Tuesday, August 9, 2011
*This sermon was originally preached at North Baltimore Mennonite Church, April 3, 2003
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food." Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses, and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. Numbers 21:4-9
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned; whoever does not believe is condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest their deeds should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been wrought in God.John 3: 14-21
The medical profession has a rather strange symbol for healing. It is two snakes intertwined around a pole with two wings at the top. This therapeutic symbol is known as the caduceus. The symbol was appropriated from the Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the gods. According to Greek mythology Hermes came across two fighting snakes. He threw his magic wand at them. They became entangled and stopped fighting. The staff of Aesclepius is similar. Aesclepius was a physician living around 1200 B.C.E. who became the god of medicine. His staff was a single serpent intertwined around a pole. Isn’t it a bit odd that venomous and deadly snakes wrapped around a pole became symbols of healing and life?
The writer of the gospel of John doesn’t seem to think that a deadly snake lifted up on a pole is an odd symbol. He uses this symbol to point to the paradoxical death-dealing and life-giving cross of Christ. John draws an analogy between the lifting up of Jesus on the cross and Moses’ lifting up of a serpent on a pole in the wilderness. The comparison of Jesus on the cross to a snake on a pole is odd enough. What makes it even stranger is the fact that for John the lifting up of Jesus on a humiliating cross is his exaltation and our salvation. Death has been transformed into life.
In order to better understand the comparison of Jesus on a cross to a snake on a pole, we need to walk back through the pages of the bible and sit ourselves down in the wilderness with the Israelites and Moses. As you look out over the barren landscape your throat begins to dry. You can feel the grit of sand in the teeth. Sweat glistens on the brow and cakes the dirt on your skin. Your belly growls. Why has Moses brought us out here in this godforsaken wilderness? Some leader you are. We had it better back in Egypt! Yahweh, send us something besides this god-awful manna. We’re sick of it! Manna for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Give us a break! It tastes like chewed up and spit out motzah. Yuuuck! So, God sends the complaining Israelites something else besides manna. Hssssssssss. Did you hear that? Sounds like….sssssnakes. Look ! Look! Hissing snakes sliding out from behind the rocks. They’re everywhere! The snakes begin to bite the people and they die. Their only legacy will be the dirt mounds they will leave behind in the wilderness. Moses falls on his knees and prays fervently for the people. And how odd of God, who says to Moses, “Holy Moses, I need you to get off your knees and go make a sculpture. I want you to make a poisonous snake out of bronze and wrap it around a pole, so that whenever someone is bitten by a serpent they can look upon the snake raised up on the pole and live.” There you are sitting in the wilderness gazing up at death nailed onto a pole, staring at a symbol of that which has brought death in your midst as a way of gaining healing and life. Strange indeed.
Well, maybe not that strange. There may be healing and life offered to us by gazing at our dark and deadly side, by holding up our own snakes on a pole. We all have a venomous side that can poison our soul if not brought into the light. Psychologist Carl Jung referred to it as “the Shadow.” The shadow side of our personality is formed when we repress, shove into the closet of our unconscious, a part of ourselves that does not live up to our or others expectations or ideal standards, such as moral codes. And though we may look away from our dark and deadly side, it may thrust itself in our faces until we claim it. Let’s say that in seeking to conform to the Christian ideal of being a peacemaker someone identifies with that ideal to such an extent that they suppress or deny their own anger and violence, their shadow side.
There are many who have grown up in pacifist traditions whose shadow side is an unacknowledged anger and violence hissing beneath a stony exterior. I have always thought of myself as a naturally peaceful person. As a child I didn’t like the thought of killing animals, while my friends hunted with bee-bee guns. I avoided fighting and rarely, if ever expressed anger toward another person. At 19, during the Vietnam War, I registered as a conscientious objector because I felt I could not take another human being’s life. I seemed to be naturally peaceful person. It was only after I entered the wildernesses of life that I began to see my darker side. After five years of preparing for the ministry I was forced to resign from my home church under poisoned circumstances. I spent the next three years doing sweaty, manual labor at tire stores unable to connect with another church position. I complained to a silent God. I held in the venom until I could taste it in the corner of my mouth. I still remember my frustration exploding in rage as I slammed my fist into a tire where I worked.
