A sermon preached on Luke 17:11-19 at Preston High Street UCA on 14/10/20
It has been more than six months since we last met as a community, and almost a hundred days since the current lockdown began, and a lot of us are starting to fray around the edges. There has apparently been a 30% increase in people contacting mental health services in Victoria in the last four weeks. We all hope for a change in the situation, some way out. But the virus is not a problem which individuals can do much about, apart from the obvious – social distancing, masks, hygiene and, of course, for us Melbournians, not straying more than 5km from our front door.
Things seem particularly hard at the moment, and so it brings into focus a question which is always there really, but we can usually do a better job of ignoring: how do we live? Not how do we exist, how do we have a good time, or even how do we cope with suffering: how do we live?
So this text, which is actually the passage for Canadian Thanksgiving Day, is particularly apposite.
The story is fairly simply told. Jesus, walking along in the borderlands between Samaritan and Jewish towns, Jesus encounters ten people living with leprosy. He heals them and sends them away to the priest to be certified as clean. As he went, one of them realises what has happened, turns back and throws himself at Jesus’ feet in gratitude. Jesus notes that it was the Samaritan, of all people, who showed gratitude, sends the man on his way, saying “your faith has made you well.”
It is the Samaritan who comes back. The person least likely to do so. Yet, here he is.
And here we all are. Discouraged, feeling isolated, at the mercy of officials and events.
Of course, we aren’t in the same situation as people suffering from leprosy in the ancient world. To be completely excluded from society, to be shunned, to be forced to live away from human society, begging for food, would have been an awful way of life. So, in a way, life isn’t that bad.
This reminds me of a conversation that Anne had recently. She was having a grumble about the situation with someone who had in turn been talking with a Holocaust survivor. And this friend of Anne’s said something to the effect of: well, at least it isn’t the Holocaust! Which is, of course, true. The holocaust is the worst thing our culture is aware of, and should never be minimized. But it is also a conversation stopper. No, the pandemic isn’t literally the worst that has ever happened. But to use it to close down conversation isn’t particularly helpful either.
Brené Brown says that if you want to feel the good feelings in life – to be alive to joy and beauty and rejoicing – you have to be open to the bad feelings as well. So shutting down our feelings about the pandemic shutdown isn’t particularly wise. It doesn’t make sense to get stuck in “comparative suffering”, because all it does is to prevent us from feeling our feelings – both good and bad. We get trapped in various attempts at numbing our feelings, none of which work particularly well. Because our feelings really are there, and if we don’t allow ourselves “legitimate suffering”, then we will have neurotic suffering instead. We will lead itchy, discontented lives, turned in on ourselves, closed to joy and to God. Slaves, in an ironic way, to ourselves.
Because, make no bones about it, our current situation is hard. To be locked in our homes, to be deprived of contact with friends, to have the great uncertainty and grief of our whole world’s situation present to us, to be forbidden from worshipping together face to face – it’s hard.
So, I think it isn’t insensitive for us to see ourselves as the people with leprosy in the story. We are suffering and grieving and that’s just the way it is.
One of the features of suffering is the way it strips things back. If I thought my generally good mood and broadly positive attitude towards life was something intrinsic to me, something that was mine just as part of my nature – well, suffering reveals to me just how much that is true.
And the answer, it turns out, is not very much.
It turns out that a lot of what seemed good about my life was just external circumstances. The good fortune of being born into a sane family, in a safe country, during a time of peace and prosperity.
That’s why suffering can be salutary. I don’t think that God is wandering around bestowing suffering on people like a particularly sadistic schoolteacher. But suffering reveals the ways in which our way of living – how we understand the world and our place in it, and thus how we behave – is limited. It only sees the world in one dimension.
Our need for control, to be in charge of our world, is a strong feature of our culture. In previous ages, the world was seen as being largely beyond our control, and therefore the path of wisdom was to learn to live the life we are living, to make peace with the many things beyond human control. We, on the other hand, tend to think that we are able to arrange things to our satisfaction, and when we can’t persuade things to fall into the right place, it is deeply painful for us.
