[Picture: The Ten Lepers, by Jorge Cocco Santangelo (Argentina)]
Pastor Hopkins preached this sermon on the Fourteenth Sunday After Trinity, 9/22/2019. The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel lesson. To read the Bible texts for the Fourteenth Sunday After Trinity, click here.
If you look at a map of 1 st Century Israel and scan the space occupied by Samaria and Galilee, you’ll notice that 1) there’s a lot of it, and 2) there’s not much there.
It’s not wasteland, but it isn’t a thriving suburb either. There are a few folks here and there; windy roads that lead to somewhere better; and occasional villages dotting the landscape, but it’s nothing to write home about, no matter what the tour guide says.
It’s the kind of place where you find a wandering band of outcasts. Sick, unclean, rejected, and despised; sent to live outside the village gates.
The lepers aren’t fit for civilized society, so they exist on the outside, at a distance; out of sight, out of mind.
But because He has come for folks such as these, Jesus is out there, too; on His way to Jerusalem – He’s not drifting, though, as they are; Jesus is traveling. He’s headed somewhere specific, with crucial business to accomplish.
As Jesus comes into sight to enter the village, they recognize Him immediately. Word does, in fact, travel fast; even in the first century, and even to lepers.
Based on whatever knowledge they have, the lepers judge Jesus to be a master; that is, someone with influence, power, and authority. But certainly they’re also hoping that He will be kind to them. The plea offered is a vague one. Their words are simply, “Have mercy.” The lepers are happy to settle for whatever Jesus would give them.
This is how begging works. Don’t be too specific. Take what is given, and don’t press your luck.
As Luke’s account goes, Jesus tells them to go on ahead to Jerusalem, to the Temple. You’re clean. And they were. “Show yourself to the priests.” And they did. And that’s really it. Remarkable as the miracle is, the whole thing seems unresolved.
The tragedy of their story is that it ends too soon. After all, something as big and wonderful as this should thicken the plot.
But for the 9 former lepers, it doesn’t. They’re happy to just be former lepers. They’re satisfied in going back to their old lives and their old ways. They’ll settle for what’s good instead of what’s best.
Jesus’ frustration is not that they were somehow ungrateful. You can bet that they were very grateful; as grateful as you would be. Jesus’ frustration is not that they weren’t grateful. His frustration is that He had so much more to give them: to touch them with a divine touch; to speak to them a divine Word; and share with them His own divine life; to make them not just formerly sick people, but also disciples and friends.
What makes Jesus so cranky this morning is that we continually settle for less.
We chase after pleasure, even as Jesus yearns to give joy. We hoard gifts with fists clenched so tightly that they cannot open to receive greater treasures.
A couple finally gets the child they were praying for, or a disease was cured, or someone comes enough times to start feeling a bit better about himself… And then they disappear.
I don’t actually think they’re ungrateful. I’d wager they said “Thank you” again and again and meant it. The problem isn’t so much that they’re ungrateful, it’s that they somehow imagine this is all Jesus can do.
Once the lepers get what they want, they’re gone. Maybe they’ll go looking for Jesus when they need something again. Nothing improves one’s prayer life like a desperate situation. Or maybe they won’t. Maybe Jesus will go find them first.
This morning we hear from the lepers that Jesus is a master, but we knew that. This morning we see that Jesus is merciful, but we knew that, too. This morning we learn, however, that Jesus is also very persistent.
Remember how the passage begins. Jesus is going to Jerusalem.
If you look at a picture of first Century Jerusalem you will notice that it is impressive, stately, and surrounded by walls. Jerusalem is the place to be. It’s a great place for former lepers.
Jerusalem is a vibrant place with plenty of people, plenty of jobs, lots of excitement, and, best of all; you can come play if you are nice and clean.
As a bonus, if you are in the business of walking away from Jesus, maybe it’s the kind of place where you can get lost in the crowd.
But once Jesus has touched you, once He has cleansed you, once He has spoken to you, He’s not letting you off so easily.
Jesus sent the 9 former lepers all the way to the Temple where priests would declare them clean.
But in the course of chasing those 9 wayward lepers down, Jesus will go to the Temple and show Himself to the priests. And unlike those 9 whom He healed, Jesus is declared unclean, unfit, and unfaithful; rejected, cast out, and crucified.
Upon the cross, lepers and sinners see that Jesus’ words of healing and forgiveness were not spoken like so many cheap compliments.
They will look and know the truth: Jesus the Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, hanging dead on a tree. This is the cost of healing and saving everyone. All the lepers. All the priests. All of you, to whom He has given everything, even His life.
For all of your walking away and running away, He has searched you and known you, and found you and freed you and healed you. And He’s not looking for you to pay Him back or write a thank you card.
“What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me?
I shall offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and call on the Name of the Lord.” Psalm 116:12
Thanksgiving (Eucharistia). Jesus only wants to give you more. That’s what Worship is. Worship is what happens when the one leper comes back and goes face down at His feet. There with Jesus He is not just clean, but forgiven and freed as well. So to Him and to you, Jesus says, “Go your way.”
What way is that? If you take a moment to observe life in the Church here on earth you will notice that it seems much more like the scant wilderness than the impressive Jerusalem.
It is full of leper-types, not-quite-rehabilitated sinners, weak coffee, and a host of otherwise unimpressive things; all of which turn out to be not merely good, but divine, except the coffee.
Water and Word,
Body and Blood:
Baptism and Eucharist,
Forgiveness full and true…
And a new life. One spent enjoying not just what is good, but what is best. And living in mercy and witness, so that the other 9 more would come join in the fun. That’s what Jesus wants. All ten, that is, every last one: clean, forgiven, and free.
That’s it. That’s your way. It’s your way because it is Jesus’ way. He who has sought you and found you, healed you and blessed you, saved you and named you, He has made you a part of His own Body, His own divine community, His Holy Church, His Bride. Rise and go your way.