November 23, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
AREN’T YOU FORGETTING SOMETHING?
Our daughter Kelsey is visiting this weekend. It seems to me she was born about five years ago, and yet she’s getting close to her 30th birthday. I’m not sure how that works.
One of Kelsey’s favorite books about 28 years ago was, Aren’t You Forgetting Something, Fiona? It’s the story of an elephant named Fiona with an embarrassing problem. She was always forgetting things. This problem was especially embarrassing because Fiona was an elephant and elephants are supposed to never forget. Her family does everything they can think of to help her to remember. They get her a calendar. They have her tie a string around her trunk. It’s a cute story. The only reason I can remember so much of it is because I read it to Kelsey and our other children so many times.
We had a little thing going on in our family. Whenever one of our children would forget something, we would say, “Aren’t you forgetting something, Fiona?” It probably got a little old after awhile. Children are always forgetting things. Our children will probably get even in the very near future when their parents’ memory starts to fade and they ask us that same question!
I thought of Kelsey’s book when I read our scripture lesson for today. Jesus heals ten lepers. Only one of them bothers to take the time to say thanks. I want to say to the nine, “Aren’t you forgetting something, Fiona??”
That’s the way most of us learned manners. When we forget to say those magic words, please and thank you, a parent would ask, “Aren’t you forgetting something?” We heard that question over and over. We got so tired of hearing that annoying question that eventually we started using good manners without being prompted.
It makes you wonder what is wrong with the nine lepers who forget to say thank you. Maybe their parents didn’t teach them. Maybe they just don’t care. Maybe they have an entitlement mentality. They deserve all the good things that come their way. They have no concept of gratitude.
We are wrapping up our fall stewardship emphasis, but stewardship is actually something we need to be emphasizing all year long. This is a scripture about stewardship. It’s about how we respond to the abundance that surrounds us in life. We can respond in one of two ways. With gratitude. That is, by giving back, beginning by giving thanks. Or, as in the case of the nine lepers, we can take and take and take without a thought in the world that anything more is required of us.
That’s the usual interpretation of this passage. It’s there to teach us a moral lesson. Be thankful. Don’t take your blessings for granted. That’s a pretty good message for this Thanksgiving Sunday. But I want to go a little deeper. There’s more here than this simple and obvious interpretation. Whenever we go deeper with scripture it’s amazing the treasure we find buried beneath the surface. So let’s see what we can find in this story of the ten lepers.
First, a detail that will become important later. We are told that Jesus “was passing along between Samaria and Galilee.” Samaria was enemy territory. Samaria was home of the Samaritans. Good Jews were taught to hate and despise the Samaritans. And to keep a safe distance from them. But Jesus is right on the edge of Samaria. He is dangerously close.
And then he happens upon these lepers. It says, “he was met by ten lepers”. Actually they didn’t “meet” them in the usual sense. They kept their distance. That was required by law.
Kind of like the laws and restrictions that are being enforced in our day to keep Ebola from spreading. Think about the people who experience this isolation and rejection. It’s bad enough to have a terrible disease. It’s made much worse to be cut off from other human beings. Necessary or not, it would be terrible to live that way.
Life as a leper was a terrible life. You suffered both physically and emotionally. People need people. And lepers were required to keep away from people.
In fact, the Bible said they had to make extra sure no one got too close by crying out, “Unclean! Unclean!” whenever anybody approached (Leviticus 13:45). They were required to say that. So here is a puzzling observation: They don’t say that to Jesus. Instead they say, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” What they say to Jesus is a form of the prayer that has been important to the church ever since. “Kyrie eleison.” “Lord, have mercy.” If you’ve ever been to a Catholic Church, you know they say that all the time. So why did the lepers say that? Why didn’t they say, “Unclean! Unclean!” as they were required to? Or if not that, why didn’t they say something like, “Jesus, heal us, please!!” Why would they say, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us”?
Here’s what I think. I think Luke is being sneaky. We remember Luke from the Acts series. Luke wrote both Luke and Acts. He wrote both the story of Jesus and the story of the Church. And I think he is using this story about the ten lepers to deliver a message to church people. Church people like the people we read about in Acts. And church people like you and me today. He’s doing more than telling the story straight. He’s telling the story in such a way to help followers of Jesus in the church to see what this story has to say to them.
Jesus tells the lepers to go and show themselves to the priests. This is according to Levitical law. If you were one of the fortunate few to be healed of leprosy, you had to verify that you were truly healed. It was the priest who would examine you and render the verdict on whether or not your healing was for real. But wait. Jesus sends these lepers to the priests before they had been healed! They are on their merry way to get a clean bill of health while their bodies are still covered with leprosy. Because it specifically says, “While they were on their way they were healed.”
What a beautiful illustration of what faith means! Faith means going in anticipation of the promise. Going before you even know for sure that that is promised is going to be delivered. You don’t wait until God answers your prayers. You don’t wait for God to do his thing. You just go. Faith means going. Not sitting still. Not giving up. Not feeling sorry for yourself. But heading down the path, not knowing for sure where the path is leading, just trusting that God is with you on the journey and that is enough to know.
