This sermon was preached at Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, OH, based on the passage Luke 17:11-19
What a blessing it is to be here tonight with my Divinity family! It’s hard to believe that just a year ago tonight I stood at this very pulpit and preached my first sermon. I’ll never forget how much my knees buckled and my palms were so sweaty – wait, a second. Things don’t seem to be much different!
Even with having almost one full semester of seminary under my belt, I wasn’t quite sure how to decide what we should share with one another tonight. Today is Thanksgiving Eve, so at first I was thinking of sharing a litany of things I’m thankful to be experiencing as a Seminarian.
For example, I’m glad I go to the cool seminary – the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. I feel pretty confident at calling LSTC the cool school because, unlike some seminaries, my school was the only ELCA seminary brave enough to represent the Lutheran tradition in the midst of a snowstorm at an ecumenical flag football tournament held at Gettysburg. Some of you may remember a few months back when Pastor Doug went down to Columbus and played at the Trinity alumni/current student scrimmage. Well, the students Pastor Doug played against apparently couldn’t handle a little snow. Before the tournament even started snow began to fall, and all of the other ELCA seminaries took one look at the dusting on the field and left town. Coming from Chicago, LSTC isn’t afraid of a little snow. We reclaimed the trophy from the Episcopalians – the Book of Concord – rightfully returning it to its home at a Lutheran seminary.
And to answer the question I’m sure some of you are asking, I went as a cheerleader – not a player. I just can’t do shoes with spikes.
Another thing about my seminary that I’m thankful for is an extra-curricular, faith growing seminar series called Christian Life Community. Every week, my classmates and I gather together and learn new ways to grow as a community using scripture based activities, ending each session with a free soup supper. For a student on a budget, it helps when extra-circulars offer free food!
One week we tried a practice called lectio devina. We divided into small groups and read and re-read aloud a passage from the Bible, reflecting on how we heard God speaking to us through the text. Ironically, on lectio devina night, we read the same exact passage from Luke that we just shared with each other moments ago. During our discussion, a common theme kept popping up – where are the other nine?
But before we ask any questions, it would help if we first gave this passage a little context. JesuDs is heading to Jerusalem and gets stopped on by a group of lepers.
We should keep in mind that this conversation went against all social norms. Lepers were the bottom of their societal barrel, and there is very little in our modern context compares to their situation. Not only were these people sick, but their illness was such a threat to others that they were forced out of their communities. Add to it the fact that it was their priest who told them to leave. Imagine how we would feel if we became ill and our pastor was the one who told us we needed to leave our homes and live in the middle of nowhere. It would be devastating to know that we are so sick that even our pastor couldn’t even find a place for us. We would have to make friends with whomever we could – other lepers – even if those lepers shared very different beliefs from us and could be seen as our enemies.
That’s the group of people who approach Jesus – Samaritans and Galileans lepers – people who are very different from one another but were forced to live together because they were not allowed to live with anyone else.
These ostracized people somehow find the strength and courage to approach Jesus, begging him to cure them. He tells them yes, if they if they go to the priests they will be healed.
This step of going to the priest would have been vital in order for the lepers to go home. Without the priest giving them the clear to return to society, their healing would have been socially irrelevant. They still wouldn’t be welcome until the priest officially said it was okay. I again invite you to put yourself in the vulnerability of their situation. Imagine if after leaving an ICU ward you needed to get Pastor Doug’s clearance before you could be discharged, see your family, or even talk to someone from a different hospital floor. You would do it because you would want to go home, but the process all the same would be frustrating.
As they are traveling to the priests to get the blessing to go home, one man notices that he’s healed. This is the point in the story where things get a little dicey, and my lectio devina group started to ask a bunch of questions.
When, exactly, did the healing take place? As soon as they asked Jesus for help? On the road to the priests? Once they got to the temple?
Why does the Samaritan return, and why is it this man? Is it because he was a Samaritan, the biggest outsider amongst a group of outsiders, and Luke is trying to make some sort of point that the person who is least expected to give thanks is the one who does?
Did the other nine not care that they were healed? Were they not grateful? What is wrong with the integrity of the nine that they didn’t go back to Jesus and give thanks? Did go to the temple first to get their blessing, and then try to return to Jesus only discover that he had moved on? Where are the nine?
The more my group explored this text, the more and more we got wrapped up in the nine. Our discussion became less about Jesus healing and more about trying to put these ambiguous nine into a box. Keep in mind, the group discussing this passage are a bunch of people who are training to be pastors, so we ended up reading a leadership theme into every inch of this text.
In our zeal of our pondering, the discussion became less and less about what God was actually saying to us and became more and more about us being the “right” ones, the ones who could teach the nine a thing or two about gratitude. The story became all about us instead of about God.
Afterwards, I started to think that my group epically failed lectio devina night. I don’t think the point of reading a passage over and over again was so we would make God’s story all about us.
I was reflecting on this when I received a call from my friend, Justin. He had been rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night for appendicitis, and was to be having an appendectomy immediately. A fellow seminary student, his parents wouldn’t make it into Chicago until the next day. I spent twelve hours at the hospital, waiting with him as he went into surgery, while he was being operated on, and when he woke up. When he was under, I sat in the ICU waiting room. There were two other groups of people in that waiting room with me – a family of about five people, and another woman all by herself.
