it was because they had to make up for lost time. Maybe it was because they were just plain ungrateful.
We, in a world of prosperity wouldn’t know anything about being ungrateful would we? I read in a recent copy of Fortune magazine about a new trend in China. As you know, couples are limited to 2 children by law in China. Therefore, there is a whole generation of only children growing up in China. They are known as “little emperors.” Why? Because in places where there is economic prosperity, there are spoiled, jaded kids raking in their parents money and gobbling up–that’s right—American products. Kids are consuming everything from Nelly (rap music) to MacDonald’s at alarming rates. Many of the products they find online and now American businesses are starting to cater to the ‘little emperors’ of China.
We have a whole country of ‘little emperors,’ whether they be children or adults. And little emperors don’t say ‘thank you.’ Little emperors expect everything without an ounce of gratitude.
I’m not saying this was necessarily the case with these lepers, but it often goes against human nature to have an ‘attitude of gratitude’ towards God.
When we are healed from our sickness, we give credit to medicine or our own efforts, rarely to God. When we get a new job we applaud our interviewing skills, rather than give thanks to God. When we observe the blessings of life we say, ‘boy I sure worked hard,’ rather than ‘thanks be to God.’
In the midst of our stewardship campaign, looking at it very simply, giving is our opportunity to give thanks for what God has done for us in Christ. He has given all to us, we give back to him. Sarah and I are grateful for how Christ has blessed us as for our church family. That’s what is behind our giving. None of us are costumers in church, but members of Christ’s body. It’s not about us, but about what Christ has done for us in bringing us into relationship with God and the Body of Christ. ‘All things come from thee O Lord, and of our own we give to thee.’

Using some speculation, there is a subtle reason why the 9 didn’t return to give thanks. What is one of the primary symptoms of leprosy? The inability to feel pain. Guess what returned when they were healed? Pain. There must have been a sensation of pain while wounds closed and nerves returned to normal. You’ve been numbed in the dentist’s chair, how does it feel after the wisdom teeth have been pulled? For those who have had surgery, how does it feel a few days later?
Perhaps these lepers got more than they bargained for in their healing, pain. Perhaps, this new sensation of pain was too troubling for them to return to Jesus in thanksgiving. Pain often keeps us from God, even if it is his agent for healing. Who wants to give thanks for pain?

I don’t want to say that God always uses pain to heal us, as if he’s some kind of masochist. But often pain is his agent, especially in terms of emotional and spiritual healing. When is the last time you looked over your life and gave thanks for moments of pain? Again, I’m not saying that God arbitrarily uses suffering to teach us some sort of lesson. What I am saying is that sometimes pain is just as much a part of healing as comfort and peace.
Just as in the physical realm, recovery from illness or injury is painful, so in the spiritual realm, becoming more of what Christ calls us to be can be a very difficult process.

God often uses pain as an agent of healing. And no one wants to thank him for that. St. Francis day was October 4th. Before Francis had his dramatic conversion experience, he was spoiled. He looked down on others. Especially lepers. In his spoiled days he was on a journey and he happened upon quite a sight. A leper colony. Horrible stench, and mangled, ugly, pathetic people. Francis wanted to bolt. But another sight caught his eye. A young woman named Clare. Clare was not a leper, in fact she was quite beautiful. But Clare was tending to the lepers, bandaging their wounds and giving them food. Francis ran away, but he never forgot that experience. Later, Francis would be so full of the love of Jesus that he returned to the leper colony. He wanted to love those lepers who he had previously hated. He, like Clare, learned to love that which was unlovely and unlovable. He bound their wounds and gave them water. He even learned to kiss the wounds of lepers. Why? Because the pain of experiencing his own selfishness led him to be healed. Then he could heal others. The love of Christ exposed his sin and he realized that he was in worse shape than the lepers!

There is a definite pain in being a disciple of Jesus. There are the worries and cares of this life. How will I pay the bills? Am I a good enough father or mother or provider?

There is also the pain of realizing how unloving and how selfish we can be. There is also the pain of realizing how we fall short. God uses these realizations not to rub in it, but to heal us.

God often uses pain to heal us. But ultimately, it was his pain that brought the most healing. Isaiah 53 says, ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his wounds we are healed.’

The primary source of pain that Jesus uses for our healing is his own. Our healing was found in his beatings. Our healing was found in his scourging. Our healing was found in the nails. Our healing was found in the crown of thorns. Our healing was found in his blood. If you’ve ever felt that you were beyond hope. If you’ve ever felt like you were unloved. Remember the cross. And be grateful. Be thankful. And don’t forget to tell him.

One last thing. After this passage is a conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees and his disciples about the coming of the Kingdom and the last days. “The Kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the Kingdom of God is in your midst.” As Jesus was walking along the borderlands he turned his face towards Jerusalem, towards the cross. The cross is a sign, ironically, to the Kingdom of heaven. But there is another sign of the coming Kingdom and it is represented by Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan.

The fact that Jesus was turning his attention to the Gentiles and the unwanted-to those who were not before considered part of the people of God, Samaritans, Gentiles, tax collectors and sinners, this was also a sign of the Kingdom. Jesus says to the Samaritan, ‘your faith has saved you.’ This is more than physical healing he is talking about. He is talking about full restoration.

The Prophets predicted it. Recall this prophecy of Malachi: “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered in my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations [the Gentiles], says the LORD of hosts” (Mal. 1:11).

With people like the Samaritans and the Gentiles coming to Jesus, the harvest of disciples begins to grow, which is a sign of the Kingdom. “The Kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the Kingdom of God is in your midst.”

How do you know if the Kingdom is in our midst. I’m taking a chance here by asking you that question. Many churches look to the bottom line: ‘how many butts in the pew and how many bucks in the bank?’ Some days are better than others for us, but I turn to you, how do we know that the Kingdom is in our midst? If it was here, how would we know how to find it?

How will we respond to the harvest?
There are many here who are responding…