Preached at Holy Trinity, Huddersfield
25th September 2016 (9am): Harvest Celebration
Lord, none of us have come here today to hear me speak. We want to hear you speak. So send your Holy Spirit among us that we might hear your living Word, Jesus Christ, addressing us and calling us to yourself. In His name, we pray. Amen.
“Steve,” Mike asked, “how do you feel about preaching at Harvest?”
“Sure, that sounds great” I said. “What’s the theme this year?”
“Toilet twinning,” Mike said.
“Toilet twinning?” I asked.
“Toilet twinning,” Mike said.
“Thanks,” I said. “Thanks a lot.”
So here I am today, tasked with preaching on the story of Jesus cleansing the ten lepers at a Harvest service at which the focus is toilet twinning. How on earth am I going to accomplish this daring feat of interpretive acrobatics, you may be wondering? Well, the simple answer is that I’m not, not if I want my preaching ministry here to be more than a flash in the pan…
But, I’m pleased to say that when it came to write something, I put my hand to paper and I was really on a roll… But before you’re all flushed away by the predictability of these puns, let’s get to the text—a text which, as I hope you will soon see, brings us not only to the very heart of what our Harvest celebrations are about, but even to the very heart of what our worship itself is about.
Next year marks 500 years since the start of the Reformation, which many of you will know began in earnest when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenburg. Once when this great Reformer of the Church was asked to describe the nature of true worship, he gave this short, sweet and succinct answer: “the tenth leper turning back.” The tenth leper turning back—that is what true worship looks like, Luther said.
Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem. He’s on His way to the cross. And as He makes His way to that ultimate showdown, He passes through a village on the border of Galilee and Samaria. Socially, this is a murky area Jesus is walking into. The Samaritans were regarded as heretics, foreigners, even enemies of the Jews. Most Jews would have kept their distance from Samaria, preferring to walk around it rather than to go anywhere near it. Jesus approached when others stayed away.
But then the boundaries are muddied yet further when ten lepers approach, coming as close to Jesus as they dare while still keeping their socially prescribed distance. They shout out to Him for mercy. Jesus sees them. And seeing them, He tells them to act as if they’ve already been healed, He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests (who acted as the health inspectors of the day) to verify that they were indeed free from their leprosy.
In faithful obedience, they do as Jesus says. And as they go, they’re all healed. One of them, though, sees what has happened and immediately he turns around and starts singing and praising God. He runs and falls at Jesus’ feet and starts thanking Him for what He’s done. Jesus, however, is rather disappointed. “Where are all the others?” He asks. His disappointment is only compounded by the fact that the one who comes back to thank God is the one everybody would least expect—a Samaritan.
But then Jesus says something rather odd. He tells the former leper to get up off the floor and go on his way, saying, “Your faith has made you well.” But hasn’t Jesus already made him well? Isn’t that the point of the story—that all ten lepers were healed? So why single out this one and tell him that his faith has made him well? Unless the blessing Jesus confers on the tenth leper is something other than that which all, including the other nine, had previously received.
That this is the case is suggested by the fact that Luke chooses the Greek verb sozo, translated here, “made well,” to report what Jesus says to the former leper. Sozo certainly means ‘to make well,’ but it also means much more than that. It means ‘to heal,’ ‘to restore,’ ‘to make whole,’ ‘to deliver from harm,’ ‘to save.’ What we have before us, then, is a story of ten lepers being healed and one being saved. There is a health, a wellness, a wholeness, beyond the restoration of their physical condition, but it is only the tenth leper who returns to Jesus praising God who receives it.
Why? What makes the tenth leper different from all the others? Well, he was a Samaritan. We know that. But that doesn’t explain why he returned and all the others didn’t. It merely shows up the lack of response from among the Jewish lepers, who everybody would have expected to show some gratitude. No, the real difference between the tenth leper and all the others is that he saw that Jesus had healed him. It seems breathtakingly obvious, doesn’t it? But it’s true.
Ten lepers were healed, but only one saw that healing as a gift from God, and as a result of that seeing, returned to praise God at Jesus’ feet, through whom the gift of healing came. Giving thanks to God is what our worship is all about. We say ‘thank you’ to somebody when they do something for us or give something to us. The words ‘thank you’ are a response; they are words we use to acknowledge a gift—the receipt of something from outside ourselves. The tenth leper worships God because he recognises that his healing is God’s gift.
The tenth leper worships God and he is saved. He is not saved because his worship of God is something good he has to offer God. He is saved because his worship of God names what it means to be saved. We were made to worship God. And so, when we worship God we are made whole—we are saved. Worship is our salvation. The faith that saved the tenth leper, the faith that saves us, is the faith that acknowledges our utter dependence on the God who is our Creator, our Redeemer and our Healer.
The real blessing Jesus offers the lepers is not their healing (as real and significant as that is); it is the freedom, made possible by their healing, to see their lives as the gift of God. Worship flows from such seeing. But worship also teaches such seeing. We come to Church every Sunday to learn to see things as they truly are. We come to Church every Sunday to learn to see everything that exists as God’s gift to us to make Him known and make our lives a communion with Him. We come to Church every Sunday to have our lives continually turned back to God in grateful dependence, just like that tenth leper.
All is gift. In worship we learn that and in worship we celebrate that. The German mystic, Meister Eckhart, once said, “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘thank you’ it would be enough.” And the reason he can say that is because when we give thanks to God we acknowledge our lives as being made possible by His gift. Worship is fundamentally about gratitude—the gratitude of the creature to the Creator, the redeemed to the Redeemer, the healed to the Healer. In worship we are reoriented to the reality that all is gift, and as, by faith, we enter into that reality, we are saved.
It is no accident therefore, that Luke tells us that this healing happened on Jesus’ way to Jerusalem, on Jesus’ way to the cross. Similarly, it is no accident that the central act of Christian worship is and always has been the Eucharist, which literally means “thanksgiving.” It is the gift of God through Jesus Christ at the cross that makes life with God possible for all of us. Like the lepers, Jesus’ death is sufficient for the healing of the whole world; but it is only those who respond in faith by worshipping the God that heals them who are saved by it.
Worship teaches us to see all things coming from God’s hand so that the world might know Him. And that includes us. Just as everything exists as God’s gift to us, so we also exist as God’s gift to the world. The gratitude that sees everything as God’s gift to us would make us God’s gift to others. And so it is also with the Eucharist. We do not come to the Table to be filled up purely for our own benefit. No. We who share Christ’s body are to live His risen life; we who drink His cup are to bring life to others; we whom the Spirit lights are to give light to the world.
Today, on this day of Harvest celebration, we are asked to see something so mundane and trivial as our toilets as God’s gift to us. 2.5 billion people (40% of the world’s population) don’t have a clean, safe place to go to the loo. To give you a rough idea of how many people that is, it’s enough to fill the John Smith Stadium over 100,000 times. Will you join me, then, in flushing your money down the toilet in an act of gratuitous praise to the God who makes our life possible? Are you willing to risk worshipping a generous God? Amen.