Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost – World Communion Sunday – October 6, 2019
We were moving towards the end of the spring semester of our senior year at Emory & Henry College, looking forward to graduation and, honestly, little else. So much of what had been glossy and new at the outset of the fall term was now dull and faded, evidenced by the attendance of members of the chapel choir for pre-worship rehearsal on Sunday morning. Emory & Henry has a large, Reveille-like United Methodist sanctuary on its campus who worships each week and who draws people from both the campus and the wider community in Washington County. During the school year, its choir is comprised of students and back then, was directed by its founder, an alum named Charles “Doc” Davis.
Doc was a legend on campus and had been dating back to his days as a student when he was was the handsome young quarterback of the championship football team, the man who would return to campus to teach and found a remarkably talented touring choir. Yet on this Sunday morning in 1993, as but a handful of weary, sleep-deprived students entered the basement fellowship hall that doubled as our warm-up space, he could barely contain his ire as he realized that the students standing before him were all he was going to have to work with as he helped lead worship that morning.
And so he let us have it: Where are the rest of you? Where is everyone else? I could not have been more clear that we were singing in worship today and that this was the time for us warm-up. I am so disappointed! Such a lack of commitment. This is very disheartening! Very disheartening indeed!
This berating went on for a few minutes more before my friend Toby, a bass who was standing beside me raised his hand and gently reminded him, “Doc, we’re here.”
And for a second it stunned him. He stood there for a few moments as he came to terms with the fact that he was quite literally preaching to the choir before standing straight and proclaiming, as though it had been his thought all along, “Yes you are! So let’s warm up and go lead worship!”
In one of his commentaries on this morning’s text, Bishop William H. Willimon points out how this reading, one is only found in Luke’s gospel, is usually preached. Preachers tend to save it for the Thanksgiving service and then use it as an entreaty to remember to give thanks, to not be like the nine ungrateful lepers who left Jesus, and to be more like the lowly Samaritan who remembered to come back. The problem, however, is that such a reading is barely, if at all, faithful to the text. It misses the cultural and religious nuance of the story and makes it too much about us and too little about Christ and his miraculous, gracious action on behalf of all ten lepers in this beautiful, timeless story.
In this morning’s text, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he is to be crucified. As he does so, he passes through the region between Galilee and Samaria. The Jews of Jesus’ day had no relationship with Samaritans, who they considered unclean apostates of the true faith of Judaism, people who worshipped God in the wrong place (Mount Gerizim and not Jerusalem), who did not keep the Jewish codes, who had a somewhat different Ten Commandments, who rejected the authority of classical Jewish rabbinical works called the Talmud and the Mishnah, and who had different sacred texts. The Jews of Jesus day would not even drink out of a cup that had been used by a Samaritan. Likewise, in Luke 9, the Samaritans forbade Jesus and his disciples from passing through one of their villages on their way to Jerusalem, because their own laws forbade pilgrimages to what they considered the incorrect holy city.
Yet on today’s journey, it appears that Jesus is either passing through a Samaritan area, or is at least close to one. He is approached by ten people with leprosy. The word leprosy is used in the Bible to refer to a number of different diseases of the skin. It is believed that the Bible actually speaks of a disease called Tzaraath, which is translated into Greek as lepra, a cognate of leprosy, but a different skin disease from leprosy, or what is called Hansen’s Disease today. Tzaraath means “smiting” and it was believed that this disease was a punishment from God for sin.
If a person was afflicted with Tzaraath in their skin, they were required to wear torn clothes, keep their hair unkempt, cover the lower part of their face, live “outside the camp” and cry out “Unclean, unclean” whenever anyone approached, and reside away from other people. This isolation wasn’t necessarily due to concerns over the contagiousness of the disease, but rather due to concerns about the risk of moral corruption to other people. Thus, those who suffered from this disease would have suffered physical, emotional, and spiritual pain.
As Jesus approached these ten lepers, these people who in Jesus’ community would have had strikes against them because of their religion and their illness, cry out to Jesus.
The ten lepers approach Jesus, “Yet instead of crying out “Unclean! Unclean!” they cry out, “Master! Have mercy on us!” and Jesus does have mercy upon them. Jesus, showing that his Kingdom is forever larger than even his followers sometimes think, showing that he has come into the world not to condemn but to liberate and to save, shows them and shows us that his grace is greater than our sin and our pain as he has mercy on them. Jesus who is on his way to Jerusalem, not to save just his own people but to die on the cross and save the entire world, tells them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they do, Luke tells us that they are made clean.
Which brings me to the easily-missed nuance of this text: it appears to me that of the ten lepers who approach Jesus, nine of them are Jews and only one is a Samaritan. We know that the one who returns to thank Jesus is a Samaritan because Luke says so. However, when Jesus says in verse eighteen “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” he implies that the other nine were not foreigners. They were Jews who were obeying the law by showing to the priests that they had been made clean, a law not binding upon the Samaritan who would not have been required to visit the priests outside of his own faith.
