Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 13, 2019
“Hello! How Are You?”
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.”
Hello! How are you? How many times a day do you greet someone that way? Or, how many times a day does someone ask you “How are you?” And your response? “Fine.” “Good.” Maybe on occasion, “Great!” Or the American status symbol – “Busy. So busy.” Or the cousin of busy, “Tired.” But rarely do we say more than that, nor does anyone follow up with a question about why you are either great or busy. Because an honest answer might make us feel uncomfortable.
One of the things we’ve been learning in our relational campaign gatherings after worship is how difficult it has become to speak honestly with people. We’re afraid of looking like we are prying into each other’s lives. Or we’re afraid we might be judged. Having permission to tell the truth, however, is delightfully liberating. In the simple 14-minute conversations we have been practicing, 7 minutes for each person to speak uninterrupted, it has proven how wonderful it feels to have someone actually listen to us.
What would happen if you answered, “I’m struggling.” “It’s been a hard day.” “Lots of pain today.” Most of the time we’re not prepared to either say or hear that.
There was a story on Vice News a few weeks ago about a company in the Philippines that places teachers in schools around the country – from small towns in Montana, like Miles City, to big cities like Chicago. Apparently, it’s quite common and a growing trend to recruit teachers from other countries because the pay is so low in so many of our schools. Once again, outsourcing low paying jobs. In their orientation sessions, recruiters explain American culture. One of the things these teachers will have to get used to is people asking them “How are you.” The recruiter leaned forward, “They don’t really care.” I laughed at that. And then I didn’t.
I’ve heard store clerks respond to the question “How are you” by saying, “I’m blessed,” and wondered whether store management approved. But it’s refreshing to hear. If you were to really think about it, what could you say besides, “I’m good.” “Fine.”
David Lose once had a colleague who always answered, “I’m grateful.” At first, it almost always caught him off guard and then he got used to it and then he looked forward to it. He said it always felt like an invitation for more. “Oh really! Why are you grateful?”
I’ve actually known a few people who respond, “I’m grateful.” They’re often people with serious illnesses, perhaps in remission for cancer. Individuals who are truly grateful to live another day. In fact, some of the most grateful people in the world are those who live without the guarantee of another day. Most of us take it for granted. We expect it. If we even think about it at all.
At lunch at Noodles and Company on Thursday, our conclusion to why the other nine did not return to say thank you was that they felt entitled to healing. People with so much privilege, they didn’t question why. That’s just the way it’s supposed to be. Whereas the Samaritan, the outsider, did not take it for granted.
There’s lots of reasons why nine ex-lepers might not have returned to give thanks. Entitlement or privilege might be one answer. One might have been frightened that this wasn’t a divine gift but the devil’s black magic. One might have been confused. Who am I now without this disease? One might have had to sit down and first figure out a logical reason why her skin was restored. One might have just been following instructions. Jesus said go show yourself to the priest, so that’s exactly what he did.
By the way, do you know why Jesus told them to show themselves to a priest? It wasn’t for absolution for sin or wrongdoing or a liturgical act. Priests were sort of like the appointed public health officials of their day. They were tasked with certifying that someone no longer had leprosy and could therefore return to their communities.
So, some may have been frightened or confused, but one of the lepers might not have returned because he was sick and tired of everyone expecting him to be grateful for their acts of reluctant mercy. Angry about piddly coins thrown toward them. Lepers had to keep their distance. They had to alert people to their presence by crying out, leper, leper. They couldn’t go to the marketplace or any other public space.
Something happens to a person who must beg for food and mercy. There is something that happens to a person who is shunned. Told she must have done something to deserve her illness or poverty. Or he must be lazy or have done something sinful or wicked. Surely there is a reason. Bad things don’t just happen to good people.
What happens when someone throws a few coins at you and says, “You better be grateful I’m giving you anything!” People with unquestioned privilege are annoyed when they don’t get the gratitude they think they deserve for their charity. Or tax break. Jesus makes the point twice that only the Samaritan, the outsider, the enemy, the alien, came back to say thank you.
Debi Thomas remembers the first time as a girl she went on a family trip to India, her parents’ homeland. As they stood at the village train station, her brother pointed to two shadowy figures huddled in a corner. After two weeks in India, she said she had grown accustomed to seeing beggars, exhausted women with babies too thin on their hips, men who were blind or lame, children with their hands out. But these two were different. Their faces distorted. Their fingers half missing. Scary looking feet. Her father explained they had leprosy.
