2 Kings 5:13, 715c ; Psalm 111; Luke 17:1119
Holy One, may these words be your words. And if they are not, may these clever people here hear what you need them to hear. Amen.
The day was as gloomy as my spirits. I was in Kansas City at a church meeting on a rainy, cold March day. And between sessions of the meeting I was walking the streets in tears. We had moved recently to accept a new call to ministry and because of a recession, had not been able to sell our home. And just the week before, we had deeded our dream home back to the bank in lieu of foreclosure.
I had never in my life felt such shame. This beautiful house was on the Red River of the north with its three terraced gardens sloping down to the river, and in the summer we would sit on our screened porch and watch the river boats seem to float magically through the trees, announced only by the Dixieland music and the colored lights that were filtered through the hundred-foot cottonwoods.
Having grown up in the country in a house with no plumbing and electricity, having married someone who if anything was even poorer, having earned my Ph.D., when in my family my father had only gone through the 8th grade, I thought I’d lost everything. The house with all its equity that we were going to use someday to help the children get through college, gone. A symbol, I guess, of my success gone.
Hands in pocket, I walked, asking my God for help to shake the feeling of loss and failure and shame and guilt.
As I waited at a stoplight I saw a woman also in tears walking across the parking lot at Catholic Charities toward a man and two small children. The man embraced her and the two children hugged her legs. And I felt such a strong pull to go there that I did, and there we stood, those four and I, all weeping. And I heard their story.
The husband had been unemployed for a year. He’d always worked and gotten good wages in the construction business. But St. Louis had an economy that wasn’t working so well. They were out of money and out of luck. But they did hear about a job in California. And so they borrowed enough money from friends, sold off furniture so that they could get from St. Louis to the new job in California. And now they only had two days to get there, and their car had broken down and the $750 cash that they had was spent just to get the car running. They did not even have gas money.
Their situation was ever so much direr than mine that with a thrill I realized this is a problem I could solve. I could do something about it. So we went to the neighboring gas station and filled the car with gas, bought a case of oil—the old Ford was an oil burner, they said—bought food for two or three days from the convenience store for their straight-through drive. And I went to the cash machine and got the maximum cash I could get, placed it in their hands, gave them my business card, and said, “If something else happens, call me. I’ll get you more money.” Then I watched them drive away, the children waving at me out the back window, the car piled high, the roof rack with suitcases, and the smoke billowing out the back.
But, for me, somehow gloom was gone. It was like I was seeing with new eyes. I was the richest person in Kansas City. And I remember yelling out loud, “Thank you God.” And having the gas station attendant looking at me as if I was crazy. Well, I was. I was crazy with gratitude. In giving I was made whole.
Our processional hymn says exactly what I experienced in the dark day; I had a day of radiant gladness, a day of joy and light.
At Christmas I received a card. But the return address, I didn’t recognize. So I opened it, and read. “You won’t remember us.” Sure. “We’re the family you helped in Kansas City. You were the angel that God sent to help us. We made it to California. Jim got the job. The kids are in a good school right across the street from our apartment, and we pray for you by name almost daily.”
I wrote back, “No, the angels were you. You were the one God sent to me to get me out of the darkness. Christ broke through because of you. Stripped of the treasure I had accumulated by my hard work, I was finally able to get a glimpse of the treasure God offers to us each day, each moment. And I wonder why we don’t cry out for God’s mercy and help more often?”
I don’t think I’d ever prayed like that before. Walking in those gloomy and damp Kansas City streets I literally cried out, “Lord, have mercy.” And I was like the ten lepers asking for healing from someplace much deeper than my mind or my pocketbook. I was asking for my heart. My broken heart.
Preaching on this lesson of the ten lepers in the past, I’ve often been hard on the nine ingrates who did not return to give Jesus thanks. But then I realized in the forty-one distinct miracle stories that are recounted in the four Gospels when Jesus heals—and sometimes he heals many people in one of his stories—this is the only one who ever comes back to give thanks. The only one. The other nine are doing what any of us would do, roaming off, filled with joy of the miraculous cure. They will get declared officially well by the priest and be able to join society. They’ll be able to join their families. They just did what Jesus told them to do. They were the literalists who obediently followed the Law. Nothing more. Nothing wrong with that. But our God offers us so much more.
Barbara Brown Taylor says that the question should never be “Where are the nine?” but, “Where is the tenth?” Where is the one who followed his heart instead of his instructions? And she goes on to say, “Doesn’t the Church resemble a dutiful procession of healed lovers who are doing the right thing by the Temple?” “Where,” she asks, “is the one who wheels around to return to the wildness of God’s love?”
I think we fear God’s wild and seeking love. I think we fear that our peace will be disturbed by a very disturbing Jesus. And the life to which he calls us may not be the life we want in our comfort.
Naaman, the rich and powerful general, nearly missed the healing altogether that God was offering him through Elisha because of his pride, and a sense that he needed to accomplish the healing himself. He wanted to do something hard.
Why are we like children, insisting, “I can do it myself”?
The nine were cured. That’s for sure. But the tenth, the one who returned, was made whole through God’s grace. He saw with new eyes. In returning to give thanks to Jesus, the Samaritan leper was given a vision of the abundant world God had made. How often we are like that, clinging to our sense of isolation, clinging to our blindness because that’s what we know. We are like the people who, having had new cataract surgery which gave them new sight for the very first time, continued to walk around their homes with their eyes closed because they had memorized the familiar pattern of each room.
In giving, we receive. But in gratefulness, we find wholeness.
The fullness of God is offered us, and we can accept it. This circle of gratefulness, in which the giver and receiver are one, is a profound dance of love.
Catherine of Sienna, the fourteenth-century mystic and saint, wrote about this dance and wrote about God’s constant invitation. “I won’t take no for an answer, God began to say to me, when he opened his arms each night wanting us to dance.”
Dear ones, dare to dance! Dare to dance with the living God. Dare to return to the living God and give thanks for all you have been given, and you will have new eyes. To start you on that path, take your red Book of Common Prayer—you all have one in the rack by you—and turn to page 836. On page 836, let us say together a General Thanksgiving:
“Accept, O lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of the world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love. We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side. We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.”
And now, pay attention to this one in particular:
“We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone. Above all, we thank you for your Son, Jesus Christ, for the truth of his Word and the example of his life, for his steadfast obedience by which he overcame temptation, for his dying through which he overcame death, and for his rising to life again in which we are raised to the life of your Kingdom. Grant us the gift of your Spirit that we may know him and make him known, and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.”