If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Surprise Ending

*Note- This sermon was originally preached in a congregation in Texas in the 90s.

On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers,[a] who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us." When he saw them he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" And he said to him, "Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well." Luke 17:11-17

Let me warn you before I begin preaching this sermon. The gospel has a way of sneaking up on us. The good news of Jesus can tiptoe up on us and smack us up side our nice, neat expectations. And Jesus seems to be at the center of all this subversive activity. He's always throwing us curve balls. He turns our world on top of its head. According to his backwards way of thinking, the last are first and the first last. The rich are cursed and the poor are blessed. Outsiders are inside and insiders are outside. Prostitutes, tax-collectors, outcasts are honored dinner guests at Jesus’ table. So-called sinners get into heaven before the so-called righteous. Samaritans are good. Enemies are loved. Children are our teachers. Then, Jesus goes around telling us these upside down parables, stories with hidden time bombs, that explode our reasonable worlds. To top it all off the plot of his life ain't very predictable either. The deliverer ends up needing to be delivered, the savior needing to be saved as he hangs there nailed to that old rugged cross. Then, when we come to what seems the end of the story, like father like son, God flips things upside down on their head and raises a dead man to life. That’s not the ending to the story we could ever expect. So, I’m warning you, don’t be surprised if the gospel sneaks up and surprises us, maybe even while I’m preaching.

Today's gospel story seems pretty predictable though. It would make a nice sermon on gratitude, thanksgiving. As the story goes, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Entering a crackerbox village, ten lepers approach him. They keep their distance because they are "unclean." In a pitiful tone the ten cry out, "Lord Jesus, have mercy on us!" Jesus doesn't touch them. He doesn’t wave his hands and say "abracadabra, your healed." He doesn’t so much as give them a band aid. Jesus simply says, "Go and show yourselves to the priests"; these were the temple officials who could pronounce them "clean." On their way to the temple all ten are healed! Made whole! Freed from being called “dirty,” “filthy, “unclean.” Freed from being looked down upon. Freed from being considered second-class. Freed from being cut off from their community. All ten lepers were healed! Hallelujah! Thank you, Jesus! You would think all of them would have ran back to Jesus and cried out, “Thank you, Jesus!” But, only one returns, shouting his praise to God loud enough for everyone to hear. He don’t care what other people think. He gives no never mind. He flattens himself out on the ground and shouts, "Thank you, Jesus!"

Thank you, Jesus! That would make a nice title for my sermon. Maybe a better title than “A Surprise Ending.” I could use this gospel story to preach on giving thanks. That's been the topic of millions of sermons preached on this gospel story. But, hey, one more wouldn't hurt, right? Aren't we supposed to be thankful, like the one who thanked Jesus? Gratitude is a good thing. We could all use an attitude of gratitude. Gratitude is a virtue to be honored. I think we all could say “amen” to a sermon on being thankful. This sermon could be about giving thanks to God for our parents, our children, our home, our health, or our job. I could preach to you about singing praises to God for the simple things in life---rising to a new day, the morning sun on your face, the smell of fresh coffee, the song of a bird, the laughter of a child. There are so many gifts to give thanks to God for. We all like to give thanks to God, don't we? Amen? We could appreciate another sermon on thanksgiving.

Well, that depends. Maybe not if I moralized the gospel story and preached one of those "oughta sermons." You’ve heard preachers who preach “oughta” sermons, haven’t you? You oughta be thankful! You oughta go to church more and thank God more! You oughta be thankful you're not hungry and sick! You oughta be grateful you're of sound mind and body! On and on it goes, “You oughta…you oughta…” I remember just such a sermon on giving thanks based on this bible story of the ten lepers. The preacher told a long string of sad, pitiful stories of people dying from diseases, all the while trying to make us healthy people feel more thankful. Faces in the pews were drooping. Everyone looked like they had been weaned on sour pickles! Near the end of the sermon the preacher said we oughta be thankful for the shoes we wear, for some people in this world don't even have feet to put shoes on! After that sermon the people with droopy faces were truly feeling thankful. They were thankful that depressing sermon was over! Well, in my sermon I could tell you a bunch of sad stories and plead with you, "Come on people, you oughta be more thankful, like the one leper who returned to Jesus and gave thanks. Please, be more thankful." And if I preached that sermon, you too would be thankful....when the sermon was over!

