Sunday, October 14, 2007

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 28
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

Praise ye Jehovah. I will give thanks unto Jehovah with my whole heart, In the council of the upright, and in the congregation.

Victoria is in the process of applying to colleges. It has been a long and arduous task which began several years ago. She began looking at different schools, studying their websites, checking out the brochures that have been flooding our mailbox for that past couple of years. She has narrowed the search significantly and has made a couple of visits to her favorites. Now is the time to fill out the application forms which ask hundreds of questions from name, address and phone number to hobbies and interests. She also has to write essays and disclose financial information. The application process also requires letters of recommendation from teachers and school counselors.

I attended a meeting last night that was designed to help parents of seniors understand the process the kids are going through this year. They gave us basic information, website addresses for more details and a basic calendar to follow in the coming months. Victoria has become very knowledgeable about the process and is well ahead of schedule. It was almost unnecessary for me to attend the meeting since Victoria could have given most of the speeches. I did bring home one tidbit of information that I shared with Victoria. The counselor recommended that the students send thank you notes to the people who supply letters of recommendation.

Now, I have always taught my children to send thanks when people have been kind and I think they will remember to send thank you notes for gifts and things like that. However, I’m not sure I would have thought to send a thank you to a teacher who wrote a letter of recommendation. It seems like this is part of their job in molding students for the future. Yet, a teacher is not required to write letters. They do so as a gift to the students they respect. A thank you note is a wonderful gesture.

I am not sure that people write thank you notes very often anymore. Now, I have to admit that Miss Manners knows far more about when we should send a handwritten note and when an email is enough. I don’t think many other people really know, and most people do not even bother. I can’t imagine someone sending a thank you note to a hostess who had them to tea one afternoon, as may have been common practice a hundred years ago. It seems like enough in our day and age to verbally offer thanks as we leave. We thank people when the thing they have done stands out as different and unusual. But when they do something that is expected, we forget.

I think most people are thankful to God, even for the little things. Ask any Christian and they will be thankful for their daily bread and for life today. We are all eternally thankful for our salvation. We voice our thanksgiving in worship and when we are sharing our blessings with others. I don’t know any Christian (or even people from other religions) who would not feel joy and peace in singing the words of today’s Psalm. Though our Gospel lesson for today is in some sense about thankfulness, I think there is more to it.

We often compare the nine lepers who went to the Temple with the one leper who returned to Jesus. Were the nine lepers unthankful for the gift of their healing? I doubt it. I imagine they found their voice in the praises of the psalms as they went to the Temple. They were voicing their thanksgiving to God – in words that I am sure He heard. They did their duty. They went to the priests as they were required to do by the Law and as Jesus commanded them. They received the same gift as the Samaritan leper, but they responded to the gift differently. They responded in a way they knew, in the practices they understood. For them to bow down to Jesus would have been blaspheming.

In this story we find Jesus passing along the borders of Samaria and Galilee. Border areas always mean more diversity as human movement doesn’t always recognize the political and religious boundaries that are established. The Galileans were from Judah; the Samaritans were from the Northern tribes that had been Israel. The differences between the people were largely political, based on the division between the Northern and Southern kingdoms; in personal relations they seemed somewhat tolerant. There were religious differences – the Samaritans recognized only the Torah and were strict adherents of the Law. The Jews had the writings of the prophets which shaped their understanding of the Torah. Samaritans believed that they were the true adherents to the Jewish religion. The Samaritans had a history of syncretism (accepting and trying to meld together opposing and conflicting belief systems), allowing the worship of other gods in their communities. To the Jews, they were unclean.

These differences did not matter much to the lepers. They were all outcast, all unclean. They all stood at a distance from Jesus, respecting his position not wanting to make him unclean. They sought mercy. We don’t know what they expected. Certainly they had heard of Jesus’ power to heal. However, as outcasts they needed many things that Jesus offered to people. They needed food, clothing and shelter. These are needs that Jesus addressed in many ways in His ministry. The lepers also needed comfort, healing and peace. They difference between the nine lepers and the Samaritan was the way they responded to God’s grace.

The Old Testament lesson is about a leper who is a foreigner to the Hebrews. Naaman is the commander for the army of the king of Aram. He had a skin disease that was identified as leprosy, although his dis-ease was either different than that of the lepers in the Gospel or his community did not exile him to the edges of society. He was able to continue to work and to hold on to his position and power. In this story there is also a young Hebrew girl who has been taken captive during a border skirmish who was a slave in Naaman’s household. She was concerned about her master’s well-being and suggested that he go to the prophet for healing.

They are from different worlds; they see life from much different points of view. Naaman came from a place where the king had complete control and the work of the gods happens through his power and authority. In that world, gifts were expected, payment required. The prophets were under the authority of the king and they are paid for their work. Those prophets speak to the benefit and satisfaction of the king. Naaman is from Aram, an enemy of Israel.

Israel saw the world much differently, particularly the work of the prophets. Prophets were appointed by God and they were not on the payroll of the king. Prophets were independent – often in opposition to the king’s plans and practices. When Naaman heard that there was a prophet in Israel who might heal his leprosy, he responded according to his world view. He went through the king, thinking that the prophet could not work without the king’s authority. He offered payment for the work, thinking that it was expected. In exchange, Naaman expected the prophet to act like the prophets of Aram. When Elisha did not meet his expectation, he was shocked and upset.

The king of Israel was also upset. He thought the letter was a trap. He thought that if Naaman did not receive the healing that Aram would attack his people. He knew that he had no control over the prophet, that he could not guarantee healing for the commander. He tore his clothing in grief, thinking that his people were in danger because the foreigners were expecting from him something he could not offer. Elisha told the king not to worry.

