Gospel: Luke 17:11-19
1st Reading: 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
2nd Reading: 2 Timothy 2:8-15
Today, I’m going to give away the ending at the beginning. We can do everything God asks us to do, and still not get it, still not be transformed, still not be made new. And maybe that’s why we, as Lutherans, know that we will not be saved by our works, by our deeds. It is God’s grace alone that can save. The question is this: Will we be able to accept God’s grace and give thanks to God it?
The lepers did everything they were supposed to do. Society dictated that everywhere they went, they cried out, “Unclean.” Society dictated that, as beggars, they should say, “Have mercy,” just like we say many Sundays at church. Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priests, and they did and were made clean. They did everything they were supposed to do. But don’t you get the feeling that most of the lepers missed something?
Naaman, commander of the army of the King of Aram, did everything he was supposed to do. He was an important guy. He had a right to expect a lot of hocus pocus and hand waving and a big deal to be made over him. He expected to have to wash himself in the Parphar River or at least the Abana. He was ok with that. He was perfectly willing. But God was offering him something more than healing that was just skin deep. He was doing more than one could reasonably expect, but was still missing something.
When Paul was doing what the religious authorities said was right, what was right in his culture—spying on people, having them dragged from their homes for questioning, torturing them, he enjoyed the luxuries of life. He was well-respected, rich, and secure. But even though he was doing what he thought was right, he was still missing something. In fact he was missing everything.
God asks more of us, than just to do what our religion or government or conscience, tells us. God wants a changed life for us. God wants a grateful heart for us. God wants us to humble ourselves. God wants changed priorities for us.
Naaman wanted his skin to be healed and that was it. He wanted the rest of his life to be the same. He did not want to be inconvenienced. But God wanted more for Naaman. Naaman had everything he could ever want, or so he thought, but something was still wrong. He had a skin condition and some other disconnect in his life—maybe it was pride, maybe it was entitlement. God wanted to heal both the leprosy and that condition of the heart. God wouldn’t be able to heal both conditions by doing things Naaman’s way. God needed to wake Naaman up. So God brought Naaman a message through the most unlikely person—a slave of his wife’s. Naaman showed a lot of willingness, even listening to his wife. Most important men would have immediately dismissed this possibility—that the direction toward a cure could come from this slave girl. He had to humble himself to go to his king and tell him that he was listening to a little girl slave and ask for the king to write a letter to the king of Israel. He, then traveled to Israel, to see about the cure, which could not have been easy. He must have been embarrassed and crushed when the King told him there was nothing he could do to help him. And then to have the prophet Elisha summon him and go all the way to his house and not have the prophet even meet with him, but instead send him on another errand. He’s just had it, so he throws a fit and starts heading home. But God humbles him again, through his servant who takes a risk to correct his behavior. His slave reasons with him, gets him to do what he needs to do to be healed in both body and spirit.
I think it was the journey that healed him, more than the final step of washing in the Jordan River. Yes, when he emerged, he had brand new skin, but the journey taught him to pay attention to people that don’t matter to others, like the slave girl, the prophet’s messenger, and his servant. It taught him not to take his privilege for granted—he had to jump through many hoops on his journey to healing. It taught him to persevere. He was the kind of person that riches and women just fell at his feet. He wasn’t used to working for anything. But this was something he truly wanted and needed, and he eventually saw it through, finished what he started with wonderful results. Don’t you think he went home a changed man? We don’t know what happened to him, except what we read in the rest of that chapter, that he would worship God alone from that time on. Did he release his Israelite slaves? Did he stop going on conquests? We don’t know much, except that he was thankful to God. We don’t know how his gratefulness and new awareness played out in his life.
The lepers were all cleansed that day by Jesus. So why was one affected differently than the other 9? Was it something in his upbringing? Was it something to do with his life experience? Maybe it was an accident that he suddenly turned and saw Jesus and decided to thank him. The other 9 did exactly as Jesus told them, but they didn’t express their gratitude to Jesus, if they had any. Maybe it was that this man was a Samaritan. He was used to be on the sidelines. He knew he had no right to healing. Whereas others might have felt entitled, he knew he had done nothing to deserve this precious gift. The Samaritan couldn’t go to the temple to see the priest. He wasn’t welcome there because of his race and religion. Where else did he have to turn? So he gave thanks to Jesus, right there. His life was completely changed. It wasn’t just skin-deep. He shared his gratitude right there in public. His heart was open. He saw what others couldn’t see, God’s actions right there for healing of bodies and hearts. We don’t know the rest of his story and how his life might have been changed more than that of his fellow lepers. Did he give thanks daily for the rest of his life? Did his encounter with Jesus affect the way he interacted with people on a daily basis? Did he appreciate what he had more? Did he share what he had more? We don’t know how his gratefulness played out in his daily life after that.
Paul’s life was changed when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. He was chief of sinners, yet Jesus came to him and loved him, healed him, claimed him, and put him to work. And even though before that he had every comfort and freedom, he was much more comfortable and free when he was locked up for sharing the good news of God’s love and grace. He was right in his heart. He was grateful for all that God had done for him.
What all do we take for granted in our lives? Do we want the healing that Jesus offers without transformation, or do we want a changed life? Do we want to just do what we’re supposed to do, or can we take it to another level? Can we live a life of gratefulness, returning to Jesus again and again in appreciation?
Can you build gratefulness? Can you manufacture the transformation of a life? That’s what we’re talking about when we use the word “discipleship.” When we are a follower or disciple of Jesus, we are hanging on his every word, we are thankful for every gift that he gives us. Even if we aren’t naturally grateful, we can cultivate it. Many of you made your children sit down and write thank you notes. How about sitting down and writing one thank you note every day. You can even program your smart phone or e-calendar to remind you. How about praying for all the things you are thankful for each morning and evening? You can train your heart to give thanks. And believe me, it will change the way you see the world. It may not give you the skin of a baby, but it will give you the heart of a child, full of wonder, aware of the gift of this life, and ready to share it willingly with others.
I think we are really all 10 lepers. 9 times out of 10 times we forget to give thanks. But occasionally our eyes are opened to see God’s action in our lives and we turn in gratefulness to God for all God has done for us.