“Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God”
Our sermon today is entitled, “Turning Back to Praise,” which is a phrase we hear throughout Luke’s gospel as a model of faithfulness. In the Christmas story, the shepherds “turn back praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Lk 2:20). At the end of Luke, after Jesus’ ascension, the disciples “worshipped him and turned back to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the Temple blessing God” (Lk 24:52-53). And in our passage today, the phrase describes this tenth leper. While the other nine who are healed continue on toward the priest who can sign off on it and restore them to community, this tenth leper turns back to praise God and thank Jesus.
It’s a remarkable act — turning back — when so much in life depends on us pressing forward, continuing down the path with our goals, staying focused on the instructions and attentive to the checklists — which is exactly what the other nine lepers do. “Where are the other nine?” Jesus asks, in what must have been a playful, prying tone. He knows where they are. They’re doing exactly what he asked them to do. “Go, show yourselves to the priest” he said, and they do so, continuing forward in obedience. It probably sounds familiar, because it’s how many of us live.
In fact, it’s that kind of obedience and hard work that built this sanctuary where we sit, and cares for all the structures and systems that make the institution of church possible.
It’s that kind of faithfulness that brings families to church each week, even following a long week at work or a long Saturday at the soccer field, and even amidst so many other places we could be at this time (including watching a Panthers’ game that kicked off at 9:30am).
It’s the kind of commitment that we remembered yesterday, as we celebrated the life of Leroy Hartgrove — faithful, meticulous servant to this church who among other things, taught Sunday School for 66 years. His family recalls how he would spread out his resources on the dining room table on Saturday nights, writing out his lesson by hand, sometimes standing up to practice the cadence and delivery so that the scripture would be alive in the teaching and hearing of his class.
The church depends on such commitment. It’s what Eugene Peterson called a “long obedience in the same direction.” So we don’t blame the other nine for pressing forward, doing what Jesus said, and seeking the hoped for validation. It’s just that a life following in the way of Christ is about more than that, too.
It’s also about the moments that interrupt you, throw you off course, cause you notice something you had not before, become overwhelmed with love and gratitude. A life of faith is about an awareness of the gifts of God so strong that it causes you to wheel around and change direction. In the words of the theologian Karl Barth, when you look around and behold all the gifts that have been given you, all you can do is “stammer praise.” (1)
The late theologian, Lewis Smedes, wrote about such gratitude shortly before he died. He said that at the age of 81 he had learned to remember both magnificent things and little things and be grateful for both… “I remember that Jesus died to do whatever needed doing to let the river of God’s love sweep me to himself, and I remember the Velcro that makes it easy to put on my sandals… I remember [my mother] and her love for me… and I remember our first garage door opener. . . . Big things, little things, it matters little so long as they were gifts.” (2) Life itself is gift, and gratitude is our faithful response. It’s good for us, even. C.S. Lewis once observed that the healthiest people he knew were seemingly the most grateful — those who had learned to turn back and acknowledge the gift.
Then again, for this tenth leper, this is more than just gratitude. Before he thanks Jesus, he is described as praising God, which is something even more overwhelming and all-encompassing. It’s something that expresses a full-hearted devotion.
This praise seems to make an impression on Jesus, as he says, “Your faith has made you well.” It’s a polite translation, “made you well,” but the Greek verb here, sozo, is most literally translated, “saved your life.” “Your faith has saved you,” Jesus says. Maybe we have some weight attached to that word, “saved.” It seems our biblical translations do. The verb appears throughout Luke, and with varying translations.
Like the story of a woman with a hemorrhage who comes up in the crowd and said as she pressed forward, “If I but touch the hymn of his garment, I will be… ‘made well’” is the translation in most of our Bibles. But that’s not what she says. She says, “I will be saved!” Because this is not merely a woman with a physical hemorrhage that needs to be cured. She’s isolated. She’s on the outskirts of her community out among the cast of nobodies, until she comes into contact with Jesus. She wasn’t just made well. That woman was saved.
