And of course we give thanks. Thanks for the food, the job, the warmth of home, the table, the generosity of friends and neighbors, the giving of gifts. All of that is par for the course on Thanksgiving. Do we need more of a message this evening than that?
Today’s Gospel lesson is one of those that is great for guilt-tripping. Ten people healed and only one gives thanks. How appalling. We would never be like that. Look, we’re even here on Thanksgiving Eve, when other people are selfishly baking or working or God-forbid, shopping. No, we’re the faithful remnant the one tenth, the tithe of people who are thankful. Yay us! Pat yourselves on the back. You know you want to.
But I’m not so sure that the Gospel lesson for this evening is really just about the one thankful person. Might it be about the disease of the community? And if so, what does this say about our community?
When we think of disease, we think of doctors and ailments and aches and pains and chemotherapy and kidney stones. We think of depression and distemper. We think of schizophrenia and kleptomania. We think of influenza and affluenza. We can name and list plenty of diseases. But let’s not only think of it as an illness. If we are all supposed to live at ease in our lives, then a disease is anything that keeps us from being at ease. The great healers of our day say that real healing is a matter of restoring someone to wholeness. Wholeness is the balance between mind, body and spirit. Our physicians deal with our physical imbalances. Our psychiatrists and counselors deal with our mental imbalances. Us church folk ought to be able to deal with our spiritual imbalances. If any one of these is out of balance, we are not functioning at ease. We are dysfunctioning which leads to dis-ease.
Think about the places in our world that are out of balance. We already know out economy is out of balance. Think about the places in our lives that are out of balance. If we’re honest about it, there are plenty of them.
Think about the people in today’s scripture. There was a whole lot that was out of balance about them. They were diseased in a diseased society. The scripture says that ten people in the village were lepers. Now, Biblical leprosy could refer to whole range of skin diseases from eczema to psoriasis to full blow leprosy to just a rash. But they were all called lepers. They were lumped together, like we lump together as mentally ill whole swaths of people. But the disease also had to do with the community. A leper was not allowed to be a full participant in the community life. They were ostracized. They were feared and prejudged. They had to wear signs around their necks and yell “unclean, unclean” whenever they walked by someone. How humiliating. If someone touched an unclean person, they were unclean, too. Can you imagine announcing your ailments: bad back, careful; Bad case of halitosis; narcissism is me; myopia ahead; ADD; OCD; COPD; TIA; OMG!; TMI”. You get the picture. When one if diseased the whole community is not functioning at ease. The community has a disease. The only person who could make them clean again, according to law and custom, was the priest. Wow, that’s a lot of power for one person. He was the one who could restore the person to the community.
There are plenty of people these days who do not feel comfortable in our communities. As open as we are, we like things predictable. We get uncomfortable when things get stirred up. We have our own subtle ways of letting people know when they have crossed the lines of our comfort zones. We’re Minnesotans, though, so we don’t really tell them what we think—not directly anyway. Think about this at your Thanksgiving table. Are there some topics that are off-limits? Are there some people who are not invited, or simply tolerated? Do we think they don’t notice? I know I’m getting awful close to meddling here, but I’m trying to get an idea of what Jesus might have been implying by this metaphoric story.
So the “lepers” called to Jesus from afar, so as not to make him unclean. They said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” They did not say, “heal us”. They said, “Have mercy on us”. Apparently, no one else had mercy on them. Jesus did not go and heal them physically. He told them instead to go and show themselves to the priests. Religion had made them outsiders. “Show yourselves to the priests.” Expose your sins, but point out the difficulties you have encountered. Stand up and account for yourself. Show yourselves, your very selves to the priests. I can’t imagine the priests took too kindly to this. They may well have needed to occupy the synagogue. It may have been a long time before they were restored. It may have taken a while to air their grievances, remind the community of their obligation to the poor and outcast. They may have gotten pepper-sprayed, arrested, beaten before they were restored. Gandhi said that when taking nonviolent action, first you are ignored, then you are laughed at, then you are fought against and then you win. They were eventually “made clean.” Again, it does not say they were healed. It says they were declared to be clean. They were restored to the community.
Think about the times when a community has ostracized you. It’s hell when it happens. It grates at your soul. You feel like you have a sign around your neck. People treat you as if you are dangerous. How would it have been to be restored?
