Coming close and saying thanks

RCL Year C, Proper 23


At the Family Camp Jim and I help lead every summer, we don’t just read our scriptures, we act them out. The priest who was here a few weeks ago to lead the service, Donald Schell, is especially wonderful at engaging the whole congregation in playing different parts of the story. We had this story this past summer, so we acted out the lepers in a clump over here, staying away and not coming too close to Jesus who was over here, and then taking off joyfully in the other direction as soon as they see they’re healed. But then the one Samaritan leper turned back and came right up to Jesus, falling at his feet and thanking him, hugging his knees. Sometimes when you see the story in front of you, you get it in a whole different way.

Because this story is all about that staying away and coming close, and what those two choices mean.

The ten lepers call out to Jesus for help, but they keep their distance from him. They’re supposed to do that. They’re unclean because of their skin disease, and they’re not allowed close to people who are clean. But they know Jesus can help them, so they raise their voices to bridge the distance between them. Jesus heals them immediately, but all he says to them is, ‘Go show yourselves to the priests.’ Go do the proper ritual so that you can come close again to people, be part of society and restored to the Jewish people. So they set off to do just that. But the Samaritan, the extra-unclean one, the non-Jew, comes back, comes right up to Jesus and grabs hold of him. And it’s him that Jesus delights in – where are the others? he asks. Well, the answer is that they’re off doing what Jesus told them to do – they’re following the rules and performing the ritual they’re supposed to do. But Jesus doesn’t seem to care about that – he’s thrilled instead at the foreigner, the one who didn’t do what he told him, but who instead came back, this time coming close. Your faith has made you well, he tells him. You are more than healed from your skin disease, in other words. You are completely well, restored to full, whole life again. Never mind that ritual – your relationship with God is whole and intact.

Of course there’s an agenda to this story in Luke’s gospel, with the Samaritan again being the hero of the tale, just like in the parable of the Good Samaritan (also in Luke). The enemy isn’t really the enemy after all. Samaritans worshiped the same God, but in a different way, with Mt Gerizim as their center of worship rather than Jerusalem. If this Samaritan leper were to show himself to the priests, it would be on that mount, not in Jerusalem with the other nine. So part of this is like what Jesus says to the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel of John: God is greater than our divisions; which ritual and holy place you use isn’t the point. Even Samaritans, and Gentiles, and all those ‘other’ people, are part of the kingdom of God. In our own world of many religions, with Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, and others all part of our community, this is an important point for us too to take from the story.

But it goes deeper than religious tolerance. Jesus doesn’t just tell the Samaritan, that’s fine, you can go to your own priest to do the ritual. He commends him for coming back to say thank you even though he doesn’t do the ritual, and he wonders aloud at the other nine who don’t. The ten lepers ask for something and receive it, no questions asked. Jesus doesn’t give any stipulation before healing them of their disease – the issue isn’t their being worthy of the healing. The issue is what they do with what they’ve been given once they have it. The nine who head off to the priests are consumers of a commodity, of services offered. They get the healing and walk off with it in joy, heading off to the temple to pay in ritual form for what they’ve received. The one who returns, however, comes back to the one who gave that healing to him. Instead of being a consumer of Jesus’ services, he moves to being in relationship with Jesus – now he is close in instead of far off, engaged in conversation with Jesus, touching Jesus. His gratitude impels him to relationship and praise – he doesn’t take this healing for granted. No price can be paid for what he receives; his healing leads him directly into wholeness of life in God.

We are beginning our pledge drive at ECA today, moving into a short but intense period of thought and prayer together about what we are grateful for. Our wonderful stewardship chair Andy Kerr has a packet with your name on it, something for you to take home with you as you pause to consider the gifts God has given you. Over the next few weeks I invite you – I expect you – to take some real time for this. This reading offers us some good questions for our thinking. Sit down in a quiet place, talk together with your spouse or others, and ask yourself: How has God heard you when you have cried out across the distance? When have you been drawn to come in close to God? What have you been healed of in your life? What healing have you witnessed around you, maybe here in this congregation of ECA? Take some time to notice what has happened to you; take some time to wallow in the joy and gratitude.

And then let that gratitude impel you to action. Praise God for what God has done for you. Tell others about it. Tell God about it. And let your life show the fruits of this gratitude – in your living and in your giving.

For our money, like our behavior, is a tangible part of our spiritual lives. We give because we know that we have received. So I ask you to consider in these next few weeks what money you will give to this church, and to other places where you see God at work. But I ask you to give as the one Samaritan leper does, not as the nine. Don’t give as a fee for service, a price paid for a commodity received. (I’ve been to church 40 times this past year, say $10 per service, ok, I’ll give $400.) Don’t give as a token religious act, the right thing to do. (I have to give something – $100 won’t hurt much.) Give as one way of saying thank you, one way of prostrating yourself at Jesus’ feet in gratitude for your healing. Here’s everything, God, my whole self at your feet – you can help me decide how much I have to set aside to live on. That’s the fullness of live, the wellness, that the one Samaritan leper receives. And that’s the closeness we are all invited into. Amen.