There were other wilderness experiences, like the long and winding road my wife and I traveled after we adopted two of our children, who had been raised in an abusive home. It was tough when they were young, but when they hit adolescence all hell broke loose! My anger, rage, violent thoughts and feelings boiled to the surface as I had to constantly deal with children who were unconsciously recreating chaos in our home, which was to them normal. I have had many such wilderness experiences that have forced me to gaze upon the venomous snake wrapped around my soul, consciously acknowledging I have an angry, violent side, even as I seek to be a peacemaker. Like the apostle Paul had to acknowledge; that which we despise, we do. Only in looking upon the snake wrapped around the pole of my soul have I found any salve of healing and life.
Only as we gaze upon the snake intertwined around our collective soul can we behold the possibility for healing and life. There is such a thing as a collective shadow. A social group can repress and suppress its own shadow in the light of its own professed ideals. Failure to look upon the snake coiled around our collective soul, as in the soul of a nation, leads to death and death-dealing. We are seeing the deadly effects of our nation’s failure to gaze upon its own shadow side in the light of our professed ideals. We are country that prides itself and announces to the world its democratic ideals, the land of the free….
At the same time, in the wilderness of our historic fears of communism and terrorism we have violently suppressed emerging democracies and created the U.S. Patriot Act to rob citizens of numerous liberties. We say to the world we are a peace loving people. We care for those in need. And yet, within a century we have engaged in hundreds of military interventions into other nations from Argentina to Zaire and we have poured billions upon billions of dollars into the war with Iraq and now the war in Afghanistan, while our economy teeters on the brink of the abyss and funds for the weak and vulnerable in our own society are strangely never available. We stand on top of a mountain of weapons of mass destruction and demand, demand that others stop developing the same. We once pointed a crooked finger at Saddam for using WMDs against the Kurds, while we forgot that we once supported Saddam and supplied him with these WMDs! We forget that we were the first and only nation to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagazaki. Rather than acknowledging our shadow side, we deny it, suppress it, and project our violence onto others, while intoning the words, “God bless America.” Jesus was well aware of this deadly dynamic when he said, “For with the judgment you make you will be judged…Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye.” We fail to gaze upon the snake intertwined around our own collective soul and still....we are not healed.
Is there a balm in Gilead? Is there healing in the cross? And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man, the Child of Humanity, be lifted up. The cross our healing salve? A political instrument of humiliation, torture, and death become Christ’s exaltation and our salvation? How odd. How utterly strange and paradoxical. Jesus on the cross like a snake on a pole? There is a shadow side that curls its scaly skin around the cross. I am indebted to cultural and literary theorist Rene Girard for helping me to see what he calls the “scapegoat theory” and “sacred violence” not only coming to play in the cross, but as a dark dynamic within the human history.
Without getting into the complexities and problems with the theory, Girard illuminates the cross as an event which radically exposes the shadow side of humanity, uncover our violence hidden beneath religious rhetoric, myths, and rituals. The cross becomes a revelation, an unveiling of our poison in the innocent victim who was strung up on two pieces of wood. The cross exposes to the light our complicity in victimization. Or as the African-American spiritual moans, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and the silent confession must come back: Yes, we were there. In the mob mentality and the cries for blood. We were there. In the blaming and in the projection of our own shadows onto others. In the scapegoating and the drawing of the sword. We were there. In feigned innocence and washed hands. In the denial and betrayal while standing comfortably by a warm fire, or a glowing TV set, forgetting, forgetting that we are disciples of Jesus. We were there in the drama of the cross. Gazing up at last at the venom of our violence…..and the hope of our healing.
There is a healing balm in the cross. And as odd as it may sound to some, there is a glorious side of the cross. That’s why John can speak of the lifting up of the cross as his exaltation. For it is in the event of the cross that our sins, our scapegoating, our complicity in violence were not only exposed, but forgiven. In the cross God transforms death into life, defeat into victory, humiliation into exaltation. In the cross the voice of God speaks through human vocal chords and says, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” I’m not talking about easy forgiveness or cheap grace, but a change of heart that takes place when, through the splintery cross and the Christ who hangs upon it, we see who we really are and allow God to transform us into who we are supposed to be. An early Jewish targum or commentary on the story of Moses and the serpent on the pole says that it was not just the looking at the serpent that brought healing to the people, but their change of heart. Or should we say there was a “cure of the heart.” The deadly cross offers a healing balm. It is only a cure of the heart that will change the world, that will save the world. Poet Wallace Stevens speaks this truth in earthy images:
It is not enough to cover the rock with leaves.
