The text for this sermon is the story of Jesus healing the ten lepers, Luke 17:11-19.
For years I was a dock supervisor at Roadway Express. I worked 12 hour shifts from 7 until 7. From the moment, I walked on the dock I was working. Dock men asked me questions. Managers found me to yell at me about something I hadn’t done the night before. Other supervisors started shouting for me over the radio as soon as they heard me check in. I expected to work like a dog from the time I stepped on that dock until I stepped off.
When something broke up this grinding pace, it was a good gift. This is how I viewed the fire watch at Christmas. For 48 hours, the dock was closed. Because there were no walls on the dock the company had supervisors and salesmen patrol the dock rather than hire a security firm. It was easy work, really. I had to “hang out” for five or six hours. I could watch TV, read, race forklifts, ride the cart train like a merry go around. There were no decisions to make and no yelling to be endured. It was so unexpected and different, that I cherished it every year. I remember thinking, “Can you believe I am getting paid for this?”
The most celebrated gifts we receive are the ones that defy what we expect and come to us completely unearned. Ten lepers received just such a gift in our story today. They were united by their common rejection from society. They were a band of brothers, outcasts, who spoke as one. When they saw Jesus they believed he could heal them and in unison asked for mercy.
Jesus had mercy upon them and told them to go and present themselves to a priest. By religious law before a healed leper could be let back into society, a priest had to oversee a ritual cleaning, which assured the rest of the village there were no longer traces of the disease. So, the ten, with bodies still oozing from the disgusting sores of leprosy searched for a priest. By faith they trusted that before they found a priest Jesus would heal them.
On the journey to the priest, all ten notice they are indeed healed. Their sores have dried up. Their skin has smoothed over. All but one continues to journey to the priest, as commanded by Jesus, to be ritually cleansed so they could be invited to return to family, friends, job, home, and life. We don’t hear the reaction of the nine at the good gift they received from Jesus that day, but surely they were excited. His mercy had changed their life forever.
The bible records the joy of one of the ten. The tiny mustard seed of faith that allowed him to call out to Jesus with the other nine for mercy had bloomed and exploded into a raging bush of faith that could not be contained. He needed to find Jesus and give thanks. His joy was so much, he could do nothing else. Not until he threw himself on the feet of the one who brought him life could he continue with his day. His faith overpowered him and he could not take another step away from Jesus. Ten receive the same gift, but in only one does that gift ignite his faith and call him to worship the living God.
All ten had shown faith. All ten had followed the command of Jesus. All ten had received the same gift. One returns and gives thanks. The other nine go on with their lives. Jesus is delighted the tenth that returned and disappointed with the nine who did not. What can we learn from this?
When I was promoted into sales at Roadway, my job changed dramatically. I worked twelve hour days still, but they were far less demanding. I spent the first hour drinking coffee and talking it up with clerks, dock men, supervisors, managers, and other salesmen. I drove to my first appointment, picking up donuts along the way, where I would be greeted warmly by a warehouse manager anxious for a diversion. I would sit, eat a donut, accept their coffee and talk some more. I took a different client out to lunch every day. Around 3:00 or so, I would pull into a beautiful park, change into sweats and go for a run. Toweling off, I would return to the office, grab a pop, talk and laugh with everyone, finish some paperwork, line up appointments for tomorrow and head home or a couple of times a week out to dinner with another client.
The only part of the job that was similar to my prior position as supervisor was the fire watch at Christmas. As a salesman, though, I saw the Christmas fire watch differently. Because my day to day life at Roadway was not as demanding, the fire watch did not seem as radical. The gift of having leisure time at work was not received with great joy but a part of my job. Whereas getting paid to do absolutely nothing was a wonder before, now I saw it as part of the bargain I had made with Roadway. I would work hard most of the year but there would be times where very little would be expected of me at all.
The nine received healing like this as part of a bargain they had made with God. They had followed the rules, stayed out of the village, trusted the holy man Jesus as sent by God, followed his instructions carefully, and continued to follow the religious laws that had excluded them for years by searching for a priest before presenting themselves to their family and friends. Surely, they were excited to be healed, but kind of like you are thrilled when you find a great bargain at Macys. It is a good deal, but still something you pay for. The God who had given them these ugly sores would take them away if they were good lepers. By bearing their burden well, they had earned the mercy God showed.
Because the tenth was an outsider, a foreigner, newer to the faith he received the healing differently. For him it was a completely unexpected and good gift. Like the others he had faith enough to trust Jesus, ask for mercy and follow his commands. He received the healing though as not something he was deserved after suffering from leprosy. He received it with overwhelming joy. He could not help himself. He had to return to Jesus who loved him by showing mercy.
The point seems to be that when we receive the good things in life as undeserved gifts from God, we water and fertilize our mustard seed of faith so that it grows, blooms and explodes into joy, worship and love for God. When we receive the good things in life as things we are owed for our hard work and faithfulness, our mustard seed of faith bears little fruit in our lives. It is a good reminder of how the exact same gift from God can be received so differently.
As one who has lived in the church for years, that speaks to me. I hardly notice the miracles that fall upon me, my success, my healthy and beautiful family, my wealth, my friends, and my warm and nurturing church. When I do think about them, rather than see them as unexpected, undeserved good gifts, I see them as rewards for my hard work, my sacrifice to play by the rules and my willingness to take myself to the priests at appropriate times. I ask for God’s mercy. I receive God’s mercy. I expect God’s mercy. I seem to hardly notice any more.
Sometimes, something needs to click within us and we need to see the miracles around us differently. We can either see getting paid to do nothing but watch TV on an empty dock as a good and remarkable thing or as part of what we have earned as a faithful, hard working employee. We can find joy in the unexpected gifts of life and let that joy water and fertilize our faith so it blooms wonderfully, or we can see it as one more transaction and go about our day, following the rules, being good people whose lives of faith rarely witness the passionate love of God. Jesus’ joy at the gratitude of the tenth leper reveals his hope for all of us. He longs for us all to open our eyes to the miraculous love of God that surrounds us daily and brings us life. Amen