Or if a guilt trip didn't work I could castigate you for not being as thankful as you should be. It's your moral duty to be thankful! God commands: Be thankful! It's right there in black and white in the Bible! God will judge those harshly who aren't thankful! Anyone who isn't truly thankful shouldn't even be in this church! For God's sake, how could you be so ungrateful!? That might make a good sermon for a community Thanksgiving service. You know the kind. Preaching professor Fred Craddock tells a story of when he had to attend one of those Thanksgiving services held in the community. A number of churches get together for a service and muster up about as many people as if only one church had the service. And inevitably the text for the evening is...ten lepers came to Jesus and were healed...only one returned to give thanks. Then, the preacher mounts the pulpit, looks out over the sparse audience and with furrowed brow cries out, "Where are the nine? Where are the nine? Where are the nine?" For an hour the preacher yells, "Where are the nine?" Craddock says at that point in the service he's thinking to himself, "There where I'd be if I had a lick of sense!" From today's gospel story I could preach a sermon on giving thanks, but I'll save that one for another day.

I believe most of us would rather hear a sermon on faith in Jesus as the source of our salvation. That seems to be the message of our gospel story. All ten lepers are healed. All ten. One returns to give thanks. To only one Jesus' says, "Your faith has saved you." But, weren't all ten healed? So, what's the difference between this one and the other nine? Ten were healed. One was saved. Granted, the word here can be translated as either "healed" or "saved." But, only one returns to Jesus. The nine go on their merry way. Only one returns to Jesus. Only one bows before Jesus. Only one recognizes Jesus as the source of his healing. Only one hears from the lips of Jesus the word of salvation. That's what makes his faith different from the nine. He alone sees something the others don't see. He alone understands, acknowledges, praises, and gives thanks to the source of his healing and salvation. He sees his cure as part of the deeper meaning of salvation brought to him by Jesus.

Now, that would make a powerful sermon. I could title it: Jesus, the Source of our Salvation. I believe I just might be able to get an "amen" from this congregation if I preached that gospel truth. I could even preach it with three points and a poem: First point: Come back to Jesus! Well? Second point: Thank God through Jesus! Amen? Third point: Bow down before Jesus, the source of our healing and salvation! Can I get a witness? People, that is the gospel truth! We are to come back to Jesus, even when others don't. We are to give thanks to God through Jesus, even when others don't. We are to bow before Jesus, who is the source of our healing and salvation and not only for us, but for all humanity, even for those who don't thank Jesus. We are the ones who proclaim that it is Jesus, the Balm of Gilead, who heals us. We are the ones who acknowledge that it is Jesus, Healer of our every ill, who makes us whole and restores us to our community. We are the ones who thank God that it is Jesus, Savior of sinners, who is the source of our salvation.

It is our faith in this Jesus which saves us. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. That's the gospel truth. We are not saved because we're good or because we're better or holier than others. We’re not saved because we're more religious. Not because we're Mennonite or Baptist or Episcopalian or Church of God in Christ. Not because we have our name on a membership roll. Not because we give money to the church or teach a Sunday School class. We are saved by the grace of God in Christ, simply because we have come to Jesus in faith, the source of salvation. Our faith, our trust in Jesus alone, has saved us. One came to Jesus in faith and was not just healed, but saved. He didn’t have to get his life straight first. He came to Jesus and was saved. Are you that one? Do you believe this gospel truth? You are accepted by Jesus upon your faith and trust in him and not because of who you are or what you have done? If you are that one who came back to Jesus and was saved say, "Amen", say, “Thank you, Jesus.” That's what makes us Christian. That's what makes us part of the Christian community. The healing grace of God. Simple faith in Jesus. Nothing else. As Christians, we believe with all our hearts Jesus is the source of healing and salvation----for all people. Not just for some. Not just for you and me. But, for all people. I may have a sermon yet; that is, if I preach the gospel, the surprising good news.

But, like I warned you, if I do preach the gospel, it might just sneak up on us. It may topple the tables of our minds and hearts and all the coins of our expectations may go jingling across the floor. So, maybe I should just retell the gospel story, put it in the new suit of where we live……There were once ten patients in a hospital. All ten were suffering from the same dreaded disease. They had been isolated to one room and were not allowed to have contact with anyone inside or outside the hospital. The attending doctor and nurses wore rubber gloves when they worked on the patients. Some nurses assigned to that wing refused to work with the patients out of fear. If it weren't for the disease, these ten quarantined patients probably would never have associated with each other. One thing they had in common, besides their affliction, was that they all were churchgoers...well, to some degree. They often prayed together that God would be merciful and grant them healing or at least a remission of their disease.

