Date: September 24, 2017
Bible Text: Luke 17: 11–19 | Reverend Dr. William A. Evertsberg
But the other nine, where are they? —Luke 17:17b
The biblical word for leprosy covers a whole range of skin ailments from the serious Hanson’s disease—which deadens the nerves in human extremities to the point where you can’t tell if the pebble in your shoe is slicing open your heel or the pan you are holding is scalding your fingers—to milder disfigurements like eczema, psoriasis, and even a bad case of teenage acne, anything which speckled or mottled the skin.
Modern medicine has discovered that Hanson’s disease is actually not all that contagious, and as a matter of fact acne is rather hard to catch too, but earlier human societies didn’t know that, so in most of them a diagnosis of leprosy was equivalent to a sentence of incarceration.
In fact, even in the developed world, it stayed that way until about 50 years ago. The U.S. Government ran a quarantined leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai for a hundred years, ending only in 1969. In 1957 a 78-year-old woman named Mele Meheula had been there for 69 years. When it was clear that her days were numbered, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin ran a series of stories about her life in the hope that the publicity would uncover any remaining relatives.
Reporters knocked on doors and the paper published a phone number to call, but no one came forward. The newspaper reported, “Miss Meheula has never heard a word from her family from the day she was taken from them.” She’d been there since she was nine years old. The only people at her funeral were other patients. The Hawaiians had a picturesque name for leprosy: they called it “the sickness that is a crime.”
It stands to reason then that if somebody—a doctor, perhaps, or the Son of God—erases the disease from your life and gives you a complexion as flawless as Halle Berry’s, a thank-you note at least might be in order.
One day while Jesus is on his way from Nazareth, the city of his origin, to Jerusalem, the city of his destiny, he encounters ten pathetic folk afflicted with the disease that is also a crime. “From a distance,” Luke tells us in the saddest words of this otherwise happy tale. “From a distance,” as the law stipulated—keep your distance, leper, lest you leperize the rest of us. “From a distance,” they collectively choir their supplication, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Jesus responds, “Go show yourselves to the priest.” That’s all he has to say and they race off to the closest cleric like Usain Bolt.
One of them, however, glances down in the middle of his dash, notices that his formerly disfigured hands and feet are as pure as a Dove Dish Soap hand-model, slams down so hard on the brakes of his sprint, turns around, races back the other way, catches up with Jesus, falls at Jesus’ feet, and lets loose with a hale and hearty hallelujah. Jesus is a little surprised, maybe because at least one of them cared enough to say ‘thanks,’ or maybe because nine didn’t. “Where are the nine?” he plaintively asks.
Odd story for Stewardship Sunday, don’t you think? Maybe not. A couple of things to notice. First of all, we might notice from this story that unspoken gratitude doesn’t really exist. Here’s the thing about this story: it doesn’t tell us that the other nine who kept racing off to see the priest weren’t grateful for winning the health lottery, just that they didn’t bother to speak their gratitude or share it. Chances are they were just as happy and thankful as the lone returnee, but silently thankful, privately thankful.
Private gratitude, you see, is pointless and in fact doesn’t really exist. This is the theological version of the old conundrum “If a tree falls in the forest but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
Webster’s Dictionary answers ‘No,’ because it defines a sound as ‘a thing that is heard.’ No ear, no sound. A physicist will answer ‘Yes’ because physics defines a sound as a wave of energy traveling through a medium like air or water and some of those waves are of such low or high frequency that no ear can hear them, so a sound is still a sound, ear or no ear.
But a theologian agrees with Webster’s and answers ‘No’ because for a theologian gratitude is like a sound; gratitude is a thing that is heard. “If someone is grateful but no ear ever hears about it, is it still gratitude?” If you love your wife but never bother to tell her, is it still love? Ask her; she’ll tell you. If your parents ate peanut butter and jelly for eight years to send you to North Shore Country Day and then Northwestern, but you never phone home from your snappy condo in San Diego, are you really grateful? Gratitude is a thing you must hear. Gratitude is a thing you must speak. Gratitude is a thing you must do.
That’s the first thing we learn from this story. Private gratitude doesn’t exist; it is a thing that is heard, a thing that is spoken, a thing that is done. The second thing we learn is that this story has the percentage just about right, doesn’t it? About ten-percent of us bother to thank the Giver of Every Good and Perfect Gift for life, love, laughter, health, and wealth.
How many Americans are in church this morning? You see, here’s the thing. If you ask Americans “Are you a regular church attender?” 40% of them will answer ‘Yes,’ but if you ask them “Did you attend church last Sunday?” the figure drops considerably, and if you ask the churches themselves, the highest figure the vigilant ushers can scare up after counting every last bottom in the pew is less than 18% of the general population, a little better than 10%. There aren’t all that many of us keeping the rumor of God alive in the world. “Where are the nine?” asked Jesus after healing ten lepers. Where are the eight?” we preachers ask despondently every Sunday morning.
There are lots of reasons to go to church, and there are lots of other ways to express your gratitude besides going to church, but one of the most important reasons for divine worship is that it is our opportunity every seventh day to acknowledge that life is a gift and birth windfall and there is someone to thank and praise for the unmerited benediction.
The third thing to learn from this story is something of a surprise. It has to do with who comes back to speak and express and do his gratitude.
