Sunday, October 10, 2010

Returning Thanks

The Grateful Leper

A sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 10, 2010. The lectionary readings are 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c, Psalm 111, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, and Luke 17:11-19.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in Canada, and in some ways our scripture readings help us to help them celebrate it. Ambrose of Milan said “No duty is so urgent as that of returning thanks.” I’ve always loved that phrase, “returning thanks,” as though thanks comes from somewhere else, moves through us or visits us for just a little while, and so we should be careful with it, hold it gently, and then, when it’s time, let it go back to the its source. But in reality, we sometimes don’t return the thanks. We might misplace it, or forget about it. Or we squander it and pretend it wasn’t a gift, but rather, something we deserved and earned and won. The thanks we get, the thanks for which we are grateful, the thanks we return (or don’t return) is like a blessing—a gift that comes.

In our first reading, it takes Naaman a while to return thanks, to return to give thanks, or to understand where his blessing has come from.

Naaman might be powerful and successful, but he also has leprosy. Lepers were called “unclean,” and the sense was that they were not only physically unclean (and perhaps that’s how they got the skin disease in the first place) but also spiritually unclean, as though they were being punished by God for some reason.

We can understand something of what the culture of fear and suspicion around leprosy might have been like, if we remember the early 1980’s when the outbreak of AIDS meant also an epidemic of fear and ignorance. Others here may remember what it was like in the early 20th century around polio. Philip Roth has written his latest novel, Nemesis about the “nemesis” of polio, and about especially about one man’s fear that he might get it. When two boys from the main character’s neighborhood contract polio, everyone begins to look for someone or something to blame. Imagine that culture of fear in the Bible when we hear about lepers.
Naaman probably tries not to show his fear, being a military man. But he certainly looks for healing. Naaman hears about a great prophet and healer in Israel, Elisha (the heir to the prophet Elijah). The king makes it possible for Naaman to go and visit Elisha, and he makes his way to the cave where Elisha is staying. Naaman gets to the opening of Elisha’s cave, and Elisha sends a servant out to talk to Naaman. The servant says, “Here’s what you need to do: Elisha says for you to go and wash in the River Jordan seven times. That should do the trick. You’ll be fine.”

Well! This great military commander Naaman is insulted. Did he travel all the way to Israel only to be told by a servant go and wash in the river? Does he not even get to see this supposedly great prophet?

Naaman is angry, he criticizes Elisha. He makes fun of Israel and its rivers, and on and on he goes, in an absolute rage. Had he continued to mouth off, had he continued to try to fit things into his own way of seeing, he would have completely missed the opportunity before him. He would have missed the presence of God, and the healing of God. Just before they leave Israel altogether, one of Naaman’s servants pulls him aside and begins to talk a little sense into him. It’s as though this servant understands the nature of grace, the nature of blessing—that when a blessing comes from God (whether it’s in the form of healing or some other blessing), it comes lightly, and so it should be grasped and grabbed, but received and allowed room. Naaman eventually goes down to the water, he bathes seven times, and he is healed. Not only is he healed of the leprosy, but it also sounds like he might have been healed from a little of his arrogance and pride. And then Naaman returns to Elisha and makes a big statement. It’s a statement of faith, but also a returning of thanks: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel. Your God is God.”

There is healing in our Gospel, as well. He is on the way to Jerusalem and is approached by not one, but ten lepers. They greet him with words that will echo on Palm Sunday, recognizing his power and his ability to forgive and cleanse: “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.” Their words are a desperate cry for help, they’re from the heart, and they seem to get his attention.
With these 10 lepers, Jesus does an astounding thing. He responds to them as though they’ve already been healed—he doesn’t send them to bathe in special waters, he doesn’t spit into the dirt and make a potion out of it for their healing—instead, he effects the healing in them even as they ask for it. Next, he follows the Jewish custom of encouraging them to go and show themselves to the Temple priests.

Jesus heals the disease, but he knows that it will take a little more for the fear and suspicion around the disease to heal, as well. It’s a little like when one of us has been healed, has gotten better, has been restored to health, and yet friends and family treat us as though we’re still fragile. Jesus knows that for the lepers to be received back into their families and villages, they needed the official approval of the Temple priest, the sort of cultural equivalent of a “clean bill of health.” And so the ten former lepers follow Jesus’ instructions and they go to the temple. All, except for one.
One comes returns, and returns thanks. The one cured leper happens to be the Samaritan, the foreigner, the half-breed, the one despised by both Jews and the Gentiles. This cured leper had been doubly cured. Not only was he cured of a disease, but he was healed of racial and cultural divides as well. Perhaps because of his living in-between, he understood the nature of blessing, the nature of a grace, the nature of thanks--- as something that visits us, and gains life as it is shared and returned.

In the Collect of the Day we have prayed that God’s grace might always precede and follow us, making us continually given to good works. It’s not our works that produce the grace. It’s not our works that even provide the setting or space for grace. But grace that allows us to do good and faithful work. It is grace that comes before, during, and after. But it is always and everywhere God’s grace, not our own. And so the Spirit helps us to live in this grace, thankfully.

We pray for God’s healing of disease and ailment. We pray for God’s healing of creation, where it is broken or wasted or in trouble. We pray for God’s healing of racial and ethnic and cultural divides. And we can pray for God’s Spirit to help us return thanks and live lightly with grateful hearts.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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