First Congregational Church of Cheshire
October 13, 2019
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
From time to time, I go on retreat to the Episcopal Monastery of the Holy Cross. It’s about 90 miles west of here and sits perched on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. Over the years I have participated in various guided retreats. I’ve studied things like the physicality of prayer (how you use your body to pray) and the feminine aspects of the divine (a particular interest of mine). But my favorite retreat was the one I did about five years ago on writing an icon - which is how one refers to the process of painting one. You “write” an icon.
In addition to the history and theology of icons, we learned technique. I learned that icons are made up of layers and layers of thin, watery paint. One must be careful not to be too heavy handed. And because the layers are thin, it takes a long time to write an icon and requires a great deal of patience – which is actually one of the points. And that repetitious action done over a long period of time is supposed to help you “free your mind and the rest will follow.” It’s supposed to make space for God.
Well I can tell you that that concept completely eluded me in the beginning. It felt like I was wasting time. But eventually, that repetition and that lack of focus began to open something up inside of me. It did make space, without my realizing that it had. Something inside of me was shifting. And here is what I mean by that. I was in the monastery chapel, listening to the monks chant the Psalms, which usually would just bore me, when suddenly and in an unbidden kind of way I conscious of being part of the great sweep of Jewish and Christian history and devotion; a drop in a mighty river that has been flowing for thousands of years. And then, later when I was sitting quietly in the common room with other pilgrims reading my book, sipping a cup of tea, and minding my own business, I was suddenly quite conscious of the communion of saints that does not need words. Over delicious meals, I was awake to the taste and smell and feel of the food, and of the food actually becoming fuel in my body. It was almost mystical. And all of that consciousness made me feel alive. And all of that aliveness made me feel one thing above all others: GRATITUDE. I walked around the monastery grounds giddy with gratitude just for being alive.
I wish I didn’t need a monastery and an icon writing class to hook into this incredible blessing we call LIFE. But the truth is that our lives are so full of busyness and franticness and constant three alarm fires that we needsomething out of the ordinary to make us slow down long enough to be open to gratitude. And even then, most of us don’t pause long enough to experience it.
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, where he would be tried and executed unjustly. On his way, Luke says that Jesus passed through the region between Samaria and Galilee, which is strange because that wasn’t on his way to Jerusalem. On this circuitous route, Jesus entered a village where he encountered ten lepers. And from a distance they began to cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
And mercy is exactly what they needed. They lived lives of desperation, sequestered on the outskirts of town. Everyone was afraid of catching what they had. Everyone despised them because everyone believed they deserved exactly what they had. Their illness was a punishment from God.
Luke does not describe the moment of their dramatic healing. Instead, Luke says that Jesus simply told them to go show themselves to the priest to verify their healing. And Luke writes that as they went they were made clean. It was in their movement, putting feet on their faith, that they were transformed.
Now I imagine that when they realized that their diseased skin was now smooth and soft that they were overcome. And so adrenaline kicked in and they ran as fast as they could toward their restored lives. You see, once the priest checked them out, they could go back home for the first time in years. They could embrace their children, perhaps now grown. They could sit down to a meal with their extended families. They could sleep tangled with a spouse. Oh, I would have run toward that life too. I would have never looked back. But one did. One of them actually stopped and paused.
This one, when he realized that he was healed, turned around and looked for Jesus. And Luke says that he began to praise God with a loud voice and prostrated himself at Jesus’s feet and thanked him. And then Luke adds this explosive throwaway line, completely lost on us: “And he was a Samaritan.”
And here the story becomes dangerous and subversive, worthy of our pausing for a moment. In a modern retelling, Jesus might say that the one who returned to give thanks was a Muslim Uber driver or an undocumented restaurant worker or a bullied transgender teen. Samaritans were despised because like Muslims and the undocumented and transgender folks, they were the wrong kind of people. But Luke makes this double outcast – a Samaritan and a leper – the hero of the faith.
Then Jesus says something rather odd. Maybe it was tongue in cheek; said with a twinkle in his eye: “Where are the other nine? Is it only this foreigner who has returned to give thanks and praise?” Then he looked at the man and said: “Get up sir. Go on about your life, sir. Your faith has made you well, sir.”
“Your faith has made you well.” And at this point, Jesus was no longer talking about the man’s physical healing from leprosy because the Greek verb has changed to “sozo” implying not just physical health, but wholeness, completion, salvation. So it is not an exaggeration in the least to say that it was the man’s gratitude that made him whole. And he was grateful because he made the space to be grateful. He stopped and paused and returned.
I walk through this life blind to most of its glories. Maybe you find that shocking. Maybe you think Alison and I just float around on glory clouds all day long. I wish. I can’t speak for my friend Pastor Alison, but the truth for me is, I’m just too busy and distracted and angry and frustrated to really pay attention to the glory that surrounds my every day, let alone to be thankful. I am most naturally one of the other nine lepers. I receive blessing upon blessing, but just keep on about my business, never even slowing down. But what would my life be like; what would your life be like if we were more like number ten? And why must it take something so dramatic to get us there?
In a personal essay, the Rev. Barbara Sholis writes of the moment she learned she had been diagnosed with cancer. She says she cried for days, but hid that pain from her congregation. Finally, she went to see her spiritual director who invited her to open herself to all the ways that she was not walking this path alone; to all the ways God was still present; to all the ways that she was still alive. And driving home from that appointment, she formed this prayer: “Seek God, see God, choose life.” And that focused, conscious choice for gratitude guided her throughout her journey of treatment and recovery. “Seek God, see God, choose life.”
In your bulletin is a piece of paper with those words on it. And we’re going to pause now for you to reflect on those words. We’re going to pause long enough for us all to think about what we can do today or this week to create some space for gratitude? Can you be specific in your plans? Can you pick a time or a place. You can write whatever you want on that paper. It is for your eyes only. And if you don’t want to write anything, you don’t have to. You can just sit quietly. While we do this, music will begin to play. It’s a Taizé song of gratitude called “In the Lord I’ll Be Ever Thankful.” So, first Joe will play while we think and write. That will get us familiar with the music. Then some singers will start to sing the simple words, which are in your bulletins. And finally we will all sing the words together. And we will sing this song until it feels like we are done. And this whole exercise will conclude with the words of the Lord’s Prayer, offered in a spirit of gratitude.
Seek God, see God, choose life. Amen.