Elisha told Naaman to go wash. This did not seem like a proper cure. I am sure that Naaman kept clean, that his disease was not from filthy living. He was a powerful and high ranking leader. He would have had access to the best care, the finest clothes, and the most expensive perfumes. He never thought that he would be sent to a dirty river to wash. He expected that the prophet would touch him or say prayers over him. He expected that the prophet would provide medicinal herbs or offer sacrifices to the gods for his sake. Elisha did not even meet him. He sent word that he should go wash in the Jordan and he would be healed.

Naaman’s world view demanded a different response and he wanted to reject the cure. However, his servants made him think about it again. “My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?” When Naaman went to the river to wash, his leprosy disappeared and he was made clean. Naaman went back to Elisha and presented himself to the prophet. “Behold now, I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel.” He appeared to have faith in the one true God, but his world view remained unchanged. He responded to the grace of God doing his duty according to the expectations of his own people. Though our reading ends with Naaman’s confession of faith, we see in the following verses that he tried to pay Elisha for the healing.

Naaman and the nine lepers were certainly thankful for their healing. They responded to the healing in the manner they knew to be right. What they did not do is glorify God. Naaman tried to pay for his healing, making it something he could possess. The nine did not try to pay for it with money and gifts, but they went to the Temple to complete the works required by the Law. The Samaritan recognized the presence of God in Jesus Christ. He responded by faith, not according to the expectations of his community or culture. He returned to the source of faith, to give glory to God. He thanked Jesus and worshipped Him.

This healing story is unusual because Jesus says only, “Go and show yourselves unto the priests.” He does not touch them. He does not say “You are well.” He does not tell them that their sins have been forgiven. He sends them to the priests to do what is right according to Law. The lepers do exactly what they have been commanded. They left to go to the priests and as they did so they were healed. However, one leper – the Samaritan – turned back to Jesus when he was healed. He fell at his feet and praised God. The other lepers did what was right and they were healed. They received the grace of God and in doing so they were admitted back into society where their needs would once again be met. They could return to their home, to their jobs, to their community.

The ten lepers were all healed physically, but only one sought out the true healing – that which comes from Jesus Christ. When He praised God, Jesus gave him far more. He was made whole – physically and spiritually. Jesus is concerned for our physical well being, but He is more concerned about the spiritual. With nearly every healing in the book, Jesus reaches beyond the body into the person’s spirit, granting them forgiveness and filling them with the love of God. He changes people from the inside out, bringing them back into a relationship with their Creator. It is that relationship that makes them whole.

The tenth leper had nothing going for him. He was a Samaritan. He was a leper. He was living on the edge of society. But then he found grace. It was in the power of Jesus Christ. The other lepers also received God’s healing, but they did not find the grace. They did not recognize that the power came from Jesus Christ. They praised God by doing their duty in the Temple, missing the presence of God that was in their midst.

Naaman almost missed the grace also. He wanted to ignore the command of the prophet because it did not fit into his expectation. To receive the power of God takes death: the death of self and the old life that is being lived. Callistus hit rock bottom and begged for a chance. All he wanted was freedom, but he received healing, peace and a new life in Christ. Naaman only wanted healing, but he caught a glimpse of the one true and living God. The tenth leper wanted mercy, but Jesus gave him much, much more. He was reconciled to his community but also with God. God always gives more than we want and even more than we need, if only our expectations are left to die and we trust in Him.

We love to hear the story, over and over again, but sometimes we would prefer to hear only the parts of it that are happy and uplifting. We love Christmas because the story of His birth in the manager is beautiful and full of peace. We are eager to hear the story of victory on Easter Day because in the resurrection of Jesus we see the eternal life that is God’s gift to all who live by faith. It is uplifting and inspirational to know what God has done for us. We know how Jesus got there. We know the cross. We even accept that the cross was the only way to true life. Yet, we would rather not talk about it. We do not like to talk about death. Paul reminds us that the story of Christ includes death – not only His death but our death in Him. We die with Him and we live with Him.

It is not something that comes easily. Though we live by faith and trust that God has done this great thing, we don’t fully understand the purpose of death to bring life. So, sometimes we try to explain away the things we do not understand. We take the story of God and make it sound better to our ears and to the expectations of the world around us. Yet, in doing so we diminish the grace that is found only in death and we deny what God has done through Christ for us. This causes confusion, even bickering about the words that define the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This makes it more difficult for the world to know Jesus, to come to faith and to receive the gift of true life.

It takes practice. It takes study. It takes daily immersion into the grace of God to stand firmly in that which we trust to be true. Living by faith is not something that we can ad-lib. It is not something we can do by improvisation. Paul reminds us to be ready to rightly handling the word of truth so that we might share it with others.

We are truly thankful. We do sing God’s praises along with the psalmist “Praise ye Jehovah. I will give thanks unto Jehovah with my whole heart, in the council of the upright, and in the congregation.” We even turn to Him, fall down at His feet and glorify Him in worship. The question we ask today is how are we responding to God’s grace? Are we like Naaman who wanted to pay for God’s grace? Are we like the nine lepers who did their duty at the Temple by showing themselves to the priests and offering thankofferings as has been commanded in the Law? Or are we like the Samaritan who recognized God’s presence and turned to Jesus in praise and thanksgiving to receive the greater gift of wholeness and peace?

Do we just receive God’s grace or do we make it our own?

Do we respond to God’s grace with a word of thanksgiving before going on to our normal lives or are we changed forever by what God has done? That was the difference between the nine lepers and the Samaritan. He was changed. He was made new. When he turned to Christ, he began a life of faith which is the true gift from God. Jesus does care about our physical healing, but He is more concerned about our relationship with God which can’t be bought with money, gifts or dutiful execution of works. Only by faith can we truly know God and life according to His grace.

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