We must be cured of it by a cure of the ground
Or a cure of ourselves, that is equal to a cure
Of the ground, a cure beyond forgetfulness.
O, to believe that this kind of healing were possible would be life indeed. Where could we look for such life? The kind of life that God has, the kind of life God offers. Eternal life. Life that does not perish or wither. Life that does not demean nor destroy. Life that offers forgiveness and restoration. Life in all its fullness and abundance. Life healed and whole and holy. Paradoxically, life risen from the tomb of death. Where can we find such life? Look. Look. Gaze upon the cross, the healing pole. For just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Child of Humanity be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Sunday, August 7, 2011
*I preached this sermon this morning at Salem Mennonite Church, Salem, Oregon. It was recently published at Preaching.com: http://www.preaching.com/resources/preaching-online/11657155/
In the gospel story Jesus and Peter walked on the water. What is this bizarre story all about, anyhow? Modern enlightened readers may have some difficulty with the credibility of stories of people walking on the water. This couldn’t be true. Although incredible, stories of people walking on water are not all that rare. Not long ago I watched the illusionist Chris Angel on Mind Freak walk across a Las Vegas swimming pool. It just meant that he could place clear plexiglass under the surface and fool people into thinking he was like Jesus. More recently the British illusionist Dynamo walked across the River Thames. I even read that Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, and some of his disciples could walk on water…. well, with hidden planks under the water.
There are stories about the Buddha walking on water. Even one of his disciples, Sariputta, walked on water, but his heart gave way and he began to sink beneath the troubled waters. But rousing his faith, he kept on going and reached the shore. Hmmm. Seems like I’ve heard a story similar to this one somewhere before! Then, the Buddha taught the people about casting off all shackles and crossing the river of worldliness and attaining deliverance from death. The Buddha told the people exactly what walking on the water meant. So, what does this story of Jesus and Peter walking on water mean?
Is the story of Jesus walking on the water about him having super powers? There aren’t two many people that I know who can walk on water, in spite of what Randy Travis says about his beloved grandpa in his song He walked on water. Is Matthew telling this story to prove that Jesus had super powers, like the super heroes in Marvel comics? Stan Lee, who created many of the Marvel comic super heroes, has a new show called Superhumans. Lee commissions Daniel Browning Smith, a contortionist, to travel the world to look for humans with superhuman abilities. He has interviewed and tested people like Rajmohan Nair from India who can receive 30 times the electricity in his body than the normal human or Darren Taylor, “Professor Splash,” who survived a 36 foot belly flop into 1 foot of water creating a world record!
Is Matthew just telling us that Jesus is “The Amazing Rabbi River Rambler” and deserves a spot on the next episode of Superhumans? In Matthew, surrounding the story of Jesus walking on water, he feeds 5000, then 4000 with a few loaves and fishes, heals the sick, a man with a withered hand, and two blind men. These are all miracle stories. They point to Jesus as someone with extraordinary, supernatural, superhuman abilities. Jesus is more than human. But, there seems to be more to this story of Jesus walking on the water than to point out that he is more than human, someone with super powers.
Maybe this story is about Jesus being the master of the wind and waves. More than someone with superpowers, Jesus is portrayed as the “Son of God” and “Master of the sea.” There is a story similar to the one of Jesus walking on the water earlier in Matthew’s gospel. Another storm arises on the sea of Galilee, a frequent occurrence, and the waves swamp the boat. Jesus is not walking on the water, but sleeping like a baby in the tossed boat. The disciples wake Jesus and cry out that they are perishing. Jesus comments about their little faith and rebukes the wind and the sea. They are amazed and wonder what kind of human can make the wind and sea obey him.
Both that story and this one about Jesus walking on the water have similar elements. First, in both stories a storm arises on the sea. Second, the disciple’s boat is tossed by the waves. Third, the disciples are afraid. Fourth, Jesus comments about his disciples’ lack of faith. Fifth, Jesus exhibits power over the sea by calming it or walking over it. And finally, the disciples comment about the extraordinary nature of Jesus, as more than a mere man or the Son of God.
