Entitled or Grateful?

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This sermon was preached on October 9, 2016.

Luke 17:11-19

Two students come to mind from my time in Sewanee.

One was entitled.  She cheated.  But she beat the system.  Curiously, her parents are alumni and supporters.  I cannot help but wonder if she in fact expected to be the system.  She was forever angry at me afterward, for I was the professor who called her out.  Her attitude said, “What can Sewanee do for me?”

The other student was thankful.  He was a refugee from Sierra Leone, for all intents and purposes an orphan, for his parents remained in SL.  He came to Sewanee on a full scholarship.  He was a joy to be around; he loved each day.  And he offered to the Sewanee community what he knew: dance.  Many children and students benefited from his knowledge and love of this art form.  His attitude said, “What can I do for Sewanee?”

Now, in last week’s sermon we learned a couple of things that faith is not.

Faith cannot be quantified.

In our consumer, materialistic culture, we hear Jesus say, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed”; and we think in terms of amount.

The mustard seed is a tiny seed; and from it grows a shrub so large that sizable birds come and roost in its branches.  If only we could have faith like that!  Then we could say to a mulberry tree or even a mountain, “Be cast into the sea!” and it would obey us.

But then we try it.  And it doesn’t work.

Neither is faith cause-and-effect.

You receive terrible news: say, a family member has cancer.  So, as many modern-day Christian voices have taught, you reason that all you need to do is believe hard enough and God will heal your family member.

And if healing happens, well and good.  But if it doesn’t, you’re left thinking that you didn’t pray hard enough and believe deeply enough: you simply had too little faith, less than a mustard seed’s worth.

Faith hasn’t worked.

You’ve spent hours upon hours in personal prayer.  You’ve attended seminars on increasing your personal faith.  You may even have sent tax-deductible contributions to that man on the TV who promised that doing so would increase your faith.  But still the answer hasn’t gone the way you wanted it to.  Surely, you conclude, my faith lacks.

Last week, then, the Gospel of Luke offered a picture of what faith is not: it’s not quantifiable; it’s not cause-and-effect.

By contrast, this week the Gospel of Luke (in the very next passage/pericope) offers us a picture of what faith is.

There are ten lepers.  They see Jesus and shout out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Do these lepers have faith?

Here’s an interesting thing about lepers in the ancient world—at least in the region of Palestine where this story takes place.  A leper had to be declared clean not by a physician but by a priest.

If a person had leprosy—a term used to describe any number of skin infections—the normal protocol was to go and live in a colony, away from society.

A leper couldn’t go to synagogue to worship with his or her community.  A leper couldn’t go to the local market to buy, sell, or barter.  A leper couldn’t carry on whatever trade or skill he knew.  Lepers had to move out, away from the life and people they’d always known.

To come out as a leper was thoroughly disruptive, upsetting the equilibrium of not just one life but entire households, even communities.

Once publicly known, the leper would move out of her community and into a colony with other known lepers.  There, quarantined away from society, she would depend on others—friends and family—for sustenance.  She couldn’t go to the market after all!  And these others—the friends and family—came to the leper colony at their own risk.

Talk about social outcasts!  Lepers of the ancient world knew what it was to be exiled—perhaps more keenly than anyone else.

And the only way for lepers to enter back into society was through the priests.  If a leper’s skin cleared up—a big if, mind you!—he or she must then go to a priest for inspection and approval—a declaration of cleanliness—before re-entering society.

The whole thing was a cumbersome process, a kind of ancient Jewish red tape.

So then, on this certain day when Jesus and his apostles are going through the region between Samaria and Galilee, they pass near enough to a quarantined leper colony that ten lepers are able to approach them.

And they say, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Do they have faith?

Well, here’s what we know.  Jesus answers them, saying, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”

Jesus does not heal them then and there.  The text makes this quite clear: “And as they went,” it says, “they were made clean.”

This is an important detail.  When Jesus tells them to go to the priests, the lepers aren’t yet healed.  This is an important detail because it demonstrates faith—or at least a kind of faith.  If Jesus is truly their Master, as they call him, then it is an act of faith to obey Jesus before they are actually healed.

So, I ask again, do these lepers have faith?

Yes.  Or, at least, they show a kind of faith.

But only one turns back. Only one comes back to Jesus to express gratitude.  And only to this one does Jesus say, “Your faith has made you well.”

Now, to be sure, a lot of theological discussion of this text revolves around the point that this one is a foreigner, a Samaritan.  For Samaritans were viewed in Jesus’ day with thorough disdain.  They were the racial scapegoats.  Jews especially viewed them as less than human.  They were half-bloods with a cheap and highly compromised religion.  So, this one leper who turns around and comes back to Jesus is doubly an outcast.

Nevertheless, this Samaritan leper was still required to go to the priests in order to return to normal society as he knew it.

In other words, let’s not make too much of this racial sub-point.  The main point here is that this one turns around and the other nine do not.

Where do the other nine go?  Without a doubt, to the priests.  They want to re-integrate with society, after all.

Does this mean that the one who turns around does not go to the priests?  Not at all!  He wants to re-integrate with society just as badly.

But before he goes to the priests—and this is the main point here, above everything else!—this one foreigner turns around in order to express gratitude.

And what happens?

Ten are made clean.

But only to the one does Jesus say, “Your faith has made you well.”

If the nine show us one kind of faith, the one shows us another.  The nine demonstrate a utilitarian faith; the one demonstrates a grateful faith.  The nine are made clean; the one is made clean and well.

Shouldn’t gratitude be intimately connected to our faith?  According to this week’s Gospel, this is what faith looks like.

Last week we saw that faith is not cause-and-effect. In other words, it’s not utilitarian.  This week we see gratitude.

There’s a great lesson here for us.

Are we merely going through the motions?  Is faith for us merely utilitarian?

Our faith makes us clean.  We see it in the waters of baptism.  We hear it when we renew our baptismal vows together, and indeed whenever we say the Nicene Creed together.  And we feel it whenever we commune together at Christ’s Table.

But we can’t leave it there.  If that’s all our faith is for us, it’s a utilitarian faith.

But what about when our faith involves gratitude?  What if we wake up each day thanking God for our friends, our family members, our pets; or simply for the warmth and light of a new day?  What if, when troubles come our way, instead of focusing on hardships we look for the good?  What if we focus on resurrection instead of death?

Then, not only does our faith make us clean; it also makes us well.

What we see today, then, is really two kinds of faith.  One is utilitarian; the other is grateful.

Or, in other words, one is entitled; the other thankful.  Like those two students from Sewanee.

When our faith is utilitarian, or entitled, the driving question becomes, “What will Jesus do for me?”  Our faith cleanses us, sure; but to what avail?

But when our faith is grateful, the driving question becomes, “What can we do for Jesus?”  Now our faith makes us both clean and well.

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