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The Indescribable Gift [OR “I’m Tired of Doing the Impossible for the Ungrateful”] – Luke 17:11-19, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, and Psalm 100

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Thanksgiving Eve, November 19, 2017, 7:00 p.m.

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; Psalm is at the end]

Luke 17:11-19  On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

2 Corinthians 9:6-15 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 10He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

[sermon begins]

My mama raised me to write thank you notes. The rule I remember is that they had to be more than two sentences.  When I taught my own kids to write thank you notes, I added a rule about throwing in a comment unrelated to the gift.  The comment could be newsy – an update about life.  Or the comment could be a memory that includes the person they’re writing to.  Or the comment could be a question about the recipient’s life. I’ll be honest and tell you that I’m hit and miss when it comes to thank you notes these days. I’m often in the camp with the nine lepers.  Someone made the comment in Adult Sunday School this week that he’s often in the camp with the nine lepers, too. Going about his life, gratitude can occur to him months or even years later. He imagined the nine lepers in a similar moment. The nine head off to see the priest and then back to their families and communities from which they’d likely been separated for a long time. Who knows if or when it occurs to those nine people to say thank you? It’s possible gratitude occurs to them at some point. But it’s also possible that it doesn’t.

Jesus wonders about the nine others with the returning man.  He asks, “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?”[1]  It’s a bit like Jesus wondering about a thank you note. Notice that he didn’t assume ingratitude. He didn’t say, “Those ungrateful swine, I’m taking the healing back and never healing anyone again.”  Along this line, a recent movie preview caught my ear. I tend to pay attention when Denzel Washington’s in a new movie. His character is a defense attorney who’s passionate and burned out. Mid-preview is the line, “I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.”[2]  “I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.”  It’s such a great line. So frustrated. So human. The movie preview uses this line to lead into self-isolating and justifying behavior on the part of the lawyer.  In thank you note land, it would be like not sending any more gifts because there were never any thank you notes in return.  And, just like that, gift-giving becomes transactional.  Whether it’s the gifts we use for the good of the world or the gifts we give as presents, we can be quick to decide who is worthy of receiving them.  It’s difficult to imagine God saying, “I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.”

Jesus seems to have no such concerns about ingratitude. He goes on to heal a blind beggar after healing the lepers.[3]  Which makes me think a little more about the leper who returned. According to the story, Jesus is out in nowhere-ville between Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem for the main event. He’s passing through a “middle space” where there is likely ethnic and religious tension. [4] The healed guy is not only a former leper but he’s also a Samaritan who Jews considered way outside of worthiness and God’s activity.  But there he is both healed and praising God.

Adult Sunday School was talking about the healed lepers on Sunday because the originally scheduled programming is to be rescheduled due to a death in the speaker’s family.  People showed up to class on Sunday expecting to hear from a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a Mormon speaker.  It’s part of the World Faith Series that we’re doing throughout this year.  Speakers from various religious traditions present information with the goal of increasing our understanding of world faiths. Rabbi Bernie Gerson gave us an overview of Jewish law, traditions, and beliefs, through the lens of God, Torah, and Israel.  Imam Karim AbuZaid spoke to us about Islam in America which covered Islamic traditions and beliefs through the lens of the Bible and the Koran.  If there’s anything that this story of the Samaritan, former leper teaches us, it’s that God can speak a word of grace through whomever God chooses, often taking us outside of our comfort zone – religiously, racially, and pretty much all the other “-lys” you could list here.

A word of grace from the outside can be challenging for 21st century religious Christians just as it was in the life and times of first century religious Jews.  And I use the word “religious” in the best of possible ways.  Take this evening’s worship for example.  We’re here, singing thanks and praise to God for God’s indescribable gifts.[5]  When we do this together, we are being religious about our living faith.  We can naturally feel protective about the faith which for many of us is foundational to who we are in the world. Again, we are much like 1st century Jews who would be hearing this story of Jesus and the Samaritan leper.  For my part, I can not only feel protective but I can also get complacent and content with my understanding of faith and grace.

There is theological language that I hold dear and that makes sense to me in describing healing as I’ve experienced it by God’s grace. A few weeks ago, I fumbled and bumbled around trying to answer a question in new member class.  I had described my experience of first hearing about the love of God in Jesus during a time in my life when postpartum depression had me feeling my most unlovable and unworthy.  The message I heard was something like “there’s nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less than God already loves us.”  This message of pure grace is dear and powerful and transformative in my own life. The question asked was asked by someone without a church background and was about what that looked like for me. There were so many things I wanted say and I couldn’t put them together into anything that made sense in the moment.  That’s how cozy I’ve become with my favorite words that can end up sounding churchy and incomprehensible to people not in the church world.  It was totally humbling.

As part of my scramble to lead Sunday School last Sunday, I came across a video by Brené Brown.[6] She’s a well-known, well-published anthropologist who’s been researching shame and vulnerability for the last 15 years.  This 2 minute video is her answer to the question, “What is grace?”  Dr. Brown highlights a line in the Amazing Grace hymn – “ ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.”  She talks about a time in her life when she didn’t know how to be afraid and, in fear, she would “get perfect, get controlling, get blaming, get mean, run, do anything that [she] could do.”   She’s making a distinction between about how she instinctively protected herself in fear and how she lives differently today by way of grace.  For me, hearing Dr. Brown talk about grace is a bit of a blindside.  It’s not how I usually give words to it but, man, they make a lot of sense.  And it came out of nowhere, knocking me out what’s become a kind of complacent understanding of grace.

Jesus, the giver of grace, knocks the Samaritan, former leper, out of his complacency by healing him. The word “heal” in the Bible story can also be translated as healed, made well, saved, or whole.[7]  Jesus made the lepers whole through their relationship of healing.  Someone also pointed out in Sunday School about this text that the gratitude is relational. In this case, between Jesus and the former leper. Like a thank you note, gratitude is between the two parties – it could be two people or a group of people.  Like prayer and praise, gratitude is between us and God.

God, who finds us in our complacency and makes us whole through the grace of Jesus. Loving us at our most unlovable and healing us.

God, whose grace through Jesus makes us whole in the face of our fear, across the boundaries of “otherness” and difference.

And we, like the apostle Paul, can say, “Thanks be to God for [this] indescribable gift!”[8]

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[1] Luke 17:17

[2] Dan Gilroy, writer and director. Movie: Roman J. Israel, Esq.  (Columbia Pictures, 2017). Movie Preview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGVIKqbEtdU  [Quoted Line comes a minute 1:16]

[3] Luke 18:35-43

[4] David Lose. Luke 17:11-19 Commentary for Working Preacher, October 10, 2010.  Dr. Lose points out that Luke’s designation of this area is not as accurate topographically as it is theologically. The main point being that it’s an in between place where this significant story happens amidst significant tension. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=783

[5] 2 Corinthians 9:15

[6] Brené Brown. “Grace and Fear.” The Work of the People: Films for Discovery and Transformation. http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/grace-and-fear

[7] Lose, Ibid.

[8] 2 Corinthians 9:15

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Psalm 100

1 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
3 Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.
5 For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.