The sermon was delivered for the people of Central Congregational Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
Grace to you, and peace, from God our creator and Jesus our redeemer. Amen.
What’s in a number? Here in this former British colony when you hear “13” what does it mean? How about 50? Right, states. 1911? The year Central was founded. If you’re even a little bit of a science-fiction fan the number “42” means something to you: in Douglas Adams’s book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy it’s the answer to everything. Numbers are surprisingly important to us.
Numbers mean things in the Bible too. 12? The number of tribes in ancient Israel, and the number of disciples. 70? The number of people sent out by Jesus, and also the number of nations in the world. There’s symbolic meaning in those numbers: ministry to the whole of Israel, and to the whole world.
What about 10? The number of lepers in today’s Gospel. Why does Luke tell us Jesus saw ten lepers, and not six or fifteen? In Jewish tradition it takes ten people to form a minyan – it’s the number of people required to engage in formal Hebrew prayers. My friend Anthony, a minister’s husband, was once on an airplane to Israel. He has a bushy black beard. In the middle of the night, a man woke him up and said “are you Jewish?” Anthony said “no, sorry, I’m an Italian-American Christian”, and the man was disappointed: he was trying to gather a minyan to pray on the plane. Without ten people, no prayer service.
Jesus came into that little village and found ten lepers — a minyan! When he arrived, they were already organized! They were a community of faith! Small in number, to be sure, but big enough. Here’s this little village, on the dangerous border – you might say in the demilitarized zone – between two hostile cultures. It’s populated with people who have no place in either culture. But they do have their place, with each other, and in this village.
They have unity in their suffering. They spoke with one voice asking Jesus for mercy. And Jesus responded in a surprising way. He didn’t say, “be healed!” He didn’t lay his hands on them. The Levitical law requires a priest to inspect people who are healed of their leprosy. Only after the priest approves can the person return from exile. So, by sending that minyan of suffering people to the priests, Jesus simply told them to get on with their lives as if they were made clean. And they did so, and only then they found themselves cleansed.
But those ten responded in a way that disrupted their little community of faith. Their minyan broke up. Just like those nine Jews with Anthony in the airplane on the way to Israel, the nine had to defer their community prayers until they arrived at the temple. And the one, the Samaritan, turned back from the way to the priests and came to Jesus to give him praise and thanks.
This Gospel lesson offers an obvious lesson. Say “thank you!” We remind our kids to do that, and even sometimes remind each other. That’s good and graceful behavior. Let’s keep doing that. Let’s shape our lives to be like the grateful one, and not like the ungrateful nine.
But let’s not reduce this Gospel reading to a simple moral story. It’s not a story of a rich person walking into Orange Leaf and buying a treat for everybody there. It’s not about some ingrates refusing to saying “thanks” for the treat.
It’s a complex incident. With his healing words Jesus disrupted that community of suffering. He sent those people back out of their exile. Without their suffering, would the Judeans and the Samaritan have ever come together? No.
Would the healed Samaritan found a welcome among the priests with the nine? Probably not. We know Judean people despised Samaritan people. He probably had no choice but to return; he did have a choice to thank Jesus and he did it. So he was set free from his suffering in that moment.
It’s complex for another reason. It’s an important reason for us Jesus followers two thousand years later. We can create real trouble if we miss this complexity.
I know I’m sometimes tempted to see myself as Jesus when I hear about this little village. I’m tempted to think that I have the wisdom of Jesus, to see that a community is suffering, and to know what they need. I’m tempted to think I have the power of Jesus, to enter it, rescue the people in it from whatever ails them, and disrupt their suffering and their community.
I’m tempted to grumble, “why didn’t they thank me for everything I did for them?” Do you have the same temptations sometimes?
To resist these temptations, we need to look at some details of the incident in that village. First, these people already had a community when Jesus arrived. It may or may not have been a wonderful community, but it was life-sustaining for them. Second, they asked for help. Third, you and I are NOT Jesus!
In this age, these temptations to rescue are strong. The long-suffering nation of Haiti was devastated again this week, this time by a great storm in a city called Les Cayes. They’re still trying to rebuild from the 2010 earthquake, they’re chronically poor, and now their buildings and crops have blown down. Isn’t it tempting for us to look at them like a village full of lepers? Isn’t it tempting to invoke Jesus’s name and send people and money to rescue them – to sort everything out for them? Well, sure it is. They can surely use some relief.
But you know what? You and I are not Jesus. If we read today’s Gospel as a suggest that we try to play Jesus and rescue people, we’re misreading it. The people of Les Cayes already have real community and real care for one another, just like we do here. A Haitian-American writer named Edwidge Danticat from that city spoke on the radio and put it this way.
“The suffering will continue, but we don’t just suffer. We also laugh, you know, we fall in love. And one of the things I think also people should remember that there’s a kind of unity that people have, even within Haiti, that the first rescuers of people in Haiti will be Haitians. And we need support, but also people who support should support organizations that are Haitian-led, that have been in Haiti for a long time, so that we don’t have the same cycle of people taking advantage and then pushing Haitians aside.”
Now look. The people of Haiti are poor. They do live on the margins. They can use material help from across the sea. And, like the people in the village Jesus visited, they’re united in their suffering and their joy. They are their own first rescuers! Like those Gospel villagers, they know what they need, and they already love one another. Even Jesus waited to be asked before he intervened in that village.
We’re not Jesus. On the contrary, we too are the inhabitants of a village. We too experience suffering. Some of our suffering is material: many of our people are addicted, or hungry in the midst of wealth, or sick. Some of our suffering is spiritual: we’re busy, we’re frantic, we have no spare time, we’re lonely, we’re covetous, we distrust ourselves and others: you name it, we suffer from it. (Our Haitian sisters and brothers might be able to teach us a few things about letting that kind of spiritual suffering go.) We, like the minyan in the village, scramble to do things perfectly, to get organized, to behave honorably, to pray correctly, in the hope of being cleansed. And like the minyan in the village, we’ve gotten used to our situation.
And our hope is that Jesus will do for us, and for the people in Les Cayes, what he did in that village.
We hope beyond hope he’ll show up and shake up our communities of suffering. We hope he’ll say to us what he said to those villagers: Go show yourselves to the priests! Go about your business and God’s business as if you’re made clean. Stand up, get going, live like the realm of God is drawn near, and give thanks and praise! In Jesus’s name! Amen.