Saturday, March 19, 2011

“Unlikely Praise” - Luke 11:11-19 - March 20, 2011

A pickup truck arrived at the Young canopy loaded with vegetables. They called Cathy up to meet with the man and the story surprised and pleased her. It seems that he was a dental patient at the Good Shepherd clinic and while he could not pay – and did not have to pay – for his dental care he wanted to do something to show his appreciation. He told Cathy that he did not have much money, but did grow vegetables. He wanted to bless others like he had blessed by the dental clinic. His attitude of gratitude touched everyone there that morning. His expression of appreciation caught everyone of guard.

My phone rang and as soon as the receptionist told me the caller’s name I knew exactly who he was. I do not think I will ever forget him. You see the night before Elizabeth had come into the church and told me that she was frightened by a man who approached her in our parking lot. I was a little surprised because she regularly engages the homeless and struggling folks that sometime find their way here. It was obvious that something was different about that man. It did not take me long to figure it out. About that time a large man – no, a very large man – a man so big he made me feel child-sized came around the corner. I am not a small man and am not easily intimidated, but I was clear in a second that if this man became agitated I had a problem. I asked him to sit down, partly to ease him, partly to help me be a little less consumed by his size, and we began to talk. He had made some bad choices but had put his life back on the right track. There was a church in Edmond who had promised to help him take the next step in his life journey, but it was Sunday night and there was no bus service and he did not know what to do. He did not want anything from us really, just some help to get where he needed to go. I grabbed him and me a soft drink and I sat there and listened as he told some of his life story. He desperately wanted to do the right things. He has paid dear price for his bad decisions. He kept apologizing for being so big and scary looking. He wanted me to know that he was actually a nice and gentle man. After a little while I worked with Jerry to help get him to Edmond. When he called the next morning I have to admit I was waiting for the hook. Did the church in Edmond not come through? Did he decide he needed our help after all? I wondered what he wanted. Then his words stopped me in my tracks. He was calling just to say “thank you.” He wanted me to know how much he appreciated the time we had shared when he told me his story. He thanked me for treating him like a man rather than a problem. He told me, “you know because of my size most people just want to get rid of me, you sat and had a Coke with me, like people do.” His attitude of gratitude blew me away. What had been just another encounter with someone from the street had turned into a moment of thanksgiving to God.

Jesus and his disciples were on the road somewhere between Galilee and Samaria. These two places were not close, so it seems that what Luke is trying to tell us that Jesus and his disciples were on the road in the middle of nowhere. There on the roadside at the out of the way village Jesus encounters ten men with leprosy who were standing off at a distance calling out for mercy. Some scholars contend that the village may have been a small leper colony, and there seems to be some merit to this idea since it would have been unusual to see so many lepers in one place. The remote location would have also made sense because the community wanted lepers as far away as possible from them. Leprosy was and is high contagious and it was a symbol of being unclean in both body and soul. The ten cry out, probably like they had done hundreds to times before. They could do nothing to change their lives. They need people to respond to them in mercy.

Then something happens that changes everything. Our scripture says that Jesus “saw” them. The word he does not imply that he glanced their way or even looked at them. It says he saw them and responded to them. There are many in our society that feel like they are invisible. They feel helpless to change their life or their way of life. Part of why I am so thankful for Good Shepherd, for KidsHope, for S3, for the AARP tax help partnership, and for many of our mission and ministry expressions is that it makes us in the “seeing” business; encountering people, seeing their faces, hearing their stories, investing in their lives. Jesus saw the ten and moved into action. The passage tells us; “he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priest.” And as they went they were cleansed. Jesus sent them to the priests because they were the only ones that could pronounce them “clean.” They were the only ones who the community would hear and allow them back into the community again. Part of what I love about this passage is the picture of how Jesus healed them. He did not lay hands on them. He did not call heaven down on them. He did not say any magic words. He spoke and “as they went they were cleansed.”

You would have thought that the healing of the lepers would be a powerful enough story in its own right. But, something happens next that stops everyone in their tracks. Then one of them, when he saw he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice, and fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “We not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

I do not want you to hear that Jesus is not responsive to the one who returned to give thanks. In fact, the response of the one creates an opportunity for Jesus to teach us something significant. You see the one that returned to give praise would have been seen as the wrong one. He was an outsider in the truest sense. As a Samaritan he would have been considered unworthy and unacceptable to the Jewish community even before he got leprosy. This moment of praise is another one of those moments when the disciples’ attitude on race and culture would have been confronted in a way beyond their expectation or imagination. The nine like them were cleansed but never came back to Jesus. They received their healing and went back to their families and previous lives. They had an encounter with God and missed it. That day only one was truly made whole. Only one understood what had happened to him. Only one understood that he had been touched by the hand of God – healed by the love of God. Only one claimed an attitude of gratitude that carried him to the feet of Jesus. Only one! He alone was the one to hear Jesus say to him, “Rise and go your way, your faith has made you well. “ This Samaritan, this source of unlikely praise, was the one to be healed both in body and soul.

Luke never tells us what happens to the other nine. I have to wonder if they were so glad to have their bodies cleansed, to be acceptable to others again, that they never even thought about the need for more. I have to wonder if they were so wrapped up in the security they found in their own cultural set up that they could not have conceived of humbling themselves in gratitude to Jesus. I have to wonder if they thought their place in the religious culture was sufficient for their connection with God. I have to wonder if they thought of Jesus as a travelling “healer” and never gave a second thought about the prospect that they had just seen the face of God.

Where do you find yourself in this story? Are you one of the disciples on the road with Jesus, spectators to a moment of healing? They are the ones Jesus was trying to teach. They were the ones who needed to understand that the Kingdom of God was an upside down kingdom where praise comes from the least likely places. They are the ones that Jesus wanted to confront their own prejudices and biases and to see God move beyond their expectations. They are the ones that Jesus wanted to understand that the only right response to the love and grace of God was a humble thankfulness that carries them – and us – to our face at the feet of God.

Maybe you see yourself as one of the ten calling out for mercy, feeling isolated and cast out, needing for God to step into your life and change everything.

Maybe you see yourself as one of the nine. You know that God is at work in your life, but it is hard to let go of your confidence in your own capacities long enough to humble yourself – ourselves –before God. You know that God is at work in your life, but it is hard to admit that you have to have God at the center of your life. It is easier to live in the comfortable routines of life and to claim the joys of economic and cultural blessing based on who you are, rather than claiming a way of life where all that you are is who you are at God’s feet.

Maybe you see yourself as the one who has been so moved by the healing touch of God that you want nothing more than to heal the voice of God pronouncing you whole. You have lived a fractured life long enough. You are ready to be healed – to be made truly whole – by God.

Look, I see Jesus and his disciples coming up the road now. I hear people crying out for mercy. I look at the gaze of Jesus and see the intensity of how he is looking at those who need healing – he seems to not only to be looking at them, but looking into the hearts and lives. I wonder whose life he will change today? I wonder if it might be mine? Amen.

(I would like to credit the artist for the painting used in today's blog but I cannot find a name tied to the painting. All references indicate that the artist is unknown. If you know who painted this painting please let me know so I can give the artist the mention they deserve.)

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