Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost LUKE 17:11-19

Jesus healed 10 sick people, but only 1 turned back to praise God.   Human nature being what it is, I want to think charitably of the nine who did not come back.  I want to say, “They meant to say thanks.  They just put it off.”   For instance, I understand the S-P-W-P-T-O the Society for People Who Put Things Off — finally had their Labor Day party.  So they are catching up.  Just a few weeks ago they celebrated Christmas — for 2013.

So maybe the lepers who did not turn around immediately to thank Jesus would find him on another day. I’d like to believe that.But we all know that the floor of hell is paved with good intentions.   I also believe this parable should not be treated as though only 1 out of every 10 people present is appropriately thankful.

While there can be lesser motives for coming to church, I’m more willing to believe that being here at worship is an act of thanksgiving. I’ve learned that smiling faces can disguise an agonized cry to God for help.  There are many who pray from the deepest part of their being, “Jesus, master, have mercy on me.” The measure of hope and faith in such a prayer is itself an expectation that a graceful God will be moved by our condition.

Jesus and his band of followers must have seen plenty of misery and trouble. Leprosy was one of the most dreadful conditions mentioned in the bible. We often romanticize Jesus and the disciples so much that we lose touch with reality.  Certainly there were times when they luxuriatedlife, enjoying their movement, their freedom, and their togetherness.  We can rightfully have the same feeling as people of God.   But for much of their time, they were faced with suffering and agony of all kinds.  Jesus and his disciples moved through villages teeming with unkempt people, many of whom pierced the air with their piteous cries.

Without medical facilities or social services, many sick people could only despair of their condition.

Human need in every age has cried out, “Have mercy on us.” Every generation has its loss of health, loss of hope, loss of direction and purpose.    We all cry out, “Have mercy on us.”  In past ages, for instance in the time of Luther and the Reformation, the chief worry for many people was what to do about an angry God.  They were afraid that death would be followed by  purgatory. The overwhelming feeling was guilt, being afraid of what God might do in punishment of his disobedient children.

I suspect not many people lie awake nights in fear of punishment for their sins.   Instead, the great sin is that of being cowardly and sinfully timid before God.

In the 21st chapter of Revelation, where John sees his vision of a new heaven and a new earth, he hears the one who sits upon the throne say,

“He who conquers shall have this heritage and I will be his God and he shall be my son. But as for the cowardly, they are the first among those who will be cast into the fire.

There’s one good thing about all 10 lepers; they were not cowardly before Jesus. The old story in Genesis about Adam and Eve and the snake in the garden is not about only the sin of pride. It was the sin of cowardice that made everything else so wrong. Before Eve reached for the forbidden fruit, she had already surrendered her position of responsibility over the animals she and Adam were to name.

She let the snake tell her what to do. For Adam and Eve, that cowardly self-doubt went before the fatal bite.  They lacked courage before God, about the same as some of us much of the time. We are sel;dom heroic before God.  We are seldom morally courageous.  Instead, we fritter away our destiny by letting some snake tell us what to do.

So let’s not be too hard on the nine who did not return immediately to thank Jesus. Would that we might have the outrage, the persistence, the insight, and the determination exhibited when they called, “Jesus, have mercy on us.” They refused to give in to their hopelessness.  They could have sat down beside the road like most other beggars and dreadfully sick persons.  They saw Jesus on his way to Jerusalem,

They could have said, “Woe is me. Life is too difficult.  Nothing can be done about my situation.  I’m not in control of anything, so I’m going to sit down here and moan until everybody knows just how badly life has treated me.”  There are a lot of people who have said that, one way or another.  And instead of remembering the order of creation, which puts us only a little lower than the angels, they are letting some snake tell them what to do.  There is much evil at work in the world, whether on the global scale of war, or slavery, poverty, lawlessness, — or what we do to the environment, or personal hopelessness, cowardly resignation, or indifference or just not caring about problems that we should solve.

No wonder John in the last book of the Bible could see streets of gold sprinkled with rubies and emeralds by the River of Life.  No wonder Paul could urge us in that magnificent 15th chapter of First Corinthians, “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

The lepers did not cry out in vain. They cried out in hope, in courage, in faith that Jesus the master would do something about their condition. They did not believe the snake in the Garden of Eden was in charge of the world or that he should have the last word.

God is faithful to his promises, and while we may suffer many a defeat along life’s way, the end time will come when his great healing hand will take away every tear from our eyes. The lepers were bold enough, faithful enough, and hurting enough to see they needed help. Unless they recognized their condition, they would remain devastated by that disease. The lepers were not cowardly before God.  Instead, they insisted that he have mercy upon them.

A well-known preacher told of a little boy whose father was in the army. The boy knew his father chiefly by way of a framed picture in his mother’s bedroom.  One night after their prayers for his safety, the boy said to his mother, “I wish daddy could step out of the frame.”

As Christian faith looks at God, it has been God’s thing to step out of the frame and make himself known in Jesus Christ. God’s fatherly love moved him to create us.  Luther teaches us to say that God provides us daily and abundantly with all the necessities of life, protects us from all danger, and preserves us from all evil.

Where those necessities of life, or  rotection, or preservation from danger are not part of daily living, it isn’t because God has not done his part. Where people suffer, where they do not have the necessities of life, where they are not preserved from danger — look for the work of the devil, not God, as the cause. The current news about Guilford County is that one in five people do not have enough to eat.  I thank God that groceries accumulate beside our church door and I thank God for your generosity. .

Why does God provide his people with food and shelter, — daily bread as Jesus taught us to say in our prayers — why does he protect us, why does he preserve us from evil? Because he is moved by his grace.  He loves us. Which leads us to ask, “Why did God create us in the first place?”  Why did he create the world and populate it not only with people but also with vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind?

Read the first chapter of Genesis and ask, “Why?” Answer:  Because God wanted somebody to love.  God wanted a home for the people whom he would create in order to love them. Of all the ideas about God, the simplest idea seems to be the hardest to grasp and here it is:  God is so filled with grace that he has created us in order to love us. He loves us without asking whether we have earned his love, which wouldn’t  be love but an  exchange – a transaction of his love for our love.

God loves us because he is our Father. Notice in the story of the healing, Jesus doesn’t ask the lepers whether they have confessed their sins, or if they will promise to be good to their families and neighbors or thank him if he heals them. In so many of his miracles and parables, Jesus does what  only the judge of the world can do at the Last Judgment, and that is to pardon people for their sins.

He does so on his way to Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die, where he will take on the burdem of our sins, giving himself to suffer unjustly on behalf of his brothers and sisters. Is Jesus still listening to our cries for help, for healing, for mercy from a merciful God?  Of course.. God loves his creation and his creatures.  God is gracious – filled with grace, that is.

In Jesus Christ, God has entered our hot and dusty village, on his way to Jerusalem on our behalf God makes himself available so we can call out to him.  There are people who will not call out to God for help, because they are fearful, cowardly, or perhaps they are afraid God will recommend a course of action or energy or caring and involvement.

They are giving in to the snake who whispers “God won’t really care.” But God cared enough to hear and heal the lepers.  God cares enough to hear and help us.   One of them turned back to give thanks to Jesus.   That one received a wholeness which the ungrateful missed.  For to be blessed with mercy and healing and then be grateful to God, is to find yet another blessing – the love of God.