Luke 17: 11-19
When I was young and lived in Richmond, Virginia, there was a time when my grandparents took me back with them to their home in Pennsylvania for a visit, not on a plane, for my grandmother was afraid to fly; not in a car for that particular trip, but on a train! I was perhaps 2 or 3 years old, and they said that while we were on the train, I saw a little African American girl, and headed up the aisle to her seat, and started hugging her! I must have thought she was delightful. “No prejudice there!” people on the train exclaimed. Innocence is a wonderful characteristic that can sometimes be worn away by our changing society. Two years ago, one of my grandsons hugged a girl in his school who he considered to be a friend, but her parents to offense to his hug and asked him to be charged with sexual harassment. He and the girl were both five. Later the school talked the parents to agree to a charge of “adoration” instead of harassment. Sometimes adults get alarmed by childhood delight and innocence. Two years ago in a different grandson’s neighborhood, there was a group of 3 and 4 year olds who loved to play with each other every day after pre-school. Almost every day, the parents sat on the front lawn of a home on a dead-end street, watching their children delight in each other’s company, playing together, and riding each other’s tricycles and battery powered cars. They might still be playing with each other except some of the adults had some issues with some of the other adults that tore apart the adult friendships. “You cannot play with those children anymore,” some parents told their children. The children, with great puzzlement, still see their friends at preschool, but only half of them gather now on the dead-end street. The others are told to stay indoors. Sometimes adult issues can change innocence to suspicion and confusion very quickly. Are there ones from whom you keep a distance for some reason or another? Have you created some distance been created between you and a co-worker, or you and a relative, because you learned they are gay? Or because have you created distance with someone who has what might be called a “mixed marriage?” I know students in some high schools who have very accepting connections with Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Jewish students, but those friendships make some of their parents uncomfortable. I know many college students have both straight friends and gay friends, but they don’t label them anything but “friends.” I know some birds of a feather that flock together because of their political party, particularly in this day and age. We end up with imaginary or real walls dividing human beings in the same school, on the same continent, or in the same community. Jesus would ask us to look to the children, and what how they treat others as friends. I was proud when another of my grandsons—Calvin—introduced himself to every other person at the All Children’s Park in Port Orange, when he visited with us this summer. He asked, no matter the color of their skin, boy or girl, “Hey, I’m Calvin! You want to play with me?” It was heartwarming as we departed that he sincerely said goodbye to each one of them.
Today in Israel there is open suspicion and hostility between Israeli and Palestinian adults. But here is one true testimony I share with you today: in 1998 on my first trip to the Holy Land, we watched some boys playing some kind of kickball on a vacant lot. “Look” our guide said. “Those are Palestinian and Israeli boys, all playing together.” Just then, a camera crew from a United States network pulled up to the field. They pulled out their big camera and a microphone, and one man said “Hey boys! This is going back to the States! DO something!” And they began picking up rocks and pelting each other with them. When the cameras stopped, they went back to playing kickball. Even having the media–or being surrounded by cellphone cameras—can change the way people act, often not for the better. There is more than one reason for Jesus to say, “And a little child shall lead them.”
In Jesus’ day, Jews shunned Samaritans, yet in the story Jesus tells today, one man was a Samaritan, the others were likely Jews. Here was a group of people who all had one thing in common—leprosy—that kept them from letting any usual issues get in the way of that bond. Today we too can have a tie that binds us together, like “We’re Christians!” or “We’re band members” or more specifically “We’re the drumline.” Or “we’re Gators,” or “we’re Noles!” Those who have a tie that binds them pull for each other and for their common cause! Sadly, sometimes people are bonded together by disease or illness, like “We are cancer survivors!” That’s the bond, even if group members are very different. In our lesson today, it seems important to Jesus that he share a story about 10 people with leprosy who approached him asking for mercy. There was very little hope of being healed from leprosy. Those who had the dreaded skin disease were shunned by everyone else, so much so that they often supported one another in what were called leper colonies- they had each other, but they had no one else. So we might rightly assume that they identified with one another as men in the same boat-all with almost no hope for healing. They heard about the man named Jesus. The men seemed to be both Jew and Samaritan, living somewhere near the border of the two territories. As Jesus heading toward Jerusalem, this time he deliberately passed through Samaria, something few other Jews would do.
In the typical colony of lepers, no one was put off by the differences between those in the colony. In their request for healing, Jesus replies “Go and show yourself to the priests.” Plural. Perhaps he meant a Samaritan priest and a Jewish priest, for the Jewish priest would never declare a Samaritan man clean. Again the world divides, but some illnesses or groups can set differences aside to be bound together for each other. At least one, but perhaps only one with leprosy, was a Samaritan. But Jesus (a Jew, remember!) honored him because he gave thanks for being healed! He praised God.
Today there are some lessons from Jesus’s story. Their identity as lepers was the tie that bound them, making other differences between them less important. But, only one praised God for the healing. One of the lost arts of our day is how to offer a proper thank you, not to just to another person, but also to God. We pray and pray to God, but some—not everybody—but some, when I asked ,“Did you thank God for your healing?” they hang their head and say, “No.” Others—who got Christmas or birthday gifts, or had a nice thing done for them, or had been invited over for dinner—also have sometimes failed to really thank the giver. Now that may not be you, but it is an issue with many! A shouted “Thanks!” as you are getting into your car does not cut it. A written note of gratitude makes a difference. I am proud that when Mary Ann and I send gifts to my nieces and nephews, we have always get handwritten thank you notes back. I hold them and look at them for several days, or even longer. It gives me a greater connection with each one of them. Gratitude matters to the giver. “Never forget that” Jesus seems to say.
One-time years ago, I spent several weeks meeting with a boy in our church who was working on a God and Me badge for Cub Scouts. He mother brought him faithfully each week, and we enjoyed each other’s company. I got to show him my badges and my work in Scouting, and he got to show me his. At the end of our time together, he told me “thanks.” But it didn’t stop there. He and his mother (I think) framed his thank you note he handwrote to me, and added a photograph of the two of us, then framed it. That was really big thank you! It hangs on my wall and I never forget it, even as one of my own grandsons has started down the Scouting trail. Giving thanks to others or giving praise to God was so important that Jesus highlighted it. One final note: our communion liturgy every month has the minister saying: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God!” And the people are invited to reply: “It is right to give our thanks and praise!” And so it is. Give thanks.
Let us pray: God of outstretched arms and abundant mercy: thank you for creating us, for redeeming us, and for sustaining us. Thank you for being just a prayer away. And let this prayer just prime the pump of those who are listening so that they too may give you thanks and praise! We lift up our hearts to you. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner October 13, 2019