There is a Peanuts cartoon which features part of an ongoing conversation between Charlie Brown and his sassy younger sister Sally about the subject of writing “Thank You” notes for her Christmas presents. At one point Sally says to Charlie Brown, who is staring in the other direction at the TV, “Gramma is mad at me. She said it’s inexcusable to be six weeks late with a ‘Thank you’ note. I didn’t think six weeks was that long to a grandmother.”
What is your window of time? How quickly do you wait to receive an expression of thanks? After reading this morning’s gospel story about the ten lepers, one might reach the conclusion that, for Jesus, six weeks is way too long. Ten lepers approach him while he’s on the road to Jerusalem and cry out for mercy. Typically Jesus touches people in order to heal them, but in this instance all he does is “see” them. He then directs them to the priests, who have the authority to declare them formally clean and rid them of their outcast status. They all go running off, but on the way, one of them realizes he has already been healed and turns around to thank Jesus.
In the reaction that this provokes from Jesus we see a side of him we don’t usually see: a bit of disgruntlement, almost annoyance. “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?” It’s as if those other nine—who, mind you, were doing exactly as he told them to do—didn’t get their thank you notes in the mail quickly enough. Maybe they thought they had a six-week time frame to work with. Maybe they didn’t realize they were healed as quickly as the one did. Whatever the case, the focus of the entire episode shifts from the healing, which was miraculous in and of itself, to the reaction of this one lone Samaritan…this one lone Samaritan who notices that he is already healed and wheels back around to respond to the person who did the healing.
What that one lone Samaritan does as he comes back to Jesus is more significant when we take a closer look. He does not just come back to drop a quick “Thank you” note like Sally might try to get by with. This guy goes a little over the top. To begin with, he walks back to Jesus shouting at the top of his lungs. As a leper, he would have been used to shouting because those with skin diseases thought to be contagious had to walk around shouting “I’m unclean!” in order to warn people away. But as he returns to Jesus, the man is no longer shouting about his uncleanliness. He’s shouting about God.
When I was on staff at a summer camp during college, one of our camp pastors would occasionally lead the Lord’s Prayer during worship by having us start out a whisper and then gradually getting louder with each line so by the time we were on the final line—“for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, FOREVER AND EVER…AMEN!”—we were shouting at the top of our lungs. At first I thought their idea to pray like that was a little strange, but once we began doing it, I found it kind of moving. It made me concentrate on the words a little more than I usually do and that resounding crescendo declaring God’s glory was powerful. But other than that instance, I was pretty sure I’d never shouted during worship.
It wasn’t until several years later that I learned that Lutherans think they shout in worship all the time. This is a Lutheran shout: “Amen” (unless you’re Matt Greenshields). However, each time I hear a baby or child make a loud noise during worship I’ve learned to think about it in terms of loud praise, as if they’re setting some example for the rest of us even if they don’t realize it.
The Samaritan comes back shouting praise to God for his healing and as soon as he gets to Jesus he does something even more strange to our sensibilities: he literally falls down on his face to thank Jesus. This is something else we don’t do in worship very often, either. We at Epiphany get close to it, though, when we kneel at the altar for communion. The ancient act of worshipping someone with your whole body, of showing them great honor and respect and placing yourself in a position of vulnerability relative to them, involved lying prostrate on the ground in front of them. Here, in the middle of the road to Jerusalem, this man lies down in the dust and the mud to give thanks to Jesus. That, too, seems a little over the top. The fact that a Samaritan—an essential outsider to Israel’s culture—would stoop to do this is even more surprising.
At first glance, this episode with the one lone Samaritan leper seems like nothing more than a lesson about thankfulness. The man sees that he is healed—meaning he realizes that he is transformed—and he naturally responds to give thanks. Good enough. But if we look a little deeper, we find a complete pattern or template for all worship—indeed for all our encounters with the living God.
