Proper 23C: Luke 17:11-19
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Jesus healed ten lepers in a sort of border region between Samaria and Galilee. Only a “foreigner”, only the one outside Jesus’ faith community, returned to thank Jesus. As he returned to thank Jesus, he praised God “with a loud voice”, keeping neither his praise nor his gratitude to himself. The other nine were silent.
Did the ritual of showing themselves to the priest in order to have the healing verified somehow take the place of praise and gratitude for the other nine? We have no way of knowing what was in their hearts. They may have been praising God and feeling grateful in their hearts, but outwardly they were silent.
Does it surprise us that the outsider, the foreigner, is the only one who grasps what has happened to him and responds appropriately? Perhaps not if we consider the situation in many churches today, where rituals are observed well but there is silence around the reality of the world around us and our lives outside the church walls. This passage reminded me of something I’ve observed in several Episcopal parishes in recent years.
Those of us who know our fellow worshipers know that many people who come to church care deeply about what is happening in the world, but a stranger might never guess it if they visit on a Sunday morning, where there may be a full hour with no mention of anything outside of the church and its members. And it’s not that nothing has been happening in the world worthy of being mentioned. In the world of weather and climate alone there is plenty to get our attention.
In the past month we saw terrible floods in Colorado, a record-breaking snowstorm in South Dakota that killed many cattle, and tornadoes in Nebraska. The IPCC 5th Assessment Report came out, full of sobering information about the state of climate change on our planet its implications for the years ahead.
A new study was in the news this week. Led by Camilo Mora from the University of Hawaii, this study predicts the years of “climate departure” for several places around the world assuming “business as usual”, i.e. no significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. (See a map and list of cities here. Chicago’s predicted year for climate departure is around 2052, 39 years from now. Phoenix is 2043, only 30 years down the road.) “Climate departure” refers to the point when the coldest years are warmer than the warmest years from 1860 to 2005. So after 2052, the coldest years in Chicago should be warmer than any of the warmest years recorded up to 2005. Places in the tropics will reach this point first. For example, Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic is predicted to reach climate departure very soon, around 2026. As we have known for a long time, the places that will be impacted first are the ones least responsible for climate change and often places with less means to respond to climate change than wealthier nations.
It’s quite possible that people staying home on Sunday morning and reading the newspaper or watching the Sunday morning news shows may have more of an idea of what is happening and, as a result, more concern for those suffering, than those who have been to church on Sunday morning. But we have several opportunities to connect what we do in church with the urgent needs of the world. Victims of the storms in Colorado, South Dakota, and Nebraska – or this week, those who live in the path of Cyclone Phailin, a huge cyclone that has made landfall in India – might be remembered in our prayers. A spoken or written announcement can suggest ways to contribute to relief organizations such as Episcopal Relief and Development or help in some other way. Preachers can acknowledge what is happening in the world and help us see the connections to what we learn from Scripture.
But sometimes we get to the end of an hour of worship and even the coffee hour conversations and realize on reflection that nothing was said that couldn’t have been said ten years ago. This may be comforting on some level – nothing ever changes – but also suggests that like the nine who kept silent, we churchgoers can become so accustomed to our changeless rituals that we become less able to connect with Christ and bring Christ into our lives than are those outside our walls.
I wonder how authentic our praise of God is if we can’t acknowledge the needs of the world in our worship. I wonder how deeply we trust God if we don’t express our greatest fears out loud in our churches. Do we trust God with a global crisis that seems too big for us to understand? And I wonder if we are really praising God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, if we choose to ignore what is happening to God’s creation.
Breaking our silence so that our praise is heard in the world and the needs of the world are heard in our churches puts us in the blessed company of the “foreigner” who turned to Christ and responded appropriately.