Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sermon for Thanksgiving Day (November 25, 2010)

Wordle: Untitled

“The Samaritan’s Thanks” (Luke 17:11-19)

My name is … well, I suppose my name really isn’t all that important. It was never recorded. But what is important is what Jesus of Nazareth did for me.

See this skin? Look at it. Tanned and supple. It wasn’t always like this, though. One day years ago I looked down and noticed a white, scaly spot. Every day, it got bigger and bigger. Then, some of the sores opened and became infected. Once it reached my face and hands, I couldn’t hide it anymore. Leprosy. Now, I was an outcast. As the LORD said through Moses in the Torah, now I had to wear torn clothes, let my hair hang loose, cover my mouth, and cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn people to stay away so that whatever was causing this to me would not happen to them. Now, I had to live alone, separated from my family and friends, away from the people I love. No longer could I hold my wife. No longer could I hug and play with my children. (Lev. 13:45-46) No longer could I draw close to the LORD in the place of worship.

Before I go on, I need to tell you a bit about myself. I am a Samaritan. I am from that region between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north. And as you may know, Samaritans and Jews do not get along. In fact, they despise one another. Jews hate us so much that they will travel miles out of their way to avoid setting foot in our country. How did it come to this? Well, this all gets rather complicated, and I don’t want to bore you with the details. Let me try to put it as simply as I can without putting you to sleep or straining your credulity. Our ancestors were the ones who remained in the land when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. The 10 tribes making up the northern kingdom were scattered. Of those who remained – that is, according to the Jewish version of the story – they intermarried with foreign people whom the Assyrians resettled in our land. That’s one of the reasons why the Jews hate us so much … our blood is “impure” they say. But it’s more than just about our so-called impure bloodline. My people also claim to maintain the true worship of the LORD. The religion that the exiles of the southern kingdom brought back with them from Babylon was not the true religion. We made the claim that our text of the Books of Moses was the correct one. We viewed the Jewish Bible as corrupt. The Jews worship at the temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. We had our temple on Mt. Gerizim, but a Jewish leader from the Maccabee family by the name of John Hyrcanus destroyed it about a hundred and fifty years before I was born.

So there I was, hanging out with nine Jews. After hearing the background on my people, that probably sounds a bit bizarre. Imagine that. Me … a Samaritan half-breed, hanging out with a bunch of Jews. But I had one thing in common with those nine men. We were all outcasts. They because of their skin disease. Me? It was a double whammy for me. I was an outcast because of my skin disease and because of my heritage. I guess it was natural that we put up with each other, since no one else would put up with us.

One day, we were gathered outside our village when we saw a crowd approaching. We overheard someone say that it was Jesus of Nazareth and his followers. We didn’t dare approach, but it was clear we were all thinking the same thing. And so, as if we had rehearsed it, the ten of us cried out together, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Why did we call out to him like that? Of course we had heard about all that he had been doing. I mean, who hadn’t heard about him? Word had gotten around. He made blind people see. He made deaf people hear. He made lame legs work again. He fed a crowd of five thousand with only two loaves of bread and five fish. He cast demons out of people. He even raised the dead! We saw him as our chance to be cleansed. We saw this as our chance to go back to our homes, to our families, to our friends, to our places of worship.

Now, I didn’t expect Jesus to touch any of us. Our sores were NOT sights for sore eyes. But I at least expected him to say a prayer of some sort, look up to heaven, maybe even blow on me or something, and say, “Be healed!” But all Jesus said was “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” According to the Law of Moses, when anyone’s skin malady went away, you were supposed to go show yourself to the priest at the temple, offer a sacrifice, and then the priest would pronounce you clean. You could then take your place back in the community. No longer would you be an unclean outcast.

So all we had to go on was the command of Jesus: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” The scaly, white patches and open, oozing sores were still there. But there was something about the way Jesus spoke those words with such authority that compelled us to do as he said, in spite of all appearances to the contrary. I stayed with my acquaintances as we set out for Jerusalem. I was quite sure that I wouldn’t be allowed in the temple courts, being a Samaritan. But it was a Jewish rabbi who told me to go, so I didn’t argue with him.

I don’t remember how far down the road we were when one of my companions held his arm out and said, “Look!” I looked at his arm … I touched it … and it was as smooth as a baby’s skin. I reached over and pulled the rags from his face, and there was no trace of any blemish whatsoever. We stood there in the middle of the road, inspecting each other’s bodies, laughing and hugging one another like mad men … crazy with joy! We picked up our pace and hurried on our way, anxious to be declared clean by the priests.

All of a sudden I stopped in my tracks. My friends said, “Come on, let’s go.”

“No,” I said, “I have to go back. I have to see Jesus one more time. I need to give him thanks for what he has done for me.”

“Of course, of course, but there will be plenty of time for that later! Let’s get to the temple first,” they urged me.

“You go on,” I replied. “I’m going back to the village.”

I don’t know why my friends didn’t return with me right then and there. I know that many people, once they receive a blessing, forget about where the blessing came from. They are thankful, not because of the giver of the gift, but because of the gift itself, which really is secondary. And I’m not sure that’s true thanksgiving.

So I headed back to the village and asked if anyone knew where Jesus of Nazareth had gone. The people pointed me in his direction. I ran up to him, crying out “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Praise the LORD! Thank you, Master!” I fell at his feet in worship, because his words of healing had done more than just heal my body. The leprosy of my body was there only because of the leprosy in my heart called sin. And this Man – the Savior of the World, the Son of God – had healed my sin-sick soul. In fact, his last words to me were, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” Jesus did indeed raise me up to a new life. He restored my body. He restored me back to my family and my community. He restored my relationship to God, forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life.

Not long after this, I heard that Jesus ended up being arrested, put on trial, and was crucified. There were also reports going around that he had risen from the dead. I don’t doubt it. The same person who raised me up to new life must surely have the power to rise to life again himself.

That’s my story. Please don’t get the idea that I’m telling you this to get pats on the back: “Nice going, Mr. Samaritan, for returning to give thanks.” No, I’m telling you my story so that you might always return to give thanks to the One who was merciful to me. I don’t know you or your story. I don’t know your condition. Maybe you are an outcast. Maybe you have some chronic disease you wish the LORD would heal. Maybe you are lonely or depressed. Maybe you are struggling to think of things to give thanks to God for today, because things haven’t been so good for you lately. Whatever your story, I know this: we all need to cry out to the LORD for mercy. Each one of us has a chronic disease called sin. Each one of us is tempted to neglect to give thanks to the Giver of all the blessings we receive in this life, blessings both large and small. But in spite of all appearances to the contrary, the Word of the Crucified and Risen Jesus comes to us and blesses us. In spite of all appearances to the contrary, that Man who was shedding his blood on the cross was God in the Flesh, the unblemished Lamb of God suffering for our blemished, unclean, leprous souls. He sends us on our way and declares us to be clean and unblemished. He raises us up to new life. He restores our relationship to him. He draws near to us in the water of Baptism and the bread and wine of his Holy Supper. He gives us a reason to turn back to him, fall on our faces at his feet, praise his holy name, and give him thanks.

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