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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]

______________________________________________________

[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

_______________________________________________

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.

Simultaneous Lament and Gratitude – Luke 17:11-19

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Thanksgiving Eve, November 25, 2015

[sermon begins after Bible story]

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.”

[sermon begins]

Almost exactly 15 years ago, I was serving as Council Vice President of my family’s congregation.  Pastor-land was not yet on the horizon.  It was a leadership design such that when elected by the congregation to Vice President, it was also an election to be President the following year.  My year spent as Council Vice President was partly a year during which I watched the current President closely, basically picking up the nuts and bolts of what was expected by way of responsibilities.  It was a fun and challenging year getting to know this way of serving the church.

During one Council meeting, discussion became heated.  This can happen at Council meetings.  After all, people who love Jesus and who love their church tend to bring some passion to the task.  And as General George Patton said, “If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”[1]  Our Council President let the conversation and disagreement follow its course for a bit and then did this thing with her hands.  Two of her fingers were raised up like closed peace sign.  Making a half-circle with her hands in the air she closed her fingers and thumb together and said, “Let’s press pause.”  Essentially pressing invisible buttons in mid-air.  And that pause, along her summary of the key points, gave people some time to reflect and regroup.  Probably gave some time for the gray matter to kick in so that thinking could happen after reacting.

“Let’s press pause.”  A great line and a good move.  Giving people time.  Time to see.  Time to think.  Time to respond well.

The tenth leper in the Bible story could be having a similar “press pause” moment.  He is hanging out with his fellow lepers – likely long cut-off from their families and community.  They know the rules.  No contact between people with leprosy and people who are well.  They are socially, religiously, and physically unclean.[2]  The ten lepers yell out to Jesus from a distance, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  Somehow they know about this Jesus as they roam in the borderland between Samaria and Galilee.  They cry out to Jesus.  “Have mercy on us!”  There is the first pause.  The pause for lament, to cry out for mercy.

We “press pause” for communal lament in worship on Sundays during the Kyrie when we sing together, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.”  That lament we do together, singing to the Lord all of our individual laments poured into one voice made up of many.  “Christ have mercy.”

Because of the lament of the lepers in the borderland, this is a timely passage for our reflection this evening.  Many of us bring into this sanctuary questions about borders, who crosses them and who doesn’t.  Some of us bring the fear of the villagers in the story who need the lepers to stay contained.  Except in our 21st century moment, the undesirables are not as easy to spot and contain.  So there is fear.  There is heated conversation.  There is a love of country, love of world, and love of life.  And right now, there is time to “press pause,” bringing a lament to Christ.  “Have mercy on us!”

In the Bible story, the lepers’ lament “presses pause” on whatever Jesus was heading to do.  Giving Jesus time to see.  Time to think.  Jesus sees the lepers, talks to them, heals them on their way to the priests, restoring them to family and community.  All ten of them receive this healing from Jesus through no merit of their own.  They didn’t earn it, not one of them proving themselves worthy of help first.

One of the now healed men “presses pause” on the way to the priests. The healed man sees what just happened, the healing that’s taken place.  He pauses to use his gray matter to think.  Before following Jesus’ direction to continue on to the priests, he turns around to go thank Jesus.  The healed man thanks Jesus first by flinging himself down at Jesus’ feet. That is no less than enthusiastic gratitude!  Jesus points out that it is the “foreigner” of the ten who returns to give praise and thanks. The tenth man, however, presses pause, giving praise to God and gratitude to Jesus.  We could describe what the tenth man does in a single word – worship.

We follow this healed man’s example in our Sunday worship.  After we sing the Kyrie together, giving voice to our lament, very often we sing a song of praise and thanksgiving.  Pressing pause, and giving thanks and praise to God at the beginning of our worship just as the healed man does.

Of the other nine men, Jesus asks, “Where are they?”  Note for a moment that the other nine do nothing wrong.[3] They do exactly what Jesus asks them to do and they retain their healing.  To the healed man lying on the ground in front of him, Jesus says, “Get up, go on your way, your faith has made you well.”  The word translated as “well” is translated from the word “sodzo” in the Greek.  Sodzo is translated across the New Testament in multiple ways.  In the verses today it reads “well.”  In other places it reads healed, made whole, or saved.[4]  All ten lepers are healed.  One returns to Jesus after pressing pause, thinking.  He is not just healed but “is made whole, restored, drawn back into relationship with God and humanity” – in a word, saved.[5]

We talked in Adult Sunday School these past few weeks about the Gospel of Luke.  Salvation is a big theme in this gospel.  Salvation being communal, concrete, and cosmic.  Jesus followers hear his word and act on it.  Tangible acts of healing, feeding, inclusivity, restoration, liberation, and prophetic action taking place in community with each other.[6]  We also talked about whether or not we could see our need for Jesus.  Salvation and need go hand-in-hand.  The lepers saw their need clearly.  They wore it on their skin.  We’re better at hiding our need, or at least not acknowledging it with other people or maybe even to ourselves.  Yet here we are together.  In need.  Bringing lament.  Bringing gratitude.  Lament and gratitude simultaneously.

Many of us don’t have the luxury of the linear progression from lament to gratitude that the lepers do.  We carry both lament and gratitude at the same time.  A lament for a relationship gone awry. A lament for a health issue of our own or someone we love.  A lament for our own fear in a world of uncertainty.  A lament for so many people around the world and in our own neighborhoods who cry out for help.

Woven through our lament here together, gratitude pours out in praise to God and thanksgiving to Jesus.  Gratitude for our life and breath.  Gratitude for family and friends Gratitude for work and pay if we are employed or retired well.  Gratitude for our congregation through whom we hear God’s good Word to challenge us and to comfort us as well the community of the body of Christ to connect us.  Gratitude for God in whom we live and move and have our very being.

By grace, salvation is given to us in Christ Jesus.  Like the lepers, it is without merit – pure gift.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”[7]  Praise God and thank you Jesus!  Amen.

 

 

[1] George Patton, US Army Commanding General, World War II (1941-1945). http://www.generalpatton.com/quotes/

[2] David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, for Working Preacher, Commentary on Luke 17:11-19 on October 10, 2010.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=783

[3] David Lose, “Dear Working Preacher…” October 7, 2013. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2796

[4] Lose, October 10, 2010.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=783

[5] Ibid.

[6] Raymond Pickett, Professor of New Testament, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  The Year of Luke in Sundays and Seasons 2016.  (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2015), 12-14.

[7] Ephesians 2:8-9