Like a man who lived among the tombs of Gerasa – possessed by demons, shackled, and kept under guard so he wouldn’t be a threat or imposition to any living soul. He’s out on the margins of it all, chained up and living amidst tombs, until Jesus proclaims his release and he is able to return to his home. He was “healed” our translations say. But that’s not the word. The word is “saved.”
Like a tax collector – a rich man, Zaccheus – who has lunch with Jesus, and while we don’t know what was said at the table, when the meal was over the man emerged to say, “I’m giving half of all I have to the poor.” “Salvation has come to this house,” Jesus says, because here is a man freed from greed, no longer marching door to door collecting taxes and trying to find his life in turn, but discovering instead the great truth of the gospels that life is found in giving it away. That’s a man who was saved.
Like a leper, wandering about in a group of ten, with his only associates in the world. He’s desperate, nowhere to go, no one else to turn to, and then he’s restored by the words of Jesus, so he turns back to praise. Every one of those ten was made well, with skin restored and life renewed. But Jesus says this man was saved.
José Ramirez, Jr. was just a teenager in 1968 when he was told he had “a disease of the Bible” – a diagnosis of leprosy that uprooted him from his large family, his high-school sweetheart, and his home in Laredo, Texas when state officials ordered him admitted to the only hospital for leprosy in the continental U.S. 750 miles way in Louisiana.
Ramirez has recounted his life with what is more properly called Hansen’s Disease in a 2009 autobiography entitled Squint: My Journey with Leprosy. The book takes its title, Squint, from an architectural feature of many medieval churches – a narrow slit cut in the wall. Here, people who had leprosy — who had been given last rites and effectively banished from community – could stand and squint and catch a narrow view of the celebration of the Eucharist. Ramirez said that’s how he lived his life.
After about 6 months, he was able to go back to Texas – his 13 siblings, his parents who loved him. But he went with such anxiety. Even though he knew it was a mildly communicable disease and there was slim likelihood of passing it on, still, he says, “I felt guilty at the thought they would become ill.” On his first morning, he got up early, and he took out masking tape, ripping little pieces to mark some of the glasses and plates, so that no one would come into contact with the things he would use. His mother saw him as she was there in the kitchen, and she rushed over to him and knocked the plates out of his arms, cleared the counter, broke every one, and said “You never do that again! You are no different than any of my other children!” (3)
Jesus breaks the plates. Every time. He removes every boundary. He shatters every limit. “Transformed, renewed, redeemed. Cured, made well, healed.” I guess we can call it whatever seems most comfortable. But sometimes Jesus really does save a person.
This tenth leper knows it. He turns back for it. It’s almost as though no one else before had embraced the fullness of who he is – which is not merely a leper. “He was a Samaritan,” the passage makes sure to note.
Like the traveler on the road in the parable Jesus tells, who sees the wounds of the man on the side of the road.
Like those the disciples are ready to call down fire on in Luke 9, when they’re not received in a Samaritan village.
A Samaritan – a foreigner – like Naman, a leper to whom Jesus alludes when he’s in his hometown for his first sermon, reminding that God’s salvation extends to the outsiders. It’s an idea so radical that the good people of Nazareth run him out of town, and nearly off a cliff.
But Jesus passes through the crowd and remains fixed on this message. Later, in the book of Acts, it’s Samaria that Jesus imagines as a first step in the spread of the gospel out beyond the boundaries into the ends of the earth. “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth…”
This is not simply praise, but the praise of a foreigner, a stranger, an enemy. The gospel insists that they have a testimony of the activity of God, through Jesus Christ. They know the fullness of God’s embrace. They have been included in the fullness of this coming community.