The one guy who came back, Luke tells us almost in passing, was a Samaritan. This little tidbit of information, of course, is calculated to disquiet a Jewish audience, because for Jews, Samaritans were persona non grata. For Jews the Samaritans were a disenfranchised population, so it comes as a surprise then that the one guy who praises God with a loud voice is a Samaritan, one of the guys on the outside.
But of course this shouldn’t surprise us, should it? It’s always the people on the edge of life who are most grateful for whatever life brings them. It’s the once impoverished who are quick to address the needs of the poor. It’s the once broken who make haste to bind up another’s wounds. It’s the once lonely who reach out to befriend the friendless. If you’ve never been seriously sick, you’ve probably never ached for sound health; you just take it for granted.
New York Times reporter Julie Salamon noticed a remarkable thing when she was pregnant. She discovered who was most likely to offer her their seat on the subway. In order, it was women with children, women without children, old men, Hispanic men, African American men, and finally, last, young white men. “The most privileged are the most insular,” she says.
But what does that mean for us, the extravagantly blessed, the recipients of unmerited prodigality, who are, after all, in danger of suffering the insularity of the privileged? Where are the nine? Our distance from need can blind us to its pressing urgency. Our very security can hamstring our capacity for gratitude.So your stewardship of your time, talent, and treasure is a thick, dense, solid, vivid, dramatic, colorful expression of your gratitude for undeserved benediction. It’s a way of returning to Jesus healed and hale and whole and letting loose with a loud hallelujah at his feet.
The famous American lawyer Clarence Darrow once solved a woman’s legal difficulties, and when she asked, “Thank you so much, Mr. Darrow. How can I ever thank you?” he responded, “Madam, ever since the Phoenicians invented money, there has been only one answer to that question.”
There actually is more than one answer to the question “How can I ever thank you, God?” But ever since the Phoenicians invented money, there has been at least one answer to the question “God, how can I ever thank you?”
The ten-percent solution to the prevailing ingratitude and entitlement of this contemporary world? The ten or twenty percent of us who bother to express our gratitude at all bother to express it by giving ten percent away. The biblical mandate of a tithe has not shrunk these last three thousand years. For some of us, ten percent should be the distant goal, the finish line, and for others of us, ten percent should be the starting block, but ten percent it is and ever shall be.
You don’t have to give it all to the church. Education is a good thing; your alma mater deserves your support. Beauty is a good thing; the Lyric Opera and the CSO deserve your support. Hurricane Recovery is a good thing; The Red Cross and the Salvation Army deserve your support. Public Television is a good thing; Ken Burns deserves your support. God is a good thing; the church deserves your support. Can you give three percent to the church?
Did you know that the median household income in Winnetka is over $200,000? That’s almost four times the figure for all of Illinois, almost $60,000. This church has 900 households. Do the math. Can you imagine the good things we could do with $5.4 million?
The Time Magazine cover story for tomorrow—September 25—is so wonderful. Time has reported mostly bad news in 2017–Syria, ISIS, North Korea, earthquakes, the Swamps in Puerto Rico, Houston, and Washington—but if you want a little uplift, read tomorrow’s cover story—“Storms Keep Getting Stronger, and So Do We.” It’s about everything we’ve learned from the mistakes of Katrina and Sandy: what FEMA has learned and what average Americans have learned.
When it became clear that Irma was going to hit Florida hard, Florida Power and Light sent out an All Points Bulletin to its counterpart power companies all over the country. Days before Irma struck, 20,000 linemen and builders and tree trimmers began converging on Florida from all over the country, as far away as California. They were driving hundreds of utility trucks and tree trucks and hauling bulldozers to be close to Florida, to sit just out of harm’s way till the storm passed. They parked gasoline tankers on the shoulders of the interstates to refuel these vehicles. When the storm passed, they swooped in. It was as organized and efficient as the D-Day invasion at Normandy.
This generous and efficient response was recapitulated by ordinary Americans in neighborhoods hit hard by winds and floods. In Katy, Texas, near Houston, Kristel Meadows, a stay-at-home mother of four, watched day after day as firefighters slogged past her house through flooded streets in the same drenched, muddy clothing, so she marched down to the firehouse late one night—after curfew—picked up their clothes, took them home, did the laundry, and returned them fresh and clean.
The next day, she and her husband commandeered the parking lot of the local Elks Lodge and asked their neighbors to bring their barbeque grills. Over the next five days, Kristel and her husband made 15,000 meals for first-responders and neighbors without food and water. Ms. Meadows said, “I can’t rescue anybody, but I can cook a meal and I can do laundry.”
Do what you can. Some of you are cash-rich and time-poor. You’re working too hard to teach Sunday School or serve on a committee, but since you’re working so hard, you can give your financial support.
Some of you are cash-poor and time-rich—out of work, retired, fixed income. You can’t give money, but you can show your gratitude with your hours, with your sweat equity. We do what we can with what we’ve got. That’s the ten-percent solution.
John Tayman, The Colony (New York: Scribner, 2006), pp. 276–77.
Tayman, p. 8.
Julie Salamon, Rambam’s Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary To Give, (New York: Workman Publishing, 2003), p. 136.
Quoted in The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, ed. Clifton Fadiman (Boston: Little Brown, 1985), 157.
Jeffrey Kluger & Haley Sweetland Edwards, “The Storms Keep Getting Stronger, and so Do We: Learning from Disaster,” Time, September 25, 2017, p. 40.