September 9, 2007

Trinity 14
St. Luke 17.11-19
September 9, 2007


"[The ten lepers] lifted up their voices and said, 'Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!'" +INJ+

Disgraced football player Michael Vick said recently, "I will redeem myself." Religion writer Terry Mattingly responded by asking, "Is anyone that strong?" If we make a mess of things at work, or with our family, or in society, we can perhaps redeem ourselves, by our efforts, by our choices, by offering sacrifices and making atonement. Yet theologically speaking--that is, before God--redeeming yourself is an impossible task. In one ancient Greek myth, Sisyphus is condemned to roll a boulder up a mountain, only the boulder slips and rolls down just before reaching the top, and the process is repeated again and again throughout eternity. Trying to redeem yourself is like Sisyphus trying to roll that rock up the mountain. You will never get to the top.

The word "sin" describes that condition - the condition of being lost, scorned, ridiculed, helpless, dying. Sins are things you do; but sin is what you are. Human society enjoys branding people as sinners--even if that isn't the term du jour--because it makes the rest of us feel more righteous, less sinful. One week it's Michael Vick, another week it's Alberto Gonzalez, before that it's Martha Stewart, or Kenneth Lay. Next week another scapegoat will emerge.

Scapegoat, of course, is a religious term. The scapegoat on the Day of Atonement served to expel sin, comprehensively, from the community. Lepers, also, were expelled from the community. Long after leprosy ceased to be a widespread problem, we continue to use the word for a person whom we want nothing to do with. Yet that metaphorical use comes from an earlier concrete, horrifically tangible reality:

To be a leper is to be a walking corpse.
To be a leper is to be cut off from your home, your people, your family.
To be a leper is to be denied entrance into the house of God, which means no grace, no forgiveness, no peace, no hope.

The hell that a leper's body experiences, the aloneness of his soul, is the beginning of an eternity of hell, an unending aloneness, and ever-increasing sorrow.

But look at yourself. You are a walking corpse, soon to die. Arguments, misunderstandings, divorces, infidelities, grudges, and cruelties touch every one of our families. Sin has ravaged you such that you can really only cry out to God, "Unclean! Unclean!" and anything else you say about yourself is a lie.

But we have come here today, like the lepers, to say to our God the only thing we can say: "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" In our unbelief, we are not sure if He will. When things go well for us religious people, it is easy to write out a check for a special offering of thanksgiving. What pleasure comes from singing the Magnificat, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior"!

But then disappointment strikes, and you'd almost prefer it to be leprosy on your body then the sadness of a broken family, or a death that shakes you deeply, or your work that is going all wrong and brings you no joy or satisfaction. The twenty-first century American lives in an obscene amount of wealth, yet without a soul made rich by God, all those earthly riches taste like ashes in our mouths.

These quick nine verses in today's Gospel reading can deceive us. The prayer of the lepers seems to get answered right away. Our hearts, too, want an instant response. We get impatient just waiting for a page to load on the computer - who has the patience to persevere not just through weeks but years, even a lifetime, of crying out to God? His answers seem so slow in coming.

So we misread the Gospel today if we take it to mean, "Say these words, 'Jesus, Master, have mercy!' and you will get what you want immediately." How long had those lepers wandered in the desert, wondering when this Jesus they had heard so much about might come near them?

Think about St. Monica. She lived with a hot-tempered man who was often unfaithful to her. Her son, Augustine, rejected her Christian faith to wander in delusion. He was stubborn and deceitful. For years and years she prayed for her husband and son - and although in the end they both became Christians, her son famously so, it must have seemed many times to Monica that God had stopped up His ears to her prayers.

This Gospel today is for you...

  • Monicas who have a hot-tempered husband or a rebellious son.
  • lepers who are isolated and alone.
  • Josephs, rejected by your own brothers.
  • Hannahs, childless and misunderstood.
  • Jobs, whose wife laughs at you and whose friends desert you.
  • You who have been caught in adultery, you who are tormented by demons, you who are addicted to foolish and evil things, you who argue, you who despair, you who mourn, you who are angry.
This Gospel today is not for the righteous but for sinners, not for the healthy but for lepers, not for the rich but for the poor, not for the haughty but for the lowly. This Gospel gives you everything you sinners need in these little words: "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"

You cannot redeem yourself with those words. But lift up your voice, and your Redeemer will draw near. "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"

You cannot bring back your lost child, your dead spouse.
You cannot rectify the missteps you have taken.
You cannot atone for your sins.
You cannot fix your marriage, sharpen your failing eyesight, bring back your fading memories.
You are the walking corpse, the leper who cannot even get close enough to Jesus for Him to hear you without shouting.

So shout, and keep on shouting. He hears you. Keep on knocking - the door will be opened. Keep on seeking, but know this: it is He who finds you. You lepers cannot draw near to Him, but He draws near to you. The cross comes to you and makes you shout your prayers, but He hears even your tearful, hurting whimper.

The answer rarely comes quickly. Abraham was an old man before God gave the promised son to him and Sarah. Joseph was in prison for more than two years.
And sometimes, the answer seems not to come at all.
Jeremiah writes the funeral service for the city of Jerusalem. St. John is exiled to Patmos. St. Peter is crucified upside-down. St. Paul pleads thrice to have the thorn in his flesh removed, but the answer from God is, "My grace is sufficient for thee."

The cross is the center of our Christian faith, for there we see that our Lord Jesus has already answered our prayer, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" On the cross we see the mercy. Life is a series of driving-us-to-the-cross events, given to us to do one of two things, or even both at the same time: to cry out, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" or to fall down at the feet of Jesus our God and glorify Him with thanksgiving.

Both come together at the communion, as we unclean sinners, fallen men, failed husbands, disobedient wives, dishonourable parents and disrespectful children, people with dying bodies and empty souls, all come to appear before the living God with nothing to say but, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" And then He says everything we need in the Words above all words, loves us with perfect love, forgives us with a perfectly-forgetting mercy, feeds an unclean body with His body and gives drink to a thirsty soul with His blood.

So being a Christian is saying throughout this life repeatedly, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" and resting in contentment, knowing that His mercy endures forever. +INJ+

Rev. Christopher S. Esget
Pastor, Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia

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