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At the Intersection of...

Grace and Gratitude
A homily by Rev. Thomas N. Hall, based on Luke 17:11-19

Autumn is my favorite season of the year--especially the kind of autumn that comes to eastern Pennsylvania.   All around us we can enjoy beautiful fall leaves.   Almost over night we witness an explosion of colors—fire engine reds, ochre browns, and canary yellows.   What a sight! And what a contrast to the treeless desert that we find Jesus and the disciples on as they journey through eastern Palestine.  

Luke does not give us the precise location; just tells us that they were "on the way," “going through,” Samaria and Galilee, and “entered a village.” No brilliant colors here.   No crisp morning frost or white tail deer feeding nearby.   Instead Jesus and his disciples trod through the arid desert climate in 110 degree temperatures.   Occasionally donkey peddlers and shepherds move their flocks and herds from one stretch of parched land to the other.   But most of the time there isn't a soul seen for miles.   No Amtrak goes through this deserted land.   The landscape is like a single frame from a movie, frozen before their eyes for hours.   Our travelers have been on the road for weeks now.   After weeks of travel, little conversation is exchanged during the long hot hours of walking.   Nothing left to talk about.   They follow an endless path that leads on into more heat, dust, and desert.  

A village finally emerges on the horizon.   Several mud- baked, one-room hovels sit beside each other around a watering hole.   The disciples will at least be able to sleep within the protection of the village walls tonight.   Still in the distance, Jesus makes out the shapes of moving figures.   Eyes play tricks when overexposed to intense light.   At first, it seems to be a herd of animals making their way across the desert--some deer maybe.   Perhaps some desert jackals.   Yet they go at a strange pace.   Strange shapes, too.   Some hobble.   Others slump or limp.  

Humans alright.   Ten of them.   All wearing thick, black wool tunics.   They cover their mouths.   Disheveled hair.   Hanging around outside the village walls.   Jesus knows instinctively who these are.   Lepers.   Claimed by no one, despised by everyone.   They're the ones who wait just outside the gates to smooch money off of travelers.   They're the ones who panhandle on busy streets, the ones who are passed out on the floor of busy subway terminals, w hose clothing wreaks picks of the strong odors of urine.   Can't miss lepers.   They're easy to pick out.  

Jewish tradition had very clear rules for lepers.   In the Law it was written:  the person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his/her head be disheveled; and they shall cover their upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, Unclean.”  They shall remain unclean as long as they have the disease; they are unclean.   They shall live alone; their dwelling shall be outside the camp.  

Jewish tradition commanded these lepers never to enter the villages; tradition demanded that they cover their face and shout to passersby "Unclean, Unclean." Their tradition forced them to walk around with hair disheveled and their clothes ripped.   Tradition ordered them to live alone, outside the community.   And even if, in the unlikely event they were to recover, their tradition prescribed a specific cleansing ritual that had to be obeyed to the "T."

I know firsthand the tragic life of lepers.   A number of years ago I was invited to preach at a leprosarium outside of Bangkok, Thailand.   I will never forget the moment that I shook the hand of my host.   I quickly realized that leprosy had left stubs where his fingers should have been.   As I looked over my audience I looked into the faces of persons who had holes in the face where their noses once were.   Stubs replaced toes and feet.   I saw young men hobble their way into the outdoor auditorium; others crawled.   Some had constructed crude devices to enable them to slide along the ground.   Leprosy had eaten away their freedom, their relationships, their families, their hope, and finally their bodies.  

Not all lepers in the ancient world had Hanson's Disease-- the condition we call leprosy today.   Persons who had any skin condition would be kept from the community.   Psoriasis, lupus, ringworm, or unusual marks on the body could also consign a person to live the rest of her life away from friends and family.   What must have these lepers felt having been pushed outside the community by their tradition.   Humiliated.   The butt of jokes.   Sneered at.   No self-esteem.   No reason to go on.   Used as object lessons about sin.   Charity cases.   Projects.   Hopeless.   Suicidal.   Subhuman.   Proof that God elects some for higher purposes and others for destruction.   No dignity.   A sinner.   Outsider.   Worthless cipher.  

What would it have been like to never be touched?  To be feared and avoided as one who spread a dread disease?  Never to receive a hug?  To live in a world where you never played with children--no laughing, arguing, wrestling, jumping on their laps.  To live with the fact that no one in the community will ever again be close to them? No kisses? No embraces.   No home of their own.   No employment but to beg.  

The ten lepers knew exactly how far they were required to stand from the public.   There they stood just within hearing distance and yelled, " Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" Their sound is not liturgical or rhythmic, but pathetic and hoarse as each tries to be heard above the others.   But how did they know .about Jesus? Who told these outcasts about Jesus? Maybe they had caught wind of another leper that Jesus had healed.   Still, the message was predictable.   They wanted alms.   They needed food.  

"Go show yourselves to the priests," Jesus yells back.   Both Jesus and the lepers were performing their tradition.   Lepers were supposed to beg for mercy and Jesus instructed them to follow the same tradition's procedures for lepers who received cures.   "Go and show yourselves to the priests." The announcement could only mean one thing—they were healed.  

