A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va. October 13, 2013
The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Nine years ago last Monday I was sitting in the back of a minivan with some other preachers headed to West Virginia for a sermon planning retreat. It was Amy Butler’s idea. In fact, it was her minivan. In those days I was pastor of First Baptist Church in Washington, DC, and she was pastor of Calvary Baptist, a few blocks away. We used to meet at the Starbucks in Chinatown on Monday mornings to look at the lectionary passages for the following week and to share our sermon ideas and one day she said, “This is so helpful. You know what we should do? We should get some other preachers together and spend a few days somewhere planning our preaching for the entire year.” I thought that was a great idea. So, we called a few of our friends, and a family in Amy’s church offered their vacation home in West Virginia, and on Monday, October 4, 2004, we climbed into a minivan and headed out for the first annual gathering of something we have been doing ever since. Back then it was simply a sermon planning retreat.
These days we call it “Preacher Camp.”
We were hoping to plan our preaching from Advent 2004 to Advent 2005—52 Sundays’ worth of sermons. It was an ambitious goal, but I thought we could at least get a good start on it, at least jot down a few sentences for each Sunday that would “prime the homiletical pump” (as they say) and get things moving in the right direction. I was feeling good about all the work we were going to get done during the week until I realized that I hadn’t even thought about what I was going to preach when I got back. So I asked the others in the minivan:
“What are you preaching this Sunday?”
It turns out they hadn’t thought about it either. We were all so excited about what we were going to do that we hadn’t done anything. So, I looked up the Gospel passage for the following Sunday and it was this one from Luke 17: the one about the ten lepers who are healed and the one who comes back to say thank you to Jesus. I read through it a couple of times and waited for something to come to me. Nothing. Then I thought about it being October, a month when many churches emphasize stewardship. “Hey,” I said, to the rest of the group. “I think I’ve got it! This passage about the ten lepers would make a terrific sermon on tithing. You know, ten of them go out but only one comes back? But instead of ten lepers you could talk about ten dollars going out into the world, and only one of them coming back to praise God and fall at Jesus’ feet. Don’t you think that could work?”
Of course I was joking. You probably know that because you know me. But some of these preachers didn’t know me yet. They thought I was being serious. Until I started suggesting hymns that might go along with the sermon, hymns like, “One little, two little, three little dollars; four little, five little, six little dollars…ten little dollar bills,” and, “Ten little bucks went out to play, over the hill and far away…only one little buck came back.” And then they seemed to relax a little bit. They got into the spirit of the thing. Some of them even started making hymn suggestions of their own. But then one of them had to go and spoil it all by saying, “Of course these days it wouldn’t be one dollar bill in ten that comes back to praise God; it would be one dollar bill in forty. Even the people who give are only giving about 2.4 percent of their annual income. A lot of people don’t give anything at all.” And that made the whole thing seem a lot less funny. So I took a second, more serious, look at Luke 17:11-19:
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well” (NRSV).
In his commentary on this passage David Lose insists that the other nine did nothing wrong.[i] Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the priest and that’s exactly what they did. If you were here last week you may remember that the sermon was all about obedience, about doing what Jesus tells us to do.[ii] That’s what the nine lepers did. Presumably they were healed. They received a blessing. But the one who came back to give thanks, the Samaritan, received a second blessing. Take a closer look: When he notices that he’s been healed he turns back. He begins to praise God with a loud voice. He falls down at Jesus’ feet and thanks him. Jesus asks about the other nine, but eventually he says to the one at his feet, “Get up and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
It’s that last word I want to talk about.
In Greek it’s sozo, and it can be translated as “to heal,” “to save,” “to make well,” or “to make whole.” It’s a much bigger word than the one that Jesus uses earlier, when he says, “Were not ten made clean?” Yes, apparently, all ten lepers were made clean, but it’s this one, the one who came back to say thank you, who receives this second blessing. “Get up and go your way,” Jesus says. “Your faith has healed you, saved you, made you well, and made you whole.” The last time I preached on this passage I called the sermon, “Saved By a Thank You,” and literally—that’s what happened.
David Lose says: “Have you ever noticed just how powerful it is not only to receive blessing but also to name it and give thanks for it? Maybe you’re at dinner with family or friends, and it’s one of those meals, prepared with love and served and eaten deliberately, where time just stops for a little while and you’re all caught up and bound together by this nearly unfathomable sense of community and joy. And then you lean over to another, or maybe raise your glass in a toast, and say, “This is great. This time, this meal, you all. Thank you.” And in seeing and giving thanks, the original blessing is somehow multiplied. You’ve been blessed a second time.
“Or maybe you were at the Grand Canyon (or some other wonderful spot), taking in the beauty of the vista, when you lean over to your companion and say, “This is so beautiful. I’m so glad you’re here to share it with me.” And again, the blessing is multiplied and you’ve been blessed yet again.
