The Man Who Turned Back

Luke 17:11-19

Sermon by Burton Cooper

Ten lepers approached Jesus …
They called out,
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

“Have mercy on us.”  What a cry that is.  It echoes down the ages of human history, showing up in our literature as early as The Iliad, almost three millennia ago, where Greek orTrojan warriors, defeated on the battlefield, helpless before their foe, cry out for mercy, a futile cry in the heat of battle where it mostly goes unheeded.  Amongst us humans, mercy can sometimes be in short supply.  Biblical literature certainly testifies to that.  Right off the bat, in the very earliest of biblical stories, Cain shows no mercy to his brother Abel, and I won’t trouble you now with a parade of stories, from both Old and New Testament, where ruthlessness not mercy is the norm, though I can’t stop myself from reminding us of the final verses from last week’s lectionary psalm, the one that Jennie said made her cringe, and no wonder, for that psalm --- written no doubt by an Israelite reacting to the sixth century Babylonian invasion of his country, the destruction of his homeland, the havoc wreaked, the blood shed, the forced march of the Israelite establishment into exile in Babylon --- (that psalm) ends this way: “O Babylon, happy the one who pays you back for what you have done to us!  Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks!”   Those who say the Bible is a goody goody book have never read the Bible.  The Bible tells it like it is, tells us as we are.  And that’s exactly what this morning’s gospel story of the ten lepers is doing: telling it like it is; no illusions about human goodness, human gratitude, here.  Ten lepers, having cried out to Jesus for mercy, find themselves healed; only one thanks Jesus and praises God.  But I run ahead of myself.  Let us back up a little bit, and ask ourselves this question.  What does it mean that in this story, and in others, of course, that Jesus shows mercy to suffering and marginalized people.  And as we seek to answer this question, let us also keep in mind that scripture never seems surprised that there is a physical illness such as leprosy in God’s good creation, just as scripture shows no surprise that there are blind people, mentally sick people, dying children, homeless beggars, slaves, the poor; people who are cheats, liars, hypocrites, sexual oppressors; rich people who care only for their welfare and prestige; powerful people, kings, emperors, generals, whose armies run roughshod over weaker peoples, spreading death, destroying cities, farmland, ways  of life.   Scripture is not surprised that there is human misery, rampant injustice, gross inequality, but also throughout scripture there are voices that ask, no, that cry out, over and over again, “How long, O lord, how long?”  And the Bible does give us an answer, an ultimate answer, to that heartfelt question.  It is this:  “God’s kingdom will come; God’s spirit will be writ on everyone’s heart.”  It’s an ultimate answer because the kingdom comes only when history ends.  But the Bible also gives a penultimate answer, one that we are to live towards until the kingdom comes, until history ends.  It’s an answer that we know well, and we see that answer in today’s story of the ten lepers.   

The ten lepers cry out to Jesus for mercy; they want to be healed of their bodily sores.  It’s a big deal to them, for only their healing can lift their ostracism from society, so that they can return to their families, live again with their parents, their children, work again at their trade, have drinks with friends at the village pub, walk the dog, take her to the annual animal blessing at the local synagogue.  In response to their cry, Jesus tells the lepers to show themselves to the priest, so they set off, and on the way they find themselves healed.  So Jesus has shown mercy.  He has helped them, been kind to them.  But why has he done so?  He doesn’t know them.  He owes nothing to them.  He doesn’t even subject them to any kind of moral questioning to see if they are deserving of being healed.  Who knows what rascals some of them might be.  So what is Jesus’ motive.  The answer lies in the very reason that the lepers go to Jesus crying out for mercy, for healing, for they see Jesus as an agent of God, someone in whom the spirit of God is present, and God, they know, is merciful.  They know that the God witnessed to in scripture, the God of Jesus Christ, that God is not indifferent to human misery, for that God showed mercy to Adam and Eve even as God was shutting them out from dream-like Paradise; that God even showed mercy to Cain after Cain murdered his brother; and that God, most spectacularly, showed mercy to the suffering Israelites enslaved in Egypt.  So it’s no wonder that in their misery the lepers turn to Jesus looking for mercy.  And it’s no wonder that Jesus shows them mercy.  For mercy expresses the very spirit of God.  That is why we are never surprised when Jesus shows mercy.

