Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 9, 2016
“Can I Get an Amen?”
Luke 17: 11-19 – Common English Bible
“On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten men with skin diseases approached him. Keeping their distance from him, 13 they raised their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, show us mercy!”
14 When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they left, they were cleansed. 15 One of them, when he saw that he had been healed, returned and praised God with a loud voice. 16 He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. 17 Jesus replied, “Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?” 19 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you.”
How many times do you suppose my mother has mentioned that one of my relatives, whom I shall not name, hasn’t yet sent a thank you note for her wedding gift? Six years ago. Or, for that matter, any birthday gift. Or Christmas gift. Or new baby gift. (That one I understand) I’ve lost count, but I know that every time a new occasion arises, she saddens and thinks, “Maybe I shouldn’t even bother.” But that just goes against the grandma code, so every time, she reluctantly but dutifully sends another check. That’s what grandmas are supposed to do.
So you better believe we don’t let this happen. We are far from perfect, but we’ve told Lance that it’s against the law to cash a check until a thank you is in the mail.
But a non-attention to thank yous irritates me too. I instant messaged my same relative about 6 or 9 months after the wedding. I wrote “just checking to see if you got our gift.” Her response. “Yeah, just busy.” She didn’t catch my little passive aggressive attempt to trick her into saying “Oh, and thank you.”
But Leper #10 did. He ran back to say “Thank you.” Ex-Leper #10. The one who was labeled the stranger, the outsider, the foreigner, the alien. Those are all words used by Jesus in various translations to shock his listeners. He only stopped short of calling this man “illegal.” Jesus praised this foreigner, a Samaritan on the wrong side of the border. As I have been noting week after week, Jesus’ words were always meant for multiple audiences: praising someone as unexpected as a “Samaritan” had the dual effect of calling out the hypocrisy of proper religious types. Remember the story of the “Good” Samaritan? Same kind of shocking effect. Like the “Good” Mexican Muslim Refugee. Or, to be fair, the “Good” Deplorable in the basket with others who cling to their guns and their religion.
Jesus may have asked “where are the other nine,” but his question was less about the motives of those who did not return. His question indicts the system that treats some people like outcasts. Then, and now. There is more to this parable than some Dear Abby advice.
If you do this parable justice, it raises a lot more questions. For example, I want to know why the Samaritan didn’t go off with the others.
One possible explanation reminds me of the movie The Breakfast Club. A bunch of high school students who had nothing in common found common ground during Saturday detention. The athlete, the brain, the criminal, the princess, and the basket case. By the end of the day, they were nearly friends. They certainly bonded in a way they didn’t expect. But when the brain asked the princess what would happen when they saw each other in the lunch room on Monday, she acknowledged, despite their newfound solidarity, she would probably ignore him. In the end, all they shared in common was a Saturday in detention.
So, one explanation might be that even though his status as a leper was “fixed,” like all the others, the Samaritan was still considered unclean just for being a Samaritan.
But again, it wasn’t Jesus’ intention to shame the nine. It was to praise the one. Is this a lesson for us to write more thank you notes? Or is this a lesson about the scandal of God’s ever expanding circle of grace? Good news? Or bad news, depending on your perspective?
What about the rest of us in the middle watching the scene unfold? I think the message could be about the power of gratitude. But more about that later because I still have questions, like what happened to the other nine?
Here are some possibilities:
Ex-Leper #1 was so busy dancing and smiling and caressing her soft smooth skin that she got lost staring at what had been restored. Leprosy literally destroys your skin. You’re covered in sores. She sat down under the shade of a big tree and touched her face, overwhelmed by her beauty regained.
Ex-Leper #2 was frightened and looked for a place to hide. Was it the divine or the devil, some black magic, playing a trick on him? He was frightened.
Ex-Leper #3 was offended. It was too easy. Just like back in Elijah’s day when Naaman, an enemy leader, asked to be cleansed of his skin disease. Elijah sent word that he should wash in a pool seven times. Instead of being grateful, he was angry that he hadn’t been given a more difficult regimen to complete. Some complex set of rules by which he could earn his healing. Ex-Leper #3, along with Naaman, believed that you had to work for what you get. She didn’t want what she hadn’t earned. #1 was preoccupied. #2 frightened. #3 offended.
Ex-Leper #4. Like someone or something, human, animal or bird; like anyone released from a cage, he raced home to be reunited. He might have even skipped the priest part, which wouldn’t have been a good idea. A priest was required to certify that someone was clean and therefore able to return to community. It wasn’t absolution but a public health duty assigned to priests. Eventually #4 might have gotten around to thinking about how his healing happened. But for now, he was simply free of his cage.
Ex-Leper #5 wondered “Who am I without this disease?” She wasn’t sure it was all a good thing. She had long ago set aside the dream of a home, a family, a “normal” life. Being a leper was her identity. It shaped her destiny. Now she would have to reinvent herself all over again. It came with some sad irony.
Ex-Leper #6 didn’t think Jesus had anything to do with his healing. Yes, something happened, but there had to be a perfectly logical reason why. Some man, whether prophet, rabbi, or wizard, couldn’t have done this so he went off to learn more about cases of spontaneous healing. Anything that might make more sense. He was unconvinced.
But Ex-Leper #7 didn’t return precisely because she was convinced. She believed that Jesus healed her – which meant the Kingdom of God was coming in the next few minutes. To return to give thanks would have taken away precious time from telling more people about the good news. She was convinced and ready for the in-breaking of the Kingdom at hand.
