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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Pentecost 20 – Year C

You know that today is “Ten—Ten—Ten!” It’s the tenth day, of the tenth month, of the tenth year of the century! And today’s gospel is all about the ten lepers who cried out to Jesus! This is St. Luke’s kind of day! He liked that number ten! The ten lepers appear only in his gospel. His is also the only gospel that includes the parables of the ten lost coins, and the ten pounds to be invested by the servants. But, more importantly, Luke was a great storyteller. He loved those parables of Jesus. Some of them, like the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son, appear only in his gospel. And the Christmas-time stories of Mary, and Elizabeth, and Zechariah, and the angel Gabriel—those momentous events leading up to Jesus’ birth—they’re found only in Luke!
Also, Luke, perhaps because he was also a doctor, with a doctor’s compassion, had a special place in his heart for lonely souls who were shunned by others. There was the prodigal son who was so looked down upon after trashing his inheritance. There was the poor blind man in Jericho who cried out to Jesus when everyone else told him to be quiet. There was that despised little tax collector Zacchaeus whom Jesus singled out for redemption. And Luke certainly had a heart for lepers, as in today’s gospel, who were so shunned by society. Lepers were compelled by law to keep their distance. When they were around other people they were required to cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!”
I got a feeling for how it must have been to be a leper when I visited a leprosy hospital onetime in Tanzania, in East Africa, run by the Anglican Church. As I walked among the patients it was heartrending to see those sores on their bodies, their cruelly disfigured faces, their hands with missing fingers, feet with missing toes. And of course there was the stench. Yet these were human beings with every need and right to be treated with kindness and dignity. When I think of that scene I give thanks to God for the English doctor and the nurses I met who were devoting their lives to work in the African bush caring for lepers.
Luke was a storyteller; Luke was hooked on the number ten; and Luke certainly had a heart for lepers, and others who were shunned and despised. And that brings us to the Samaritans, who were so looked down upon by the Jews. How typical it is of Luke that he alone among the gospel writers singles out that lowly Samaritan leper who returned to Jesus to give thanks. (Remember also, by the way, that only Luke’s gospel contains the Parable of the Good Samaritan who risks his own life to stop along the road and help the beaten traveler.) What prompted Luke’s special concern for Samaritans? I suspect it was because he too was a non-Jew. He was a Gentile. And with a doctor’s compassion, he would know how excruciating it must have been not only to be infected with leprosy but to be a Samaritan to boot.
How extraordinary it is that among those ten lepers only the Samaritan turns back to give thanks. Notice how Luke, such a great storyteller and such a compassionate soul, describes the scene. In the first place, while all the lepers, he says, “were made clean,” the Samaritan “saw that he was healed.” In other words, while all ten experienced cleansing—perhaps sores and lesions beginning to disappear—the Samaritan “saw” something deeper. This lowly, despised outcast suddenly felt whole in a way he had never felt before. Have you ever experienced something like that? I can remember feeling like that while recovering from a serious bout with pneumonia during my ministry in Massachusetts. For years I felt like I was running scared up there. Williamstown was a very intellectual community, and I felt way over my head. Furthermore, my much-beloved predecessor kept coming back to town for weddings and funerals, and it seemed like he was still the “real rector.” A crowning blow came one day when a woman I was calling on said, “Doug, I wonder if you’re really up to leading this parish?”
I landed in the hospital with staphlycoccal pneumonia and a fever of 106, and spent three weeks recovering. Never had I felt so sick; and I really did wonder if I was up to leading that parish—or any other! Then an extraordinary thing happened: As I regained physical strength I also began to experience a spiritual strength I had not known before. People in that heady community turned out to be incredibly kind. Their visits, their gifts, their love for me and my family knew no bounds. One parishioner provided a two-week respite for Joannie and me in Florida after I got out of the hospital. Another flew us in his company plane to New York to catch a direct flight to Tampa. The bottom line was that I felt like I “mattered,” as never before—just like I believe that Samaritan finally felt that he mattered when he “saw that he was healed,” and so he returned to Jesus. How important it is to feel like you matter!
Secondly, Luke says the Samaritan “turned back, praising God with a loud voice.” Have you ever done that—I mean, really, shouted out praise and thanks to God, and not just in church? Let me tell you about a Samaritan-like fellow priest I once knew who did exactly that—and who deeply influenced me. His name was Bill, and he served a neighboring parish out in Oregon. We were good friends, but I was aware that he had had some problems, and I detected a certain fragility about him. Oddly enough, my seminary dean had known Bill earlier on in the military and was impressed by how he had overcome some serious obstacles. Well, onetime a carload of us clergy were on our way to a conference and we stopped for the night in the little town of Burns, Oregon—which at least in those days was almost literally out in the middle of nowhere! The rather primitive motel we stayed in had paper-thin walls, and my room happened to be next to Bill’s. I easily overheard Bill saying his prayers that night. He kept calling out, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, Lord!” I was deeply moved by hearing Bill that night, and I’ve found myself doing the same thing, again and again.
The third thing which strikes me about Luke’s description of the Sa-maritan leper is that after he experiences that deeper healing, and after he returns praising God with a loud voice, Jesus says to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” I can see Jesus looking that Samaritan straight in the eye. He is a new man now—no longer an outcast, no longer a foreigner. He has nothing to feel inferior about. He has been given, and he now experiences, that deep mutual intimacy called faith—his faith in Christ; Christ’s faith in him. And that has revolutionized his life. Now he must go—he must go on his way to make good on his faith.
And that’s what you and I are called to do—go on our way to make good on our faith. And there is no better time to do this than on “ten-ten-ten,” this tenth day, of the tenth month, of the tenth year of this incredible new century, a century so far of such horror and yet of such hope. You can do a lot when you realize, like that Samaritan leper, how much God has done for you and then, with a thankful heart, you step forth in the Spirit of Christ to make a difference for good.

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