But what really struck Debi was how alone they looked. She said, “It was otherworldly, profound and impenetrable in a way I could barely comprehend. It was as if some invisible barrier, solid as granite, separated them from the rest of humanity, rendering them absolutely untouchable. Their disease frightened me. But worse was seeing their isolation. Their not-belonging.” Not in public. Not at home.
You know, when Jesus proclaimed healing for ten lepers, not only were their bodies made clean. They were restored to their families and their community. Their full humanity. And intimacy. Once again, they were free to embrace and be embraced. Imagine. What would it be like to never touch another human being? But now they could return to eat with their families and worship in community and reclaim everything this terrible disease stole from them. They rushed off to the priest so they could race home to get and give a hug. I’m sure I would have forgotten to go back to say thank you too. Maybe a little later. But not right away.
The things Jesus did, more often than not, weren’t just about healing an individual but restoring community. To give people a place to belong again. But more than that, to expand it. He taught that in the Kingdom of God, such a place of belonging included not just Jews but Samaritans, their enemy, the other, the outsider, as well.
The lives of every one of those ten ex-lepers would have been transformed from all the limits of “what they had been” to all the possibilities of “what they could become.” But reunion or re-entry might not be as easy as it sounds. What kinds of challenges might those ex-lepers have faced now?
Bryan Stevenson told the story of Walter McMillian in his book Just Mercy. In 1987, Mr. McMillian, a black man, was charged with the murder of a young white woman in Monroeville, Alabama. There was no tangible evidence against him. Three witnesses with implausible and conflicting stories testified against him. His public defender offered no objection. Mr. McMillian had 12 alibis. He was at a church fish fry at the time of the crime. But 12 black alibis were ignored by the jury that had already systematically excluded all black citizens. His trial lasted only a day and a half. And then, in minutes, the jury sentenced Walter to life without parole. But the judge, Robert E. Key, overrode the jury. He sentenced Mr. McMillian to death instead. Years of appeals trying to present evidence that the State’s witnesses admitted to lying on the stand and that the prosecution had illegally suppressed exculpatory evidence led to nothing. Finally, DNA testing proved he did not commit the crime. In the meantime, he spent six years on death row. Another outrageous detail is this story is that he was placed on death row before the trial.
But freedom from prison did not bring him freedom from judgment. Despite having no evidence tying him to the crime, white residents still believed he did it. The trauma of death row contributed to a downward spiral of paranoia, divorce, and dementia. As grateful as he might have been for the attorneys who freed him, they may have saved him from death, but he never actually regained life.
Like the ex-lepers, when granted his freedom from isolation, Walter may also have been frightened. Is this real? Or confused. Who am I now? Or angry at the idea he should be grateful. Why be grateful for being freed from death row when he shouldn’t have been there in the first place? Just like the lepers. What had they done? They didn’t do anything to deserve it either. Why be grateful now? For people with cancer, why be grateful for another day? You shouldn’t have cancer in the first place. Or any other diagnosis or disease. And yet, what better choice do we have? To waste the days we have or to cherish each one? To live with bitterness or to live with gratitude?
“How are you?” I’d like you to give some thought to possible answers to the question.
We’ve got options like: pretty good, OK, fine;
We’ve got: great, amazing, wonderful;
Lance likes to answer: “Living the American dream!”
How are you? We’ve got options like: busy, tired, exhausted;
Or we’ve got: blessed, grateful, thankful.
What else could we say?
In addition to how we answer, we should also consider how we ask it. As I was working on this on Thursday, I asked Tammy, “How are you?” She responded with a surprised look on her face, “Like, really, how am I?” And so, she told me. And later near the end of day she actually said, “Thank you for asking how I am.” Yikes! Is it really that rare that I ask in a way that invites an honest answer? Yes, really, how are you?!
The heart of the parable of ten ex-lepers is about gratitude. So, inspired by the Samaritan ex-leper, if we adopted the response “I’m grateful,” it might take some time to get used to it. But like a muscle that can be strengthened with time and exercise, it would get easier as we practiced it. But we’d also need to be ready to answer why. “Why are you grateful?” That would be a doubly good thing. And healthy. Scientifically, people who live with gratitude have longer and healthier lives.
So, Hello! How are you?
Really?! Tell me more.
 Learn more about his life https://eji.org/videos/walter-mcmillian-60-minutes
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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 Travelling around the world