Sermon: The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (C) – 13th October 2013

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am and 8am

Readings: Jeremiah 29:1,4-7; Psalm 66:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:(1-7) 8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Some years ago I woman I worked with, a single lady, fell seriously ill. She was off work for many weeks. She was very weak and confined to her bed. What made things more difficult was the fact she lived alone. Yet very early into this illness the man next door visited with his wife. He noted how ill she was and he promised he and all his family would nurse her and feed her and care for her until she was well again. And he and his family kept their promise. She enjoyed the best of care and all the rest she needed until she was restored to health and able to return to work. She wanted to pay them for their generosity but they wouldn’t take a cent. They said they were doing their duty as neighbours.

The point of this story is, this family was Muslim. Up until her sickness my friend had been war of this family. She had rarely spoken to them. She had felt uncomfortable whenever she saw them in the street. And they had responded to all of this xenophobia with love. I tell this story because it is so similar to the type of stories Luke gives us about Jesus. It is only Luke that tells us the story of the Good Samaritan. The Jews held the Samaritans in contempt. They avoided contact with Samaritans if they could because they were regarded as unclean. The crowds would have regarded Jesus behaviour as perverse to dare to tell a story where the hero was a Samaritan and perverse for Luke to bother to record that parable. It is not mentioned in any other gospel.

Yet it was characteristic of Jesus’ behaviour. He tells stories about Samaritans, he heals Samaritans and in John 4 much of that chapter records Jesus having a long conversation with a Samaritan woman. There were two social taboos in the one event. First she was a woman and then she was a Samaritan. No wonder the disciples were shocked. What was Jesus doing? What is Luke doing by recording this healing in chapter 17?

It helps if we remember from chapter 1 that Luke is addressing his gospel to a man named Theophilus. With a name like that we can be sure he wasn’t Jewish. He was probably Greek. And this was Luke’s aim. He was writing his gospel for the wider world so he includes stories about non-Jews, stories that illustrate that the ministry of Jesus was to go beyond Israel, that the blessing of Jesus were to overflow into the wider world.

But look at that name Theophilus. It may be there was no such person. Rather, it could be a literary device. The name means “lover of God” and perhaps Luke has addressed his gospel to all lovers of God from anywhere around the world. So he is at pains to make it clear that this message of Jesus cannot be contained within Israel. Rather, it is a message for all people. The good news about Jesus is a universal message for all of the world. So of all the healings Jesus must have performed Luke makes sure he tells us about this one.

Leprosy was a generic word that covered a range of skin diseases from the ancient world. Some of them you could recover from. But you won’t recover from Leprosy. In those days lepers were forced to live as social outcasts, depending upon whatever food was left out for them for their survival. It was a miserable existence where only death gave relief. So as Jesus looked at these ten men he probably couldn’t have imagined a more pathetic sight.

But see what these men do. They stand at a distance. They know they cannot come near to Jesus. They can’t approach him. And so they shout out their prayer. And it is striking in its simplicity, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” It sums up the longing of their hearts. But they are saying more than just “Help!” They are calling for mercy. And mercy itself is a key theme in the gospel of Luke.

Throughout Luke’s gospel there is a debate concerning how to relate to God. What is the best form of worship? What does God expect from us? The Pharisees had a very clear answer. They believed that God expected them to obey the law. So the essence of their worship was obedience to the law. But sadly, over time their law-keeping had become corrupted. It had lost any sense of true worship. It became a system whereby they could justify themselves.

But Jesus calls upon a more ancient tradition from the Old Testament. True worship is expressed when we call upon God for mercy and where we show mercy to our neighbour. It is this same mercy that led Jesus to heal on the Sabbath. One can break the law of God if one is fulfilling the requirement of showing mercy. Showing mercy clearly has precedence over keeping the law. And calling upon God for mercy is simply another way of showing faith in God. Asking for mercy is an acknowledgment of who God is and our inability to rescue ourselves. Asking for mercy is a demonstration of our need for God.

Throughout Israel’s history, Israel is condemned for its failure to call upon God for help, to call upon him for his mercy, and in that act – demonstrating their faith in God. Yet these lepers, stripped of everything we value in life, family, home, community, wealth and health, bring their simple petition to Jesus. And its all summed up beautifully in that simple phrase, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

Yet that simple phrase contains such profound depth. These lepers were well aware of their condition, they understood their deep need for rescue and they recognised Jesus as the master, the one who could show them mercy, the one who could be the answer to their prayers. So these lepers are an example to us for right worship – that we get that creator/creature relationship sorted out.

But Luke’s story goes further than that because we have the return of the one leper, who comes back praising God and thanking Jesus for his healing. This shows us the dynamic of our interaction with God. It is not just about reconciliation though that would certainly be enough. It is also about celebration because of what God has done. Its just like the parable of the prodigal Son. Jesus includes in that story not just the return of the Son but also the celebration because of what had happened – this son was dead but now he is alive. He was lost but now he is found. And then as well – the fact that this man was a Samaritan – a leprous Samaritan – you couldn’t sink any lower in that society. Yet Jesus uses him to teach the Jews about right worship. It would be hard for Jesus to be any more offensive.

But in the end we have to ask what about us? What impact should this event have upon us? Why is Luke telling us this story? Jesus healed many people. Why choose this story to be passed on for generations. Luke tells us more than the fact that Jesus was a great healer. There is more to this story. We need to consider this healing as a metaphor. In the end this story is about us and it is about hope.

When you think about it, you couldn’t get further away from God in a Jewish world than a leprous Samaritan. They would have been considered outside the orbit of God’s blessing. Even worse, their condition would have been regarded as evidence of their rejection by God, that their condition was evidence of the judgment of God – only likened to those recently who claimed that AIDS was God’s judgment on a corrupt world.

Yet it is this Samaritan who was not only healed but who is commended for his faith. As well, he is a reminder to us that for a whole range of reasons we can drift far away from God. For so many reasons we can find ourselves in a place where we feel a long way from the blessings of God. Yet the message of this Samaritan is that it is never hopeless. Like the good shepherd he is, Jesus is always seeking us out, always calling us back, always restoring and refreshing and forgiving us. Jesus’ mission is not just to make these lepers better, but to make everything better.

We can only just imagine the joy that must have filled this man’s heart as he realised he was at last free of that dreadful disease. We can only just imagine the way thanksgiving must have risen in his heart, as the words of thanks tumbled from his lips. But in that healing we have a clear picture of the gospel message. Jesus not only preached good news, he was good news to a suffering world and that good news continues from generation to generation. So we are never without hope, never without forgiveness, never without joy as that same transforming love goes to work in our own lives, that love that will never leave us when we have the wisdom to turn to him and say like those poor lepers, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”