November 26, 2008
Luke 17:11-19 Sermon

Hymns (from the Service Book and Hymnal):
444 "For The Beauty Of The Earth"
363 "Come Ye Thankful People Come"
443 "Now Thank We All Our God"
450 "We Praise Thee, O God, Our Redeemer Creator"


TEXT (vs. 15-19): "One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice.  He threw himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him- and he was a Samaritan.  Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no-one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?' Then he said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.'

            The Grammy-award-winning singer Mary Chapin Carpenter suffered a pulmonary embolism. She was admitted to an emergency room after experiencing terrible chest pain. A scan revealed blood clots in her lungs. People told her that she should feel lucky because a pulmonary embolism can be fatal. But instead of feeling lucky, she fell into a depression.

            In her essay, "The Learning Curve of Gratitude," on National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition," Carpenter said,

            "Everything I had been looking forward to came to a screeching halt. I had to cancel my upcoming tour. I had to let my musicians and crewmembers go. .... I felt that I had let everyone down. But there was nothing to do but get out of the hospital, go home and get well. I tried hard to see my unexpected time off as a gift, but I would open a novel and couldn't concentrate. I would turn on the radio, then shut it off. Familiar clouds gathered above my head, and I couldn't make them go away with a pill or a movie or a walk. This unexpected time was becoming a curse, filling me with anxiety, fear and self-loathing. All of the ingredients of the darkness that is depression."

            Carpenter's experience of having a pulmonary embolism captures well the fact that the suffering of illness is not simply physical. Physical diseases or illnesses are often accompanied by the pain of isolation and alienation. When we are ill, we feel cut off from our community, cut off from our plans for the future, cut off from hope. Physical illness is often accompanied by "all of the ingredients of the darkness that is depression." 

            To bring this home a little, I know that during the month's time that my own mother was in hospital, the days were very long for her.  It wasn't only the physical problems that were difficult for her, but the psychological ones too.  There are the feelings of despondency and helplessness.  Sometimes it seems like healing will never take place, and that makes the future outlook bleak.  But of course when the physical healing does begin to happen, and there are marked signs of improvement, then hope springs anew.  The Lord has certainly provided healing.   

            In our gospel lesson for this evening, we hear the account of the healing of the ten lepers. In Jesus' day lepers were quite literally cut off from the community because of their physical illness. Leprosy was a name given to any one of a number of various diseases.   

            The actual disease of Leprosy we know today as Hansen's disease. In those days, it was a condition that was met with fear and ignorance. The leper was to be removed from sight and isolated from all communal and religious contact. In Leviticus, the law says, "The leper who has the disease shall wear torn cloths and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, ‘unclean, unclean.' He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp." Disease and isolation are multiple illnesses.

            While Jesus is traveling by a village on the way to Jerusalem, the group of ten lepers draws near, but they are also careful not to get too close. They drew near out of their need; but they kept their distance because of their disease. Their illness created a barrier between them and others, and between themselves and the community.

            But notice that in the presence of Jesus, the lepers do not cry out "Unclean, unclean." Rather, they cry out, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us."  Out of the pain of their disease they say, "Jesus, have mercy on us." Out of the depths of their isolation they say, "Master, have mercy on us."

            This was not just some idle cry or request.  These were words of faith.  These lepers knew who Jesus was, and that he had the power to heal them of their disease.  They knew that Jesus was indeed true God, and that nothing would be impossible for him.  For someone who could change water into wine, and who could heal a blind man, and who could even raise the dead, a healing miracle like this one should be no problem for him.  

            And so Jesus does in fact heal them, without any glitz or glamour. He tells them to go and show themselves to the priest as the law requires when someone is healed. And as they go, they are made clean. Restored to health, they will also be restored to the community. No more wearing torn cloths, tattered garments on a tattered body. No more long hair hanging over their blotched and blemished faces. No more yelling out "Unclean, unclean" from covered lips. No more dwelling alone outside the camp.

