On Extracting Good News from a Thankless Text. An Example
Gospel-minded preachers have had a tough go of it these past many weeks. So have people who drag themselves to church or sit through online services in the hope of hearing some good news from God to carry them through another week. As today’s writer will observe, the immediate culprit here is St. Luke. More to the point, it’s Luke in the stretch of chapters that follow Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. Passage after passage has dished up another serving of Demanding Jesus, the One who pushes disciples and onlookers alike to start behaving in ways that defy their usual habits to say nothing of their commonsense. Preacher upon preacher has handled these demands by cloaking them in 21st century garb, then adding a version of “Jesus said do it, so yes, go do it.” Too few have paused to wrestle with the inevitable and wretched question of what happens when they don’t do it.
Today we send you a recent example of a sermon that does ask this question and then points eyes to Jesus himself as God’s Best-Ever Answer to it. It comes from Chris Neumann, a lay member of our Crossings board. We’ve heard from Chris twice this year, once in April and again in July. Some weeks ago he was invited to preach in his home congregation on Luke’s episode of Jesus and the ten lepers. Chris tackled the assignment with his distinctive blend of down-to-earth diction, a blunt and fearless honesty, and above all a fixation on Christ crucified. From it came a gush of good news that one rarely encounters when this otherwise thankless text is in play. Enjoy!
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Speaking of enjoyment, we hope you’ll join the feast that awaits at next January’s Crossings Conference, where the topic is “The Promising Community.” The speakers include Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, and Drs. Kit Kleinhans and Mary Hinkle Shore, both of whom are deans at ELCA seminaries. Now is the time to get your registrations in. See our website for details.
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And finally a reminder that a celebration of Thelda Bertram’s 100+ years (wife of Crossings co-founder Robert Bertram) will be held on Saturday, November 5, 2022, at 1:00 PM at Christ Lutheran Church, 1 Selma Ave., Webster Groves, MO. Please wear a mask. Here is the link to her obituary where you may also leave a memory and/or your condolences.
Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community
The Good News of Jesus and the Ten Lepers
by Chris Neumann
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The first job I ever worked was at a country club in a nearby suburb. I started way back as a seventh grader. Stayed all the way through high school. I worked as a caddie. You know, the guy or girl you see toting the bag full of clubs around for the actual golfer. Now in order to become a certified caddie, one fit for the golf course, you had to go through several rounds of training and testing, appropriately referred to as “caddie school.” And so, as the spring weather broke in March and early April, my mother would pick me up from school and drop me off at the club twice a week for part two of my school day.
The level of organization involved in the curriculum at the club was impressive. How to accurately count off the yardage left to hole. Positioning was critical—where to stand when offering a club, when the golfer struck the ball, when pulling the pin out of the hole. Don’t let the clubs clank around while walking. Make sure sand traps get raked smoothly after use. Basic fundamentals. The teaching of these caddie fundamentals culminated in an exam. Failing students were dismissed. Students who passed the test moved on to the next unit.
Unit two was quite a bit different than unit one. Whereas unit one consisted primarily of proper golf protocol and behavior on a golf course, unit two had to do with general social etiquette at a club. I suppose you could say that it was the caddie version of finishing school. If you were old enough to drive your own car—park in one of those few spots. Don’t park elsewhere. If your parent dropped you off—make sure that happens at the west end of the driveway by the caddie yard. Go straight in. While waiting to be paired up with a golfer you are to remain in the caddie yard. Period. Play basketball, play cards, take a nap, watch TV. Just don’t exit the caddie yard until you hear your employee number over the intercom system.
Once on the golf course absolutely under no circumstances should you speak unless first spoken to. At the mid-way point golfers will stop for refreshments. Don’t go in, even if invited. That building is a no-go for caddies. If offered a Coke, drink it outside in the shed while waiting for the golf to resume. Following the round, you’re to wait in a designated spot to receive your payment receipt. Once that exchange has occurred, promptly get back over to the caddie yard please.
On one memorable occasion, I collected my payment slip and hustled back over to the caddie house to exchange that receipt for actual cash. Problem. The door was locked. Meaning, I’d have to hang on to this receipt till next time. Needless to say, that didn’t sit well with me. My goodness, my girlfriend and I are going to the movies tonight. I need the $40. Now. So, I decide to take a chance. I leave the caddie yard to seek some help. I walk the short distance right into the main clubhouse. Another no-go. Took all of two seconds for the woman at the front desk’s jaw to drop. The gasp was audible. The horrified look on her face. Ahh! A caddie! You’d have thought a sasquatch had come strolling through the front door. In any event, I was ushered out of there pretty quickly. Without my money, by the way.
