The text for the day: Luke 17:11-19
Earlier this week, after I had read today’s Gospel and while I was thinking about it, I looked for artistic depictions of this story. This is something I often enjoy doing as part of my sermon writing process and even as just part of my own personal devotions. Looking at paintings, and sculptures of different Bible stories is a great way to see, in an instant, how someone else has read a particular story and what that story has meant to them. It seems that our Gospel for today tends to strike people in a particular way because most of what I looked at was fairly similar. The setting is an open countryside, sometimes it was a rocky desert-like terrain not unlike what you might find around here, but more often the artistic choice seems to be to cover that landscape in cool green grass and trees and bushes that look like soft green fluffy clouds. You also might find, in these landscapes, a very content looking sheep or two, perhaps a cow with a few stalks of grass hanging from her mouth, and of course the bird peacefully circling the clouds in a sunny, blue sky. In the midst of all that Jesus stands, clothed in white, with a dark red or purple sash, smiling peacefully with an outstretched arm pointed in the direction of one man. This one man is kneeling at Jesus’ feet with a white cloth pulled over his head like a hood, his eyes are bright, and he is in a simple posture of prayer. Then you look past the kneeling man and see a group of 9 all dressed similarly in light colors with bright blue and red accents and these 9 men are dancing down the street. Their arms are thrown in the air and they are leaned back, caught mid-step in a joyful romp toward a group of buildings that we must assume is the village center. These men, all 10 of them, are happy and bear the look of relief, the look that we know, (with a little background knowledge), as the look of healing and wholeness. This is a lovely image. It is nice to sit here on a Saturday Evening/Sunday Morning in the early days of fall as the cooler weather brings respite and relief from the summer heat, and imagine the story happening just this way. And we, sitting in our pews on this beautiful, fall day think, Ahhhh yes I can relate to how happy they must have felt, I can almost feel that joy. But I wonder if we would find this image so appealing and satisfying in the midst of a bitter winter cold, or an oppressive summer heat. Here in Arizona we don’t have to worry about bitter cold but we do know all about oppressive heat, and I for one, having experienced both, don’t find either one all that pleasant. In the extremes of weather we tend to feel lonely, we struggle to feel the hopefulness of spring or the peacefulness of fall quite as deeply as we remember feeling them. And I think that in those times an image of 9 men in a carefree run back to town might feel a little less genuine to us, a little harder to relate to, it might feel less real. And I think I know why…. I think that when we read this text and think of everything working out so happily we don’t believe it. The image of the men running happily back to town makes us raise an eyebrow, maybe roll our eyes, maybe turn to the person next to us and make a joke. And why do we want to make a joke? Why don’t we believe this image? Because it doesn’t match with our experience. The picture I’ve painted, is not the picture that we know. The picture that we know is a little darker… NOW BEAR WITH ME… I’m going to paint the picture as we see it today and it isn’t going to be so pleasant, but I promise I won’t leave you with it. So this picture that we might be more familiar with? Instead of a green pasture with fluffy green trees and bushes, we see gravel and dirt mixed in with grass that grows with a slightly brownish hue. The trees are a little thinner and the bushes are gnarled and scratchy. In our image Jesus isn’t wearing white, because he’s been walking through the semi-arid, semi-desert climate of Judea. You don’t wear white in the Desert… and if you do it doesn’t stay white for long. And then there’s these 10 men, in the picture that we’re used to these ten are not so carefree. They have been sick for a long time, and not only have they had to deal with the pain and suffering of their illness, but they also have been shut out of the village. They have been forced to live here on the outside of the community because, according to the laws read straight out of Leviticus, they are UNCLEAN, ceremonially unclean, and they are condemned for being that way. They have been living for some undetermined amount of time, years probably, and they haven’t known the touch of another human being. These are withered men. And in the image that we have of these men, the weight of all those weary years and all that suffering does not melt away in an instant. They are caught in this cycle of illness, of disease, of suffering and even when Jesus declares them clean, they move slowly, hesitantly, still draped in their dirty smelly cloaks and wrapped in their bandages. They are not so caught up in joy that they forget to return… they are still so caught up in their suffering that they do not notice their wholeness. This is the image that we are familiar with isn’t it? This is the way we have seen the world, not carefree and happy, but still full of suffering. You know this story… all you have to do is turn on the news or open up the paper you know that people still suffer… and you know what? More than that… I bet you’ve experienced that suffering yourself…I know I have We’ve felt what it’s like to be on the outside looking in, we probably know what it’s like to feel sick…. So we can relate, can’t we? To those 9 men who walked away. We know that there is brokenness in the world and we know that sometimes even when the sickness has left us, when the alienation ends, there is a lingering feeling of uneasiness… We don’t always jump right back in because we’re afraid of feeling that pain so acutely again, we’re afraid it isn’t gone for good. And the fear keeps us quiet and tentative. Those feelings of… what are they? Shame? Embarrassment? Sadness? Sadness that comes from the suffering keeps are heads down and our gait heavy, and because of it we just do what we’re told… we go to see the priests and let them decide our wellness.
So now here we are… we are in the midst of sadness because this is the way of our broken world. You and I together today feel this sadness don’t we? BUT OUR PICTURE IS NOT COMPLETE…. Is it? There’s something from today’s Gospel that I haven’t painted into our picture yet… Did you notice what it is? There were 10 lepers in this story… and I’ve only told you about 9…. What about that other 1? What do we have to learn from him today? Well, he is sick too, right? He was suffering just as much as the other nine… Possibly more because he wasn’t just outcast because of his illness, he was also outcast because he was a Samaritan living amongst the Jews… he is doubly outcast, and has little hope of ever being a part of this community. Yes… he is suffering…
But,…. in the midst of that suffering… in the middle of his pain… into the darkness a light breaks in… Jesus breaks in with healing… wellness…. WHOLEness….