The leprosy had been stayed.   No more damage would be done.   Thus, as they obeyed Jesus' instructions and went toward the local priest they discovered that they were healed.   Still, they kept going; picked up the pace a little.   They hobble, scoot, lurch and finally break into a 30 yard dash until, out of breath, they arrive at the priest's house to begin the cleansing ritual.   Yet one of the ten has a different response.   He's running, hobbling, scooting like the rest when he makes the discovery of his life.  

Healed! He realizes that at that moment, out there in the dusty back roads of eastern Palestine, that he's been cured.   He probably reacts like one of the characters in the comic strip w ho looks one way, then the other in such fast succession that it appears he's looking both ways at the same time.   He looks toward the lepers as they hobble and hoop over the hill; then he looks toward the man who uttered the healing words.  

Rules or no rules, he makes a screeching u-turn off the dusty trail and comes to Jesus and throws himself down on the gravel before Jesus.   No one can even be heard above his heaving and weeping.   Though only a few feet away, he yells out years of pent-up gratitude for this miracle.   It's almost embarrassing this loud praising of God.   Why can't he just sing some hymns or something.   This uncontrolled emotion probably embarrasses even the disciples.  

“Where are the rest?”  Jesus demands.   “I distinctly remember ten lepers whom I healed.   You mean to tell me, that only one out of ten even bothered to come back?”  But Jesus, you just told the others to go to their priests, to follow their tradition.   They're doing exactly what you told them to do.   And now you're upset that they've followed your orders? The very ones who follow the rules and traditions are the ones Jesus scolds and the one who makes the U-turn from his tradition, Jesus praises.   Strange.   Jesus is perturbed in the meager turn-out at the next worship service! Only one returns to offer his testimony of what God has done in his life.   The rest are back to business- as-usual.   They're already going through the ritual of cleansing which will regather them into the community.   One leper worships, nine lepers follow their tradition.  

This story raises questions about worship and tradition.  Tradition is the fundamental building block of society.  Traditions tell us who we are; give us identity and shape our values.   Traditions are those stories, experiences, beliefs, and values that have grown up over the years and form the bedrock of our confessional communities.  Thanksgiving is a tradition for many Americans.  The entire family gathers around the table.   The same stories about gramma are retold; the time she locked grampa in the shed until he calmed down.  The time when there was no money and even the little ones on the farm worked.  The stories live on.  Tradition is passed on.  

            But we can be so locked into tradition that we can miss the time of our lives now.   Traditions can block us from seeing new needs and challenges.  The problem with the nine lepers was not that they followed their tradition.  Jesus told them to obey what their tradition required.  The problem was that they were so engrossed in keeping that tradition, that they missed the most important day of their life.  They were so involved in going through the motions that they failed to notice the person who provided the tradition-- God.  

            A woman related to me this week that about a year ago, a number of children were skateboarding in their church parking lot.   Several of the parish committee members wanted to put a stop this because the lot was for cars, not skateboards.   A sign was proposed by the committee: "No Skateboarding Allowed.”

Put a stop to that.   But it also sent a larger message out to the community that kids were not really welcomed--unless of course, they left the skateboards at home.   My friend felt they her congregation may have missed an important opportunity to reach out to the very ones who needed the most help.  

I have brought apiece of tradition with me this morning.   A piece of paper.  [My seminary degree.]  But you will notice this piece of paper is behind non-glare glass and framed.   The words are sacred.   To be honest, I can't tell you what it says.   It's all in Latin.   Probably says something about a library fine I still need to pay.   This paper is sacred to me, though, because of the stories connected to it.   Stories of research projects, new relationships, a better understanding of theology.  Stories about my family--the years that I watched my children grow while I was at seminary.  The funny story about the night I hit a deer with my Yugo and strapped it in to the driver's seat with me so I could have a freezer full of meat.  This piece of paper reminds me of who I am and what I believe.  

But I have another piece of paper too.   See, this is not framed.   No non-glare glass either.  Instead it has lots of scribbles and doodles.  This paper records week to week thoughts and ideas.  It records my broodings over a passage.  Things I need to do.  Call I need to make.   Persons I need to pray for.  New ideas or perspectives are scrawled on this paper.  Insight into a new sense of what I am about and what God's calling on my life is.  

I need both types of paper in my life.  I build my life upon the tradition, but I want to be open to the immediate.  To see God working in my life and the life of this congregation at this moment.  If I just fall back on my Latin paper, I may miss the greatest moment of my life.  So I rely upon both papers.  

And by the way, did you catch what Jesus said to the lone ranger leper who returned to worship God? Jesus pronounced him well.  But didn't they all get well?  Yes.  But something special happened to our leper friend who returned.  The Greek word sozo is used which means, “salvation.”  They all got healed, but Luke implies that this one experienced something a bit more than the others.  What was that?  I wonder if maybe gratitude led this sole needy person to become a follower of Jesus.   He had the ability to look beyond healing, beyond his tradition, to the Giver, to the Savior.   Ten were healed, but one became whole.  Amen.