These two stories both seem to point to Jesus as one who is master of the sea, Lord of the wind and waves. The sea was more than a place for the disciples to fish. It was believed to be a place of evil and chaos. And it takes a god to control or overpower it. This is the case in Babylonian and Canaanite mythology, as well as in the Bible, where the sea is like a monster that must be defeated. It is Yahweh who conquers Leviathan and the sea. The Psalmist proclaims:
But God has been my king from ancient times,
performing acts of deliverance on the earth.
You destroyed the sea by your strength;
you shattered the heads of the sea monster in the water.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan. (Psalm 74:12-14)
And in another Psalm we read:
O Lord, sovereign God!
Who is strong like you, O Lord?
Your faithfulness surrounds you.
You rule over the proud sea.
When its waves surge, you calm them.
You crushed Rahab and killed it;
with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.
Job reinforces this same belief about the chaos of the monster Rahab and the sea with Yahweh having power over them:
By his power he stills the sea;
by his wisdom he cut Rahab the great sea monster to pieces.
By his breath the skies became fair;
his hand pierced the fleeing serpent (Job 26:12-13)
So, it would appear from ancient beliefs about the evil and chaos of the sea and Jesus actions that these two gospel stories are pointing to Jesus as more than a mere human. Jesus is, like Yahweh, the Lord of the wind and waves, sovereign of the sea, master of evil and chaos.
But then again, could Matthew’s story of Jesus walking on the water also be about Peter’s lack of faith? This story is found in different forms in Matthew, Mark, and John. Unique to Matthew is the part about Peter asking Jesus to command him to walk toward him on the water. Matthew wants to say something particular by adding this part of the story.
This is one of those almost stereotypical depictions of Peter, the impetuous, impulsive disciple. Remember how Peter rebuked Jesus for saying he would be crucified, said he would never deny Jesus but does, blurted out something about building altars at the transfiguration, went overboard about washing his whole body at a foot washing, grabbed a sword at Jesus’ arrest and cut off a slave’s ear. So, asking Jesus to step out on the water is par for the course. Peter is just being Peter.
Well, here he is again not putting his foot in his mouth this time, but upon the surface of the sea. I wonder why he wants to step out on the churning waters. Does he think the water is shallow enough to wade over to greet Jesus? Is he just not thinking about the fact that humans don’t normally walk on water? Is this simply childish curiosity? If Jesus can do it, then why can’t I? Does Peter think he can become the master over the chaos, evil and storms of his own life?
Whatever the reason, Peter fearlessly puts his “little piggy” into the gurgling water. One uneasy step, then another. He is being held up by some power that transcends his normal life. The waves splash against his legs soaking his robe. Yet, he pays no mind to the wind and waves. His eyes are fixed upon Jesus.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.
But, then there’s this little problem. Peter notices the strong wind. Fear creeps in, chaos stirs up his soul, Leviathan digs a sharp claw in his flesh. And Peter begins to sink. The chaotic sea, the evil ocean, rides up to his ankles, then his calves, his knees, his thighs, his waist. Waves crash against his chest. He can taste the foam. Peter turns his eyes upon Jesus and cries out, “Lord, save me!” Have you ever cried out like that?
I wonder if this is just another demonstration of the dire consequences of Peter’s impulsive nature? Or does Peter really represent anyone who has had their faith tested or has taken their eyes off Jesus or who is sinking in the sea of sin and sadness and needs to be saved? I wonder.
You want to know what I think? I think this story is about Jesus, Lord of the wind and waves, who saves us through the storms and chaos of life. There’s a savior standing there on the waves.
I would like to take us back to the moment when Peter started to walk toward Jesus on the water and starts sinking down beneath the waves. I want to freeze frame that instant and create our own classic painting like so many I’ve seen depicting this gospel story.
Paint this picture on the canvas of your mind. An angry storm is raging on the Sea of Galilee. Dark clouds shroud the sea like a cape. Streaks of falling rain watercolor the gray sky. The waves rise like mountains and scoop out deep valleys. Strong winds blow the foam off the top of the waves. A small wooden boat filled with disciples careens on the rollercoaster sea. Jesus calmly walks across the surface of the sea, his robe and hair flowing in the wind. His strong arm reaches out to a shadowy figure sunk waist deep in the froth and foam. But, it’s not Peter. I would recognize Peter anywhere. So, who is this sinking soul? Could it be one of us?