Of the ten lepers that were healed, only one returns to Jesus to give thanks, praising God, and that one, as Jesus wryly notes, is not an Israelite; he’s a foreigner, a Samaritan, Israel’s much despised neighbor, as if this story wants to make a subsidiary point: that true faith can be found in all ethnic groups, in all religions, even those we despise, for we humans all too often despise others, looking down upon them.   But the main point is Jesus being upset that the other nine do not return; he asks, “where are they?”  But surely he knows where they are.  For what is more natural than, having found themselves healed, the nine would even quicken their steps away from Jesus and towards the priest, for do they not hear a voice in their head saying, “hasten, hasten to the priest, get yourself certified as healed, then rush home to your wife and children, joyously shouting, ‘I am healed, I am healed’.”  

Let us assume that the one who returns to Jesus has also heard that voice, but then he must have heard another voice as well, one that weighs more heavily on him.   That voice tells him that gratitude matters, that praising God matters, that the presence of kindness, goodness, generosity, is the very spirit of God in our midst, and that it matters  to acknowledge it, to live it.   Shall we not say that to hear that voice is to hear the voice of transcendence in our midst, the transcendent showing immanence.  Is that inner voice not our human sensing of God, the ground of our belief.  Shall we not say that part of being human is awareness of a reality that transcends us and all that we see and know.  Is it any wonder then that Jesus is upset that nine out of the ten healed lepers do not return to give thanks and praise God.  For their not returning signifies a loss or at least a weakening of a sense of transcendence in their lives, a loss in their sense of living under God, a God of mercy who makes demands upon us, on whom we are dependent for our being, and to whom we have obligations.  Today, we are all too familiar with this weakening, this loss, of transcendence.  It’s the story of our lives.  We even have a name for it. It’s called secularism.

When I think of secularism, I always think of Bonhoeffer.  I think of him sitting in his cell in 1944-45, imprisoned by the Nazis; seeing his  own seminary, resistant to the Nazi regime, shut down; witnessing the overwhelming number of German churches simply capitulating to Nazi regime policies and interpretations of Christian faith.  In his final letters from prison, Bonhoeffer began to put forward the notion that we had entered a religionless age, by which, amongst other things, he meant that the traditional supernatural framework for faith and transcendence had lost its intelligibility, and with that loss came our loss of a reality transcendent to the created world.  Bonhoeffer saw that faith needs to recover transcendence without supernaturalism.  He didn’t live to work this out in any thorough way, but he gave some hints, amongst them, that God’s transcendent reality is with us immanently; that to see that immanence in the world is an act of faith; that Christ is that divine immanence, present no less so than when not obviously evident; that Christ, the sacred transcendent, immanent, can be inferred from the presence of love, beauty, goodness, mercy compassion, in our midst --- and that presence is the presence of our Lord to whom we owe our life.  I know, I’m not being terribly clear, just stumbling along.  But sisters and brothers in Christ, this I do know.

To be a community of believers, is to have this faith that where we see love, compassion, mercy, goodness, there we see Christ amongst us, there we see God’s transcendent reality in our midst, immanently; and where we find ourselves going out to others in compassion, mercy, goodness, there we see Christ in us, there we see us loyal to Christ, there we see us witnessing to Christ, witnessing to the power of redemption in our world.

One final point.  Faith is not rooted in what we would normally call the evident.  So it is amazing to have this faith.  Amazing that we have it.  I’m always amazed that I have it.  As it was true for that one returning leper, having faith is something to be grateful for: gratitude is part and parcel of our faith; we, too, return to Christ, giving thanks, praising God, I mean we come to church, to worship, to sing hymns, say a creed that may not seem so enlightening to us, sip wine and eat bread to signify our loyalty to Christ, and also, like the leper, perhaps try not to worry too much that nine out of ten of our neighbors do not join us --- and, of course, always ending our worship saying, “Thanks be to God.”

Thanks be to God.

Thanks be to Christ.