A Sermon preached by Rev Chris Williams on 12 October 2019
Luke 17 – Ten Lepers
Our story from Luke, begins with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem in the region between Samaria and Galilee. Well, the word ‘Samaria’ is already a red flag, of course. Observant Jews didn’t go anywhere near Samaria – or Samaritans. Despite being the same people who escaped Egypt and entered the promised Land, the Samaritans became despised by the Jews who considered them, culturally inferior and theological and liturgical heretics. And the feeling was mutual. In fact, over the centuries these two groups were often at war with each other.
How was it that a people so closely related became so hostile to each other? Well, we have no reason for smugness, do we? We only need to think of the enmity between Protestant and Catholic over the centuries – and still a reality in some parts of the UK. We hear about Shia and Sunni violence within Islam. We may not all be aware of it but there are some very hostile relationships between the conservatives and the liberals within the church of England – in fact it was the subject of my master’s dissertation. It is astonishing how hateful Christians can be to one another. And dare I mention Brexit? This ‘thing’ that has consumed us all and has caused the breakdown in relationships between nations, friends and families. We are all so convinced of our rightness that it is harder and harder to see others as anything but a label.
And that’s one reason why the actions of Jesus here are so challenging and relevant today. These10 men he encounters are lepers. That makes them outcasts both physically, socially and spiritually. The moment anyone developed a skin blemish that looked suspicious, they were banished from their homes, from the loving touch of their spouse, their children or parents; from their society and their faith community. They would either live alone or, as here, in groups and would ring a bell and call out ‘unclean’ as they approached anyone so they could avoid them. As a symbol of otherness and exclusion it doesn’t get much more dramatic.
From a distance these ten lepers call out to Jesus: “Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus simply says ‘Go, show yourself to the priest’. And, as they went, they were healed. Nine kept on walking (or, most likely, running or dancing by now), to the priest who, interestingly, was the only person able to certify them clean and able to re-enter family, society and religious life again.
But one returns. This Samaritan leper – now a Samaritan ex-leper – turned back praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. Jesus asked ‘where are the other nine?’ clearly expecting them also to return. The proper response to any act of grace is thanksgiving but only this man got it right.
In the last line of this story, Jesus says ‘get up, your faith has made you well’ other translations say ‘your faith has saved you’ What faith? Well, faith and thanksgiving are very closely connected. It sounds like this man’s gratitude was seen as faith by Jesus – and it meant he received something the others did not. Something extra? Salvation? The text does not spell it out exactly. What we do know is that he went away with a heart full of gratitude.
In the time left I want to make two points: First, to consider the action of Jesus – particularly in the light of our mission statement which says we want to become like Jesus and Do what he did. And second, to consider the power of thanksgiving.
As we have just seen, it’s hard to exaggerate the social alienation and isolation of these ten men. But we discover that the one who came back as well as being a leper is also a Samaritan and a foreigner. There is every reason in the world for a respectable person and a Jew, to avoid this man. Engaging with him challenged every social and religious norm.
But (and we see this countless times in the gospels), Jesus seems uninterested in the man’s religion or theology; his ethnicity, his moral life or politics or even whether he’s a Remainer or Brexiteer. He engages with this man simply because he sees him as a person, made in the image of God and in need of healing, wholeness and salvation. And Jesus does what he does best – he demonstrated his extravagant, indiscriminate love. Notice he healed all 10 lepers – not just the one who returned. But, as if to reinforce the message that his grace is for everyone, he gives a double blessing to this once-leprous, Samaritan, foreigner!
I preached four sermons last summer on the theme of ‘The bigger table’ and through reading that book and preaching those sermons, I had something of a revelation of the extent to which Jesus ministered and loved those on the margins, the outsider, the lepers, the foreigners, the demon possessed, the women, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the poor, the Samaritans – even the dead! Those talks are still on the website if you want to listen. And I say that only because I believe the themes and ideas are so important.
In these times of extreme polarisation, we, the church, have something to offer the world: the indiscriminate – but intentional love of Jesus. In a world of darkness, we can bring light, in a world of death, we can bring life and, in a world where there is so much hatred, we can bring love. That’s our vision statement right there. And, if we are to become like Jesus and do what he did, then it’s not really an option. So, brothers and sisters, don’t give up loving, don’t give up trying – even when provoked, even when the going gets tough, because love wins. We’ve seen the back of the book – we know how it ends!
