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Luke 17:11-19

Many of you know that my father, Craig Sherouse, is a pastor – at Second Baptist in Richmond, VA – and I grew up as a preacher’s kid, which was a great life, except when it wasn’t.

Like when the eccentric director of Adult Sunday School at my home church, hatched a scheme to add a little touch of theater to the gospel lesson one Sunday. The focal passage of the day was our gospel text – Jesus healing ten lepers – and Mrs. Howell thought it would be wonderfully dramatic to have live lepers walking the halls of the Education wing. So who do you call when you have a wild idea and you need a naïve volunteer?  Well, you try the pastor’s teenage son, of course!

Mrs. Howell pitched the idea, offered me a small bribe, and asked me to gather some friends to form a colony of lepers.  So I turned to my best friends – Nathan and Wes – they always had my back; let’s see if it extended to this. They helped me gather a few more and we reported to Mrs. Howell that Sunday, as she prepared to outfit us in our ancient attire.  You’ve probably seen the wardrobe before: it consisted of her husband’s old bathrobes and some ripped sheets turned into headdresses. Picture Rambo on his way to the shower.

Then she directed us to walk down the halls, looking as pathetic as we possibly could.  She asked us to contort our faces and moan like zombies, “unclean, unclean.”  And as a final touch, just for dramatic flare, she brought in a bowl full of pasty oatmeal and said, “Here boys, I want you to rub some of this on your skin.”

Well, that’s when the whole thing fell apart. Several of the guys left right away, and I turned to Nate and Wes – always there for me. Except that day. As Nate said, “sorry, dude, you’re the pastor’s kid…”

So it was that I wandered the halls of the Adult Education wing of Lakeside Baptist Church, embarrassed and alone and covered in maple brown sugar. A leper colony of one.

It might be that cold oatmeal and tattered bathrobes are as close as we will ever get to the characters in this story. We don’t know these lepers; the passage describes them “keeping a distance” from their ancient community, and we ourselves only get so close.

What we do know of leprosy is constructed based on a few Old Testament clues. In Numbers, lepers are required to “live outside the camp” (Num 5:2-3). The Levitical law asks lepers to cover their lips and cry out “unclean” to warn of their presence if anyone should come near (Leviticus 13). Their social role was set. They probably lived in colonies outside the settlements and kept the proper distance from those with unblemished skin. Some people probably felt bad about it, but it’s the way things were. Some were inside, some outside.

When we add it all up, it’s easy to understand why we picture these lepers as zombie-like figures, with Quaker Oat skin, wandering around crying out in pain. But Jesus sees something else.

As our text begins, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Since chapter 9 of Luke, when Jesus first set his face to the city, he’s been on the road. He’s on his way to Jerusalem. You know what will happen there, and he knew what would happen there. His hope for the world would come center stage and ultimately ask for his life. He would humble himself on a hill far away. But for now, his focus is on the hill that’s in front of him, and the ten people that approach.

They come to Jesus speaking his name; they’ve heard about him. They’ve heard this is the man that’s made others clean. Luke 5 tells us that in one particular city, Jesus laid his hands on a man-covered-with-leprosy and made him clean. And Luke says the word spread abroad. At some point we can assume it reached these 10. So they cover up with their bathrobes and bed-sheets and venture out, approaching, but keeping their distance.

And that’s when Luke tells us Jesus saw them.

If you’ve paid any attention to Jesus, you’ve noticed that his eyes seem to work differently than the rest of ours’.  When he sees people, he really sees them.

He saw these lepers in the same way he saw the friends of the paralyzed man in Luke 5, as their faith helped a paralyzed friend walk away with his bed rolled under one arm.

It’s the same way Jesus saw Levi the tax collector in Luke 5:27; as Levi made eye contact and dropped everything to follow him.

It’s the same way he saw the woman in the synagogue (Luke 13), a woman with a spirit that had bent her spine for eighteen years until she came into Jesus’ view and began to stand up straight.

When Jesus sees a person, he really sees. In fact, he sees them while they were still at a distance, the way the father of the prodigal son sees his son coming from far off, cresting the hill as a silhouette against the horizon; it’s almost like Jesus has been watching for them.

But, then, you already know that. Because somewhere down the road, Jesus saw you. Saw you in your loneliness and offered you friendship. Saw you in a struggling relationship, and helped you find wholeness. Saw you weighed down by questions and uncertainty, and received your faith, incomplete though it was and imperfect though it is.

When the men approach, Jesus sees what anyone can see: ten outsiders, with strange clothes and broken skin. But he also sees what no one else sees: people in need of mercy.  He saw them; he really did.

ten-lepers
                            Ten Lepers by Bill Hoover

His command to the men is straight to the point, “Go ahead now. Go show yourself to the priests.”  He sends them to the priest – the one who can sign off on their recovery and restore them to the community.  As they walk, somewhere down the road, one begins to notice the color returning to his right hand.  And another notices his strut change a bit as feeling returns to his left leg.  Suddenly their skin is new, and they take off, feeling what it is to run again with new skin against the wind. Nine of the men break into a sprint, heading toward the city and the priest that can make things right.

But a tenth man wheels around. One man turns back.

I guess the tenth leper doesn’t need to see the priest to know he’s been restored.  As the feeling returns and his skin looks new, he turns back, not only to thank his healer, but also Luke describes him praising God in a loud voice.

