by Ellen Sims
texts: Jeremiah 29:1,4-7; Luke 17:11-19
In this brief story, four key movements could represent how Jesus followers move toward Jesus and out into the world. But we’ll start by noticing Jesus’s movement.
The story begins with a phrase used to transition from one story to the next in Luke’s Gospel: “On the way to Jerusalem,” as in “On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus ___.” The narrator keeps reminding us, story after story, that Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem, a journey we know will end in his death once he finally reaches that seat of power. Jesus voluntarily moves toward risk. He knowingly crosses borders into controversial territory—in the case of today’s story, a disputed area that was neither Samaria nor Galilee. Before we pay attention to the movement of the men who seek healing from Jesus, we recognize that Jesus’s sacred journey continually violates boundaries others have erected, moves into controversial and disputed territory, ignores neat categories for people, and embraces the outcasts. This risky movement Godward ignores borders in order to reach the rejected ones. When Jesus finally arrives in Jerusalem, he will be rejected. But along the way, he will include others and restore them to their communities. As he does with the ten who’ve been labeled lepers.
In recalling today’s reading from Jeremiah, the first thing I recognize about the so-called lepers Jesus healed is that they were in a type of exile, having been forced to leave their community, prevented from having contact with others, required to declare their leprous condition to anyone they encountered so others would not be made ritually impure from contact with them. The movement implicit in their condition is their forced exile from their community. They were a people without a place of refuge and welcome, like Jeremiah’s people in Babylonian exile. But Jesus, who sought out the outcasts, “made them clean” so they could return home.
The ten men took a first step out of exile when they voluntarily moved toward Jesus. Probably they’d experienced many encounters with others who’d enforced exile and driven them out of town. Villagers may have thrown stones at them. Some lepers were consigned to live in caves or among graves. It took an act of faith to move toward Jesus. But maybe these poor souls were able to move in faith because “they approached him” (v. 12) as a group. I wonder if, like many of us, they dared to do something as a group they might not have had the courage to do alone. They dared to believe that someone cared and that this traveling healer just might be able to help. So together they “approached him.” No wonder the early, often persecuted church forged strong communities: they came to Jesus TOGETHER. They experience the divine in community.
Think about a time in your life when you took a risk to move toward God. It might have been the risk you took at one point to visit Open Table . . . or dust off the Bible you stopped reading years ago . . . or ask big questions . . . or see the world in more nuanced and gracious ways. You took some step that was not comfortable but brought you a sense of being in closer contact with Love’s very source. (Congregation shared examples from their experiences.)
Continuing in this vein, ask yourself, Has a group ever aided you during the times you took a risk to move toward God? Can you recall a time when you dared to do a holy and healing thing because, in part, others supported you in that movement? (Congregation shared responses.)
What happened next to the lepers may have happened to you: They approached Jesus, but then stopped (v. 12) in order to maintain some distance. Immediately after the narrator tells us the lepers approached Jesus, the very next words qualify this movement. They drew nearer. But still kept their distance. Isn’t that how our spiritual journeys feel? Progress. And then a set back. Start. Then stop. Thankfully, even from a distance, the men with leprosy were able to cry out to Jesus for mercy. We don’t have to attain an advanced spiritual state in order to experience Love and Mercy. We don’t have to gain theological expertise to mature in our spiritual lives or receive healing in our relationships. From a distance, we can simply trust the mercy of God in order to receive mercy and become merciful. God is that force that draws us forward and brings us together.
So to recap, these outcasts: 1) approached, 2)stopped, 3) and then left (v. 14). They returned to their communities after Jesus sent them back to their priests, who could verify they’d been made clean. They were not healed instantly. Instead, while the lepers traveled, they were healed while still journeying.
While we are on the road, we are healed. While life is happening, God works in our lives. We are in process, and as we move forward in hope, in expectation of re-connection, in faith that we will be strengthened, we are, in fact, strengthened, reconnected, our hope restored. Some talk about fake it till you make it. Maybe. But I think it’s more like moving out in faith, one step at a time, until you eventually see you’re on down that road. And, as we’re doing right now, we take some time to see where we’ve been. And where we are now. And where we hope to be eventually.
