From gratitude to faith: A Sermon for Proper 23, Year C, 2019

I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude recently. It is a concept central to the biblical tradition but it’s not something we often connect to the Christian faith. In fact, it may be that we only think about gratitude one time a year, around Thanksgiving. Our worship is full of thanksgiving—indeed at the heart of the Eucharist is thanksgiving as we offer thanks to God for all that God has given us, and especially the gift of God’s son.

Gratitude is subversive. We live in an anxious age, as we worry not only about the future of our world and our nation, but we worry about our own futures as individuals and families; we worry about our safety and security. As our anxiety grows, we tend to turn inward and become self-protective, hoarding what we have and envying those who have more.

We may be parsimonious in our gratitude, viewing the gifts we give and receive only in terms of their value. Like Sheldon in the TV show Big Bang Theory, we may even dread giving gifts for fear that the gift we give may not be as valuable as the gift we receive, so we remain in debt to the giver. Or to use a phrase we’ve heard a good bit recently, we think of giving in terms of quid pro quo.

In our gospel reading, we see a story of healing that becomes a story of gratitude and faith.

On the surface, it’s rather a simple and straightforward story. Jesus cleanses ten lepers; he tells them to go to the priests to be certified as clean, and then to go back home. Only one of them returns to thank him, and it turns out to be a Samaritan who responds to Jesus’ acts with gratitude. On the surface, this story seems to be about etiquette, about giving thanks; a biblical example of the imperative to send thank-you cards. In fact, it’s much more than that. It’s a story that models the Christian life.

There are a number of very interesting things about this story. One is the context in which Luke places it. I’ve been stressing for these last months that we are in the middle of a section of Luke’s gospel that is shaped by Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Way back in Luke 9:51, Luke tells us that “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.” We’re in chapter 17 now, and Luke begins this episode by reminding us that Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem. It’s the first time, he mentions that fact since 9:51.

Even more interesting is the fact that this episode involves a Samaritan. At the outset of the journey, the first town Jesus and his disciples come to is a Samaritan village, which refuses to welcome them. The disciples want Jesus to call down fire from heaven to destroy it, but Jesus simply goes in a different direction.

There’s another mention of a Samaritan as Jesus makes his journey to Jerusalem—earlier in the Gospel he tells the story of the Good Samaritan as an example of what it means to love one’s neighbor.

Think about that story. A lawyer comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks him what scripture says and he responds, “Love of God and neighbor.” When the lawyer pushes Jesus, asking him, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan—an example of neighbor love. Perhaps our story serves as a bookend to that one. In this instance, the healed Samaritan is an exemplar of love of God

Jesus heals the ten lepers and then instructs them to go to the priests to be certified clean. This is was in perfect keeping with Jewish law as laid out in Leviticus. Nine obeyed him; one did not. The tenth came back, praising God with a loud voice, and thanking Jesus. Luke adds, as if in a marginal comment, “And he was a Samaritan.”

This story is not primarily about etiquette. It is about religious norms and values. The Samaritan was doubly unclean in the eyes of Jews. As a leper, he would have been excluded from the community, shunned. As a Samaritan, he would have been reviled for the religious traditions he followed. Although he was a Samaritan, reviled and regarded as ritually unclean, as a leper, it seems that he was part of that community of lepers who came together because of their shared plight. Now, as a healed leper among healed lepers, his otherness as a Samaritan would stand out.

What is puzzling is that his being a Samaritan takes on significance only after his leprosy is cleansed. Jesus told all ten to present themselves to the priests, what the law required. But of course, as a Samaritan, he would not have had that option. No certificate from any Jewish priest deeming him free of leprosy would make him a part of the Jewish community. Perhaps that is why he came back to Jesus. He realized he had been cleansed, and that was all that mattered.

The Samaritan turned back, he glorified God, fell on his knees and thanked Jesus. We might think such a response would be natural, but isn’t it the case that most of us would follow the rules laid out? We would do whatever it took to be restored to our families, our livelihoods, and our religious lives? It was only the Samaritan who responded differently. He acted as unexpectedly and extravagantly as Jesus himself did. He came back; and because of his response, he was rewarded extravagantly. The NRSV , “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.” In fact, a better translation would read, “your faith has saved you.”

