October 13, 2019

Luke 17:11-19

“The Thankful Samaritan”

I have always liked the fact that today’s Gospel reading about the ten lepers who are healed often lands on Canadian Thanksgiving Sunday. There are options in the Revised Common Lectionary of Sunday readings to choose special readings for Thanksgiving, but the ones we heard this morning are just the regular ones set for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost. They just happen to include a perfect Gospel story about giving thanks.

So, the simple message we might take away from today is “remember to say thank you.” Like young children learning their manners for interacting with others, we are taught by Jesus that it’s right and good to make an effort to say thank you. It’s not uncommon for people to forget, to take good things for granted and fail to express our gratitude.

In the story from Luke’s Gospel, there are ten lepers who approach Jesus and ask for his mercy and help. And he gives it to them all. He doesn’t make a big show of healing these poor sick people, who would have been excluded from the community, living just outside the village so that they would not infect their neighbours with the disease of leprosy. But Jesus does heal them. He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. And as they go, they discover themselves to be suddenly clean and well.

The instruction to show themselves to the priests may seem odd, but it anticipates the fact that Jesus is curing their disease. They would need to go to the priests to have the healing confirmed and be re-admitted to the village and the life of the community. Jesus’ healing of these leprous people is more than just getting rid of a sickness, but also restoring them to relationship with others and the possibility of meaningful life and work in the community.

I think it’s a pretty good story for today… because one of the men who was healed went back to Jesus to say “thank you.” And this is Thanksgiving Sunday – a day for us to say thank you to God… for the harvest and the food we have to eat, and for so many blessings from God.

Sometimes we rush through life without stopping to notice the good things that we have from God. And sometimes we forget to say “thank you” to God, just like the other nine healed people forgot to say thank you to Jesus for helping them.

So this morning, let’s take a few minutes to say thank you to God. What would we like to say thank you for? Can we name some of the things that we’re thankful for?

Invite people to call out the things they are thankful for.

Expressing our thanks to God is not something that we just do to be polite. The story of the 1 out of 10 who returned to give thanks seems to suggest that the act of thanking and praising God actually contributed to the well-being of the healed man. The man lay down at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And after wondering aloud why the other nine weren’t back too, Jesus told the man to “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

One commentator points out that all ten in the group “knew” that God had healed them, but only one truly “believed” it, truly internalized and metabolized it into an active, vibrant response: the response of thanks and praise.

Similarly, the life to which Jesus calls us is a life of thanksgiving, continually returning and praising God, the font of every blessing. That’s why we keep returning to this place week-by-week, not only to learn Jesus’ way of life, not only to ask for God’s encouragement and strength in our struggles, but to give praise and glory to God for all God’s blessings and goodness to us.

I have a Facebook friend who decided to commit to a year of giving thanks. Every single day of that year, she posted something on Facebook – something that expressed her thanks and praise to God. Every single day, and she never ran out of things for which to be grateful.

And I believe she would say that the spiritual discipline of gratitude changed her. It opened her up to see and appreciate blessings, even in the midst of the challenges and difficulties of daily life and ministry.

And when the year of gratitude came to an end, she didn’t give up the practise. She kept posting about her thankfulness because it had become her new way of seeing and understanding her life and the world around her. And I believe her thankfulness had made her well in a much more significant way than just being cured of an illness.

Yes, it will do us good to become people of gratitude. But there’s more to this story than just that.

There’s a funny little sentence thrown into the text after the part where the healed man thanks Jesus. It says, “He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” And then it adds, “And he was a Samaritan.”

Why add that detail? Was it just like adding, “And he was wearing a blue shirt,” or “And his name was Bob,” or “And he had oatmeal for breakfast that day.” No, I think it’s more than just a random bit of information about the one who returned to say thank you.

You may remember that Samaritans were the descendants of generations of intermarriage between the Jews that were left behind during the Babylonian exile and the Gentiles that the conquering Assyrians had settled in Israel. Thus Samaritans shared a common heritage with Jews, but also were quite different: they worshipped at a different temple and revered a different-but-overlapping library of scripture.