As you pause now along the road you’re on, notice if there’s some part of you that’s being healed. Some relationship strengthened? Some insight gained? Some relinquishing, for example, of the need to be right. Some strengthening of the desire to be kind?
Once we pause along the road toward reunion and hope, we have the chance to do what only one of the ten lepers did. His fourth and final action is to turn back toward Jesus to say thanks. We move toward Jesus, we may pause in our faith journey, we then move out into the world for purposes of reunion, and finally we turn back to God to give thanks.
Interestingly, it’s only at this point in the story that the narrator tells us that the one leper who returns to give thanks is a double outcast. He’s a Samaritan as well as a leper. The last person Jesus’s audience would want to commend—a foreigner of a different religion who was the enemy of the Jews and a despised leper to boot—gets praised for his faith! And he didn’t need a religious authority to verify that he was clean. The Samaritan recognized what had changed within him and immediately “gave thanks with a loud voice.”
This story suggests that gratitude is a mark of healing. And gratitude is also the means of healing. Don’t wait to give thanks after the healing. The thanksgiving may contribute to healing.
I want to end this sermonic journey with my thanks for our faith community, because the gratitude I feel to God for you keeps me going on my journey. I’m grateful for many things, but I want to take a few moments to thank YOU.
If this gets a little too earnest for any of you, try to imagine the keyboardist playing the background music for Jimmy Fallon while he writes his weekly thank you notes on the Tonight Show.
Friends, I thank you first for your courage. It is risky to build the ship while sailing it. A new church—one that intends to be such a different kind of church that there are no pictures to show as examples and not exact models to point to—requires brave souls for its first participants. Without the courage of our first participants, we would not have lasted 7 months—much less 7 years. Together, in less than 7 months, we researched and prayerfully discerned our denomination, our leadership model, our name and mission statement, our initial location, our core values. And in the process you allowed me to cast a vision of what our faith community could be, what our worship life together might look like, what our impact in the larger community might become. I believed then and believe now that my main role was and is to share a vision of church. I believed that “if you want to build a ship, you don’t assign people to gather the wood and tools, divide up the work, and give the orders. You teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” (a paraphrase and translation of an Antoine de Saint Exupery quote). Soon a vision and a longing took hold of some of you. Even though most of you barely knew me, you invested time and money and heart and soul to pursue that mutual longing at an inauspicious time in church history. That took courage.
I thank you also for your depth and earnestness. The folks who finally settle down into the life of Open Table tend not to be the folks who treat church lightly—although they may be folks who say, with bracing honesty, they hate church. Open Table folks do not come to us for the social scene in hopes of hobnobbing with the elites. They are not people who check their brains at the door. Nor do they want church to be predictable and anesthetizing. They are the kind of folks who ask difficult questions. They are the church members who take commitments seriously—but keep their sense of humor and playfulness and even outrageousness. They are those who doubt their way into a deeper faith. They are those who welcome people who are different from them and welcome ideas that are new to them. You, friends, want to be honest with God and one another. That speaks of your authenticity—which some days looks like quirkiness and most days looks very Jesus-y.
Finally, I thank you for your love for one another and your love for me. Just last week one of you mailed me a encouraging card thanking me for my sermons. Others after the service last week told me the worship experience was meaningful. Discouraged clergy colleagues sometimes tell me they aren’t sure their congregations are even listening to their sermons. You show me that—even if you don’t agree with everything I say (nor should you!)—that you are taking seriously our calling to be a caring community of faith. You are forgiving of my shortcomings. And most importantly, you love another. Hey, of course we get on each other’s nerves. We struggle to communicate across personality types. We get overwhelmed with life to the point where we don’t attend to one another’s needs as we might. But for all our flaws, you model so well Jesus’s love.
Thank you. You heal my weary spirit with your gifts of courage, earnestness, and love. I don’t know of another group of folks I’d prefer to journey with toward Jesus. As I thank God with you for our church, I also want express to you my thanks for the healing you bring to my life.
PRAYER: Healing God, continue to move among us as we move toward Jesus. Keep gifting us with courage, deep commitment, and love. May your will be done. Amen