October 8, 2023 ~ Thanksgiving Sunday (CANADA)
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, 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 made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” — Luke 17:11-19 (NRSV)
The first prescribed reading for Thanksgiving Sunday, Lectionary Year “A” comes from the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter eight (vv. 7-18). It calls us to remember that every good thing we have comes from the Lord, who blesses the land and the people in it. Then, in the gospel lesson, Luke tells us about the ten lepers healed by Jesus—only one of whom returned to give thanks.
There’s another Old Testament passage we could have read today—one which throws some light on the predicament of the ten lepers. It’s from the 13th chapter of Leviticus, and it says this:
When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a leprous disease on the skin of his body, he shall be brought to … the priest … The priest shall examine the disease … and if … it is a leprous disease … the priest … shall pronounce him ceremonially unclean … The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be dishevelled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp (Lev. 13:2-3, 45-46).
For centuries before Jesus—and for centuries after him—leprosy was a dreaded disease. It remains so, in much of the world, and it still causes horrible disfigurement. Today, it’s relatively easy to cure—if you can afford the medicine. But in Biblical times, there was no known remedy.
In Jesus’ day, the only solution was to drive afflicted persons out of the community—to forbid them from coming into contact with healthy people. That’s why, as Luke describes the scene, he says the lepers stand far away, calling from a distance: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
These poor souls! They are the ultimate outcasts.
Usually, the only hope for a leper—and it was a pretty faint hope—was that the disease would disappear spontaneously. But even if this happened, the cured leper could not simply return home. No. The community was much too fearful of the disease. Some authority had to certify that the person was truly healed—and that, of course, was the priest at the temple in Jerusalem.
The Book of Leviticus—which is really a “how-to” manual for all kinds of things, including medical care—prescribed a ritual for this. In chapter 14, we read:
… the leprous person … shall be brought to the priest … and the priest shall make an examination. If the disease is healed in the leprous person, the priest shall command that two living clean birds and cedar wood and crimson yarn and hyssop be brought for the one who is to be cleansed. The priest shall command that one of the birds be slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel. He shall take the living bird with the cedar wood and the crimson yarn and the hyssop, and dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall sprinkle it seven times upon the one who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease; then he shall pronounce him clean, and he shall let the living bird go into the open field (Lev. 14:2-7).
In today’s gospel story, this is what Jesus is telling the lepers to do. Now, of course, there’s no point in them going to Jerusalem to see the priest unless they had already been cleansed of their disease, so—as Luke tells us—while they are on their way, at some point they realize their leprosy has miraculously disappeared. Hallelujah!
For most of them, their only aim now is to go see the priest and get certified clean so they can return to their families—and so they continue on their way. However, there’s one of them who really cannot do that—and of course, I’m talking about the one who is a Samaritan.
Samaritans, you may remember, were outcasts from Jewish society to begin with. They worshipped the same God as the Jews did, but they had a different Bible, and they worshipped in a different temple, in a different place. The Jews thought they were heretics, which was almost worse than being unclean. So the Samaritan leper was a double outcast. There’s no point in him going to the Jerusalem temple. He would only meet with contempt from any Jewish priest.
So what will he do? Where will he find a priest that will declare him clean? And then it dawns on him: there is a great High Priest who will receive him. So he hurries back to Jesus, and throws himself at the feet of the one who healed him, and praises God for the great thing that has been done for him. It’s the only place he can go—and the only one he can go to. And he hears the voice of Jesus tell him: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Have you ever found yourself in that position? Where Jesus is the only one you can go to? Where “at his feet” is the only place you can fall?
I know a man who—some 70 years ago, when it was still a big deal—was born out of wedlock. His mother kept him, but she also kept the truth about him secret, passing herself off as a widow, and never letting anyone outside the family get close. The man grew up with this secret—with this shame, with this feeling that polite society would never accept him.
But then somehow, in his teenage years, he got hooked up with a Billy Graham Crusade, and he gave his life to Jesus. And because of that, he found the courage to trust a church community with the truth about himself.
And in that congregation, he discovered, for the first time, a place where his past did not matter—where it really did not matter, at all! So he found not only salvation for his soul, but also healing for his wounded spirit. And I tell you, he heard the voice of Jesus tell him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
I know a woman who—for too many years—was oppressed by an addiction that led her to sell her body on the streets of Vancouver so she would have money for alcohol and drugs. And she thought she would be forever trapped in that hell, where the good and decent people she did encounter crossed the street to avoid her (at least, she thought they were good and decent people, at the time …).