I see in our painting someone who has struggled through this economic recession trying to keep their head above water. Dark shadows encircle their eyes. Maybe they lost their job or are barely making ends meet. They’re finding it hard to keep their faith in God or life or anyone as a sea of bills pour in.
In our painting someone’s boat has been rocking and they want to get out of it. They experienced a sinking feeling as the doctor came into the exam room and told them their health was not on solid ground. Waves of mortality crashed against the rocks of their soul.
In another corner of our painting a new follower of Jesus has stepped out of their boat of safety and security wanting to walk closer to Jesus. It looks like they got involved in a community service ministry and found themselves up to their neck in the problems of other people. How can I solve the troubles of these people, let alone my own? Feeling like they were going to drown they cried out for help.
Then an unseen hand reaches out and pulls us up out of a sea of troubles, a storm in our lives, a watery grave. And we’re saved. And we want to shout, “Thank you, Jesus!” Get the picture?
Christ has the power to reach out a hand to anyone afraid, venturing out of the boat, caught in the storms of life, sinking beneath the waves. Christ is master of the sea, Lord of the wind and waves!
I remember Eddie Mesa, a water-walker known as “the Elvis Presley of the Philippines.” He was a handsome singer, a star of the Philippine cinema, a lover of “wine, women and song.” To those around him it looked like he was walking on water, but his life was sinking. He ended up leaving his wife. Then, he came to the States in 1977 where one evening he just happened to stumble upon the Lost and Found Coffeehouse. Maybe he was trying to find himself. This was a Christian coffeehouse my wife Iris and I started to minister to street people in San Francisco.
At the Lost and Found Eddie met some Filipino friends of ours, the Laigo Brothers, who frequently played Christian music at our coffee house. They knew who Eddie was and talked to him in the dim light. My good friend Bobby, who died just this year, shared Christ with Eddie. After that evening in the city by the bay Eddie Mesa’s life was never the same. What was once lost was now found. A hand reached out to him down under the waves and once again I know that Jesus saves.
Upon his return to the Philippines he turned down a number of films he thought inconsistent with his newfound faith. Eddie started adding gospel music to his singing repertoire and ended up becoming an full time evangelist for Christ. Christ reached out to Eddie sinking in the sea. Christ, master of the wind and waves, has the power to save.
There in the city by the bay, among a band of his disciples, Christ reached out a hand to Eddie sinking beneath the wicked waves of fame and unfaithfulness. There amid a sea of people dipping and drowning, Christ reached out a hand to Eddie Mesa and lifted him up out of the chaos that consumed his life. Truly this is the Son of God.
What reminded me of the story of Eddie Mesa was a song we used to play in the flickering candlelight at the Lost and Found. It is a song by Christian Rock group Daniel Amos based on the story of Jesus walking on the water. In their song Walking on the Water the story of Peter becomes our story. Whatever chaos or storm you may have or are now facing in your life, turn your eyes upon Jesus, put yourself there in Peter’s sandals:
A storm at sea, and there sits me in a boat
And there's the Savior standing on the waves
The wind is tossing and turning the ship
But I decide to get out of it
And what do I see?
Could it be... I'm standing on the water?
Now, Jesus smiles and bids me come near
But I say, "Lord, there's a storm out there... I may fall"
He says, "Son, don't take your eyes off me
Look straight ahead and you'll arrive safely”
Then I saw me
Would you believe?... Walking on the water!
Now, things get rough and I look to the right
I'd seen Jesus so plainly, now I've lost sight
I start sinking down
And a hand reaches out to me down under the waves
Once again I know that Jesus saves
It's then I find
Oh, there am I... walking on the water
Walking on the water
What a pleasant surprise!
Walking on the water
Tryin' to keep my eyes on the One I'm confiding in
One I'm abiding in... walking on the water
Thursday, August 4, 2011
*Note- This sermon was originally preached in a congregation in Texas in the 90s.