There is nothing quite like being an intimate stranger with someone, sharing a powerful moment or period of time with a person whom we will never meet again. The woman who was by herself clearly must have appreciated the sacredness of our situation, and began sharing her story with me.
As we sat there together for several hours, she told me she was waiting for her boyfriend who was having a blood transfusion. She was very excited about the transfusion because five months ago he had had a double lung replacement as a result of cystic fibrosis. The fact that he could be in the hospital having the blood transfusion was testament that the transplant had taken, and now they could begin healing the rest of his body.
As she took me on the journey of this transplant – the agony of waiting for the lungs, the grief she and her boyfriend shared in knowing that the only reason why he lives is because another died, the fearful excitement of the next steps to recovery – she also took me on the journey of her faith.
She shared how angry she had been at God for her boyfriend being so ill. She shared her furry that because of some insane health insurance reasons he had better coverage as a single person then he would have if they had been married, and the depression she had in having to wait until he was healthy before they could get married. She talked about how as “merely a girlfriend and not a wife”, she was forced to sit in waiting rooms instead of by his side while his body took in new blood and underwent tests.
She shared that in the midst of being alone as a non-married partner, she recognized that she wasn’t entirely alone because God was with her. She said that it was with the ring of the phone telling them that the lungs were available that she really began to comprehend what unconditional love was. She voiced that she knew unconditional love existed because only a love that strong would give such a miraculous gift. She recognized that a gift that generous could only be given because of a love that is not of this world.
That night, I bore witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in the words of a broken woman. As the night unfolded, her testimony gave proof that God will continue to reach into the depths of loneliness of this world to connect with us when no one else can or will. This woman was left outside the walls of the waiting room just as the lepers were left outside the gates of the city, praying that Christ would come and heal the wounds that so often turned others away.
When we look at the Luke text, it is our inclination is to wonder about the nine, and ponder about the open-ended questions that impale this text. We want to know about the future of the nine, whether they ever really get it together and give thanks. I’m sure the woman at the hospital had many questions about things that she did not know regarding her own future. But instead of getting lost in the open-ended questions, instead of reading layers into the situation that were not clearly there, she chose to give praise. She lived the example of the Samaritan.
Preparing for tonight, I decided to try using one of my new-found seminary skills – looking at this passage in the original Greek. Wouldn’t you know, it actually does make a difference.
The words of our ancestors are never more valuable than when we look at the crux of the Samaritan’s actions. Our most commonly used translation tells us in verse 16 that the Samaritan “prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” While that is a beautiful translation, we really miss the meat and potatoes of what the original text shares. That same line in Greek reads, “and he fell upon his face at the feet of his God, and he praised him.”
It is easy to be misled in our new translation the level of gratitude that is happening here. This moment is not your average-Joe level of thanks. You don’t just fall upon your face for a minor pleasantry. This level of thanksgiving is heart wrenching, earth shaking, soul bearing gratitude.
“And he fell upon his face at the feet of his God, and praised him.”
That is not, “I’m glad to see friends over the holidays” thanks. That is “my son made it through an emergency appendectomy” thanks. That is not “Grandma’s pie was yummy” thanks. That is “my church gave me a food basket and now I can feed my children” thanks. That is not “let me write a thank-you note for the nice birthday present” thanks. That is “my boyfriend has new lungs and will live” thanks.
We give thanks all the time. We often gently lower ourselves in gratitude before God, and rightly so. But when was the last time we were so moved that we fell upon our faces in thanksgiving to the bounty in our lives? When was the last we showed thanks where it could be described as a worthy offering of praise at the foot of our God? When is the last time we were present when either we or someone else was so overcome with gratitude to be at the point of falling upon faith?
That is the level of gratitude I witnessed in the ICU waiting room that night. This brave, unexpected woman did not shrink away from showing the power of Christ’s healing touch to a complete stranger. She was not sharing that story for my benefit. She wasn’t even entirely sharing that story for her benefit. She was sharing that story because like the Samaritan, she felt she had no choice but to fall upon herself to give praise God.
Perhaps the reason why we are so easily lulled into the mystery of the nine is because it is far easier to ponder then to recognize that we are constantly at the foot of God, in a position to be giving praise. We think about the vulnerability the lepers experience hoping to get the clear from their priest, but it means so much more to recognize our own vulnerability. Deep down, in the depths of our soul, we are filled with knowledge that our life is filled with blessings that should bring us to our knees and upon our faces every day. We are uncomfortable with that kind of vulnerability, because further deep within ourselves we know that we are unworthy of the grace of forgiveness and the blessings that fill us with more wellness then any blood transfusion could ever hope to accomplish.
But Christ, our Sovereign and our Strength, he knows this. He knows that we are uncomfortable falling upon our faces, praising with a gratitude that makes us feel so vulnerable. This is why he tells the Samaritan, and us, to get up and go – that our faith has made us well. Our wellness does not come from prostration, from lectio devinas, through testimonies to strangers in ICU waiting rooms. Our wellness comes from living out our faith.
This Thanksgiving, let us not ponder the nine, but instead ponder moments in our life that are worthy of being called to our knees and upon our faces. Let us not shy away from giving more than your average-Joe level of praise. And if we are not quite ready to be that vulnerable, it’s okay. Christ will still remain with us, and our faith will make us well.
Read Full Post »