As though they owe nothing (Oct. 13, 2013)

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Proper C 23 / Lectionary 28
October 13, 2013

The text for the sermon

Luke 17:11-19:  11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

The Prayer of the Day:

God our healer and redeemer,
stretch forth your hand,
touch us with your spirit,
that cleansed and made whole
we may live lives of gratefulness and praise.

+       +       +

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

The bond of parent and child

I will never forget the moment Deb told me that she was pregnant.  We were living in Toledo, Ohio.  I was the pastor at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in East Toledo.  East Toledo was a working class neighborhood that was kind of the other side of the tracks.  We had oil refineries with their various aromas, grain elevators with fat and happy rats, and glass manufacturing.  But I liked that neighborhood.  It was a big change from Palo Alto, but we had a wonderful experience there.

The church was a large, beautiful neo-gothic sanctuary, with a big wrap around balcony.  We had the big kitchen and fellowship area – and, best of all – since I was working with the youth – we had a gym with a full size basketball court, a stage at one end and a big youth room on the second floor corner overlooking the court.

One evening when I came home from church Deb handed me a card that ended with the words, “Congratulations, you’re going to be a father.”

It was a surprise.

When the day came, we went in to the hospital just before midnight.  Anna finally arrived in the morning, so we were up all night.  It is hard to comprehend how your life can change so dramatically in a moment – and how intense is that bond between you and that fragile little miracle.  I went home eventually in order to get some rest, but I was so geeked I couldn’t sleep – so I took a shower and went back to the hospital.  (Those were the days when they kept the mother and child for a couple days.)

The bond of God and the world

I want you to think about that intense bond between parent and child.  No matter how much they drive you crazy, no matter how weary you may get, there is that overpowering sense of connection, and that intense desire to be sure they are safe, to be sure they are warm enough in winter and cool enough in summer, to be sure the food they eat is healthy, and that anything that can hurt them has been put out of their reach or locked in cabinets.  You want them to grow and learn and experience life, you want them to become adults and establish their own careers and families, but they will always be your child; there will always be that intense bond.  And as we watch them journey through life, we have all wished we could take their burdens on ourselves or – for some of us – that we could lay down our lives for theirs.

This is the story of God and the world.

This is the story of God and the world.

And that story of God’s deep and intense bond with the world is revealed to us in the story of God and the people of Israel.

As we feel for our children, God feels for us.  And we know this because God showed it through Israel – even to laying down his life for the world.

Covenant

In the scriptures, that bond between God and Israel is called a covenant; it is not a bond created by birth, but by promises.  It’s like the covenant of marriage – a relationship created by promises.

Marriage, however, is a covenant between equals; and the relationship between God and the world is not that of equals.  So Israel sometimes uses the language of the covenants between a powerful King and a city or people.  Jesus uses the image of God as our father.

The covenant between God and Israel – which is a pattern of the relationship between God and all of us – this relationship where God declares “I will be your God and you will be my people” and the people assent – this covenant has the intensity of the bond of parent and child.  As we said, it is a bond in which God will lay down his life for his children.

Covenant obligations

But it is still a relationship; there is something that is given by God and something that is owed by us.  Parents provide food and shelter and protection and education.  Children owe their parents fealty and love.  To take and not give back we all recognize is the mark of a spoiled child.  Spoiled, like spoiled fruit.  It’s like the stuff in the back of the refrigerator – it was good, but now it has got something unpleasant growing in it.

Parents give – and give freely – because they feel this bond, but the children owe something back.  The commandment calls it honor.  It’s not exactly obedience.  And it’s not exactly respect.  Though it certainly involves those.  What is owed is an acknowledgement of all that has been given.  What is owed is a recognition of the parents’ love and work and care.  It’s not exactly thanks; it’s more like appreciation.

Lord, have mercy

There are ten lepers waiting for Jesus on the outskirts of town.  When they see him, they cry out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

When, in the culture of the first century, people ask for Jesus to ‘have mercy’, they are not asking for a gift based on compassion; they are asking for God to show the faithfulness he has promised because of the relationship between them.  It’s like a child asking their parents for dinner.  Or telling their parents they need new shoes.  Or saying they are sick and need help.  They don’t ask such things of strangers; strangers have no obligation to them; strangers have no bond with them.  The request is based on the relationship and it assumes that the parent will be there for them.

The lepers ask God to show his faithfulness, because of this covenant, this bond, this relationship based and promises.

What is significant, of course, is that they make this request of Jesus.  They are acknowledging that Jesus is the one who can mediate these gifts of God.  They recognize that Jesus is the one who has the authority to dispense the gifts of heaven.  Jesus is the one who manifests the faithfulness of God in caring for his people.  Or, to use a different New Testament expression, Jesus is the one who brings God’s reign, God’s kingdom.  He brings God’s power and grace into our lives.

This, by the way, is what is meant by that sentence at the end “Your faith has saved you.”  They have been healed not by the intensity of their conviction.  They have been saved, they have been healed, they have been made whole, because they trusted God’s promise and looked to God in the confidence that God would be faithful.

This is also why the presence of the Samaritan is so important to the story.  The Samaritan is not part of the covenant with Israel.  The Samaritan has no right to expect the God of Israel to show faithfulness to an outsider.  But God’s love knows no bounds.  God’s bond with Israel is a sign of God’s bond with all people.  God treats the Samaritan as one of his own.

Faithfulness shown and not shown

So the ten cry out to Jesus asking him to bring to them the mercy – the help – that they expect from God because of this covenant bond.  And this is what Jesus does.  By sending them to the priest – whose job it is to pronounce that they have been healed and to conduct the rituals that reintegrate them into society – Jesus indicates that God has heard their prayer, that God has shown his faithfulness, that they have been made whole again.

God has show his faithfulness; God has come to their aid – and this is where the story goes south.

God has done what parents do.  They provide for their child.  But these children walk away without doing what they should do.  They show no faithfulness.  They show no allegiance.  They give God no praise.

This is, when you think about it, a chilling story.  Those who are God’s people fail to act like God’s people.  They are bound in this covenant.  God has walked with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  God has brought Jacob’s descendant out from Egypt.  God has led them through the wilderness and given them a good and fruitful land.  God has fought off their enemies.  God has healed their diseases.  God has guided them in right pathways.  God has disciplined them when necessary, and comforted them as needed.  For all this God deserves their praise, their faithfulness, their allegiance.  But the nine take God’s gifts without returning to God anything.  They ask and expect and take and do not return what they owe.

The only one who gives God praise is the outsider, the Samaritan – the one to whom God had no obligation.

What we owe

When I was on my internship in Seattle many years ago, the church had a softball team.  We didn’t play in a church league; we played in a tavern league – which was always a little different.  Let’s just say we were cheered on by wives and girlfriends, but the tavern team was cheered on by barmaids and dancers.  But the tavern league was more fun; the church league was … um … uncomfortably competitive.  The tavern teams were just there to have a good time.

What would you think, if you were a tavern owner and your team didn’t come to your place for a beer after the game?  What would you think, if you paid out all the money for uniforms and equipment and umpires and they went somewhere else after the game?  What would you think if you asked them to show up for a charity event and they didn’t come?

Those who receive God’s gifts have an obligation to give God thanks and praise.  These nine expect God to be faithful, but they show no faithfulness in return.

God has been faithful to us; we have an obligation to be faithful in return.  God has forgiven our sins; we have an obligation to forgive the sins of others.  God has been gracious to us; we have an obligation to be gracious to others.  God has been generous to us; we have an obligation to be generous in return.

It is a scandal for God’s people to eat at God’s table and then walk away as though they owe nothing.

Amen.

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