This can happen, not just at a practical level but at a theological level as well. We need some sort of master theory to explain exactly what God is up to and how God proposes to go about it. And until we have a perfect theory, it is very hard for us to trust God. Perhaps that’s because what we want is to trust our theories, rather than God. Which is to say we want to trust ourselves rather than God. We want God proved to us. We want to be safe and in control.
We don’t, in fact, really want God to be God. We want a genie who will do our bidding and make all the bad things go away, or else we won’t trust her.
We have lots of facts at our disposal, lots of theories about the world. And, in normal life, that seems to be just about enough. It has gotten us this far, with a reasonable level of success in life, and even though sometimes we come up against the boundaries of it and we glimpse something else, another possibility, a fullness of life that we recognise as being profoundly worthwhile and somehow right – it is just so hard to make the leap that we don’t bother. We retreat behind our defences and try to ignore it all.
It takes something significant. Awe and wonder perhaps, the result of worship or even looking out at the night sky. Great love – they say that the birth of your first child can change you. And suffering. Suffering pushes you out into the “borderland”, the liminal space between your old way of living and whatever it is that the universe is calling from you – whatever God is calling from you.
We’re like the people with leprosy. Not comfortable in our rags, not delighted to be stuck out on the edges of the town. But comfortable enough, prepared to put up with it. And when salvation comes along – a treatment for our illness, a new job, the end of lockdown, we take it up. We’re quite pleased, but we don’t necessarily change anything much outside the situation.
The temptation is to be like one of the nine people Jesus healed in the story. They take themselves off to the priest like Jesus says, and, as far as the story goes, go back to their normal lives. They don’t seem to have been transformed. Perhaps they weren’t pushed to the end of their resources. Perhaps they just can’t bring themselves to make the next step.
But one person does come back, and he throws himself at Jesus’ feet.
What happens next in the text is a little mysterious: Jesus says to him “your faith has healed you.” Does that mean that the others will get to the priest and find they haven’t been healed, because they failed Jesus’ little test? Does Jesus mean it as a comment on all of the people he has just healed?
Or is it that there is something else going on? It is perfectly possible to suffer and learn nothing. But this final person has made the leap of faith – he sees Jesus for who he is. He is not just healed, but made whole.
Gratitude, it seems to me, is the key takeaway from this passage. To be grateful is to be open to God in God’s own self. We didn’t create this sunset, we didn’t create our friends, and we didn’t create ourselves. Everything that exists is a gift from God, and even our ability to see that fact is a gift. We want to be self-made people, but we are ourselves a gift. God doesn’t need us: God loves us and created us out of that love. To be grateful is to acknowledge that truth about the world. It is the correct starting point for engaging with life.
It can be hard. Sometimes we look around and we can find very little to be thankful for, or fail to extend gratitude to God because everything, in our humble opinion, should be better. We trust our theory about how the world ought to be more than God. We are living in the fictitious land of “ought” and trying our best to avoid the terrifying world of “is”, the world of the real.
In suffering we are pushed down into ourselves until something breaks, and all that there is left is the basic choice: do we trust God? Or do we not?
Jesus comes to us: individually he speaks to you. Do you trust me? Do you dare? Or will you stay turned in on yourself?
And if we long to say yes, but don’t know how, then begin with gratitude.
If you found this helpful or interesting, you might enjoy my thoughts on Brené Brown, Faith, and Certainty and Existential Doubt and Suffering
 Depending when you count it from of course.
 Sorry – by the time I’d realised it wasn’t the “correct” passage for the week, I was too invested in it.
 If that ever happens – it can feel very remote sometimes.
 The Greek word translated as “made you well” in the NRSV has a fuller set of meanings than just healed from a physical ailment. The Message has it as “healed and saved you”, the KJV has it as “made you whole”, both of which I like.
Image: Photo by Ryan Stone on Unsplash