And what of this leper’s response to his miraculous healing? This Samaritan leper – now a Samaritan ex-leper – on realising that he was healed, praised God in a loud voice (when was the last time you were inclined to do that?), he prostrated himself at the feet of Jesus as an expression of humility and reverence – (when was the last time you did that!?), and thanked him. This man got it right. Jesus asked, ‘where are the other nine?’ clearly expecting them also to return. The proper response to any act of grace is thanksgiving
There is evidence that people who are grateful – who are thankful – are less stressed, more hopeful, and healthier (as it seems to affect one’s immune system). But of course, gratitude and praise are not new ideas, this response is firmly rooted in scripture and saturates our liturgy.
I looked at the times thanks or thanksgiving is mentioned in this Communion service:
First, this service is called a Eucharist. Some people don’t like that name – but it simply means ‘thanksgiving’. Did you know you are at a thanksgiving service? That’s the overriding theme of our gathering: we are celebrating and expressing our gratitude for all that God has done for us through Jesus Christ and especially his death on the cross.
So, in this service of Common Worship, we say:
The Gloria (which is our response to being forgiven – and of much greater significance than leprosy!):
“We worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory”
(It’s noteworthy that thanks and praise are so closely associated, both in our liturgy and in the Bible).
After listening to the words from the Bible we say “This is the word of the lord” to which we reply…?
And, just to give us a heads-up, the main prayer of Communion is entitled The Great Thanksgiving.
And right at the beginning the priest says:
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
To which we all reply…
It is right to give thanks and praise.
The prayer goes on:
…Father, we give you thanks and praise
through your beloved Son Jesus Christ
…took bread and gave you thanks; …
…In the same way, after supper
he took the cup and gave you thanks;
…we celebrate this memorial of our redemption.
As we offer you this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,
At the invitation to Communion we say:
Eat and drink in remembrance that he died for you,
and feed on him in your hearts
by faith with thanksgiving.
At the Prayer after Communion, we say:
Father of all,
we give you thanks and praise,
that when we were still far off
you met us in your Son and brought us home.
The following, in red, are the examples from the traditional Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion service.
Intercessions begin with:
Almighty and ever-living God, who by thy holy apostle has taught us to make prayers and supplications, and to give thanks, for all men:
prayer of thanksgiving begins with (clue in the title!):
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up unto the Lord
Let us give thanks unto our Lord God.
It is meet and right so to do.
It is very meet, right and our bounden duty,
that we should at all times, and in all places,
give thanks unto thee,
O Lord, holy Father,
almighty, everlasting God.
Words used as we receive:
Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.)
The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.
(Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.)
We praise thee, we bless thee,
we worship thee, we glorify thee,
we give thanks to thee for thy great glory,
And, of course, many of our hymns and songs are words of praise and thanksgiving – enabled by the sound of the organ or our musicians.
In my Pentecostal days there was a preacher who used to say that Anglicans don’t really believe what they sing and say because, although their liturgy is filled with such awesome and wonderful truths, so expressive of God’s love and purposes, so filled with hope and joy, no one even smiles or reacts! I suspect those comments may be too close for comfort. I mean, were you aware of these calls to praise and thanksgiving in our service – and it’s hard to express genuine thanks without at least a bit of a smile!
Thanksgiving and praise should be on our every breath. Imagine if it was. Imagine if, when tempted to moan about something or someone, we intentionally looked for things to be grateful for and give praise for. Actually, that is what we are called to do. The Bible exhorts us to give thanks always to praise continually – and not just when we have been healed of leprosy – but in all circumstances. But our thanks and praise is primarily directed towards God in gratitude for all he has done – and in particular, the death and resurrection of Jesus (the events at the heart of this service).
Gratitude is life-giving and life-affirming. It makes a difference to the world, it makes a difference to the one giving thanks and, I believe, it touches the heart of God.
So, as we reflect on this incident in the gospel of Luke, let’s seek to avoid the spirit of the age which tempts us to judge, to divide, to denigrate and destroy others. Let’s respond to people – particularly those we find difficult – as Jesus did, with unconditional love and mercy.
And, as a people on the receiving end of that love, let’s be people defined by an attitude of gratitude. Let’s express our praise and thanks to God in as many creative ways we can and as often as possible. I can promise you, it will change you – it will change others and it might change your circumstances.