The Samaritan realizes he’s healed, turns back, prostrates himself, and gives thanks to God. Those gestures are also of great significance for Luke’s gospel. It’s the same language Luke uses to describe the actions of the shepherds as they returned to their fields after having seen the birth of Jesus. It’s also the way Luke concludes the gospel. After the ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem in great joy and praised God in the temple.

When describing the Samaritan’s actions, Luke chooses a very interesting word. eucharistein. It’s translated as giving thanks, and it’s the word from which Eucharist comes. But it’s more than giving thanks—just as we do each Sunday in the Eucharist, it’s also about glorifying and praising God.

So this story is about us moving from need, to gratitude to faith. Like the lepers, we have all cried out in some way, “Jesus, Lord, have mercy on us!” Some of us have had our prayers answered. We have experienced healings. Others have cried out as faithfully and as desperately, but have not received healing.

Many of us right now may be struggling to be thankful in the midst personal or global crisis. We may be wondering whether we will have enough money for the rest of the month, wondering where our next meal is coming from, anxious for loved ones, or ourselves.


In the midst of all that, whatever struggles you might be having, we might be crying, “Jesus, Lord, have mercy on us!” But at the same time, is it still possible for us to offer thanks to God—thanks for life itself, thanks for the gifts that God has given you? And if you can give thanks, can you feel your heart open just a bit wider, more open to the world, to your fellow humans, to God? Practice gratitude, by offering God a simple, thank you, each day, throughout the day, and in time, you will come to experience so overwhelming a sense of gratitude and thanksgiving, that deepens your relationship to Jesus, and as it did for the leper, saves you.




Jesus loved him: A Sermon for Proper 23, Year B, 2018

I’ve been thinking about gratitude a lot recently. It’s stewardship season at Grace, so there’s that of course, and we focused on stewardship and gratitude at recent diocesan clergy and leadership days last month. But it’s more than that. As we see growth in our congregation and new efforts to reach out into our community and to develop deeper relationships among our community and most importantly with Jesus Christ, I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for the people here and our shared ministry and mission. I’m grateful to have been called to this congregation nine years ago; I’m grateful for our amazing staff and committed lay leadership, I’m grateful for the challenges presented us by an uncertain future in a changing world… Well, I could go on and on but I hope you see my point.

We have begun our stewardship campaign for 2019. We are in a strong and exciting place in our common life and our community and I pray that together we will develop the resources that will make possible new ministries and programs, and strengthen our current offerings and deepen relationships among us.

To mention stewardship on the Sunday when we hear this gospel reading is perhaps ironic, if not exactly offensive. This story is challenging on so many levels but it confronts with uncomfortable questions about our relationship to our financial assets, and the connection between our relationship with Jesus, discipleship, if you will, and money. And those challenges are also present when we think about how we will support Grace’s ministry and mission in the coming year.

Today’s gospel confronts us with two questions. The first question is asked by a rich man: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ disciples ask the second question after hearing Jesus’ words: “Then who can be saved?”

Committed Christians reside in the interstices between these two questions, seeking salvation but profoundly challenged by Jesus’ words. Because Jesus’ words are so unsettling, because they amaze us, even as they amazed Jesus’ disciples, as Mark reports. Over the centuries Christians have done any number of things to soften the edge of his words: “It is easier for a camel to go pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Those words are so difficult for us to hear, because, like the disciples, we wonder. These are hard words that Jesus says, words that put is in a hard place. If it is the case, if it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, then salvation is impossible. So we try to weasel out of the hardness of the place. We tell ourselves, we aren’t rich, not like the really rich, not like Bill Gates. So Jesus wasn’t talking to us.

