The gospel lesson we heard today, from Luke, about the ten lepers being cleansed, is one that many of us heard growing up in Sunday School. And I suspect that most of heard it told something like this:
“Jesus was walking along the road between Samaria and Galilee, and there were ten lepers who called out to him and said, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’ So Jesus healed them, and sent them off, and only one came back to say ‘thank you’. Jesus praised that man, but wanted to know how come the other 9 didn’t come say ‘thank you.’ Boys and girls, we should all learn to say ‘thank you’ to Jesus!”
Am I right?
This is a story, which, like so many other stories, we are really, really good at turning into a lesson on “rules for how to be a good Christian.” As though Jesus hands out healing to lepers the way we hand snacks to preschoolers – “here’s a cookie, now, what do you say?” “Thank you, Mommy.” “Ok, you’re healed, now what do you say?” “Thank you, Jesus!”
Of course, there’s an element of trying to encourage gratitude in this story, and the “rules,” if you want to call them that, absolutely would tell us the same thing. Throughout the Bible, God’s people are constantly expressing their gratitude to God for all of the mighty acts he has done. In the communion liturgy each week, also called the Eucharistic liturgy, Eucharist meaning “thanksgiving,”, we pray, “It is indeed right and salutary – meaning “correct” – that we should at all times and in all places offer thanks and praise to you, O Lord…”
And it’s true – if you stop and think just at this very moment, what are the things that we can be grateful to God for? Well, you’re alive, for starters. Your lungs are breathing and your heart is beating and the neurons in your brain are firing and your fingers work well enough to fiddle with the bulletin or the candy in your purse, and you have ears to hear what’s being said and a voice to echo your Amen to all of the prayers. You have clothes and shoes to wear. You made it to church this morning – whether your healthy legs walked you here in the crisp fall air, or you have been blessed with a car that functions and the ability to pass a drivers exam and get a license and drive here, or whether someone else was kind enough to provide the transportation so that you could come to worship. In just a few minutes you’ll hold Jesus in your hand and eat the actual Body, and drink the Blood, of your Lord. And after that, there will be hot coffee and snacks out in the fellowship hall, and who’s not grateful for coffee? J So right there, there’s a whole list of things that we can be grateful to God for.
And that doesn’t even get into, say, salvation, and the fact that your sins are forgiven, that death has been destroyed, and that the power of the devil has been conquered by the Blood of Jesus – on your behalf, and for your benefit. More things to be grateful for, which are – technically – more important than coffee.
And really, how many of us remember to actually express our thanks and praise to God for all of these gifts, and for the many, many, many more that we have been given? It is indeed right and salutary that we should at all times, and in all places, offer thanks and praise to you, O Lord. But we don’t. More often than not, we fall into the category of the nine, rather than the one.
And yes, we could argue, trying to justify the nine, and ourselves, that Jesus tells them all to go show themselves to the priests – because having been lepers, and excluded from the community, there’s a whole religious ritual of being reintegrated into society that starts with the Jewish priests verifying that you, are, in fact, healed of the disease. So we could say, well, they were just doing what Jesus told them to do. They were obeying the instructions. And, well, yes.
But at the heart of all religious ritual and observance, at the heart of the liturgy, and the order of worship, and the Sacraments, and the rites and rituals, the core of all of that is Jesus. It is Christ himself, crucified and risen for you. And so the nine healed lepers, while they certainly weren’t wrong to go do as they were told, to follow the religious process they had been given, well, in forgetting to say thank you to Jesus, in forgetting the One who actually had healed them, it seems like they maybe kind of missed the point.
And we can be in danger of doing the same thing. We can come to church and sing the songs and pray the prayers and listen politely and sit down and stand up and so on and so forth, we can serve coffee and help usher and share the peace nicely with the people sitting next to us, and we can do that every single week – heck, we could do it every single day – but if we trust in those rituals, instead of trusting in the person that all the rituals point to, the Christ who is the object, the target of our worship, the one who instituted the Sacraments and brings us life and healing and salvation through them; if we miss Him, then we miss the point.
“Church”, at the end of the day, is not about church for the sake of church. It is not, primarily, about “hospitality”, or about how often you come or how much money you put in the offering plate. It is not about who sees you here, and it is not about coffee and treats. Church is not about the building, or about how popular any given congregation is in town, or about being nice, or whatever else. Church – this particular congregation called Our Savior’s, and the Church that is composed all the believers, across all time and space, church, is fundamentally, primarily, always and only, at its core, about Jesus.
Hymns and songs, prayers and processionals, confession and Communion – all point to Jesus. Hospitality and welcome and fellowship – all derive from, and point to, the hospitality and welcome and fellowship that Jesus offers to us. Service projects – inside and outside the church building – come from, and point to, the Jesus who loves us, and serves us. Religion is good. “Go and show yourselves to the priest,” Jesus says. Jesus doesn’t come to destroy religion. He comes to make it known that He is the one who undergirds, who is both the foundation of, and the object of religion. The Church’s One Foundation…is Jesus Christ her Lord… If we miss that, we miss the point, and we become part of the nine.
So by now, it may look like all is lost, and returning to memories of Sunday School, if you grew up in Sunday School, here comes the rest of the lecture about “being more grateful.”
But what about this? What about, instead of a lecture on being thankful and “counting your blessings”, what if we turn to the second reading, from Paul’s second letter to Timothy? And let’s look at one line in particular. Paul is in the middle of quoting some sort of hymn or something about Jesus, and comes to, “when we are faithless, he is faithful.” When we are faithless, he is faithful. Even when we are faithless, he remains faithful.
Look, the remaining nine lepers, say what you want about them – they weren’t appropriately grateful, they got so caught up in the machinations of religion that they missed the One who sent them to the priests in the first place, whatever else you can think of – but they weren’t unhealed because of it. Yes, Jesus asks where they are, but he doesn’t chase them down the street and make them be lepers again. God’s love and God’s grace and God’s power and God’s forgiveness – all of God’s gifts – are not dependent on us, and on our gratitude, or our ability to get everything right. And thank goodness. Because if they were, we’d be in real trouble. But when we are faithless – when we don’t trust God, when we don’t offer him the thanks and praise he deserves, when we’re good at following religion but not so good at following Jesus, when we doubt that all the promises to keep us and love us and protect us might not really be real because they certainly don’t feel real in this moment of being diagnosed with a terrible illness or abandoned by the people I love or not knowing how I’m going to put food on the table this week or being overwhelmed with grief after someone’s death or swallowed whole by guilt and shame about what I’ve done or not done…when we are faithless, God is still faithful. His promises and gifts and blessings still stand. You can’t make everything fall apart because of your faithlessness – God simply won’t let you. He doesn’t unheal us or take away what He’s already given. He doesn’t stop showing up at your side each morning, or quit watching over you every night. He doesn’t take away forgiveness or hand you over to the powers of evil. When we are faithless, he is faithful.
This is a tough life. None of us – not a single one – have it easy. It’s hard to be faithful in a world that doesn’t value faith. It’s hard to trust Christ when everything around you says the only person you can trust is yourself. It’s tough to remember to say thank you when there are just so many other things to do. It’s difficult to keep our eyes fixed on Christ when the Sunday School rooms aren’t as full as they used to be. And it’s easy to be wracked with guilt when we contemplate our own faithlessness.
But when we are faithless, He is faithful. God’s promises to forgive – to offer grace and healing and salvation and new life – they are not contingent on you. You do not earn those promises in the moments when you are faithful, and you cannot stop them when you are faithless. When we are faithless, He is faithful. Your sins are forgiven, and you have been healed. Go and show yourselves to the priest, and may God be praised!