Imagine Roman Catholics and Protestants in early modern Europe, with their mutual bigotries, suspicions, and appetites for vengeance. Jews and Samaritans were likewise enemies, their similarities only sharpening their contempt.

But as we know, Jesus repeatedly crosses the boundary between Jews and Gentiles when he travels through Samaritan territory, heals and helps foreigners, and engages in theological conversation with a Samaritan woman beside a well.

And Jesus tells a very famous parable about a Samaritan too. Do you remember it? The parable of the “Good Samaritan.” That parable would have been surprising, even shocking to Jesus’ contemporary Jewish audiences – because the man who showed mercy in the parable about a beaten and helpless man who had been attacked by robbers was a Samaritan, a kind of shorthand for both “apostate” and “adversary.”

The SALT Lectionary Commentary suggests that the parable of the “Good Samaritan” dramatizes what it looks like to follow the second dimension of the greatest commandment, “loving your neighbour as yourself.” But this week’s story, what we might call the “Thankful Samaritan” dramatizes what it looks like to follow the commandment’s first dimension: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.”

What does loving God in this way look like? It looks like thanking and glorifying God for being the One from whom all blessings flow. It looks like having the insight – and the nerve – to stop, pivot, return, and praise. To illustrate the essence of Jewish law, the two dimensions of the greatest commandment to love God and love our neighbour, Jesus provides a pair of pictures featuring two Samaritans: one merciful, the other thankful.

Today’s Gospel story is more than just a morality tale urging us to be more grateful. The story’s centre of gravity is the surprising fact that the exemplar here, the only one who pivots and returns and gives thanks, is an outsider, a supposed enemy of Jesus’ followers.

Like the Good Samaritan parable, this passage is an occasion for reflecting on who we consider to be our adversaries, people we put “outside the circle” of acceptability. Is it those from whom we’re estranged, or about whom we’re suspicious? Is it those on the other side of the political aisle, or the religious aisle?

Who might you think about in that way? Consider it honestly in your own mind and heart. And then, once we have these opponents in mind: What can we learn from them? What do they model about the essence of life, about loving God and neighbour, about living with gratitude and mercy?

Now, I wouldn’t call them adversaries or opponents, but I think it’s fair to say that most of us who would fall into the category of Settler Canadians would feel like we’re in a different circle that our Indigenous Canadian neighbours. For a long time, colonial attitudes that we broadly accepted reinforced the idea that European settlers knew better than those we encountered on this land. We brought knowledge, resources, education, and power, and we took advantage of the welcome, hospitality, and practical help for survival that was given to the earliest settlers.

And even today, we may tend to think of Indigenous people as ones who are in need of our help… people who often need social assistance, people for whom we should pray, people with whom we should share a meal or other practical resources as expressions of God’s love and care.

But last week in Winnipeg, I was reminded once again of how much we have to learn from Indigenous people. I visited Place of Hope Presbyterian Church where the Rev. Margaret Mullin is the minister. You may remember that she was our guest preacher for Healing and Reconciliation Sunday in 2018, and she is an Indigenous Presbyterian minister who leads an Indigenous congregation in downtown Winnipeg.

Although the congregation invited me to preach and to share about what steps the Presbyterian Church in Canada is taking to work on healing and reconciliation, Margaret and the elders at Place of Hope taught me much more than I taught them during the visit.

They welcomed me warmly. They prayed for me fervently. They gave me gifts. They shared food with me. They honoured me as a representative of the wider church. And they shared wise teachings with me – both the Fruits of the Spirit from the Bible that we share, and Seven Sacred Teachings from Indigenous tradition.

They inspired in me a deep feeling of gratitude for gifts undeserved, but given freely and generously. It was a beautiful preparation for Thanksgiving Weekend.

As we learn to be people of gratitude, people who are made well and whole by our faith expressed in love of God and love of neighbour, may we open our minds and our hearts to learn from our Indigenous neighbours, from those with different backgrounds and experiences, and from our political opponents and our religious adversaries.

The good news of the Gospel this week is that God’s outlandish grace knows no bounds; even “outsiders” may well show “insiders” how to live; and even longstanding enemies, after all, may turn out to be friends. Thanks be to God.