So what does any of this have to do with a joy-filled life or stewardship or the church today? What a nuanced reading of this text says to me is that, in the church today, we can be too focused on the nine and not appreciative enough of the one Samaritan who returned. With apologies for all of those Thanksgiving sermons that criticized the nine more than it celebrated the one, I believe there is more to the story than that, and I will tell you why.
Since 2014, our average Sunday worship attendance has declined from 429 people each Sunday to 314. The reasons for this are as varied and multifaceted as the people who comprise this church we call Reveille, and they mirror changes we are seeing in the larger denomination as well as the larger American religious landscape. According to Gallup, Reveille’s decline follows very closely the national trend during this time.
As I was preparing this sermon and attempting to find ways to illustrate it, which is challenging when you are dealing with gospel stories because the stories themselves are such good illustrations, especially in the Gospel of Luke, I remembered the story from college with which I opened this sermon, and the plan was to tell it in a way that only poked fun at my wonderful old college choir director, the one who dressed down the present because of his deep frustration with the absent.
And as I thought about this, I heard the Spirit say to me, “Son, that is you. Do you really believe you have been behaving any differently, any better, than he did? You have been frustrated, stomping around this church for years trying to fix this and fix that and making it about you and what you can and cannot do.”
“Yet, how much of this time have you truly dedicated to giving thanks for the “Samaritans” in your midst, ones who keep coming back? Do not forget, do not ever forget to give thanks to the people who are present, for to a person, each one is there because of the work of the Holy Spirit in their midst.”
In today’s text, Jesus indeed asks where the nine who did not return, the nine who went to the priests so that they could stop being ostracized by the whole of society, those who still matter to Jesus and who should matter to us. And yet, Jesus also gives thanks for the one, the outsider, the outcast who came back, even though he was a Samaritan, a member of a people who dismissed Jesus the last time he was in the neighborhood, back in chapter nine.
When you work in the church in 2019, it is all too easy to accept an ethos of scarcity, despite the fact that scarcity itself runs contrary to the entire New Testament witness. It is so easy to stand in the church basement and look at a shrinking group of college students standing in their green choir robes ready to go and only think about those who are not there. It is too easy to stand in a pulpit on a Sunday morning, see an increasing number of empty pews and wonder how it all went wrong to a point where you find yourself thinking about little, if anything else.
This week’s preparation for this morning was like a punch in the arm for me, and still, it was just what I needed, for it convicted me, forced me to get on my knees and repent for not saying more regularly and more loudly to those of you who are hanging in there how glad I am that you are here, and more importantly, what a gift to God that honors God that it is that you are here. It is the gospel made visible and it makes all the difference.
I spent the past week reading about gratitude and what my research confirmed for me is not that happy people tend to show gratitude, it is that people who demonstrate gratitude tend to be happy. Were only the former true, only the prosperous would be happy, but time spent in ministry to and with the poor has served to teach me that you can be happy, that you can rejoice, regardless of what you have, if you are just grateful for it.
My youngest daughter is named Claire and she turns eleven tomorrow. For the better part of two years, she has been dealing with severe abdominal pain that a bevy of doctors has been unable to conclusively diagnose, leading us, among other things, to try a number of different diets. It has been a long, hard, slog, one that at some points made it difficult for Claire to even make it through entire school days. There were nights when the pain would be so great that all I could do was to hold her in my arms while she cried and cried out like the psalmist “Why won’t God help me? I keep asking him and he doesn’t help!”
However, this school year has been better. The attacks of pain are much, much less frequent and we seem to be coming out of the forest. This past Wednesday night, we were driving home in the dark down River Road from our Evensong service in our chapel, with its contemplative worship in the candlelight, and she said to me from the back seat “I like coming to church. I really do.”
“I am so glad to hear that,” I told her.
She said, “I feel like for so long, that I kept asking and asking God to make me better, but now I am better, and now instead of asking him over and over and over again to make me well, I can come to church and just thank him for helping me so much.”
The famed preacher of New York’s Riverside Church, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin writes, “Duty only calls when gratitude fails to prompt.’ What do I love about Reveille? It is a place where a ten-year-old can work out her salvation and know and get right with the God who made her, claims her, loves her, and redeems her, and when we give of ourselves, time, talent, money, all of it, and when we do it in gratitude, we really do change lives, young lives, old lives, and everything in between.
Let me be clear, Claire’s story is not borne of her being a pastor’s daughter. It comes instead from you, your generosity that keeps this church living and serving on this corner, day after day, week after week, offering after offering. As for me and my household, it is best money we spend each month, for it allows us, in the words of the psalmist, to give back to God for the blessings poured out on us.
In your bulletins this morning, you will find heart-shaped post-it notes upon which I am asking you, as an act of worship, to write something you love about Reveille, and then I am asking you, as an act of worship, to attach that post-it to the harvest boards in the welcome center. Doing so will remind us why, through it all, we do what we do here, for the sake of Christ, his church, and the world he came to save.
Through it all, the church is still built upon the foundation of Christ, and it is still, through it all, hope for the world, and on this World Communion Sunday, as we gather with believers of every tongue, race, and creed, that hope is enough. Gratitude brings us joy, and that joy changes the world for good. Thanks be to God.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.