But then her baby daughter was born, addicted to heroin. And that broke her heart—but it also firmed up her resolve to change. So she mustered the courage to step out of her private hell—to chase after the “good and decent” people, to cross to the other side of the street. And (thank God) she found out that a few of them really were decent, after all.
She found her way into a rehab centre, and then a halfway house, and finally into a job and an apartment of her own, and a healthy relationship. She learned to have faith in a Higher Power and, finally, she learned to forgive herself.
She also found her way into a fellowship where God is honoured because the people there know he’s real: not a myth or a metaphor, but a living God. And—while not all of them identify themselves as Christians—all of them identify with her. And I tell you, this is the place where she hears the voice of Jesus tell her, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
I know another woman who not long ago found herself pregnant and unmarried, and faced with a terrible decision. Because, you see, she was strongly pressured to have an abortion and (as it was put to her) “just sweep the whole sorry situation under the rug.”
Except, for her, this was not about a “situation” … it was about her unborn child. So she resolved to have her baby and keep it, even though that would mean she would lose the financial support of her parents and the esteem of many of her friends.
She wasn’t from any kind of religious background, and it would never have occurred to her to go to a church and ask for help. But because she saw one of their advertisements, she got connected with her local Pregnancy Care Centre, which was a faith-based organization. They helped her get set up with a place to live, and—after her child was born—they helped her find employment. And because of her contact with the people at the Care Centre, she also discovered faith.
She got connected with a Christian community where her past didn’t matter … where, in fact, it did not matter at all.
Do I need to tell you whose voice she hears, now, in all the places where she lives and loves and works? You got it … it’s the voice of Jesus, and he’s saying to her: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Now, I have not told that last story because I have some kind of “pro-life” agenda. I pass no judgment upon anyone who, faced with an unwanted pregnancy, makes a different decision. Life choices are rarely simple, and I believe Jesus calls us to respond with compassionate understanding in every circumstance. I told the story because it is an illustration from real life.
In fact, all three of those stories are illustrations from real life. And yes, pregnancy plays a part in each one of them.
Each one of those stories, one way or another, involves a birth. Or maybe two kinds of births. There’s the literal birth of a child. But there’s also the kind of birth that figures in this morning’s gospel passage—which is the birth of faith.
The nine Jewish lepers … well, they already had their own kind of faith. And so they were able to do what Jesus instructed them to do. They could go to the temple, they could go to the priest, and they would fit in there because—now that their leprosy was gone—they were the “right” kind of people. But the one Samaritan leper … where could he go? Not to Jerusalem, that’s for sure! That was not his faith. What’s more, that faith didn’t want him!
But something was born that day in that healed Samaritan—and it was a new kind of faith.
Yes. A new kind of faith: one which did not depend on religious ritual, or upon being “the right kind of person.” A new kind of faith was being born—a new kind of covenant, a new kind of promise—one that’s all about relationship, instead of righteousness.
This, I believe, is what it means to be the church. It’s about being the kind of place where this new faith can be born in people’s hearts—where broken hearts can be mended and healed by it. The church is called to be the birthplace of faith. That’s why it exists.
But there’s more.
Last week—if you attended a service for World Communion Sunday—you may have been reminded that the apostle Paul loved to call the church the “body of Christ.” He said we are all members of one another, and that we all need one another—and that we are the eyes and ears and arms and legs and hands and feet of Jesus in the world today.* And today, I want to tell you that we are not only Jesus’ eyes and ears and arms and legs and hands and feet. We are his voice, as well!
When people show up inside your particular Christian community (whatever “brand” that might be) they are pregnant with faith. They may or may not know that. Sometimes, the world—their lives, their circumstances—have made them so ill, have made them feel so unclean, that they barely notice what’s gestating inside their hearts. But if they do find their way into your company, if they do fall down at Jesus’ feet before you, remember this: Jesus’ feet are our feet! And our voices are the ones that must say to them: “Here’s a place where you can get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
I give thanks today because I know the church can still be that kind of place. And I pray today that it always will be.
* see 1 Corinthians 12:12-27