a sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23C/Lectionary 28]
Luke 17:11-19 and 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
All this talk about thankfulness makes me think about a curious news article a couple of weeks that ago caught my eye. Its headline was: “Voice assistants Siri and Alexa are Making Kids Rude and Antisocial, Scientists Fear.” The article makes the case that with assistive voice technology “youngsters are not taught” [the importance of manners and courteous responses] nor how to read body language.” The piece even quotes a Cambridge University doctor who says, “With digital devices there is no expectation that polite terms, such as please or thank you should be used.”
Well, isn’t that interesting! If so, then I’m afraid my family is doomed. We boss Alexa round on a daily basis—to put things on the grocery list, to play music, and perhaps most of all, to use the “announce” feature and relay messages instead of yelling through the house. She never corrects our grammar. She never tells us to lower our voice. She never criticizes our music selections. She is the unobtrusive, demure presence in every room who never asks for anything in return.
Those researchers at Cambridge may or may not be on to something, but I think this morning Jesus would chime in to let us know people have had trouble saying please and especially thank you long before there were ever Siris and Alexas. After cleansing ten people with leprosy one day while he is traveling on the way to Jerusalem through the border regions of Samaria and Galilee only one had the decency to return and say thank you, and he was a foreigner, of all things. What happened to the other nine? Why didn’t they come back to give Jesus some respect, or even just turn around on their way to the priest and give Jesus a thumbs up?
The text doesn’t tell us the answers so Jesus’ question just kind of hangs out there for us to ponder along with him. And in doing so, my mind starts to reflect on my own shortcomings in the “thank you” department. It would be nice if I could just blame my own periodic forgetfulness or outright rudeness on things like Alexa or technology, but the truth probably lies somewhere else. Sometimes I probably conclude the person wouldn’t notice or care if I sent word. Did this gift or this gesture which I received reach the threshold of something I should say an intentional “thank you” for?
Maybe sometimes I don’t say thank you because I think my gift was actually deserved. That is, I was just getting was I think I’m due, and so saying thanks is not warranted. Maybe the nine lepers felt their ostracization from society due to their condition had been cruel and unnecessary. Forced to live at the edge of society and beg for a living, which were the rules of the day for many people who were sick, perhaps they felt they had deserved someone’s mercy and that being restored to community was a justice long overdue.
Or maybe they didn’t return out of shame or embarrassment, and they ran on, wanting to put that old life behind them. I’ve felt that, too, before. I know that in my case, it is usually forgetfulness. Life gets busy, I move onto the next thing, and the task of writing a thank you note just slips through the cracks.
Whatever the case, the nine’s lack of thankfulness to Jesus doesn’t change the grace God had conveyed upon them. Those nine are still cleansed. They are still healed. They are still free of the bonds their condition had placed on them, free to run into the future that is open to them.
God is like that: gracious and full of compassion, never revoking his gifts to his children. The lepers cry out to Jesus for mercy, and he responds with healing.
Like the venerable old apple tree in Shel Silverstein’s classic children’s book, The Giving Tree, God is a natural giver. The Giving Tree tells the story of a tree who watches a boy grow up and who constantly wants to help him however he can. First he offers the boy all his apples to sell, and then a few years later his leaves, then his branches, and finally his trunk to make a boat. The selfish boy keeps coming back for more until, when he is a very old man, all the tree has become is an old stump to sit on. God is like that tree who keeps giving and giving even when we fail to say thank you or recognize the suffering that our taking causes him. Indeed, God is a tree—a cross-shaped tree—who keeps loving and dying and forgiving so that we may have life, whether we fully acknowledge it or not.
Today, in the shadow of that tree, we do find ourselves a thankful congregation. To be sure we are always a thankful congregation, but today we are especially grateful for the ways God has looked on us with mercy through the challenges of the last two and a half years when we’ve felt, in many ways, pushed to the edge. We praise God for the ways the Holy Spirit has kept our community of faith together and even expanded it, even as we have felt the strain and pull of controversial discussions and decisions.