We come to find out that this man is not like the others, not like anyone else standing around – he’s a Samaritan, which means he’s two-times the outsider. And then the double outsider begins to make a scene. He falls on his face in the dust and begins to shout. Leper, foreigner, stammering fool…that’s three strikes, one would think.  But it all does something to Jesus.

Jesus is moved by it, and he offers this man validation that the others would never find from the priest: “Your faith has made you well.” Or, in the Greek, “Your faith has saved your life.”  Something in this man’s display of worship – moves Jesus.

Frederick Buechner has much to say about the way we worship God.  Buechner, the Presbyterian minister and author says that, “to worship God means to rejoice in God and to make a fool of yourself for God the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love…unless there is an element of joy and foolishness in our worship, the time might be better spent doing something else.” (1)

The tenth leper acts like a fool in love. And how could he act in any other way? (2)

This man has spent years ostracized and embarrassed, then Jesus saw him and now he has something that makes him turn back.  In the Greek language, the verb used to describe his “turning back” is the same verb used for the action of “going home.” So, we can say, this man who had wandered on the outskirts and made his bed in a colony, has now found a home. Sure there were ten who were made clean, but it seems that one was really saved. Ten are restored to the life of community, but one finds a new home.

“But where are the other nine?”  You can almost here a playful, prying tone in Jesus’ voice as he asks.  After all, he already knows the answer. The other nine are doing exactly what he asked them to do. They press forward toward the priest.  They want to know: clean or unclean?  In or out?

They keep going, maybe a little winded, probably stopping for a water break or two, but they continue forward. The other nine don’t really do anything wrong.  They follow instructions.  And I suspect that sounds familiar.

Pressing forward, continuing down the path with our goals and our checklists for validation, working with diligence to complete the task, staying faithful to the instructions and obedient to the commands.  That’s how many of us live.

In fact, it’s that obedience and hard work that built this sanctuary where we sit, and cares for all the structures and systems that make 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 day at the soccer field or a painful last second FG (let the church say “Amen”). It’s that kind of diligence that leads people to come to a Finance Committee meeting in the middle of a Panthers game. It’s that kind of dedication that allows us to work toward good things that through the power of the Spirit we envision for our community.

But a life of faith in Christ – and commitment to Christ’s community – is about so much more than devotion, diligence, and dedication to the tasks. It’s also about being in love.

Hear these words in the Revelation of John, spoken to the church of Ephesus: “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance…. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love” (Revelation 2:1-4).

The other nine follow the instructions, while the tenth makes a scene. The other nine press forward to meet with the priest, as the tenth turns back to meet with Jesus. The other nine rush to the temple, but the tenth rushes to his home. The other nine act like good cleansed men, good Jews, good churchgoers. The tenth acts like a fool in love.

“Where are the other nine?”  Jesus already knows the answer.  And many of us do, too.  For this reason, Barbara Brown Taylor says we ought to ask a different question.  Not “where are the nine?” but “Where is the tenth?”  Where is the one that wheels around to worship? (3)

We are gathered here on a World Communion Sunday – a tradition that celebrates the diversity of God’s world, and the many expressions of worship and praise that unite to rise to God. It calls us again to celebrate and elevate such unity amidst diversity here and now in the world that God so loves.

It reminds me of times I’ve experienced such diversity, like once at a church I used to attend. A good church. I’d probably join it if I lived in that city, and many of you would to. It was a blessing to us when a new family joined one spring – a woman and her two young children. They had walked to the church. No one new why. As 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 heightened awareness grew when this woman and her kids decided to sit on the left side of the fifth pew in the center section, you know, where someone else always sat. Then things grew a bit tense when the woman began to express herself differently in worship, raising her hands in 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, our new member 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 new matter up for discussion. Under Roman Numeral II, “New Business,” there was item B, “The applause issue.”

I don’t know exactly what happened next, except that we continued as best we knew how, singing with dedication, praying diligently, and saying “Amen” when called for in the litany. We kept gathering as sinners seeking to be cleansed. But we saw less and less of this family. And I’ve always assumed they found somewhere else to shout “Hallelujah.”

“Where are the other nine?” I guess we already know. I don’t need to look much further than my own restored body. We see them in our own new skin, our own diligent obedience. It’s much more than cold oatmeal that links us to these lepers.  We are closer than we might think.

But, what about Taylor’s question: where is the tenth?  Now, that’s the hard question. And it might be the gospel question today. When I ask it, I’m not asking us to break into a standing ovation, or shout “Hallelujah,” or fall on our faces weeping in the dust.  The story doesn’t ask us to express ourselves to God in any specific way.  The story asks us if we’ve ever been in love.

Don’t forget, somewhere down the road of your life, Jesus saw you; he really saw you, the same way he sees you still. He told you your faith had saved you. He gave you a new kind of home. So, where is the tenth leper found in you? Where is the part of me that is knocked off course and spins back in gratitude? Where is the part of us willing to wheel around on the road with joy that comes from really believing we’ve been made new?

We’re all gathered here, just where Jesus told us to be: obedient, faithful, clean.

But where is the one that turned back?

______________________

  1. Wishful Thinking, 122.
  2. The concept of the tenth leper as a “man in love” owes to Barbara Brown Taylor’s excellent sermon, “The Tenth Leper” in The Preaching Life.
  3. Ibid
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