Our Savior’s people on God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday: as Lutherans, we do good not because we must, but because we’re grateful.
I have to confess something to you. I don’t usually like Christian movies.
Why? Lots of reasons: for one thing, I often find them to be a little too simple and sweet; they’re like eating a cupcake with lots of icing when I want a meal.
The other reason is because of this line that we find at the end of the Gospel passage: “Your faith has made you well.”
How often are these movies about someone in the moving having great faith and finding their problems solved by God?
“But Pastor,” you may say, “You literally just said it’s right there in the Bible!”
Yes, yes it is. “Your faith has made you well.”
So that’s it, isn’t it? If we have enough faith, God will solve our problems, just like Jesus did for the grateful leper who comes back to praise him.
But as you might imagine, this ain’t no sweet Christian movie. It’s a complex story. And we’ve got a few minutes, so while we’re here, we might as well talk about it.
“On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.”
“Samaria” is already a warning sign. Good Jews did not go near Samaria. That’s where “those people” lived. The first readers of Luke would’ve leaned forward at the mention of “Samaria.” Samaria was a whole other nation, and a hated one. Jesus is going near the border.
We talk a lot about Samaria and how the people were despised, and about how the Jewish folks of the day regarded them as those who have it all wrong. We say this, and we compare it to the hatreds of our own day, but I don’t think we take it seriously. You see, we don’t personally have anything against Samaritans. I’ve never met one, myself. And the groups of people we hate, well, they’re clearly different than the people we find in the Bible. They’re harmful, and dumb, and they really have it all wrong. Jesus would understand, right?
In Luke, Jesus spends most of his time setting his face towards Jerusalem, towards the cross. Gradually, he gets closer and closer to Jerusalem, though he takes a bit of a circuitous route. You’ve got to wonder if the Son of God has a busted GPS.
Hence, going by Samaria. He shouldn’t have had to, but he did.
Here, on the way to his destiny and going by the place where the hated people live, ten lepers cry out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
They keep their distance, Luke says. They don’t want Jesus to just walk quickly away from them, which would be well within his rights; not only were they unclean, but on a practical level, no one wants leprosy.
Jesus instructs them to go and show themselves to the priests, and Luke says that as they went, they were made clean.
This could be a nice, simple, sweet story, one where Jesus directs people to go and rejoin the community by going to the priests who will declare them clean. Except that it isn’t that kind of story.
One of them didn’t go to the priests. He didn’t because he couldn’t. He was a Samaritan. He was one of those people. The priests wouldn’t welcome someone who was both leper and Samaritan who dared to approach a Jewish priest. Strike one, strike two, strike three, sit down.
He couldn’t go to the priests so he came back to Jesus, seeing that he was healed and made clean. He came back praising God with a loud voice. He came back grateful. He fell at Jesus feet and thanked him.
Luke adds: “And he was a Samaritan.”
And that’s when Jesus said it, the line that echoes back through the centuries and gets into our theology and gets us into all kinds of trouble: “Your faith has made you well.”
Does faith make sick people well? Maybe. But then I suppose we’ve got a lot of explaining to do. In my own life and as a pastor, I’ve known plenty of people with faith far greater than my own who have not been made well, but who have died of illnesses and injuries of all kinds. Christian movies can be a nice escape for us, because they put us into a world where faith is simple. But the truth is that faith is rarely simple.
“Your faith has made you well.”
Does Jesus really mean that the Samaritan leper’s faith healed him?
You might have already guessed this, but the answer in the text is no, for a few reasons: first, the nine ungrateful lepers, the faithless ones, are also healed.
But the text says what it says, right? “Your faith has made you well?” Some translations even say “your faith has healed you.”
Well, Luke originally wrote in Greek, and Greek is a funny thing. “Healed” is one translation, “well” is another, but I think here, the best word is “whole.”
“Your faith has made you whole.”
Theeeeere you go. Is that even different? Goodness yes.
You see, as Lutherans, we believe that faith is a gift from God. If you believe that you’re earning your way into heaven by being here, I hate to disappoint you, but we believe that salvation is an act of God, not a reward for good behavior. If you’re waiting for an excuse to not go to church, well, here it is: you’re fine even if you don’t. When we declared you beloved at your baptism, we were just saying what God already knew: you’re beloved beyond measure. God’s not keeping score anymore. God has claimed you and healed you. You have been made clean. If all you want is a healing and a ticket to heaven, you can leave now.
But this is what I love about Lutherans: you know that. And you still come back every Sunday morning. As if that weren’t enough, you show up on Sunday nights to teach and take care of kids and serve food at Financial Peace University. You show up in the middle of the week to fix things around here that need fixing. You show up at Sok’s Bar to sing and be grateful and enjoy one another’s company. You keep coming back, all the time, not because you must, but because you may.
Because you’re grateful. Not because your own faith has healed you, but because your faith has made you whole. Because this community makes you feel whole. Because Jesus makes you feel whole.
The pastor of a church in Atlanta that is 90% LGBTQ, Beth LaRocca-Pitts, once preached on this text when it happened to fall on Pride Sunday in October in Atlanta. “One in ten,” she mused. She added, “I can’t help but think of something else that occurs in about one in every ten people.” Of course, she meant being LGBTQ. She went on to celebrate them, her congregation full of the one in ten. (1) The one who turned back and praised God with a loud voice because not only had he been healed, he had been made whole.
I’ve never forgotten that sermon.
I have never served a congregation that was 90% LGBTQ. But I do serve a congregation that is full of the one in ten.
As you may have noticed, practically nobody in New England is all that religious. The usual story, as you know, is “I was raised [fill in the blank, usually Catholic], but these days, I’m spiritual, but not religious.”
According to Pew Research, 45% of our neighbors in Massachusetts seldom or never attend religious services, while 33% say they rarely do. In my experience, a lot of those 33% actually belong with the 45%.
And yet, here you are.
Your faith has made you whole.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not condemning anyone who’s happily sleeping in right now. Many Sundays, I wish I was doing the same. Don’t forget — all ten who met Jesus were healed, even the ones who never saw him again. But I’ve got a congregation filled with the one who came back to praise God with a loud voice.
No, it’s not a simple story. This story, as good as it makes us feel, is no usual Christian movie where someone with a lot of faith gets healed because they have a lot of faith. It’s a story about how Jesus throws out healing like he’s made of it, because he is.
And then one guy comes back to Jesus in gratitude, and he is made whole by his own gratitude, by realizing where his healing came from, by being thankful.
You’ve already begun practicing gratitude by showing up today. Keep it going. What are you grateful for? Who are you grateful for?
I’ll start: I’m grateful for you. You make my soul whole by showing up, Sunday after Sunday, week after week. I’m the pastor of the one in ten, and I could not be more grateful.
Our story isn’t a saccharine movie. It’s much more complicated with a few more beers and probably a lot more cussing, but it’s got just as much Jesus, just as much healing, just as much wholeness.
And for that, I’m grateful. Amen.
1. That church is St. Mark United Methodist Church, Atlanta.