This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached Sunday, October 9, 2022. The gospel reading was Luke 17:11-19. The seed of this sermon was an article I wrote for last week’s edition of my newsletter Biblia Luna. Have you checked out Biblia Luna? It’s filled with my thoughts on the intersection of faith and mental illness.
The first thing that caught my attention about this story was the way Jesus responded to the one leper who came back. He had just healed ten lepers, and sent them all away, to go see the priest. Leprosy was as much a social disease as a physical one, and the priest was the only one who could declare them to be clean, which would mean they could finally be part of society again. So that journey Jesus sent them on was an important part of their healing.
But one of the ten, before reaching the priest, turned back, praised God, and thanked Jesus. And Jesus praises that one, telling him that his “faith has made him well,” but before he even said that, he seems to be annoyed at the others for not turning back. “The other nine, where are they?” he says. And I just don’t get that. Did he heal them only in order to be thanked? One possible explanation is Jesus makes mention that the one who turned back is a Samaritan, a people hated by the Jews. Perhaps Jesus was pointing out that sometimes outsiders “get it” better than insiders do. I don’t know.
But it reminds me of how sometimes we too can get frustrated and annoyed when someone doesn’t thank us for doing something for them. We sometimes think that they are being rude or ungrateful. And sometimes that is true. But I also know that there are times in our lives when we’re simply unable to offer thanks, because we are so overwhelmed or so confused or so hurting that it simply doesn’t occur to us. Being in the throes of grief can do that to us. Living with severe pain, or with a mental illness, can do that to us. I would imagine that living with the pain and isolation of leprosy would certainly do that to a person.
I think sometimes we need to be patient if people don’t offer us the thanks we believe we deserve. Sometimes there’s something going on there that we just don’t fully understand.
But as I thought about this passage, I wasn’t happy with staying there. I realized that I was scolding Jesus for not being compassionate enough. I was seeing myself as more thoughtful than Jesus. And it’s a rule of thumb for me that if I start thinking that way about a gospel story, then I have to dig deeper, because it means there’s something about the story I’m missing.
So I started thinking about where I really was in this story. Maybe I shouldn’t compare myself to Jesus, but rather to the lepers. My first thought was that maybe I’m the one who returned to offer thanks and praise. After all, every human being in the world receives Christ’s mercy and grace, whether we recognize it or not. The rain falls on the good and wicked alike. But only some of us respond in thanks and praise. That’s one way of thinking about this hour we spend in worship. Our chance to come before Jesus, to thank him and praise God.
There’s something to that, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw myself not in the one leper who returned, but among the other nine. Because lately I have seen how distracted and overwhelmed I get, and how easily I miss the grace and mercy that’s all around me.
Ever have a really, really busy week? The kind of week where your calendar is just filled with things? I’ve had a few of them in a row lately. Some extra church meetings and events, plus some family commitments, plus some routine doctor’s appointments, plus some marketing for my book, and my calendar was loaded. And whenever I looked at that calendar, I became anxious and stressed. It was so full. I felt so busy. And I couldn’t figure out just when I was going to write this very sermon amid all of it. Have any of you ever had a week like that? I thought maybe.
But you know, this week didn’t turn out nearly as bad as I expected. It never does. And I noticed something this week: during busy weeks like this, I’m not usually anxious during the time when I’m busy, I’m not usually stressed during the events themselves. No, instead, I get anxious and stressed whenever I look at my calendar, see all those events in a row. I get anxious not about what I’m currently doing, but about what’s next. What’s coming up. The stressor is the anticipation, the worry, the fear that I won’t have enough time. The fear that this will finally be the week when I don’t have a sermon. The fear that I will lose myself in the busyness.
But then, one morning, when I was doing my morning devotions, a feeling hit me. A realization came to me. Like scales falling off my eyes, I saw something I had missed for a while. And that is that God has never, ever failed me.
For one thing, the majority of the things I get anxious about end up being good. Ever have that experience? You get yourself so worked up about a meeting or an appointment or a date or something else, fearing the worst, and it turns out to be wonderful? That happens to me a lot. And right now, as I remember that, I feel so grateful for that. So incredibly grateful.
Now that’s not to say that everything goes well. Some things on my calendar have gone very badly. I’ve had meetings that deteriorate into shouting matches. I’ve had moments when I lost my temper in inappropriate ways. Doctor visits with bad news. And more. We’ve all had moments that went badly.
But that morning in my devotions, I realized that every single time something has gone wrong, every single time, God has not failed me.
In all of those times, God was with me. Sometimes God enabled me to look at a disappointment from another perspective. Sometimes God enabled me to have a follow-up conversation with someone, and work toward healing a relationship. Sometimes God just held me and gave me space to grieve, and over time healed me. Every single time. And more often than not, I’ve grown through it, thanks to God. I have known disappointment and grief and suffering. We all have. But I can tell you that God has always been there for me in those times. God has never, ever left me abandoned. Ever. And right now, I am so grateful for that. So incredibly grateful.
And you know what else? In my twenty years or so of preaching, there been a number of weeks when I was sure that this is the week that I won’t have a sermon. But God has provided something every time. Every time. And I am so grateful. So incredibly grateful.
You know, I don’t know what it’s like to have leprosy. But I have known what it’s like to feel isolated, empty, overwhelmed, terrified. I’ve know what it’s like to feel unworthy and unlovable. And in those moments, I haven’t always felt God there. But when I look back, God was with me every single step of the way. Every single moment. Providing for me. Healing me. Showing me mercy and grace. Whispering to me that I am loved, cared for, healed.
And in those moments when I hear that voice, in those moments when I really listen and really trust that God is there with me – oh, in those moments, my faith makes me well.
And I am so grateful.