Return to Christ… Again and Again

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21st Sunday After Pentecost

October 13, 2013

Luke 17:11-19

Peder Stenslie

Today’s Gospel lesson is a fascinating passage.  At first it seems like it’s going to be a story about the miracle of faith.  10 lepers come to Jesus and beg for healing.  Jesus does nothing other than simply tell the lepers to go and show themselves to the priests.  He doesn’t touch them in any way or even approach them.  What’s more… no healing occurs as the lepers are standing there before Jesus.

Then, in what seems to be an act of faith, the 10 lepers, even though they are still afflicted, go, as Jesus directed, to show themselves to the priests.  While they are on their way, healing occurs.

Now that in itself sounds like a complete story.  It could easily be over there; but it’s not.  In fact, the “faith” of the lepers doesn’t really count for anything in this story.  They fall short and are criticized.  We sometimes think that the whole point of faith… the definition of faith… is simply to believe the unbelievable.  But that’s not it at all… and this story shows us that.

The remainder of today’s lesson follows the one leper who actually disobeys Jesus… and he is praised for it.  He does not go to the priests, as instructed, but turns around and goes back to Jesus… because he realizes, he grasps, that there, in Jesus, lies something important… something that you just don’t walk away from.

You see, this lesson is not about believing the unbelievable.  It’s not about having good manners and remembering to say “thank you.”  It’s about waking up to see where  waters of life and healing are found… and then arranging your life to make darn sure you get yourself into the stream of those living waters.

See that photo of the chickadee that’s in the back of the sanctuary.  My family and I used to hand-feed chickadees at my parents’ place north of New Town.  We would stand outside in the cold with hands outstretched inviting the chickadees to come and feast on some nutritious seeds and nuts.

It would take them awhile to get comfortable with us.  They would perch on a branch a few feet away, just watching for the longest time.  Finally one of them would take the plunge and zip down to the hand, grab a good morsel and fly off.

Some chickadees never would come to the hand.  Others were always very hesitant, waiting a while on the branch before they would finally go for it; and then zip away as soon as they could grab a seed.

But still others were absolutely delightful to watch.  They knew a good thing when they had it… and they would not be denied.  You could see them 50 yards off, a little dot tearing around a spruce tree in the distance,  bounding through the air like a tiny black and white bouncy ball… right at you.  No hesitation, no landing on a branch.  But straight into the hand.

They would plant themselves there and sort through the seeds, moving this one, checking that one… relishing the riches of that food-filled hand.  Carefully weighing the quality of each morsel until they claimed the one they wanted.  And off they flew.  But they would return, again and again.

That particular chickadee attitude is what I think today’s Gospel lesson is about.  It’s about knowing where the good things that give life are found… and zeroing in on that source, claiming it, relishing it… returning to it again and again.

Cold North Dakota winters are no joke.  And survival for the chickadees is a serious matter.  They gotta know where to go to get nourishment to make it through to spring.

And life is like that for us.  If we want to have enough strength to be the people we are meant to be, then we need to know where to go to receive that strength.  Christ offers us that.  He is our Bread of Life… our Living Water.

Today’s Gospel lesson, specifically, invites us to have the good sense of the Samaritan leper.  Jesus urges us to be like him and wake up… see where life comes from, and, basically, get our butt to Christ.  Do it with energy… with joy… with boldness.  No hesitation, no holding back.

We can come into Christ’s presence in many ways.  We meet him in scripture and there he speaks to us and teaches us.  We meet him in prayer and there he strengthens us.  We receive him in the sacrament of Holy Communion and there he nourishes us with his life.  We encounter him in worship… the liturgy, the hymns, each other… and there he feeds us with grace.  We discover him in nature, blessing us with beauty and wonder… and in our work, where he shows us the meaning of service.  He meets us in acts of kindness and mercy… whether we receive them or administer them… and there he shows us the Kingdom of God.

Returning to Christ in these ways, we receive the food we need… wisdom, forgiveness, love, strength, healing, growth… life.  These are things we deeply need, not just once, but continually in our lives, like a garden needs water.

I hope you can see that this Gospel story of the 10 lepers is a good read for you students who plan on leaving this place eventually.  In other words, all of you.  Consider the 9 who left Jesus’ presence and were healed.  “I am free,” they thought.  “This is what I’ve been waiting for!  My life is fixed!”  But they were wrong.

Only one understood clearly what it means to really live and that he needed something beyond physical freedom.  He needed… he wanted… to be in the presence of the one who gives life and healing.

How many times have students left this place and thought, “Finally, I’m free.  My life is fixed.  My life is right.”  Jesus scolds the 9 in today’s Gospel because that kind of thinking is a dead end.  For you, it brings you right back here… or to worse places than this.

There’s so much more to life than just temporarily not being incarcerated.  All of us, our need help, strength and healing is so deep.  If we want to do more than just exist… if we want to really live… then, like the Samaritan, we gotta change direction.  We gotta find sources of life and healing.  We need to come into the presence of the power of God… again and again and again… and let ourselves be changed, healed… and truly freed.

We are to learn from the Samaritan leper.  He considered his life.  He weighed what was valuable.  He realized what Jesus offered him… life and well-being beyond physical healing.  And he realized he could not just walk away from that.  It was no longer enough for him to just be healed of his leprosy.  He once thought that was enough, but when he encountered Jesus, he realized that his need was much deeper.

Returning to Christ, because he offers life, reflects more than gratitude.  As Jesus declares in today’s Gospel, it reflects faith.  Like the Samaritan, may we too find our gratitude transformed into faith as it draws us back to the source of life.  In our returning to Christ, again and again, may the wonderful words of Jesus apply to us as well:  “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”