Each week in our confirmation classes we address one or two questions that the confirmands have about faith and church. This week we dealt with two great, challenging questions. One student asked, “Why do we do that same routine every Sunday in church?” I’m sure I gave a long-winded answer about liturgy and Lutheran tradition that didn’t make any sense. What I could have said was that we’re just doing what the leper did. Our worship begins by asking Jesus to look at us with mercy, to recognize us in our helplessness. Whether we’re using the confession and forgiveness or singing “Lord, have mercy” that we use in Lent, or singing an entrance hymn that address God as our master in some way, we begin like the lepers do. We start by acknowledging our weakness and God’s greatness by saying out loud, “Lord, we bring nothing to you except our absolute need for your grace.”
After that, God’s Word does the healing. We move into listening to God’s grace in the Scriptures and, if I haven’t put you to sleep by that point, in the preaching. And here’s an important thing to consider: our healing, our being made new is not always readily apparent. Sometimes it is instantaneous and we realize it right then and there, but often it takes a while for the effect of this healing to sink in. Nevertheless, we are given time to respond, like the leper, in praise and thanksgiving. We do this, in part, by saying one of the church’s creeds as a statement of faith. We offer prayers of the assembly, including the names of those in our midst that are in need of healing. We give our offerings. And we share the Lord’s Supper.
Lastly, we are dismissed, just like the Samaritan leper. Dismissed to serve: that’s the last part of our “routine” each week. Just as Jesus tells the man to get up and go on his way because his faith has made him well, we are likewise told to Go in peace and serve the Lord. One final hymn helps set the tone for that, if it’s chosen thoughtfully. Our worship is based on nothing more and nothing less than what that one foreigner does. Indeed, all of our encounters with the risen and healing One really bear this pattern, especially when the Spirit moves us to realize that his grace as transformed us.
Interestingly, the other question asked by one of the confirmands this week was, “If people do not attend church services every week, are they going to hell?” Well, as a matter of fact, we learn to take attendance at seminary, too. In all honesty, my thought as I heard this question was, “My God, what message have I been sending?!” This certainty bears repeating: when we experience the grace of God in Jesus Christ, we come to understand there’s nothing we can do or not do that gains us eternal favor with God. Just as Jesus tells the leper, it is our faith, not our actions, that saves us. The other nine were certainly healed; Jesus didn’t take that away from them. So going to church all the time isn’t like getting our ticket stamped for heaven.
However, there is something saving about a faith that returns to thank God, about acknowledging not just our own sinfulness, but also God’s glory. The story of the leper teaches us that our new life in Christ is not fully complete until we have somehow responded to God in praise and thanksgiving, until that shouting and crying we do comes full circle. Whereas once we shouted for mercy and love, now we have the opportunity to shout for praise and thanksgiving. I suppose that doesn’t have to happen at a church service, and I suppose that doesn’t have to happen every week. But when it does occur, it certainly helps us grow in faith.
I heard seminary professor and writer Dr. Mark Allen Powell speak one time about his own experience of growing up and attending worship with his family. He explained that when his mother would pile them all into the car on Sunday morning and they’d ask why they were essentially stopped what they were doing, she’s respond with the same answer, over and over: “because Jesus is worthy of our praise.” Sometimes she’d add, “six days a week God is good to us. And on Sundays we give thanks.”
Come to think of it, her response was really that of the leper’s. At its core, worship has less to do with being blessed by God or needing to be fed or getting to see the rest of God’s children and more to do with providing an outlet for us to respond to what God has already done. We need no other reason to be here other than Jesus is worthy of our praise and thanksgiving. On this day he overcame death and the grave. He healed us and continues to heal us with that message more than we ever will understand in this life. We have been called out of our exile and given forgiveness and hope. God has washed us in his grace and set us free and when we return to shout out or just use our Lutheran low voices this salvation really starts to take root in us. When we think about all this, when we look down at ourselves, like the leper, and see the changes that take place in us, we realize the question quickly becomes less and less about how much we have to come worship…or how long a time frame is acceptable for returning thanks. Is it six weeks? Is every seventh day even often enough?
Rather, like the leper on that dusty road we realize the question is more like why in the world would we want to stay away? When we look at the ways God loves us, FOREVER AND EVER, AMEN!—how in the world could we ever hold back?
Our faith has saved us.
With that, we may go on our way.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.