This morning’s healing story from the Gospel of Luke stands apart from others in at least two ways. The first relates to when the healing occurs and the second relates to the story’s focus on what transpires afterward.
How and when it occurs. Jesus instructs a group of ten lepers to go and show themselves to the priests. This directive, taken from Old Testament code, requires a leper to be inspected by a priest in order to be certified as clean – free of a horrible, painful, disfiguring, and isolating disease. That the lepers leave Jesus and set out to find the priests indicates they must have some level of faith something will happen.
When you have been knocked down or when you don’t know what to do about a certain situation or when you are grieving the loss of someone or something dear, there is something to be said for standing up and simply putting one foot in front of the other. Sure, sometimes a friend or family member enters into your hurting world, takes you by the hand, and walks with you until you can walk on your own again. But most often most of life’s hurts and challenges are overcome by doing whatever it takes to move forward.
Jesus tells the lepers to go and so they go. Are they hopeful? Joyful? Expectant? Merely going through motions? The text does not say. What it does say is telling: “As they went, they were made clean.” They aren’t healed in Jesus’ presence. It isn’t by his touch or as a result of his verbal command. How it happens we do not know.
When it happens we do. It happens as they went. And, in fact, the text tells us the lepers at first do not even realize it has happened. It states one of the ten, “when he saw that he was healed,” praises God and returns to Jesus to thank him. The leper is healed as he goes on his way – as he puts one foot in front of the other – and initially is unaware anything about his condition has changed.
I was in pretty bad shape when my marriage ended in 2002. I went through a long, dark, and difficult period and I am not sure I can say when exactly it abated and became more manageable. But I have a clear memory of a conversation with a parishioner a year down the road. She called to tell me her marriage was ending and as I listened to her I knew exactly where she was and what she was going through. She was in an awful place and in the midst of an awful time. I knew it because I had been there myself. But as I listened I realized I was not there any longer. I had moved on from the initial place of loss and was making my way toward God’s new beginning. I wasn’t there yet, but for the first time I had a sense I was making progress. I was moving forward and, while I did not detect its slow, persistent process, healing was taking place as I went.
This experience stays with me even today and explains in part why I warm so favorably to the image of the Christian life being like a path we walk. As your pastor I try to encourage you as a fellow pilgrim; as one who can tell you the path, even though challenging at times, is well marked. And I can remind you that you never walk along. As you put your whole trust in Christ’s grace and love you find Jesus is with you as your guide – as someone who shows us the way.
So the first part of the story focuses our attention on the process of healing – that it happened “as they went”. The second part (and the part with the most force in the narrative) focuses our attention on the aftermath – one (and only one) of the ten lepers turns back to thank Jesus. For his part Jesus is puzzled. “Were not ten made clean? Where are the other nine?” We wonder with Jesus what their story is. Surely they are overjoyed. Surely they are grateful. So how can we account for their less than hearty response? Let me suggest three possibilities: perhaps they were literalists, or oblivious, or just plain clueless.
Literalists. Why didn’t they return? Because Jesus told them to show themselves to the priests. In fact, if you want to be technical, the one who does not follow Jesus’ instruction is the one who returns. The literalist’s go-to excuse in a situation like this is, “I did exactly what you told me to do” and it makes us want to bang our heads against a wall. Literalists treat life as if it requires only that you check the box, but never actually engage it. They do what they are obligated to do, but for Jesus it is not enough merely to do your duty. Your actions must emanate from your heart.
Perhaps the nine are oblivious to their healing. The text tells us the one who returns does so only after he sees he has been healed. Perhaps the other nine never notice something has changed. Think about how life channels us from one problem to another; how we go from one crisis only to face another in a never ending tide of troubles. If this is how your life feels it is likely you never fully recognize and appreciate how many problems are solved and how many crises are defused. Or maybe you are so focused on your scars that you never appreciate how each one marks a place where a wound has healed.
Or maybe the nine are clueless… aware they are better but unaware of how it happens. If they don’t attribute their healing to Jesus why would they return to thank him? What one person sees as a blessing from heaven another understands to be a cosmic accident or good fortune or the by-product of healthy living. You only pause to thank the person you believe to have done some special for you.
Literalist, oblivious, or clueless. Each possibility presents us with a cautionary tale. Do you approach religion as being little more than a series of boxes to check off in order to be a moral person? – the literalist’s approach. Or do you fail to discern the manifold blessing of your life, perhaps because your focus is drawn only to the challenges? – the oblivious approach. Or do you sense your life is marked by abundance and good will, but have no idea why or what to do with it? – the clueless approach. If you see yourself in any of these, what would it take for you to praise God and to give thanks to Jesus, as the one leper did?
Let me close by saying how I grateful I am for the many blessings I have experienced in just the last week alone. I was surprised by the surprise birthday party you all had for me last Sunday and I am deeply appreciative of your incredibly generous response to contribute to a gift. I told Cindy and Janice I will have to keep a closer eye on things around the office because those two slipped all of it past me with very little effort. Even more than what you did for me, I am so grateful for the way you invited my twin sister Karen to be a part of kindness, even if it meant I had to share with her half of Nina’s chocolate chip cookies. On Monday Bev made a pan of chocolate chip brownies for a Food Pantry volunteers celebration. Miko brought me a triple chocolate cake (made with Hershey chocolate) on Thursday and I began to wonder if you all love me or are trying to kill me with sugary sweets. Yesterday, Dan Jones, his nephew Wesley, and Jim Gordon spent their entire day rebuilding the 10x20 foot shed I had to demolish in August. You all have been exceedingly good and kind to me ever since I came to serve as your priest in 2007, but this week I feel it even more deeply. I thank God for each of you and for the gift of God’s care and keep that comes through you. If I am not mistaken, October is Pastor Appreciation Month and believe me, I feel appreciated.
I pray each of you may be as blessed as I am and each of you, as you go on the way, will sense the manifold goodness of life in God and the loving care which surrounds you on every side.