On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers,[a] who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, 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 cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" And he said to him, "Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well." Luke 17:11-17
Let me warn you before I begin preaching this sermon. The gospel has a way of sneaking up on us. The good news of Jesus can tiptoe up on us and smack us up side our nice, neat expectations. And Jesus seems to be at the center of all this subversive activity. He's always throwing us curve balls. He turns our world on top of its head. According to his backwards way of thinking, the last are first and the first last. The rich are cursed and the poor are blessed. Outsiders are inside and insiders are outside. Prostitutes, tax-collectors, outcasts are honored dinner guests at Jesus’ table. So-called sinners get into heaven before the so-called righteous. Samaritans are good. Enemies are loved. Children are our teachers. Then, Jesus goes around telling us these upside down parables, stories with hidden time bombs, that explode our reasonable worlds. To top it all off the plot of his life ain't very predictable either. The deliverer ends up needing to be delivered, the savior needing to be saved as he hangs there nailed to that old rugged cross. Then, when we come to what seems the end of the story, like father like son, God flips things upside down on their head and raises a dead man to life. That’s not the ending to the story we could ever expect. So, I’m warning you, don’t be surprised if the gospel sneaks up and surprises us, maybe even while I’m preaching.
Today's gospel story seems pretty predictable though. It would make a nice sermon on gratitude, thanksgiving. As the story goes, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Entering a crackerbox village, ten lepers approach him. They keep their distance because they are "unclean." In a pitiful tone the ten cry out, "Lord Jesus, have mercy on us!" Jesus doesn't touch them. He doesn’t wave his hands and say "abracadabra, your healed." He doesn’t so much as give them a band aid. Jesus simply says, "Go and show yourselves to the priests"; these were the temple officials who could pronounce them "clean." On their way to the temple all ten are healed! Made whole! Freed from being called “dirty,” “filthy, “unclean.” Freed from being looked down upon. Freed from being considered second-class. Freed from being cut off from their community. All ten lepers were healed! Hallelujah! Thank you, Jesus! You would think all of them would have ran back to Jesus and cried out, “Thank you, Jesus!” But, only one returns, shouting his praise to God loud enough for everyone to hear. He don’t care what other people think. He gives no never mind. He flattens himself out on the ground and shouts, "Thank you, Jesus!"
Thank you, Jesus! That would make a nice title for my sermon. Maybe a better title than “A Surprise Ending.” I could use this gospel story to preach on giving thanks. That's been the topic of millions of sermons preached on this gospel story. But, hey, one more wouldn't hurt, right? Aren't we supposed to be thankful, like the one who thanked Jesus? Gratitude is a good thing. We could all use an attitude of gratitude. Gratitude is a virtue to be honored. I think we all could say “amen” to a sermon on being thankful. This sermon could be about giving thanks to God for our parents, our children, our home, our health, or our job. I could preach to you about singing praises to God for the simple things in life---rising to a new day, the morning sun on your face, the smell of fresh coffee, the song of a bird, the laughter of a child. There are so many gifts to give thanks to God for. We all like to give thanks to God, don't we? Amen? We could appreciate another sermon on thanksgiving.
Well, that depends. Maybe not if I moralized the gospel story and preached one of those "oughta sermons." You’ve heard preachers who preach “oughta” sermons, haven’t you? You oughta be thankful! You oughta go to church more and thank God more! You oughta be thankful you're not hungry and sick! You oughta be grateful you're of sound mind and body! On and on it goes, “You oughta…you oughta…” I remember just such a sermon on giving thanks based on this bible story of the ten lepers. The preacher told a long string of sad, pitiful stories of people dying from diseases, all the while trying to make us healthy people feel more thankful. Faces in the pews were drooping. Everyone looked like they had been weaned on sour pickles! Near the end of the sermon the preacher said we oughta be thankful for the shoes we wear, for some people in this world don't even have feet to put shoes on! After that sermon the people with droopy faces were truly feeling thankful. They were thankful that depressing sermon was over! Well, in my sermon I could tell you a bunch of sad stories and plead with you, "Come on people, you oughta be more thankful, like the one leper who returned to Jesus and gave thanks. Please, be more thankful." And if I preached that sermon, you too would be thankful....when the sermon was over!