            But a funny thing happens on the way to see the priests. One of them turns back and praises God. He falls down on his face at Jesus' feet and he thanks him. And the surprise ending of this story is that the leper who praises God and gives thanks for his healing is a Samaritan. He was not only physically ill, but also a social and religious outcast. The one isolated not only by illness, but also by his culture and religion turns back and gives praise to God.

            In the return of a foreigner who gives praise to God, we have a story that is not just about physical healing. It is a story about the healing of all those things that keep us separated from each other and exiled from God. All of our pain, all of our fear, all of our anxiety, and all of our sin is healed through faith in Christ Jesus.

            Our sin can be seen in the same way as a disease like leprosy.  We have become unclean.  Our sins have separated us from God.  On our own, by ourselves, we can't even draw near to God, or make a personal plea for him to heal us.  Without God, we would still be wandering around in the wilderness, carrying the burden of our disease.

            But we know that God does love us, and he has mercy on us.  Therefore we cry out to Jesus "Have pity on us!  Forgive us!  Restore us!  Make us clean!"

            And we know that Jesus does that very thing.  The Holy Spirit gives us the power to seek after Jesus for that healing.  Our cries are cries of faith.  Through faith in Jesus our Saviour, we have experienced the cleansing and healing act of forgiveness and restoration.  Through faith in Jesus, we are brought back into fellowship with God as members of his divine family.

            Out of our pain, out of our isolation, out of our despair we cry out across the abyss, "Lord, have mercy on us." In the presence of Christ, in the nearness of the Lord, we are healed, made whole, restored to our community and reconciled to God.

            Mary Chapin Carpenter found healing for the darkness of her depression at the grocery store. She says:

            "One morning, the young man who rang up my groceries and asked me if I wanted paper or plastic also told me to enjoy the rest of my day. I looked at him and I knew he meant it. It stopped me in my tracks. I went out and I sat in my car and cried. What I want, more than ever, is to appreciate that I have this day, and tomorrow and hopefully days beyond that. I am experiencing the learning curve of gratitude. I don't want to say ‘have a nice day' like a robot. I don't want to get mad at the elderly driver in front of me. I don't want to go crazy when my Internet access is messed up. I don't want to be jealous of someone else's success. You could say that this litany of sins indicates that I don't want to be human. The learning curve of gratitude, however, is showing me exactly how human I am."

            The learning curve of gratitude. It's a lovely phrase. It's something we learn along the way. Here's how Mary Chapin Carpenter will begin:

            "Tonight I will cook dinner, tell my husband how much I love him, curl up with the dogs, watch the sun go down over the mountains and climb into bed. I will think about how uncomplicated it all is. I will wonder at how it took me my entire life to appreciate just one day."

            Our earthly lives are a journey, somewhere between Samaria and Galilee, between illness and health, between exile and return. We are all traveling along the way. Because of the frailty of our bodies we will all succumb to illness at some point in our lives. Because of the devices and desires of the sinful human heart, we all suffer from the fear and distrust that separates us from our neighbors and puts us at odds with God.

            But rather than remaining within the darkness of our sin and despair and keeping ourselves at a great distance from others, our Lord Jesus bids us draw near, even as he draws near. He awaits our faithful cry for mercy and he responds by forgiving our sins, by making us whole, by restoring us to life with others and by reconciling us with God.

            And he keeps scanning the horizon, looking for the other people whom he has already healed, who will realize one day that they too are already forgiven, that they too are already being made whole, who will return to him, and give thanks and praise to God.

            As we gather once again this evening to give thanks to God as he has commanded us to do, we do so with a joyful heart.  We have come here tonight to return to Jesus just like that one leper did.  We who have received the healing touch of Jesus continue to maintain and strengthen our relationship with him through regular worship at God's house, through devotion, and through prayer.

            We know that Jesus has heard our cries for mercy, and he has responded to us just like he responded to those ten lepers so long ago.

            And so I bid you a happy Thanksgiving!  All thanks and praise to God!