Peter was a youth group leader at the First Baptist Church of Granville, Ohio when I attended there a thousand years ago. He was well liked by the youth and the congregation. But when the church became more active in its welcome of all people regardless of sexual orientation, it was more than he could take. He very publicly left the church. A dozen years later, he visited the pastor. With fear and trepidation, he came by to confess that he had been wrong in his judgments. He wondered if the church would take him back. The pastor said, “of course”. But Pete wanted more than that. He wanted to restore himself to the community. He asked to confess his sins before the congregation in a testimony and to write a confessional newsletter article. He repented of his part in the disease that had broken his heart with that church community. He was tearfully and joyfully welcomed back.
I recently saw the movie, “The Motorcycle Diaries”. In the movie, a young med student named Che Guevara traveled around South America with his best fried. They found themselves at a leper colony on the Amazon River. On one side of the river lived the physicians and the nuns, the healers of body and spirit. On the other side of the river lived the lepers, shunned by their families and humiliated by the so-called healers. Che immediately refused to wear gloves, touching the lepers and knowing them as people, as individuals. His work amongst the lepers caused him to look more critically at the world in which disease is rampant. And much of it need not be.
We need healing from our disease. We need to restore that sense of community that will make us whole again.
The one person who came back to thank Jesus was a Samaritan, an outsider, a hated person who likely did not trust the priest too much. Dr. Luke reminds us through the Samaritan’s thankful response that we all need to remember that healing is not just of the body, it is of the community, too. Part of the healing that Jesus came to do had to do with loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. It mean that Jews and Samaritans need to get along, which is a lot like saying Kurds and Sunnis and Shiites need to get along, Palestinians and Israelis need to get along, reds and blues need to get along, fundamentalists and progressives need to find a way to get along. Lutherans, Catholics and even Baptists need to get along. Jesus came to all of them, just like Jesus comes to all of us.
Back when I was serving my first church in Hartford Connecticut, we started holding monthly interfaith healing services for people affected by AIDS. It was early in the pandemic when we were losing a generation of people and too much of the church had turned a blind eye to it. We gathered together and prayed. On a number of occasions, I was honored to be in a group of clergy and lay people that stood at different corners of the sanctuary to pray for people who came to our station. Some came weeping. Some came alone. Some came with family and friends. Some came numb. Some never went to church. I laid hands on a church member, Pierre one evening. A Haitian immigrant, he later got up the guts to tell me that he had HIV. But he also swore me to secrecy.
He specifically told me not to tell the people in the church for fear that they would shun him. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Pierre was actually healing me by offering me a window into his life. I worked harder after that time to make sure that no one was ever treated in such a way as to be considered an outsider in a church family. I have variably succeeded and failed at that task in my ministry.
Jesus said to the Samaritan, “your faith has made you well.” He did not say, I have healed you or the priest has made you clean. He said, “your faith has made you well.” Your faith—the faith that you have in God, in yourself. Your faith—the trust that you have to become the healthy and gifted person that God created you to be. That has made you well. It has restored your dignity, your place in the community. It has given you the confidence you need. It has given you the opportunity to share your giftedness with someone else.
Your faith has made you well, Jesus said to the Samaritan. Meaning, you don’t need a priest’s blessing or even my magic hands to heal you. Your faith has made you well.
Now, how will you use that wellness to restore the community? I think this is one of the things that we are left to ponder at the end of the Gospel lesson. Not how are we going to give thanks, but how our thanksgiving has to do with restoring broken people and broken community. That’s what it’s about. That’s what our world needs.
So as we gather around our Thanksgiving tables, remember the dis-ease out there and the dis-ease in here. Remember that we are like the Samaritan. We have lived and experienced dis-ease with the way things are. And Jesus reminds us all to believe not only in ourselves, not only in God, but to believe that we can restore our world to sanity. Go your way, friends. Your faith has made you well.
Your faith has transformative power.
Your faith is in the dignity of all people.
Your faith says no obstacle is too great for God and God’s people together.
No economic downturn or governmental dysfunction is going to stop us from claiming the radical acceptance and liberation that is the mission of the church of Jesus Christ.
Go your way, the way ordained for you from God. Go as a child of God, embracing the faith that will move mountains of intransigence, short sightedness and even hate. God is more powerful than all of that. And when God’s power is embraced by people who claim their right to live in a healing and healed world, then watch out, for all heaven may just break loose.
Go your way, friends. Your faith has made you well. And it will make others well too. Thanks be to God. Amen.