“Thanksgiving is like that. It springs from perception—our ability to recognize blessing—and articulation—giving expression, no matter how inadequate it may seem at the time, of our gratitude for that blessing. And every time these two are combined—sight and word—giving thanks actually grants a second blessing.
“Gratitude is the noblest emotion,” he says. “Gratitude draws us out of ourselves into something larger, bigger, and grander than we could imagine and joins us to the font of blessing itself. But maybe, just maybe, gratitude is also the most powerful emotion, as it frees us from fear, releases us from anxiety, and emboldens us to do more and dare more than we’d ever imagined. [In this case bold enough] to return to a Jewish rabbi to pay homage when you are a Samaritan because you’ve realized that you are more than a Samaritan, or a leper, or even a healed leper; you are a child of God, whole and accepted and beautiful just as you are.
“And that’s what the nine missed,” he says. “It’s not that they did anything wrong; it’s that they didn’t see their good fortune and didn’t voice their blessing, and so missed out on also being made whole.”[iii] In my research for this sermon I found a painting of the ten lepers that came from a Christian community in Cameroon, Africa.[iv] They actually acted out this passage, and someone took a photograph, and someone else painted the picture, but it was wonderful. It was set in a tiny African village. The nine lepers were in the background throwing their crutches in the air, leaping, dancing, whirling, their bandages coming loose as they spun around and little children came running to see what all the commotion was about. In the foreground was this one leper on his knees, looking up at Jesus with his head tilted to one side, his shining face the focal point of the painting. And while all the lepers were overwhelmed with joy, on his face the look of joy had been eclipsed by gratitude. You could almost hear him saying, “Oh, Jesus! Master! Thank you! Thank you!” And you could almost hear Jesus saying, “Go your way; your faith has made you whole.”
Which takes me back to those ten little dollars.
Last Wednesday night I did some premarital counseling with a young couple in my study. We were talking about money and I said, “Here’s a crazy idea: what if you took your combined income, lopped off ten percent, and gave it back to God through the church.” They looked at me the way young couples usually do when I suggest such a thing. They’re having a hard enough time imagining how they’re going to pay the bills with the little bit of money they have. Giving away ten percent does sound crazy. But then I said this: “It’s all about what kind of people you want to be. For example: I want to be a grateful and generous person. Among other things I want my tombstone to say: ‘Here lies a grateful and generous man.’ But the only way I know to become grateful and generous is to practice gratitude and generosity, and tithing is one way to do that. Giving back ten percent of my income helps me become more generous because I learn that I can do it and still have enough. God provides. And giving it back to God helps me become more grateful, because every time I do it I acknowledge that that’s where it comes from in the first place—all of it, not just the ten percent! When that one leper out of ten comes back to say thank you Jesus asks, “Where are the other nine?” And when my one dollar out of ten comes back he might well ask the same: “Where are the other nine?”
Well, they’re at the doctor’s office, and the utility company, and the grocery store…you know how it goes. But there is something about giving that one dollar in ten back to God that helps me become more generous and more grateful. Every time I do it I am reminded of where it came from, and at the same time reminded of where I came from. It reconnects me with God, it re-draws the lines of right relationship, and in a very real way it heals me, saves me, makes me well, and makes me whole.
And these days we could all use a little more of that.
“Take a look around,” says David Lose. “There is plenty of cause to be worried: too much unemployment; a gridlocked Congress and shut-down government; strife in Syria and too many other places in the world; the possibility of default on U.S. debts and the world financial crisis it would prompt; and more. And we haven’t even talked about the challenges in your particular community or the many households of your congregation.
“The world is full of troubles,” he says, “but it is also filled with blessing. Families that care for each other, colleagues who work hard and well, schools where teachers care about their pupils and students are eager to learn, a form of government that is far from perfect yet strives to honor its citizens by conveying a level of freedom and opportunity rarely imagined, relief agencies that tend the afflicted, service people who regularly put their lives on the line at home and abroad, good neighbors who support one another, a community of faith where the word is preached and the life of faith nourished, and more.”[v]
So we could sit around complaining about all the things that are wrong with the world, or we could begin thanking God for all the things that are right. It comes down to what kind of people we want to be. Do we want to be bitter, complaining people, or generous, grateful, people? In the case of this one leper, the simple act of saying thank you resulted in a second blessing; he was not only healed, he was made well, he was made whole. Maybe it’s true for us as well, that in a very real sense learning to be grateful could save our lives.
[iii] David Lose, “Second Blessing.”
[iv] JESUS MAFA is a response to the New Testament readings from the Lectionary by a Christian community in Cameroon, Africa. Each of the readings were selected and adapted to dramatic interpretation by the community members. Photographs of their interpretations were made, and these were then transcribed to paintings. See: www.jesusmafa.com and www.SocialTheology.com (thanks to Jenee Woodard at “The Text this Week” www.textweek.com).
[v] David Lose, “Second Blessing.”