These lepers don’t act like medical patients asking for healing. They act like church people asking for grace. “Lord, have mercy.” They act like people who come to church with their lives all screwed up, or flattened out, or wasting away, hoping that maybe, just maybe, what is promised here at church is real. That what is promised here at church will be just what they need. People come to church and sit through the service and then leave with their lives pretty much the same as they were before with one difference. They leave trusting that God is leaving with them. Trusting that God’s promise for their lives is a promise that will come true. “While they were on their way they were healed.”
Remember earlier I said that the detail about Jesus traveling between Galilee and Samaria would be important later? This is that later. Because it is now revealed that one of the ten lepers was indeed a Samaritan. A hated, despised Samaritan. And here’s the clincher. Here’s the stunner. Out of the ten lepers who are healed the Samaritan is the only one who came back to say thanks! “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan.” The hero of this story is a Samaritan.
This is so like Jesus! Jesus is forever pointing to the most unlikely of people as models of faith. Like that woman, the one with the bad reputation, who poured all that expensive perfume all over the feet of Jesus and then used her hair to wipe it off and rub it in. This borderline indecent act shocked the sandals off the respected, respectable religious people who were in that room. But Jesus said that wherever the Gospel is preached, this woman will be remembered for what she did. Which is literally what happened. Wherever the Gospel is preached including right here today, this woman is remembered as a model of faith.
And then there is that more famous Samaritan, the Good Samaritan. Those who were obligated by their faith to help their neighbor don’t and the one who has no obligation at all, the one who was the enemy of the one in the ditch, is the one who stops to help. Here’s another example of something in the Bible with a surface meaning and a deeper meaning. The surface meaning of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is that we should help our neighbor. The deeper meaning is that we should see good in those we consider our enemy. Even a hated, despised Samaritan did the right thing. Those who couldn’t stand Samarians had to admit, he too is a model of faith.
The same thing is going on in today’s scripture. If just one of the ten lepers came back to thank Jesus, the one you would least expect would be the Samaritan. But he’s the one. He’s the model of faith. He’s the hero of the story.
Now remember, Luke is being sneaky in the way he tells this story. We think we’re listening to one of the many healing stories of Jesus. We think we can just sit back and enjoy it. But no, Luke pulls us right into the story. It’s not just a story about lepers. It’s a story about us. It’s asking us a penetrating question: How can it be that you and I — church people that we are, people who read the Bible, people who follow Jesus — how can it be that we of all people need to learn from a Samarian what it means to live the Christian life?
Here’s what it means. Here is the rhythm of the Christian life. We go out in faith and we come back with thanks. We go out not knowing for sure where we are going but trusting that God is going with us, and we come back in thanksgiving, grateful that God is so incredibly faithful.
The Pilgrims are not in the Bible. But the Pilgrims believed in the Bible. In fact, the reason the Pilgrims left their home and risked their lives and crossed a great ocean was because of their faith in God. They were looking for a place where they could worship God as they pleased. They had to look a long way.
Talk about going out in faith! 102 passengers boarded the Mayflower. They didn’t know they were going to Massachusetts. They thought they were going to Virginia, where there was at least a semblance of civilization. All they knew for sure that God was going with them.
It took them 65 days to cross the Atlantic. They arrived way too far north just as winter was settling in. By the time it was spring, half of the Pilgrims were dead.
On April 5, 1621 the captain of the Mayflower, a man named Christopher Jones announced that he was going back to England. Anyone who wanted to join him was more than welcome. Not a one went with him. Not a one!
William Bradford was governor of the Plymouth Colony for 36 years. His own wife was among those who died that first brutal New England winter. He wrote of the many hardships the Pilgrims faced and then he added:
These things did not dismay them (though they did sometimes trouble them) for their desires were set on the ways of God and to enjoy His ordinances; [so] they rested on His providence, and knew whom they had believed.
They went out in faith. That faith was sorely tested. But they would not give up. They would not turn back. Because they trusted God. That’s half of the rhythm of the Christian life. They went out in faith. And then the other half is what we celebrate this week. They came back with thanks.
The first Thanksgiving was not the feast most of us will enjoy this week. It was pretty meager. But after a year of learning to survive, of learning to trust God for everything, they could finally see that they were going to make it. They had brought in their first harvest. The Indians had taught them to plant corn and to fish for cod. I may be stretching it a bit to say there is a connection between the Indians and the Samaritans. But both were unlikely heroes. The Indians shared with the Pilgrims in their Thanksgiving meal.
I’m sure they remembered to give thanks to God. No one had to say, “Aren’t you forgetting something?” They remembered — how could they forget? — that God had been with them. And, though they hadn’t yet seen it with their own eyes, that God would be with them and that God would be with their spiritual descendants.
Dear God, thank you. That pretty much says it all. Thank you for everything. Some of us have had a year of unusual abundance. Some of us have had a year of unusual trials. All of us have been so very blessed by you. So as we give you thanks we give you something more. We give you our promise to learn from these models of faith. In the Bible, in the Pilgrims, in all those who have taught us about you and shown us by example how you want us to live. We will go forth in faith. We will return with thanks. We will follow Jesus. In his name, Amen.