Ex-Leper #8 didn’t return to give thanks because he was tired of everyone expecting him to thank them for their piddly little coins and reluctant mercy. There is something that happens to a man who must beg for food. There is something that happens to a woman who is shunned by people who think they are better than her. There is something that happens to a man who is told he must have done something to deserve his disease. Wicked, cursed, sinful. Surely there was a reason. He must have been having unprotected sex or sharing needles or any one of a dozen more excuses people gave him for why he must have his disease. Or hungry or homeless. What happens when someone throws a few coins at you and says, “You better be grateful I’m giving you anything.” He just didn’t want to thank anyone, even Jesus.
Ex-Leper #9 followed Jesus’ instructions. He said go show yourself to a priest. She did. And then went home.
Every one of them had their lives transformed from “what they had been” to “what they could be.” You know what that means? Something shifts and now, having been shunned, you’re welcomed in. Having been misunderstood, you’re forgiven. That kind of thing…
Every one of those ex-lepers, all of them once outsiders, had their lives transformed from “what they couldn’t do” to “what they now could.” But even so, I bet they probably all suffered a little survivor’s guilt, too. Why them? Me. Why not all lepers? And so those ten ex-lepers had issues to work through and baggage and challenges to face with their newfound status in the world.
But, in addition, there were probably still people who saw them for what they had been, not who they had become. Maybe that’s happened to you too.
Former inmates struggle with some of these issues upon release, especially those who were exonerated, found not to have committed the crime for which they were sentenced and imprisoned.
Bryan Stevenson wrote one of the best books I’ve read in a long time – Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Bryan represents prisoners on death row. Men, women, and yes, children who had served as convenient targets, repeatedly based on their race, but always based on their income. One of the best lines from the book is “Capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment.” Although income doesn’t exclude a Black man from being stopped and frisked in the “wrong” neighborhood. It happened to Bryan outside his own house. Just like Henry Louis Gates.
One of the main stories is about Walter McMillian, convicted and sentenced to death in 1987 for the murder of a young white woman in Monroeville, Alabama. There was no tangible evidence against Mr. McMillian so his trial lasted only a day and a half. Three witnesses with implausible and conflicting stories testified against him. His counsel offered no objection. But the testimony that he was at a church fish fry at the time of the crime – 12 alibis, all black – were ignored by the jury that had systematically excluded all black citizens. In minutes, the jury sentenced Walter to life without parole. But the judge, named Robert E. Lee Key, overrode the jury and sentenced Mr. McMillian to death instead. One more outrageous detail. He was held on Death Row before his trial, before being convicted and sentenced to death.
Bryan Stevenson took on Mr. McMillian’s case post-conviction. It took years and multiple appeals and denials trying to present the evidence that the State’s witnesses admitted to lying on the stand and that the prosecution had illegally suppressed exculpatory evidence.
Mr. McMillian's conviction was finally overturned. He was released in March 1993 after spending six years on death row for a crime he did not commit. With the advent of DNA testing, as we know, an alarmingly frequent development.
But… but, but… freedom did not bring him freedom from judgment. Despite having absolutely no evidence tying him to the crime, white residents in town still believed he did it. His business never recovered. The trauma of being on death row contributed to a downward spiral of paranoia and divorce and dementia. His remaining years were a sad tragedy. As grateful as he was for the work of his attorneys, they saved him from death, but he never actually regained his life.
Like the ex-lepers, when granted his freedom, Walter too might have been overwhelmed or frightened or offended at the mere idea he should be grateful. He too might have been like a bird freed from its cage but sad and even unconvinced it was true. He might have been ready to move on or too angry to move on. He might have done exactly what he was told. Or maybe he would have gone back to say thank you.
We really are faced with a lot of options when doors previously closed to us open unexpectedly. Yet, something of this magnitude happens to us nearly every day. We simply don’t notice… Or if we do, think, well, God had nothing to do with that. It was my skill. My intellect. Luck. Fate. And therefore, how often do we return to say thanks?
So first, write your grandma or mama or auntie a note to say thank you. Or anyone else, for that matter. In fact, keep a stack of thank you notes on your desk and, every morning, before opening your email, think of someone who deserves it. Before moving on to anything else, say thank you. We really aren’t that busy. And we aren’t that important. No one is.
Say thank you, and then remember, the issue in this story wasn’t the missing “thank you” of the nine. The message of praise to the Samaritan outsider stood as a word of scorn for the authorities on the inside and the systemic treatment of those deemed “foreigner,” “stranger,” “alien” – or anyone, you know, not normal. Not like us.
But there is another message for those of us who stand in the middle watching the scene unfold. Just watch what happens to the Samaritan who returned.
Now, as a member of the frozen chosen, I’m more comfortable writing a note to Jesus than shouting Amen, Hallelujah, Thank you Jesus! So this passage pushes me to recognize that our gratitude might need a little more punch. The Samaritan shows how the power of real gratitude can knock us off our feet. Do we dare?
Hasn’t God done something in your life that requires some praise and alleluia? Sometimes I just have to laugh because our singing sounds like a dirge. (sounding sad) “Sing your praises, Alleluia.” We need more joy in our singing. (joyfully) “Sing your praises, Alleluia.”
Where’s the joy?! Where’s the Alleluia!? Where’s the Thank you?!
Can I get an Amen?!
Above: Walter McMillian (hand raised) upon being released
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Traveling around the world