Or if a guilt trip didn't work I could castigate you for not being as thankful as you should be. It's your moral duty to be thankful! God commands: Be thankful! It's right there in black and white in the Bible! God will judge those harshly who aren't thankful! Anyone who isn't truly thankful shouldn't even be in this church! For God's sake, how could you be so ungrateful!? That might make a good sermon for a community Thanksgiving service. You know the kind. Preaching professor Fred Craddock tells a story of when he had to attend one of those Thanksgiving services held in the community. A number of churches get together for a service and muster up about as many people as if only one church had the service. And inevitably the text for the evening is...ten lepers came to Jesus and were healed...only one returned to give thanks. Then, the preacher mounts the pulpit, looks out over the sparse audience and with furrowed brow cries out, "Where are the nine? Where are the nine? Where are the nine?" For an hour the preacher yells, "Where are the nine?" Craddock says at that point in the service he's thinking to himself, "There where I'd be if I had a lick of sense!" From today's gospel story I could preach a sermon on giving thanks, but I'll save that one for another day.
I believe most of us would rather hear a sermon on faith in Jesus as the source of our salvation. That seems to be the message of our gospel story. All ten lepers are healed. All ten. One returns to give thanks. To only one Jesus' says, "Your faith has saved you." But, weren't all ten healed? So, what's the difference between this one and the other nine? Ten were healed. One was saved. Granted, the word here can be translated as either "healed" or "saved." But, only one returns to Jesus. The nine go on their merry way. Only one returns to Jesus. Only one bows before Jesus. Only one recognizes Jesus as the source of his healing. Only one hears from the lips of Jesus the word of salvation. That's what makes his faith different from the nine. He alone sees something the others don't see. He alone understands, acknowledges, praises, and gives thanks to the source of his healing and salvation. He sees his cure as part of the deeper meaning of salvation brought to him by Jesus.
Now, that would make a powerful sermon. I could title it: Jesus, the Source of our Salvation. I believe I just might be able to get an "amen" from this congregation if I preached that gospel truth. I could even preach it with three points and a poem: First point: Come back to Jesus! Well? Second point: Thank God through Jesus! Amen? Third point: Bow down before Jesus, the source of our healing and salvation! Can I get a witness? People, that is the gospel truth! We are to come back to Jesus, even when others don't. We are to give thanks to God through Jesus, even when others don't. We are to bow before Jesus, who is the source of our healing and salvation and not only for us, but for all humanity, even for those who don't thank Jesus. We are the ones who proclaim that it is Jesus, the Balm of Gilead, who heals us. We are the ones who acknowledge that it is Jesus, Healer of our every ill, who makes us whole and restores us to our community. We are the ones who thank God that it is Jesus, Savior of sinners, who is the source of our salvation.
It is our faith in this Jesus which saves us. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. That's the gospel truth. We are not saved because we're good or because we're better or holier than others. We’re not saved because we're more religious. Not because we're Mennonite or Baptist or Episcopalian or Church of God in Christ. Not because we have our name on a membership roll. Not because we give money to the church or teach a Sunday School class. We are saved by the grace of God in Christ, simply because we have come to Jesus in faith, the source of salvation. Our faith, our trust in Jesus alone, has saved us. One came to Jesus in faith and was not just healed, but saved. He didn’t have to get his life straight first. He came to Jesus and was saved. Are you that one? Do you believe this gospel truth? You are accepted by Jesus upon your faith and trust in him and not because of who you are or what you have done? If you are that one who came back to Jesus and was saved say, "Amen", say, “Thank you, Jesus.” That's what makes us Christian. That's what makes us part of the Christian community. The healing grace of God. Simple faith in Jesus. Nothing else. As Christians, we believe with all our hearts Jesus is the source of healing and salvation----for all people. Not just for some. Not just for you and me. But, for all people. I may have a sermon yet; that is, if I preach the gospel, the surprising good news.
But, like I warned you, if I do preach the gospel, it might just sneak up on us. It may topple the tables of our minds and hearts and all the coins of our expectations may go jingling across the floor. So, maybe I should just retell the gospel story, put it in the new suit of where we live……There were once ten patients in a hospital. All ten were suffering from the same dreaded disease. They had been isolated to one room and were not allowed to have contact with anyone inside or outside the hospital. The attending doctor and nurses wore rubber gloves when they worked on the patients. Some nurses assigned to that wing refused to work with the patients out of fear. If it weren't for the disease, these ten quarantined patients probably would never have associated with each other. One thing they had in common, besides their affliction, was that they all were churchgoers...well, to some degree. They often prayed together that God would be merciful and grant them healing or at least a remission of their disease.