I remember thinking how grand everything inside looked. How out of place I felt, even for the minute or two I stood there. Felt kind of like a leper. No, I didn’t have a deadly, contagious skin disease. But Google tells me there are two definitions of a leper. The second one reads something like this, “a person avoided or rejected by others for moral or social reasons”. That was me. My caddie companions too. Truth be told, considering some of the teenage behavior in the caddie yard, it was probably a good idea for the club to have their moral and social standards firmly in place. Just the same, there it was. Confined to a particular area. Avoided. Kept at a distance. Lepers.
I heard my number called on the intercom one summer day. I grabbed my stuff and made my way from the caddie yard to the first tee. Each of these trips from one spot to the other was bursting at the seams with anxiety. Who am I going to get paired up with? Please nobody mean. Please nobody rude. To be fair, I’m certain it was the same for the club member waiting to see what teenage dope would be tagging along for the next four hours. To this day, I still remember how surprised I was when I curved around the corner hedges and saw two members of our church standing there, a married couple, Gordy and Phyllis by name.
I must have caddied hundreds of rounds of golf over those six years. None stands out like this one. “Hello, Chris!!”, Gordy bellowed as he walked with a clap of his hands on his way to shake mine. Phyllis patted me on the back. Together, they went out of their way that afternoon to make me feel like a club member myself. It lasted the whole round long.
- What’s new with your grandparents?
- Mom and dad—they doing OK?
- How do you like high school (the same one they attended a generation earlier)?
- What are expectations for the soccer and basketball teams this year?
- Do you have a girlfriend?
- Where does she go to church?
- What are you thinking about college?
- Eyeing anything in particular with the money you’re earning this summer?
No worrying. No walking on eggshells. No leper status. It felt so good to be included. It. Was. Awesome.
Now that same flash of grace and acceptance that Gordy and Phyllis showed me is on full display in this morning’s gospel reading. Part of me worries though that we’re missing out on such genuine good news, which is unfortunate. Tragically unfortunate. I’d be willing to bet that most ears hear the gospel account, this all-too-familiar ten lepers story, in the same fashion as mine did upon reading it initially. The key takeaway? “I better be saying thank you!” Right? That’s the way our human minds work—it’s about me and what I need to do. What I need to be doing to please God, at least enough of it to get his stamp of approval. Especially true when considering Jesus’ reaction when only one guy comes back with a thank you note—assumption being that Jesus’ reaction is a cocktail mixed of equal parts confusion and disgust. Seems only fair for our thoughts to drift that way. Saying thank you is the right thing to do. We all know it. We’re taught it repeatedly from a young age.
Messiah Church has a baptism this morning. There will be countless times in the years to come when this child, Peyton Ruth, gets a birthday or Christmas gift. She’ll scurry away to open the present. From across the room, a huge smile will crack as the gift is realized. Can’t wait to get that box open and getting busy playing! The only pause occurs when mom or dad essentially drags her back over for the feeble and forced “thank you” before she excitedly runs away to commence playing with the new gift all over again. The exact same thing will happen when her older brother and sister hit the trick or treat trail in a few weeks. Each will be primarily concerned with what goodies just fell into the pail. Mom and dad standing there behind them sounding like a broken record at every front door—“what do we say, guys”? That’s how it works. Thankfulness taking a back seat to excitement. But again—it really shouldn’t. Saying thank-you is absolutely the right thing to do. We ought to be doing it. No argument about it.
Let’s even push this thought a little further. The Lutheran lectionary system that prescribes the Bible readings we hear in church operates on a three-year rotation. The leper story we just heard is among the few that appears in more than one cycle. When can you expect to hear it again? That’s right: Thanksgiving Day—next year, for that matter, 2023. How appropriate! The takeaway more obvious than ever at that point—purpose of this story is meant to serve as a reminder to be thankful for our blessings. One more time: better say thank you! Of course, the unmistakable irony at play is that the sparce attendance at the Thanksgiving service makes the 10% gratitude rate we witnessed with the lepers somewhat impressive. But I digress….
