Sunday, October 9, 2016

Sermon: Gratituded, Salvation, and Generosity

Luke 17:11-19
Gratitude, Salvation, and Generosity
James Sledge                                                                                       October 9, 2016

When we lived in Raleigh, NC, around twenty years ago, we often took our girls to the State Fair in the fall. One year, we parked, got out of the car, and joined the flow of humanity making its way toward the entrance. As we got close, the flow diverted like a creek parting around big rock. It wasn’t a rock, of course. It turned out to be a pair of street preachers. They were loud and animated, and everyone was giving them a wide berth while avoiding eye contact, looking back only after having passed by.
We stayed with the flow and did the same. I too turned once we passed and watched them shout at the crowd coming toward them. If I heard exactly what they were shouting, I don’t remember it, but I can make some pretty good guesses. Many of you probably can as well.
They might have been telling us we needed to repent. They might have asked if we knew what would happen to us when we died. They might have wanted to know, “Are you saved?” though in my experience, those last two are just different ways of asking the same thing. “Accept Jesus and you will be saved, meaning you’ll get into heaven.” They might even have had a sign quoting the Apostle Paul. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
I recall this encounter at a fair because our gospel reading this morning also raises the issue of being saved. You likely missed it because the word translated “saved” in that quote from Paul gets translated differently in our gospel. Jesus says to the Samaritan, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." But it could also be translated, “your faith has made you whole,” or “your faith has saved you.”

The story of Jesus healing ten lepers is unique to Luke’s gospel. It’s a pretty straight forward account, but there are things in it that are unfamiliar to many of us. First off, leprosy in the Bible is a catch-all term that covers all manner of skin conditions, anything from a fungal infection to psoriasis. Even your tent could get leprosy, which I assume refers to something like mold. What it apparently didn’t refer to was Hanson’s Disease, the bacterial infection of leper colony fame.
Still, leprosy was a big deal. It was understood to make people unclean, meaning you weren’t supposed to touch others, couldn’t participate in community or religious activities, and so on. Because it covered such wide range of ailments, it wasn’t unusual for leprosy to go away, and the scriptures included a requirement to show yourself to a priest and be certified as being clean once again.
I imagine that if you had a minor skin condition that cleared up quickly, you could have hidden it and no one would ever know. But if the condition was obvious – on your face and hands for instance – that was likely a different matter. And if it persisted long enough, even your family might have gotten antsy about having you around. Biblical people had no understanding of infection, but they thought of uncleanliness as being transmittable.
So we can assume that the ten lepers in our gospel reading had some sort of serious, obvious disease that had lasted long enough for them to become ostracized from their community and families. And they probably formed a group, their own little community, based upon their shared status as outcasts. But now they hear that Jesus is nearby, and they hope that he might help them. Because they are lepers, they approach carefully, keeping their distance as they make their request. "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"
If we’re not familiar with those religious rules about lepers being unclean, Jesus’ words may strike us as a bit odd. But the lepers must have heard his command to show themselves to the priests as a promise of healing. Jesus has implied that they will need to be certified as clean. And sure enough, they are made clean as they go.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. One of the ten, who turns out to be a Samaritan, runs back to Jesus, praising God and giving thanks. Jesus wonders aloud where the other nine are, knowing that they too have been healed. Then he says, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." Or is it, “made you whole,” or perhaps “saved you?”
The story Luke tells has already used two different words to describe the healing, one translated “made clean” and the translated “healed.” Now Jesus uses yet another word, a word that can mean to make well or whole, but that more typically means to save or rescue. Surely Jesus isn’t just describing the healing one more time. Jesus has made a point about how this man alone has returned, praising God. Surely Jesus here describes something that has happened to this man that did not happen to the other nine.
The only differences between this man and the others are his reaction of profound gratitude, and the fact that he is a Samaritan. And these may be related. It could be that as a Samaritan, he doubted that Jesus, a Jew, would heal him. And it could be, assuming that the other nine are Jews, that they somehow felt less grateful because they thought their Jewishness, their religiousness, meant God should do something for them.
Whatever the reasons for the Samaritan’s gratitude, or the others' lack of it, Jesus says he is saved or made whole. Jesus also says this is the result of the man’s faith. But all ten had enough faith to head out to see the priest. All ten seem to have trusted that Jesus would heal them. So the faith of this Samaritan must be something more. Jesus seems to think that faith is related to gratitude.
All too often in American Christianity, “saved” has been part of a formula that goes, “If you believe, you are saved and get to go to heaven.” But in the story Luke tells us, ten lepers believe and are healed. One of them, however, a person outside the religious community, is filled with immense gratitude, and Jesus says he is saved.
It doesn’t fit the formula. Instead it suggests that being saved, becoming whole, being truly and fully human as God intends, happens when we live out of a profound sense of gratitude, specifically a profound gratitude to God. And strange as it may sound, being religious can get in the way. That’s because we religious sorts are prone to think that our religiousness, our beliefs, our following the rules, means we should get something.
Pastors can be the worst about this. We think we are doing God’s work, and when we run into difficulties or things go badly in a congregation, we feel put upon, even persecuted. And if things get back to “how they should be,” we’re happy, relieved, but not necessarily grateful. After all, things simply returned to how they should have been in the first place.
Are you saved? I don’t mean that in the typical way, in the manner a street preacher might ask. Rather I’m asking if you’ve discovered a profound sense of gratitude for God’s love that claims you, for God’s love than in Christ calls you to a new way of life as a disciple of Jesus.
One way to answer is by examining your generosity. People filled with gratitude are almost always generous. So, are you generous in general, and specifically generous toward God? I’m not talking a formula here. There is no “If you give this much, you’re saved.” I’m not saying that if you give more, you’ll be closer to wholeness. What I’m saying is when you experience God’s love that embraces you and Christ’s call that invites you to share in his ministry and that experience begins to overflow in gratitude and generosity toward God and others, then you likely know something of what that Samaritan experienced when Jesus said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has saved you."
May all of us experience the love and grace of God that claims us as beloved children, calls us to new life, and fills our hearts with gratitude that inspires generosity and praise, generosity and praise that shows the world what salvation looks like.

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