One day when the doctor was making his rounds and giving them their daily check up, he noticed that the skin lesions on all ten patients had miraculously disappeared. He told them all to come with him to another room for further tests. All the tests indicated, for some unknown reason, their disease had gone into remission. So, the next day their doctor, still scratching his head, released them all from the hospital. They all packed up their belongings and headed their separate ways. Except one. He stopped by the hospital chapel, fell down hard on his knees before a stained glass window of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. With tears streaming down his cheeks and loud cries that could be heard all the way to the gift shop, this one poured out his heart to God. “Thank you, God! Thank you, Jesus!” He wept for joy believing in his heart that it was his faith in Christ that healed him…....from AIDS. Oh, I forgot to tell you....the man was gay.

Jesus pulls the rug out from under us with a surprise ending. The way Luke tells it, he waits until the very end of this gospel story to let his readers know that the one who returned to Jesus, gave thanks, and was not only healed, but saved, was.... a Samaritan. As a leper and Samaritan this man was an outcast among outcasts, doubly scorned, labeled "unclean" and "foreign born." As a leper he was excluded, cut off from acceptable society, labeled "dirty," considered a source of pollution to the community. It was only because of their common disease and being excluded from the larger community that brought these ten lepers together. So, when Jesus healed all ten, he was not simply curing their disease, but restoring them to their community. That is, all except for one. Jesus could not "cure" one of being a Samaritan. He was born that way. Considered a "half-breed." Part of a people who had to have their own separate churches and ministers; a people whose faith was suspect. Even after he was healed and saved, he would have to remain apart from those nine with whom he shared a disease that cut them all off from society. He was truly an outcast among outcasts. Leper. Samaritan. Those labels stand out in Luke's gospel story like a sore thumb.

Oh, we can change the names and labels----from Samaritan with leprosy to Gentile woman with chronic bleeding, old woman with mental illness, homeless man with…. It makes no difference. Since we have no Samaritans with leprosy to point to we have to translate "Samaritan with leprosy" into modern language, not just to make it updated, but so we might feel in our own bones the surprise ending of the gospel story. I could have translated “Samaritan with leprosy,” as "politician with sex addiction"! But, I didn’t. In Jesus’ day the Samaritan with leprosy represents the despised and rejected, the outcast and marginalized, the forgotten and forsaken in society. Those are the ones that where left out, pushed aside, despised, rejected, labeled, and called names. Those are the ones that Jesus most dearly loved. Those are the ones who Jesus offered hope, healing, wholeness, liberation, and salvation.

Now, don't hear me wrong. I'm not trying to make any moral statements from this story or preaching “You oughta do this or that.” I'm just preaching the gospel. And the gospel of Jesus Christ says: We are saved by the amazing grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, the source of healing and salvation, a message of liberation for all people, no matter who we are or what we’ve done or haven’t done, or what people in the community may think of us or call us. The gospel has restored us to the beloved community of God.

As Christians, we believe Jesus is the sole source of our salvation. Nothing else. It is Jesus who heals us, save us, and restores us to community. It is Jesus who has thrown away all the labels that people want to hang on us. It is Jesus who has broken down all the walls that divide us. It is Jesus who has reconciled us as one people. It is Jesus who offers this same good news to all people, to all people. We have no one to thank for our healing, our salvation, our liberation, our restoration, but Jesus. Hallelujah! Praise be to God! Thank you, Jesus!

Will you return to Jesus and give thanks for this world-shaking, earth quaking, wall-breaking, bone-clattering, label-shattering, soul-surprising gospel? Or will we go on our separate ways? Separating ourselves from those we call “other,” “different,” “unclean,” “not-our-kind.” Or will we, for Jesus’ sake, welcome the Samaritan, whoever that may be for us. Welcome those who have been healed and saved along with us? One of the lepers who was healed, a Samaritan, returned, fell at Jesus' feet, and gave thanks. And Jesus said, "Your faith has saved you."

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