This sermon was preached in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd on October 6, 2010 as part of Preaching 1. It was modified and delivered twice at St. Paul's Chapel the following Sunday, October 10.
Joseph P. Mathews
PR1 - Lab C
In the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, who creates, redeems, and sustains us. Amen.
When I first looked at this passage I was excited! A plain reading of our text today about the ten lepers being healed but only one of them coming to Jesus to thank him is where I wanted to go. I wanted to talk about how it is right and a good and joyful thing always and everywhere to give thanks to Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth. I wanted to preach about the joy of gratitude.
And then I did a little homework to get some background information on the text.
An online commentary I regularly consult starts off this way, “The temptation to moralism with this story of ‘ungrateful lepers’ is very strong...we all should do better expressing thanks to God. But this text isn’t about moralism.”
Moralism? I didn’t want to preach about moralism, I wanted to be joyful. Good news in gratitude. The author of the commentary said, “It’s almost always okay to preach about gratitude...but this text isn’t the best support for it!”
So I sat and read and listened to the Spirit. And this text isn’t about moralism, but rather ritual cleanliness and priestly work. The ten lepers in our story today were ritually unclean in addition to being sick. This ritual uncleanliness had bonded together an interesting group of people: nine Judeans and a Samaritan, who otherwise would not have been hanging out together. Ethnicity didn’t matter at this point. They were all on the margins, and they were in community with one another.
But they longed to be in their greater communities, the way one feels when moving to seminary from her sponsoring congregation...or New York in general when moving away from all family and friends. This group of ten was on the outside, and they cried out to Jesus for healing. The way these people could come back into their communities, however, was not for Jesus to simply heal them and send them on their way.
No, a priest had to examine them and declare them clean, and here’s the crux of our story. The nine Judeans do what Jesus says to do not because they’re ungrateful, but because they have to. He sends them to a priest, and as they go they realize they’ve been healed and can thus show themselves to the priest. They aren’t being ungrateful, they’re following directions. In their cultural context they would not have thanked Jesus anyway; they weren’t longing to just be healed, but to be welcomed back into the communities. That required a Judean priest declaring them clean, not an itinerant rabbi healing their physical illness. Gratitude would be shown to the person who made the declaration of cleanliness.
The nine Judeans do what they’re told to do. The Samaritan man, though doesn’t. When he realizes he’s been healed he turns around and thanks Jesus. And here’s the turning point. Rather than going to a samaritan priest, this man comes to Jesus and thanks him. Jesus tells him that his faith has made him well and doesn’t send him back to a priest but sends him on his way. In this Samaritan’s act of thanksgiving the Samaritan man says, “You’re the priest I need.” Jesus’s declaration of cleanliness Jesus is his assent to being the priest for the outsider, the marginalized, the one who slips through the cracks.
Jesus is not just the healer, but the one who reconciles outcasts to broader communities and integrates them into societal life. Jesus taught his ragtag band of followers that because of their faith in him, they could also be reconcilers, welcoming the people around them who were physically or ritually “unclean” back into community. And guess what? We’re Jesus’s ragtag band of followers now. This event with the Samaritan leper might as well have been Jesus writing the mission of the church as The Episcopal Church understands it.
Our catechism says, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people unity with God and each other in Christ. The church pursues its mission as its prays and worships, proclaims the gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.” Our mission is to reconcile each other to one another and to God. Our mission is to love and do acts of service to all people, especially for those on the margins.
Think about times that you’ve done this kind of work. Do you do it for the thanks you get? When you open the shelter is that because you want the women to thank you? Or what about when you work at St. Martin’s? Mission trips around the country and around the world?...the work that you plan on doing as priests ordained in this church? Do you do any of that because you want thanks?
Or do you do it not just because you have to, but because of the value you place on that role. I shouldn’t project. When I’ve done these types of things it’s not because I want someone to thank me. When I worked in Alabama one summer leading youth groups in repairing roofs and doing other home repair projects, it wasn’t because I wanted people to thank me. It was because I had been given good news of Jesus’s works of reconciliation that I wanted to share. I wanted to help these people who felt outcast and downtrodden know that they were loved by their sibling travelers on the way and by the God who created them.
And I made promises at my confirmation, when I reaffirmed my baptism, to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ and to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. In water and the spirit we are baptized into Christ and all of God’s acts of redemption. In our Gospel passage today Jesus says non-verbally, “Here I am, the one who serves as the priest to the outsider, bringing them back into community with the human family.” We have been joined to that example and witness and given a task of reconciliation, outreach, and love.
At the table we’re strengthened for our journey and continually reconciled to God and one another. Because there is one loaf we who are many are one body. Let’s be about God’s business of reconciliation and welcoming the stranger into the body. Amen.