Here at church, I suppose you could say we’re in the news business. The good news business. And we’re burying the headline this morning. I sometimes wonder if the way these stories are framed and heard contributes to the decline we see in church attendance or affiliation with Christianity in general. It comes from the vantage point that the Bible is a dated instruction manual for life with directions that are at best really, really hard to follow. Full of obligations. Things to do. Full of threats if you leave anything on that ‘to-do’ list incomplete. That’s to say nothing about the long list of things you better not be doing. Honestly, let’s take just a second to think about some of the things we’ve heard recently at church, and just from Luke’s gospel:
- Take up your cross. If you love your life, you’re going to lose it.
- Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength. And your neighbor too. Whether you like her or not.
- Strive to enter through the narrow door, though many will try and will not make it.
- Remember the rich man and Lazarus? We all scramble to figure out which we are…yikes!
- Or last weekend—“Increase our faith” demand the disciples. Not such a ridiculous request, is it? Then why did Jesus seemingly get so snarky with his answer?
Now this morning. Jesus left standing with an eyebrow raised as the healed lepers run away like kids with birthday gifts or Halloween candy? Here’s how the morning headline reads: Ungrateful lepers leave site of miracle healing without saying thanks!
Again, that list was just highlights from the past few months of passages we heard from Luke. We could go on and on listing the demands the Bible—God’s word and his commandments for us to follow. This growing list of requirements we’re considering is leaving me feeling awfully inadequate. Starting to sweat a bit. Maybe you’re shifting in your seat some too. The law always accuses. So said Martin Luther. Of course I’m supposed to be saying thank you. I’m supposed to be doing a lot of other things too. Frankly, all of us, little Peyton Ruth included, stand zero, absolutely zero chance of checking off all of the to-do’s. No chance of producing a clean ‘don’t do’ sheet either. Those things done and left undone—that’s sin. We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. Do you know what that makes us when it comes to God and his kingdom? Remember the definition? Rejected for moral and social reasons. Makes us lepers. Lepers. Destined to be kept at a distance from God, on the outside looking in. Even heaven’s corner caddie yard is far better than any of us deserve.
For my part, I refuse to believe this is how we all walk out the door this morning, how we celebrate a baptism—either with the unrealistic notion that anybody here can pull it all off if they just try harder…or with our heads hanging low, realistically understanding that we can’t. Remember, we’re in the good news business. We need a new headline. How’s this: Jerusalem bound Jesus dishes out mercy and healing to trusting outcasts.
Again: Jerusalem-bound Jesus dishes out mercy and healing to trusting outcasts. Same verses. New points of emphasis.
Our new headline is packed with good stuff. Jerusalem-bound Jesus—let’s start there. That’s how the episode in Luke began—”On the way to Jerusalem…”. Could such a seemingly minor detail ever be more significant? I don’t think so. “On his way to Jerusalem” is synonymous with “on his way to die.” And regardless of anything he encounters on the way, thankless lepers included, Jesus keeps going. Keeps marching towards death.
Think about it: If the final say on you is an accounting of your ‘to-do’ list and your ‘don’t do’ list, how well you did, then why would he keep going? Why get mocked? Why get beaten? Why get nailed to a cross? Why die hanging there bleeding in agony? Why does Jesus do any of that…if not to mark your list as complete with an emphatic, blood-stained checkmark. For you. For me. For those lepers. All of them. Which takes us to the second component of our new headline…
Jesus dishes out mercy and healing to trusting outcasts. That is exactly what he did for those lepers. Again – All of them. Don’t overlook that Jesus healed those ten lepers independent of the thank-you, independent of anything they did, other than this: They trusted him. They listened to Jesus’ words. Go—show yourselves. Off they went. Healed they were.
He is dishing out the exact same mercy and healing today. Please, listen to Jesus’ words and trust them. Here’s what he’s saying to us today—she who is baptized has been given new life, cleansed by water. What’s more? —Take and eat, my body given for you…take and drink, my blood shed for you. All of us are walking out the door this morning every bit as clean and renewed as Naaman coming out of the Jordan River in our first reading, no longer a leper.
As your week unfolds, I encourage you to recall our second reading this morning, from 2nd Timothy: “Present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed.” No need to be ashamed that you can’t get it done. No need to be ashamed that someone else did it for you. No shame in our failure. None. The stamp of approval we so desperately seek from God is already traced on our foreheads. Sealed by the Holy Spirit. Marked with the cross of Christ. Members of the club, if you will. Peyton Ruth the newest. Hold on to that, without shame, and in doing so cross off the primary thing God wants to see on your to-do list—trust in his love and mercy.
The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your heart and mind forever in Christ Jesus.
Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
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