We find today that even though this man suffers at least as much as all the rest… he is made well… and Jesus himself says so: “Your faith has MADE YOU WELL”
He is well… and so there is hope for us isn’t there? If this man can be made whole, can’t we as well? You know the answer to this right? Yes… of course we can. We can be healed just like…. the 10… yes the 10… I did not mis-speak. We can be absolutely certain that we will be healed of our sickness and our brokenness because all 10 of these men were healed too. Remember now it wasn’t just the 1 that was healed. The 9 may be walking away dejectedly, but it isn’t because they weren’t healed, they’re just still trapped in the lingering effects of their sickness. All ten are healed and so are we healed. So then, what is still the problem? Right? Why don’t we feel that way? If the 9 are healed but still sad and afraid, and we too are still in the midst of a broken world despite the fact that we’ve been told over and again about the meaning beyond the cross, how do we break that cycle?
Well first let me tell you that you can… and the proof is there in front of you, because the ONE returned to Jesus. YOUR FAITH HAS MADE YOU WELL, he said… One man came back, one man realized that something was different, something had changed… Once again I must point out how those paintings seemed to miss the point… because they picture a man bent in quiet prayer in front of Jesus, he looks peaceful and quiet. But this is not the picture that the scripture paints and it doesn’t match our experience either. This man “turned back, and praised God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet” These are not quiet reserved actions, these are the actions of a man that is overcome with emotion, he is not thinking through what his best response could be, he is driven in this moment by an experience of overwhelming relief and joy. YOUR FAITH HAS MADE YOU WELL he says…. Jesus is able to name what has happened to this man. The other 9 have been healed just like he has but he has been made well. He has experienced a wholeness that can only come from his relationship of faith. His faith has made him well, his faith has made him whole, what has done this? Yes his faith. But wait… what? What does that mean?
I’m going to pass here and tell you that this is the crux. This is the most important part of this whole thing, so if you weren’t paying attention up until now, this is a good time to start, and if the person sitting next to you in the pew has fallen asleep, now is a good time to nudge them awake. Why? Because this is where we find out who we are…. Are we the 9? Or are we the 1? Are we still trapped in the lingering effects of sickness? Or are we overcome with joy? “YOUR FAITH HAS MADE YOU WELL” Jesus said it… not me… “Your faith has made you well” You are the ONE. You are the one to whom Jesus is speaking. How do I know this? I know this because he says that Your FAITH has made you well… and I know that everyone of you sitting here before me, everyONE under this roof has the faith to make them well. I know this because you are here in front of me, sitting here listening to me, you have come here to hear the message of the Gospel to share in the sacraments, and to participate in the community of God, these are the acts of faith..
Even more than that I know that you are the ONE because this is a matter of FAITH. This is not belief, this is not the requirement of someone telling you that you have to believe this one thing or another in order to be well, this is a matter of the FAITH that makes you well; the FAITH that is the relationship between the God that created you, that loves you, that saves you, between that GOD and YOU. Just you, not you with a belief, not you with love for your neighbor, or a certain number of good deeds, just simple YOU.
And I know that “YOUR faith has made you well” because I know that faith is not reserved to a select few. Paul Tillich, German, Protestant Theologian says it this way :...faith is not a phenomenon beside others, but the central phenomenon in man’s personal life, manifest and hidden at the same time. It is religious and transcends religion, it is universal and concrete, it is infinitely variable and always the same.” And here’s the important bit “Faith is an essential possibility of man, and therefore its existence is necessary and universal.”
FAITH is a necessary component of life, and it is universal - we all have it, faith is part of who you are because you were created to be in a relationship of faith with the one who created you. God created you. Period. And therefore you are in relationship with God and that is the Faith that makes you well, no matter how small, feeble or underused it is…. Your faith has made you well… That’s how I know it is true.
And how do you know this is true? Because just like the Samaritan, just like the ONE, you’ve felt it. When you’ve been moved to laughter or tears without knowing why…. When you’ve been overcome with joy and let out an unintelligible “WHOOP”… or even just felt like letting it out (probably more likely for you Norwegians and us Swedes) When you’ve had that extra skip in your step and you didn’t mean to put it there. When you’ve trudged through step after step on a long grueling hike and reached the top of the mountain, just in time to see the sun peak over the horizon, and sat in quiet wonder and awe… when you’ve laid out under an endless starry sky and gotten dizzy from feeling so small…. When you’ve held a newborn child and felt the innocence and pure joy of new life… When you’ve felt the music swell inside your chest and tingle down your arms and legs… When you’ve heard the minor chord resolve and major chord rise… These and all the other moments of life when we feel beyond ourselves; when we are overcome, these are the moments when we are moved by the Spirit of God. The moments when the distance that has grown from our sin vanishes and we are whole, and healed, and entirely in the arms of our God.
Yes, there is pain and sadness and brokenness in the world. And, unfortunately you will still feel that pain. Jesus doesn’t promise that everything is going to be ALL rainbows and butterflies, but he does promise that there will be rainbows and butterflies. Yes there is pain and sadness, but there is also healing and wholeness. There is love and mercy, and Grace and you know that it is true, just as you know the sadness. So be still, know that God is God, and you will see too that Jesus has come, and God is here, and you will see that you are the ONE. Your pain will be eased, happiness and joy will grab you, despite the sadness, if you let them.
You have been healed, Your faith has made you well, thanks be to God.