Grace is all around us, all the time; we could experience it more often, if we got in the habit of noticing that. A sermon – text Luke 17:11-19 – from the Corydon Presbyterian Church yesterday.
Luke’s story of Jesus healing 10 lepers is probably well known to us from stewardship seasons past. Because of that, we probably all know “the moral of the story.” We all know we’re supposed to be grateful, like the one good leper who turned back. We all know we’re not supposed to be ungrateful, like the nine men who just kept going. We all know the moral of the story is: don’t be that way.
We’re probably not wrong about that.
Although to be fair to the other nine, for all we know they were overwhelmingly glad they’d been healed or made clean – and did praise and thank God all the way down that road on the way to show themselves to the priests – and they were following Jesus’s instructions, after all – which ought to count for something. And Jesus, being Jesus, really did heal them all, equally, and never asked any of them for anything in return. So it doesn’t seem quite fair to hold that against them … when they didn’t really do anything … wrong.
And yet – Jesus does seem to appreciate the one-in-ten who turns back, who wants to acknowledge and thank Jesus.
Have we ever wondered what made that one individual “not like the others”? Have we ever wondered where that gratitude came from? Have we ever wondered what the deeper difference was, the difference that produced this gratitude, that made it his natural or automatic response?
Luke doesn’t satisfy our wondering about this – but he does give us several clues. Those clues are scattered throughout the gospel. Because Luke tells a lot of stories, and the stories Luke tells bring up several themes that come together right here, in this story that happens shortly before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for his last dramatic week. One clue is that this person is aware: he notices where he is, and what’s happening there. Another is that he pays attention to that; he’s not distracted by anything “more important.” And that awareness, and that attentiveness, make it possible for him to experience something additional – the difference between where he is and where he could have been – and to experience that difference as grace, as the gift of God – to recognize that he’s in the presence of God. His grateful worship arises simply, naturally, when he realizes he’s in the presence of God.
We know he’s aware, we know he notices, because Luke calls our attention to that: “seeing” that he’d been made clean, he starts praising God. He is the only one Luke actually says this about. We might think it must have been equally obvious to all of the lepers, immediately – but realistically, it might not have been. We ourselves know, if we’re honest, that there are many things in the world we don’t notice. We often see the world we are used to seeing, or the world we remember, or the world we expect, instead of the world as it is, here and now. So it can take a long time to notice that something has changed, even if it’s a change we’ve hoped and prayed for.
And even if we notice, we don’t always pay attention. We are especially likely not to pay attention when we are distracted, when we are preoccupied with something “more important.” Luke actually tells a lot of stories like this. He tells the story of the busy religious professionals who are so focused on getting to their jobs in the Temple in Jerusalem that they can’t pay attention to what’s happening on the other side of the road – unlike the Good Samaritan, who pays attention long enough to feel compassion. He tells the story of a perfectly good-hearted woman so busy preparing for her guest that she can’t stop to talk to that guest, even when it’s Jesus – none of us want to be mean to Martha, but Jesus specifically points out, she’s distracted. He tells the story of an older brother so busy with all the chores he has to do that he never appreciates everything he has.
Those characters all have something in common with the other nine lepers who, I imagine, were so intent on following Jesus’s instructions to go show themselves to the priests, so intent on the policies and procedures, that they couldn’t stop just to pay attention to what was happening right here, right now, where the miracle was actually occurring. Because that’s always where miracles occur, right here, right now.
So we know that one leper was aware, and seems to have paid attention, which allowed him to feel and appreciate that difference between where he had been and where he was now. And here’s something else we know: that difference would have felt like being forgiven – absolved – accepted – which we know because of what we know about the meaning of “leprosy” in the Bible. Fortunately, these days we don’t seem to have the disease that was meant by the word “leprosy” in our Bibles, or if we do, we don’t treat it the same way. Modern people have other diseases, though, that we think about in similar ways – that is, almost as “signs” that someone has done something wrong. For instance, in the 80s, people often had those thoughts about AIDS; and today, people often think that way about what we sometimes call “lifestyle diseases.” In Bible times, people seem to have thought that way about leprosy: they thought of it as a punishment from God, maybe fairly specific to speaking ill of others. People thought of leprosy as a sign, of guilt, of sin, of being wrong. And it was definitely something that made people keep their distance.
So when the ten lepers call out to Jesus, saying “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us,” the “mercy” they are hoping for is bigger than physical healing alone. They are hoping for something more like a release from jail, or the cancellation of a debt, or like any of the metaphors we use for forgiveness, for when things are wrong – and suddenly, they’re OK, they even better than OK, they look good. That contrast, that difference, that double vision – of some dismal way things could have been, and the different, better way things actually are – opens up something like a space for a special kind of experience. Sometimes we name it “forgiveness.” Sometimes we name it “grace.” Sometimes we name it “wonder.”
But whatever we call it, what happens in that space is gratitude: that deep sense that things didn’t have to be this good, but they are. And that gratitude is one of the surest signs that we are in the presence of God. The leper who turned back seems to have recognized that: to have recognized that he was in the presence of God, and that the thing to do in the presence of God is worship. Praise God, thank God, acknowledge God’s presence in this wondrous space.
Perhaps, realistically, we can’t live in that grateful space of wonder and worship all the time. But we could undoubtedly live in it more – we could spend more time there – because it depends on some of the choices we make. It is partly up to us. One of our classmates last week, when we studied this text, pointed out that the 10th leper had a mother who raised him properly. We laughed, but he was probably right about that! The grateful leper may, indeed, have had a mother who got him into the habit of noticing, and of paying attention, and of not taking good gifts for granted, but of acknowledging the giver with thanks and with joyful praise.
Or maybe it did matter that he was a Samaritan, who wouldn’t have assumed Jesus would have mercy on him – because sometimes, when we don’t expect kindness, or acceptance, and get it anyway, we experience it more as grace …
I’m afraid a lot of people have heard me tell this story, so apologies to everyone who is tired of hearing it, but when I first moved to Corydon, with Devi, with my partner, to this small town, and of course, we weren’t lepers, but there was that other L word that described us, and I was afraid that would mean people wouldn’t accept us, wouldn’t accept me, especially church people … so one of the first activities here, was a work day, because the congregation was building a new building, and the task was literally picking up rocks – to clear the site. So I came to this work day. And as I recall, since I’d been living in an apartment in Chicago for the past 15 years, and didn’t know anything about yardwork, I came completely unprepared. And Patty Vertrees, one of the wonderful members of the congregation, took me under her wing and loaned me a pair of work gloves, and then we proceeded to duck-walk our way along our designated strip of dirt with her bucket between us, picking up rocks. And talking, just about ordinary things, how we had come to this small town, where we’d been before, those things. So, I had been afraid I would be shunned, but instead I was accepted and to this day I experience it as grace – that “the Presbyterians let me pick up rocks.”
It is easy for us to take God, the giver of all good gifts, for granted. But we don’t have to do that. We can live more of our lives in that space where we notice and pay attention – to the wonder of creation; the blessings of life; the astonishing gap between all the reasons we have to be dissatisfied or ashamed of ourselves, and God’s profound love for us, and positive vision for us. When we see that truth of things, the truth we are urged to see by scripture and by the worship of the church, we can begin to experience, more often, that wondrous difference made by grace, that space in which gratitude grows.
This is something we can experience at any moment, wherever we are, whenever we pause to notice: grace is here. God is here. This is brought to us by Christ. Alleluia! Thanks be to God!