Monday, January 24, 2011

Proper 23, 2010

One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is how church people can behave at restaurants… I say this both as a fellow customer-turned-spectator, but also as someone who worked in a restaurant busing tables once upon a time. Whether it’s being rude and demanding of the server, or leaving poor tips, it’s something that happens too often.
I hate to admit that I’ve been with church people who behaved badly in this way, and I always feel like crawling under the table in those moments. But if I’m sharing a table with them, or watching them from across the room, I still find no justification for that kind of behavior.
And Sundays are really the worst, because they come in groups after their respective worship services. So there’s really very little anonymity… Anyway, they come in, act out, and it’s as if all of the goodness that should have been conferred to them in their worship of God just evaporates. And I can’t help but wonder why it happens.
Anyway I started thinking about all of this while working on my sermon for today—it seemed to fit with a question that came up for me about the Gospel reading. Is it that the people who should know better—specifically, those of us who have known God’s grace—do we just choose to forget that grace, or do we get so comfortable with it that we just forget to be thankful?
In today’s Gospel reading the section begins by telling us that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem—this is to signal to us that he has moved from his broader ministry, and is moving closer to the culmination of his work on the cross in Jerusalem.
As he and his disciples passed through an area between Samaria and Galilee, we’re told that Jesus met 10 lepers. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that they had Hansen’s disease the form of leprosy we’re most familiar with. But in Scripture the term leprosy included a number of skin conditions. All the same, Levitical Law did not allow them to be part of society, and often such people were treated quite badly—so if the disease didn’t make them suffer, society certainly did. What’s also interesting is that they are a mixed group—we find out later that there was a ‘foreigner’ among them. This could be in part to the fact that they were near Samaria, which was not considered part of Jewish territory, or simply because they found commonality in their condition.
In the end, it is only this foreigner who returns to Jesus to offer any kind of thanks. This is something that would have astounded the religious elite in the First Century. However, the readers of Luke’s Gospel should not be so surprised. After all only 7 chapters prior, Jesus was telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. You’ll remember that the significance of the story wasn’t just that the Samaritan offered help to a man near death, lying on the roadside. The true resonance of the story comes from the fact that the hero in the story was from a culture considered disreputable by the Jewish people. So the fact that it was a Samaritan who acted honorably was meant to stir up those who considered themselves pious.
Our reading today echoes this lesson. Jesus had no more than sent these men to present themselves to the priests, (something required of them by Levitical Law) and yet only this guy of unknown nationality is said to have praised God and returned to thank Jesus.
Once again it’s underlined for us by the Gospel Writer that this one who wouldn’t be expected to respond appropriately to the situation, is the one who got it exactly right. On the other hand, those who should have known better have not.
To be fair, the response of the nine—or even the lack thereof, may not have been negligence, or even ingratitude. Perhaps they felt that by going on to the see the priests they were doing what they were supposed to do… Or maybe they just didn’t think to turn around and thank Jesus—maybe it’s just not their personalities. There really may have been some legitimate reasons, except that we already know by their willingness to follow the rules about presenting themselves to the priests that should have known better. So for all of the possible reasons, these nine who have been given the equivalent of new life miraculously have received it cheaply like a hand out.
As Christians, we seek to give thanks and praise to God through our worship. We do this not only because we are recipients of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, but also for all of the other gifts we’ve been given. We also know that our thankfulness doesn’t begin and end at the church doors, and being thankful should teach us to never undervalue, or become desensitized in our to gratitude to God.
But if we can hold on to an attitude of thankfulness to God, we find that it changes us. We find that we can appreciate even the small things in life, and see how they give us meaning. We also recognize the importance of people in our lives, and even the value of those people put in our paths along the way. What becomes apparent is that there is really nothing good in life for which we cannot give thanks to God for—so how could we not be changed? And perhaps if we’re willing to allow that change to occur, we’ll find that our gratitude is not only present while we’re in church, but more importantly we’ll find it present even in the places we decide to have lunch after church.

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