Sermons That Work

Jesus, Master…, Proper 23 (C) – 2010

October 10, 2010

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” That’s a good prayer to know. The story of the ten lepers is really a story about life and death. It is really a story about our lives, and about our deaths – and about the choices we have. It’s a simple story, very familiar. But it is easy to miss what is really going on.

We need to remember what it meant to be a leper. Being a leper meant being worse than dead. Lepers were considered evil and unclean. They were excluded from every part of community life. They could not live, worship, eat, walk, or talk among “normal” people. They had to stay at a distance from life and to survive, as best they could, on the leavings and the charity of others. The horrible progress of their disease was probably far from the worst thing they suffered. They had nothing, and no hope, yet they could – from forty paces – watch the real world, and real life, happen just outside of their reach.

Ten of these lepers met Jesus. They stood at a distance from him – as was required by the law – and shouted for mercy. Doubtless they had said the same thing to every passing rabbi, to every hustler and holy man with a reputation for healing who had wandered within earshot. A simple prayer: “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.” A good prayer, a very good prayer. Jesus granted them mercy. He just did. No reason is given or needed. Jesus heard their prayer and showed them mercy. He gave them their lives back. He told them to present themselves to the priests. Now, this was more a medical act than a religious one. The priests were the ones who certified that the lepers were cured and could rejoin the world.

They had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so off they went toward the city and toward the priests. And as they went, their leprosy went away; they were cured. Jesus stood there and watched. He gave them their lives, and he put no conditions on the gift, and he just stood there, and watched and waited. Nine of the ten just kept going.

I know of no clearer picture of what our culture is mostly like, and of what our lives are mostly like, than the picture of Jesus standing there, watching those nine people running just as fast as they can run, watching them get smaller and smaller the farther away from him they got.

They weren’t ungrateful. There is no way anyone could have such a thing happen to them and not be grateful. Those nine who showed Jesus their backs were doubtless thrilled, ecstatic, and generally tickled pink. It is easy to imagine them, happy, laughing, making plans, feeling just wonderful, and running just as fast as they could away from Jesus, in a terrible big hurry to get on with it.

I’m quite sure that if someone had asked, they might have slowed down long enough to say that God was really swell to do this for them and that Jesus was the most wonderful person in the whole world. But it would have been hard to catch them. There was so much to do, so little time.

No, the issue wasn’t gratitude. The issue wasn’t feeling good about Jesus or anything like that. The issue was that those who had received so much were running so hard in the wrong direction.

They were so full of what they had received, of their gift, that there was just no room for the giver, the source of the gift. They weren’t ungrateful, they were just busy. That’s all; they were just terribly busy. There we are. There is our world. There is our life, in one small, bitter nutshell.

It’s impossible not to see ourselves. It’s impossible not to ask questions such as : What direction are we running? What are we running toward? What are we leaving behind? How often do we stop, or even slow down, long enough to pay some attention, not only to our gifts, not only to all we have and all we have to do, but also to the giver, to the source of it all? Are we so busy running, so busy using what we have, that we can see no farther?

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

Only one came back. Only one was actually drawn toward Jesus, and not away from him, by the wonderful gift. Only one. And this one alone received the fullness of what Jesus had to give.

Our English text makes it harder to see this. All ten lepers were cured – the Greek verb is a medical term, and it means their disease went away. And all ten stayed cured, whether they came back or not – God gives freely, without conditions. But to the one who came back, to the one who saw what was going on the most clearly, to him and to him only something more was said. To him Jesus said, “Rise up and go your way, your faith has made you well.” The Greek for “made you well” is a different word, a theological word; it means “being made whole,” or “being made complete.” It also means being saved. Go your way, Jesus told him, your faith has made you not just cured, but whole, and saved.

All ten were healed, all ten were given their lives, but Jesus had more to give than that. That’s why he watched and waited, that’s why coming back was so important – because Jesus had more to give. But you had to be there. So only one was made whole, only one was fully made well. All ten were given their lives back; but only one was given the fullness of life.

The one who came back was a foreigner. That’s important. The one who came back, the one who actually gave thanks, who actually changed the direction he was going and did something different, the one who focused not only on the gifts, but also on the giver, this man was a foreigner.

I doubt this is an accident or a coincidence. I think that the really hard part of this story is the realization that if we are ever to discover fully what that tenth leper discovered, if we are ever to know fully what it means for the Lord to say to us, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well”; if we are to know that, then we must also, and first, discover what it means to be a foreigner. We must discover what it means to belong somewhere else, for our first loyalties to be elsewhere.

The one who made it back to Jesus didn’t fit in quite as well as the others. He didn’t belong to the world quite as much as the others; he didn’t have quite as much to run to, or quite as much to gain. So he, and he alone, could see clearly. He, and he alone, could see beyond the gift, could see beyond all that there was to do, and so could see the Lord. Everyone who belonged, all of the natives, ran the wrong direction.

This is hard stuff. We have long been established in the land, and we are very busy, and we have a lot to lose. It’s hard to imagine what it might mean to be an alien, to stand one step removed from everything that makes us run so fast and so hard.

But remember that only the foreigner looked back; only the foreigner was able to see beyond the gift to the one who gave it. Only the foreigner received all that Jesus had to give. The rest were just too busy, the rest had too much going on. And it is a matter of life and death.

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” That’ a good prayer to know.

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Christopher Sikkema


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