One day when the doctor was making his rounds and giving them their daily check up, he noticed that the skin lesions on all ten patients had miraculously disappeared. He told them all to come with him to another room for further tests. All the tests indicated, for some unknown reason, their disease had gone into remission. So, the next day their doctor, still scratching his head, released them all from the hospital. They all packed up their belongings and headed their separate ways. Except one. He stopped by the hospital chapel, fell down hard on his knees before a stained glass window of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. With tears streaming down his cheeks and loud cries that could be heard all the way to the gift shop, this one poured out his heart to God. “Thank you, God! Thank you, Jesus!” He wept for joy believing in his heart that it was his faith in Christ that healed him…....from AIDS. Oh, I forgot to tell you....the man was gay.
Jesus pulls the rug out from under us with a surprise ending. The way Luke tells it, he waits until the very end of this gospel story to let his readers know that the one who returned to Jesus, gave thanks, and was not only healed, but saved, was.... a Samaritan. As a leper and Samaritan this man was an outcast among outcasts, doubly scorned, labeled "unclean" and "foreign born." As a leper he was excluded, cut off from acceptable society, labeled "dirty," considered a source of pollution to the community. It was only because of their common disease and being excluded from the larger community that brought these ten lepers together. So, when Jesus healed all ten, he was not simply curing their disease, but restoring them to their community. That is, all except for one. Jesus could not "cure" one of being a Samaritan. He was born that way. Considered a "half-breed." Part of a people who had to have their own separate churches and ministers; a people whose faith was suspect. Even after he was healed and saved, he would have to remain apart from those nine with whom he shared a disease that cut them all off from society. He was truly an outcast among outcasts. Leper. Samaritan. Those labels stand out in Luke's gospel story like a sore thumb.
Oh, we can change the names and labels----from Samaritan with leprosy to Gentile woman with chronic bleeding, old woman with mental illness, homeless man with…. It makes no difference. Since we have no Samaritans with leprosy to point to we have to translate "Samaritan with leprosy" into modern language, not just to make it updated, but so we might feel in our own bones the surprise ending of the gospel story. I could have translated “Samaritan with leprosy,” as "politician with sex addiction"! But, I didn’t. In Jesus’ day the Samaritan with leprosy represents the despised and rejected, the outcast and marginalized, the forgotten and forsaken in society. Those are the ones that where left out, pushed aside, despised, rejected, labeled, and called names. Those are the ones that Jesus most dearly loved. Those are the ones who Jesus offered hope, healing, wholeness, liberation, and salvation.
Now, don't hear me wrong. I'm not trying to make any moral statements from this story or preaching “You oughta do this or that.” I'm just preaching the gospel. And the gospel of Jesus Christ says: We are saved by the amazing grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, the source of healing and salvation, a message of liberation for all people, no matter who we are or what we’ve done or haven’t done, or what people in the community may think of us or call us. The gospel has restored us to the beloved community of God.
As Christians, we believe Jesus is the sole source of our salvation. Nothing else. It is Jesus who heals us, save us, and restores us to community. It is Jesus who has thrown away all the labels that people want to hang on us. It is Jesus who has broken down all the walls that divide us. It is Jesus who has reconciled us as one people. It is Jesus who offers this same good news to all people, to all people. We have no one to thank for our healing, our salvation, our liberation, our restoration, but Jesus. Hallelujah! Praise be to God! Thank you, Jesus!
Will you return to Jesus and give thanks for this world-shaking, earth quaking, wall-breaking, bone-clattering, label-shattering, soul-surprising gospel? Or will we go on our separate ways? Separating ourselves from those we call “other,” “different,” “unclean,” “not-our-kind.” Or will we, for Jesus’ sake, welcome the Samaritan, whoever that may be for us. Welcome those who have been healed and saved along with us? One of the lepers who was healed, a Samaritan, returned, fell at Jesus' feet, and gave thanks. And Jesus said, "Your faith has saved you."