by The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Musselman Palmer
Lutheran Campus Pastor for the University of Chicago, located at Augustana Lutheran Church
Grace to you and peace from our savior and healer Jesus Christ. Amen.
I have two confessions to make to you today. The first is that I worry sometimes that my daughter will grow up to be one of those pastor’s kids who ends up rebelling and wanting nothing to do with the church. But for now she is only two and she is still wildly enthusiastic about church, and so I can’t resist asking her on Sunday evenings “What did you learn about in church today?” This week when I asked the question, Anna thought for a moment and then answered “numbers.” The reason I read you the Spark Story Bible version of today’s gospel is that it’s filled with numbers: ten toes and ten fingers, ten sick men, two hiding behind a tree and three behind a rock, one returning to Jesus. The numbers are perhaps the most interesting part of today’s gospel story. It seems about right that out of ten healed lepers only one would take the time to return to Jesus and thank him. That’s a ten percent success rate, and my low Lutheran anthropology tells me that we probably get it right about ten percent of the time. As my friend Tim Brown put it in his sermon on Sunday, “9 out of 10 times I’m not aware, just like the most of the lepers in this story. I’m 1/10th aware a lot of the time.” (http://endlessfalling.wordpress.com/2013/10/14/holy-vs-hocus-pocus/) Giving to God ten percent may sound good if we’re talking about tithing, but when we’re talking about living into relationship with Christ, returning to the Lord to be made whole and well, living fully in gratitude for the grace that God gives us through font and table and word and community, 1/10th isn’t such a good track record. But we know that where God is concerned, something even just 10% worth saving is still worth saving. (Father Abraham taught us that when he bargained with God outside of Sodom and Gomorrah. (See Genesis 18:22-33.)
My second confession is that I’ve been having a bit of a crisis of vocation lately, and that too has to do with numbers. It started in June when I attended a continuing education event where Diana Butler Bass was the keynote speaker. She told us that last year one in five Americans described their religious affiliation as “none,” and that among 18-29 year olds the percentage of “nones” was 35% and growing. (http://www.pewforum.org/files/2012/10/NonesOnTheRise-full.pdf) She told us that those surveyed distrust religious institutions for three reasons: they see churches as being overly concerned with money and power; focusing too much on rules; and being too involved in politics. She told us that the average age of a parishioner in mainline congregations in the U.S. is 62. The decline of mainline Protestantism hadn’t quite clicked in my mind until I heard these numbers, but the picture that Diana Butler Bass painted does fit with what I’ve observed in six years of urban campus ministry. As one of my colleagues recently put it, “The church as we know it is entering into hospice care. Our calling now is to sit with it as it dies and trust that God will help something new emerge from the deathbed.” In this context, it seems to me that if we’re reaching 1/10th of the people in our culture we’re actually doing a pretty good job. But that is a depressing reality, and I’m sorry to share it with you. I know that everyone here today is heavily and personally invested in the future of the church, and demographic trends that indicate such rapidly changing forms of ministry are frightening to our sense of vocation.
Numbers hold great power in our way of interpreting the world, as the Spark Story Bible version of today’s gospel reminds us. One detail that the Spark Bible leaves out is that the man who does return to Jesus was a Samaritan—but that fact too could be analyzed numerically if you’re willing to entertain the epistemological premise of many liberation theologians: the less you have, the more clearly you will be able to see God. If that is true, then it may be because the Samaritan was a religious minority—more marginalized than the other nine, with less privilege and lessreason for hope—that he was better able to see into the power and compassion of Jesus. In fact, Martin Luther may have been making a similar point in his 1521 Church Postil on today’s gospel story when he wrote: “this Gospel is so powerful that no one returns, no one exalts God with a loud voice, no one falls on his face at the feet of Christ, except the Samaritans, the despised, the condemned, the accursed.” (http://www.lectionarycentral.com/trinity14/LutherGospel.html. Luther’s point here is that appearances can be deceptive, and that the ones who appear the most to be despised or heretical are often the most faithful ones, while the ones who appear the most faithful are often the most heretical. It would be a stretch to make Luther into a liberation theologian, but he does note the direct proportionality between marginalization and true faith.) Perhaps there is a bright side after all to becoming a religious minority in our culture.
But it may be an oversimplification to rely so literally on the numbers. I say this for two reasons. First (and this is something that the Spark Story Bible’s version implies), we don’t actually know whether the other nine were thankless or whether they were also praising God on their way to the priests to receive their certificates of cleansing. We just know that they didn’t immediately turn back to Jesus the way the Samaritan did, but they may very well have been incredibly thankful to God for the healing, which meant an opportunity to return to their communities, their places of worship, their families, their vocations. Perhaps what was noteworthy about the Samaritan was not his gratitude, but rather the fact that he took the opportunity to have a second face-to-face encounter with Jesus. Perhaps the faith that made him whole (or, to read the Greek more literally, the faith that saved him) was not the Samaritan’s gratitude but the occasion that arose from it—a deep encounter with Jesus in which he saw and trusted in Christ for who he was. As the Spark Story Bible puts it, the man praised God “so loudly that the birds flew up in all directions. [And] Jesus laughed to see the man so happy.” (Spark Story Bible (Minneapolis: Augburg Fortress, 2009), p. 392.) Imagine the kind of joy that would come from sharing a hearty, belly-aching laugh with Jesus! Now remember the times in your life when you have had such deep encounter with Jesus that your heart and your mind were transformed—at this table, and around the font, and in community, and perhaps even in the classroom. If the point of the story of the ten lepers is encounter rather than gratitude, then we should be heartened in our sense of vocation. After all, encounter is why we’re in this business of ministry and at this seminary: because we want to help people outside of these walls encounter the transformative love of God through Christ just as we have; because we believe that such encounter is life-changing.
But there’s another reason not to rely too much on the numbers in this story: because the whole of God’s grace is often bigger than the sum of its parts. There are ten lepers; ten are healed but then one is also made whole. (Stay with me for a moment while I do the math here.) Nine receive a single blessing and one receives a twofold blessing, so ten plus the grace of God equals eleven. Not only that, but who’s to say that the being-made-whole that the Samaritan received through his second encounter with Jesus couldn’t multiply among the other nine and save them as well? Listen again to the way the Spark Story Bible ends the story: “Jesus said, ‘Go, you are well!’ The man jumped up and scurried after his friends. His voice filled the morning. ‘Pra-a-a-ise God!’ he shouted as he ran as fast as his ten toes could carry him,” (Ibid, 393.) presumably to catch up with the other nine and tell them the good news about God’s grace so that they too might be doubly healed.
But if this is true, if God’s blessings upon the world are more than the sum of their parts, then we are called all the more to be evangelists like the Samaritan leper, to shout out (and to live out) the transformative power of the grace of Jesus Christ among those who don’t yet get it and those who don’t care. If God’s grace really does defy the odds, multiplying itself as we spread the good news, drawing people more and more and more into encounter with Jesus Christ, so that ten plus the grace of God equals twenty, and then forty, and then more and more and more—then we can be assured that this difficult place in history is exactly where we as church are called to be. Despite the numbers, there is much hope in telling our story: particularly amid a world of young adults who claim no religious affiliation. There is much hope in reminding the “nones” who have found healing apart from Christ that there are in fact multiple layers of healing and in calling those who don’t know Jesus into deep encounter with God’s saving grace.
May Christ grant us the faith and the courage to be such evangelists. Amen.
Luke 17:11-19 (Spark Story Bible version)