October 09, 2016
Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
When you do an act of kindness, an act of charity, why do you do it?
I will give you time to think about that because it is an important question and in the meantime let me talk about the Gospel lesson for today. Feel free to wander off in thought and pay no attention to the person behind the pulpit.
When the disciples of Jesus wrote their Gospels they had at their side a collection of stories some of which had historical markers of time and place and some of which they did not know when exactly Jesus said them. So they had to place them in some kind of order that made sense to them. So when I study scripture I always like to read the stories before and after a lesson to see if the Gospel writer had somewhere he was going with the particular lesson that I was reading. The Gospel writers were great at collecting the stories and putting order to the Jesus experience but they were not novelist. This can make the passages a little bumpy. To make things play out a little bit more smoothly I often lean back in my meditations and take the seemingly disconnection from one story to the next and add a little screenplay to form what I like to call, The Gospel According to Gary. Here is how this lesson turned out during my meditation for this sermon.
Jesus had just finished a major teaching ministry where he had spoken about the Kingdom of God to the crowds and the local authorities. Now he was headed to Jerusalem. The Apostles had heard and seen all that Jesus had done and had finally gotten to the point in their journey with him where they felt the need to ask him, “Lord, Increase our faith!” Jesus’ response to them was, “If you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” The Apostles looked at each other in wonder. That kind of faith was exactly what they were asking for. And since none of them had ever moved a Mulberry tree, all Jesus’ story did was to point out exactly how little faith they actually had.
Jesus knew where he was headed and how he was going to get there and so he set off on the journey. In silence the Apostles followed behind him contemplating Mulberry trees flying through the air. After what seemed like an eternity to the Apostles, Jesus stopped walking, turned to them, and as if the conversation had not been uninterrupted at all said to them, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table?’ Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink?’ Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” Jesus stood there looking at them letting that sink in and then he said, “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves, we have done only what we ought to have done!’” Again the Apostles wondered to themselves, “How does this increase our faith?”
Jesus continued walking ahead of the Apostles almost as if he knew exactly what was about to happen next. Their journey took them on a path that was on the edge of Galilee and on the edge of Samaria. This was a place where tensions between two cultures often rose to high levels. Disagreements often happened and sometimes there was even violence.
Outside the city where Jesus was headed was a makeshift camp where 10 men with leprosy lived. Each of them could remember the exact day that they had been brought before the authorities by members of the community and examined. They were put into quarantine and after 14 days when the leprosy had not cleared up they were declared a leper, unclean, and forced to live away from the community, away from those that they loved and those who loved them. Now these ten lepers were forced to wander in the lands between Samaria and Galilee. The fortunate ones had relatives who brought necessary items to a secluded location and then left so that the leper could pick them up, that is, if their things were not stolen by other lepers or the poor first. These ten banded together to form their own community and where they came from did not matter much since none of them belonged to their people anymore. Jew, Samaritan had no meaning. They were now lepers. The lepers had entered into the world of the invisible. It was a very difficult life and lonely and the, if and how, their disease progressed promised only to only make it worse. Word came to them that a man of God was passing through near them. A story had been told about how he had actually touched a leper and healed him. This was an opportunity that they would not let pass by so they got up and ran to the town.
Jesus and the Apostles entered into the city and immediately Jesus began to preach the Good News about the Kingdom of God. The ten lepers found a place where they could see Jesus in the crowd that had gathered around him and still be the required distance from anyone. Desperately they tried to get his attention, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” but the good people of the town stood between them and their salvation. Finally, they caught Jesus’ eye. He saw them standing far off and he knew instantly what they were seeking. Without hesitation he walked to the edge of the crowd and he yelled out to them, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Jesus returned to preaching about the Kingdom of God to the crowd around him. The whole thing was hardly noticed by anyone.
The ten men stood there for a moment and looked at each other. The leprosy was clearly still there on their bodies and yet they had been told to go show themselves to the priests. He had not touched them and cured them like in the story that they had heard before. If they did as he said, would they not show themselves to the priest still plagued with their uncleanness? But they did leave, and as they traveled, slowly at first, with every step, the leprosy began to disappear. Soon they began to run with joy. Amid the joy there came a point when their journeys of the ten would have to part. Some would head south to the priests in Jerusalem and some would head east to Samaria to the authorities there to be declared clean once again. Their healings meant that their little community, which helped them survive together, would be dissolved as they returned to their homes and the cultures they once lived in.
There was one leper headed to Samaria who remembered the day that the authorities had banished him from all that he had loved. As he walked he thought, “They had the authority from God to cast him out but they did not his authority to make him whole again”. But now he had found someone who did. He stopped to think, “Maybe this Jesus is the true priest of God”. He turned around and ran back toward Jesus.
Back In the town the Pharisees wanted to know when the Kingdom of God was coming and Jesus explained, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or “There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.” Suddenly, the crowd split in two and between them a man loudly praising God ran up to Jesus and fell at his feet repeating over and over again, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Jesus knew it was the Samaritan that had returned. Jesus looked at the crowd and the Pharisees gathered around him. “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?” Then Jesus looked at the Apostles and then turning his attention to the man on the ground he said, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Here ends the Gospel according to Gary
One wonders what the Apostles thought about this event and if their faith was increased. Maybe they learned that even if what you see around you does not look like the Kingdom of God to you, nothing changes, until you take that first step in the journey of faith. And when you do, people are made whole again and Mulberry trees begin to fly.
Let’s go back to my first question to you. When you do acts of kindness, acts of charity, why do you do them? Why did Jesus heal the lepers? What did he know about them? He just met them and no conversation is recorded other than, “Go show yourself to the priests.” The actual healing event seems so underplayed. There was no fanfare. Nothing spectacular happened that would dazzle the crowd around Jesus. Would the whole thing have been even remembered if something out of the ordinary, like someone saying thank you, didn’t happen? When we read the lesson most people seem to focus on the fact that only one person out of ten came back to say thank you. The miracle was not the healing of the lepers, rather the real miracle was that someone said, “Thank you”. Some non-profits and volunteers of charity can fall into this pit. “Isn’t that just like the people we help? They feel so entitled, no gratitude what so ever”. In contrast, Jesus did not require any paperwork, no applications to fill out, and no ID or social security numbers to be recorded. He didn’t do a background check or drug test. Were these people even worthy of such a wonderful gift?
Jesus spoke everywhere he went about the Kingdom of God. He had a vision of what the Kingdom of God looked like and he was the chief servant of his Father charged with bringing the kingdom into this world. He healed the lepers because that is what you do when you are a servant of God and your job is to bring the Kingdom of God into the world. It was the will of God; the right thing to do.
Maybe it is not even about doing the right thing. Maybe when Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within you”, we should think of this not as bringing the Kingdom of God into the world, rather, allowing what is already in us to be, and living out the Kingdom in our lives. When Jesus ascended into heaven he commissioned us to continue his work. We are his servants, you and me. We are charged with the job of being the Kingdom of God even if we do not hear anyone say, “Thank you” because in the end we have only done what we have been commanded to do. In the end we have only done what his love will allow us.
When you do an act of kindness, or an act of charity, why do you do it?