One of the places I’ve experienced this most profoundly was a partner church when I served in New York — Metropolitan Community Church, which was a few blocks from Metro Baptist, where I served as Pastor. MCC has a stunning, beautiful practice of community, which includes not only bread and cup, but also a blessing. Worshippers come forward to receive, and next to deacons with bread and cup stands a lay minister, trained to lay on hands and offer a blessing to any who need it. I once asked the pastor, Rev. Pat Bumgardner, how this tradition of blessing developed, and Rev. Pat explained the history of MCC – how they had lived through the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 80s, and nearly 400 of their members died. “We realized during this time,” Rev. Pat said, “what touch can mean. For some of our members, this was the only place they would be touched, embraced, blessed.”
I experienced it myself for the first time one Sunday evening service, as I came forward, received the body and blood broken and shed for me, and then I approached one of the lay ministers. He asked for my name, and he placed his hands on my head and my shoulder as he said, “Loving God, thank you for my brother, Alan… may he continue to find his life and purpose in you… may he be blessed by you with passion for his work… please bless all those he loves and shares his life with… may he always know he is your beloved son…” and on it went.
That kind of love can save people. All people. And it can come in and through the Samaritans – the people we’ve been trained to hate, trained to assume aren’t good enough, trained to believe might not even know who God is.
Asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind… and the second, too, love your neighbor as yourself…It all hangs on this.” It occurs to us that nowhere does Jesus describe the love of neighbor more clearly than in a Good Samaritan. And it might occur to us today that no story presents any more clearly the all-encompassing love of God with heart, soul, mind than this Samaritan who turns back.
A good samaritan and a grateful samaritan. That’s enough to make me turn back. To knock me off course, and cause me to reexamine my life and wonder when I’ve looked past the foreigner or the stranger who has been showing me how to love God and love neighbor. How often I’ve kept right on going, eyes fixed ahead, dutiful and focused, and forgetting what Jesus says right after our passage today: that the kingdom is among us. The love that has saved us is here, right now, and it always reaches more widely than we could ever imagine.
Jesus asks “Where are the other nine?” But we know the answer. We live the answer, don’t we? For that reason, I love the question Barbara Brown Taylor asks of this parable? “Where is the tenth?” (4)
At a church I used to attend, we welcomed a new family one spring – a woman and her two young children. They had walked to the church. No one knew much of their story. Recent immigrants to the United States, they had come to know the church through an English for Speakers of Other Languages program.
We were glad they were there. But I guess some awareness grew when this woman and her kids decided to sit right down front. Then things grew a bit tense when this woman began to express herself differently in worship, raising her hands in unrestrained praise and saying “Amen” at unprompted times. And then on Easter Sunday, with a packed sanctuary, as the choir sang us into the presence of the resurrected Christ and sent us out with a stunning benediction, this woman just couldn’t keep it inside and she shouted “Hallelujah” and broke into applause.
Well, it became a topic of conversation, in the many places where church people talk. And then the next month, we walked into a committee meeting to find a matter up for discussion. Under Roman Numeral II, “New Business,” there was item B, “Applause.” I don’t know exactly what happened next, except that we continued as best we knew how, as we had for so long: obediently, dutifully, diligently, worshipping with some of the same customs, saying “Amen” when called for in the litany… and gradually seeing less of this family, whom I always assumed found another church in which to shout “Hallelujah.”
Where is the tenth? The one that knows that sometimes Jesus really does save? The one that has been rendered outside, and foreign, and less than, and strange, but has heard Jesus say “go and be restored, be well, be free”? Where is that tenth leper in this world? Where is that tenth leper in this church? Where is that tenth leper in each of us? Where is the one that can be knocked off course, spinning back in gratitude, wheeling around with overwhelming joy at what God in Christ has done for us and can do for others?
We’re all gathered here, just where Jesus told us to be. But let us ask again, where is the one that turned back to praise?
- Cited by John Buchanan in “Stammering praise: In good and not-so-good times,” Christian Century (November 20, 2002)
- Lewis Smedes, My God and I, p. 170.
- José Ramirez, Jr., Squint: My Journey with Leprosy, p. 94.
- In “The Tenth Leper,” The Preaching Life.