Today we are a thankful congregation because we get the chance to call Pastor Sarah Lang our pastor. We are grateful that God has led us to this point so that we could fulfill a vision of leadership from six years ago. We are thankful for Sarah’s gifts of wisdom and experience, for her skills in teaching and administration, preaching and worship leadership. We are thankful for Sarah’s keen ability to see the people on our margins and draw our attention to them.
And with Sarah on staff we now have four married couples on staff together, and we’re thankful for that too, even as it feels like the elephant in the room. It is an unusual arrangement, and for the record we did not seek it out and orchestrate it this way. It just kind of fell into our lap, and it takes some careful minding of boundaries to make it work. You know, it might not be everyone’s ideal staff situation, but, I’ll tell you, we could lead one heckuva marriage retreat!
Today we are thankful people—thankful that God has given us a faith that saves us. And we are thankful to be in a position to call Sarah, who will help continue to form that faith among us. That is the key here with this one Samaritan leper who returns to give thanks and worship Jesus by falling on the ground. His faith saves him. All ten of the lepers are healed of their disease but only this one is truly saved (also translated, “made him well”), and we hear Jesus tell him it is his faith that makes him so.
Faith saves us. It is core Lutheran belief, a foundation of how followers of Christ say God works in our lives. However, when we say “faith saves us” we don’t just mean that one day our faith will provide us entrance to heaven. It means faith has the power to rescue us now. It is an invitation to live a life of change now. I would imagine that everyone who professes a faith in Jesus would describe it in some way as beneficial to them. They could talk in a real way about how their faith at some point, or at many points, has liberated them or freed them from something. Maybe from despair or grief or a feeling of meaninglessness. Maybe, in some cases, from addiction. Faith is good for us. It improves our life, it brightens our outlook, it gives us hope for the journey.
And, by the grace of God, faith is not just something that benefits us. Faith in a risen Christ naturally overcomes boundaries. “The word of God is not chained,” says Paul to Timothy. Just as the Son of God emerges from the tomb, our faith flows from us into the life of the whole world. Just look at how the faith of one enslaved girl serving wife of Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army, ripples from the very bottom to the top of the chain of command! She’s there in the tent—we’re never told her name—but she has an understanding of her God’s goodness and she the sense of mind to share that. “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria!” she says boldly to her mistress, “He could cure him of his leprosy!”
It makes me wonder who formed her faith, who made her so sure? She was a little girl at the Sunday School table with Ms. Betsy and Amanda Mertz one Sunday. Or studying the Ten Commandments as a fifth grader with Matt Greenshields and Rob McClintock. Or it was the conversation she had with volunteers Faye Coppage or Chris Crouch during the service project one day. Someone somewhere along the line must have opened her eyes to the power of God to heal and that faith made her well. And that faith in a living God, which meant something to her did not stay there. Eventually it makes its way to the King of Aram and then the King of Israel, whose bluster and pride get in the way, and then to the prophet Elisha, who convinces Naaman to wash himself in the river Jordan where he is saved from his leprosy. And like the foreign Samaritan, Naaman returns to praise God and exalt his name.
The psalm this morning is also found in Proverbs, a book of wisdom: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” To say it differently, our worship is where faith formation starts. Our relationship to the living God—the giving God of the cross-tree—grows from the act of stopping and returning and intentionally sacrificing some bit of ourselves to offer thanks for what God has already done. The Samaritan prostrates himself—an act of humility and vulnerability that shows respect for Jesus. Naaman the Syrian, for all his initial pride, humbly returns to stand in front of the prophet Elisha to profess his faith in Israel’s God.
Now we, standing before our merciful Father, cleansed of our sin and receiving his body and blood in our hand, say thank you. And as we do, we can sense the wisdom growing within us:
Thank you for the beauty of a crisp fall day, for music, even when it’s from Alexa, but especially when it’s from Kevin or Mr. Scott. Thank you for football games and homecomings and weddings and baptisms and funerals. Thank you for this day we’ve been given, these very breaths we are taking, and this voice that allows us to speak to you, and especially when we can join with others. And for all that we’ve ordered you around to give us and for all you’ve given us anyway.
“Thank you, O Lord, for this good life, and forgive us if we do not love it enough.”
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
 “State Fair,” Garrison Keillor in Leaving Home. Penguin Books. 1987, p 118