Then we look for another escape route. There’s always the possibility that Jesus didn’t mean what he said or didn’t say what Mark has him say. Or my favorite interpretation, that there was a gate in Jerusalem, called the “eye of the needle” through which a camel could squeeze with difficulty. In other words, these difficult words aren’t meant for us, we’re middle class, not wealthy; and camels can get through the eye of the needle after all. So let’s all breathe a sigh of relief and go about our business.

It’s important to remember that the man did not come to Jesus in search of financial advice, or in response to Jesus hitting him up for a donation. He has come for help. He approaches Jesus because he wants to know how to attain eternal life, how to enter the kingdom of God, of which Jesus preaches. He addresses Jesus with humility, bowing down before him, calling him “Good teacher.”

Jesus’ response is challenging—not simply because he challenges the rich man, but because he challenges us as well. His response to the man is to remind him of his obligations under Jewish law. In a nutshell, Jesus is saying, keep the commandments. The man asserts that he maintains his obligations to the Jewish law.

From a traditional, twenty-first century Christian perspective, the whole of this interchange between Jesus and the man is jarring. Things don’t seem to make sense. Jesus’ response to the man ought to be, “accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior;” or “have faith in me,” or even “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Instead Jesus tells him, keep the law. Furthermore, when the man insists that he does keep the commandments, that, in essence, he is a good Jew, Jesus doesn’t respond with words to the effect that keeping the law is impossible, righteousness under the law doesn’t work. Instead, he gives him another command: “Go, sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and come, follow me.” Doing that will give the man treasures in heaven, it will bring him into the kingdom of God.

But of course, the man finds those commands much harder to follow than the 10 commandments. Now we learn something new about him. Mark tells us for the first time, that he has great possessions and he can’t give them up. So he leaves Jesus. His desire to share in the kingdom of God, his desire to walk with Jesus, to be a disciple was not as intense as his desire to continue living the life he had, to enjoy his possessions.

There’s another detail in the story that is very important. After Mark reports the man’s response to Jesus’initial statement, Mark tells us that “Jesus loved him.” At first hearing, we may find such a statement completely unremarkable, but in fact, it is almost unique. Only one other time in the gospel of Mark does the writer use the word “love”—that is when Jesus recites the two great commandments, to love God and to love neighbor. In other words, Mark never says elsewhere in the gospel, that Jesus loves someone.

Jesus loved him. So his challenge to the man “to go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, then come follow me” is not a condition of Jesus’ relationship to the man, but a response to the possibility of such relationship. Jesus loved him, and because he loved him, he told him to sell all that he had and to follow him.

These simple words challenge us, and challenge every interpretation of this encounter that we might have. In the first place, Jesus doesn’t simply tell the man, follow me. No, he adds conditions. In Mark’s version of Jesus’ calling of the disciples, Jesus words are simply, follow me. But here, Jesus adds conditions, demands. Go, sell, give, come and follow me. For this man, it seems, it’s not enough to follow Jesus, he must also turn his back on all that he has, publicly renounce it.

But then, even though he turns away from Jesus, we are told that Jesus loves him. Does it mean simply that Jesus feels sorry for him, that he has compassion on him? But no, it isn’t because the man turned away in shock after Jesus’ words. Jesus loved him and then said to him, Go, sell what you own.” Jesus commands were in response to his love of the man.

The man stood on the edge of a great opportunity. Having asked Jesus a question of eternal significance, he received an answer of equal significance. But it wasn’t simply a matter of the man’s eternal fate. It was also about a relationship. To give up his possessions would have meant to accept, in radical and complete openness, the love of Jesus Christ.

Like the man, we kneel before Jesus, full of questions and uncertainty. We are drawn to him, to his words of love and hope, to the possibilities of forgiveness and healing, in gratitude for all we have received from God through Jesus Christ. Perhaps the little exercise at the beginning of the sermon opened your hearts in a new way to how you experience Christ’s love at Grace Church and through Grace Church.

May we in these weeks and months filled with planning for the next year, may we hold in our hearts and minds the awareness of Jesus’ love for us, that we are called to follow him, and to share that love with others. May our giving and commitment to Grace reflect that love and mission.