Obedience. On a week when most preachers are opening up this Gospel reading and preaching gleefully about grace and gratitude, I'm thinking about obedience. So why am I seeing obedience in this passage? Well... it has something to do with the passage that comes right before it, the passage I preached on last week. Remember that here we have a collection of sayings of Jesus. In this last bit Jesus shares a parable about slaves and the duty expected of them, that they will work all day and then attend to the feeding and care of their masters before attending to their own needs, doing all this expecting no thanks in return. He then suggests that this is a model for Christian discipleship, we are to do whatever we have been ordered to do without expectation of reward. No matter how difficult (forgiving), no matter how wearying (forgiving the same person seven times in a day), we are to do it. Why? As was suggested last week, we are to be obedient because we are grateful, grateful for all that has already been done for us in Christ.
Now, I know that our minds are very capable of objecting to this message, this message that so much has already been done for us in Christ. Some of us are thinking, sure, easy for you to say” or “If I've been forgiven, why am I carrying around this lead weight of guilt that just seems to get heavier every day? If I've been healed, why am I in constant pain? If I've been provided for, why am I barely scraping by month to month, why am I in the position of picking and choosing what bills I'll pay and which ones I won't even open, why am I always having to say 'no' to my kids? If I've been protected, why have I been so hurt?" Or perhaps you're thinking “I’ve worked hard for the good things in my life. God doesn’t want us to rely on him too much. We’ve got to pull ourselves up by our boot-straps. God’s got little to do with my life.”
So, if we're not sure that we have much to be grateful for, it's not likely that we'll be terribly inspired to be obedient, especially to the most challenging teachings of our faith. We might be more inclined to pick out the teachings of God in scripture that suit us best and let the others slide. We might not even bother to try to know what God requires or hopes of us... why should we? We'll just do whatever we want in this world; convinced as we are, on some level, that we're more or less left on our own.
Let's consider the 10 lepers in our story today. Here we have 10 people who have been suffering for an unknown length of time, suffering from skin conditions, potentially very serious skin conditions, but also suffering from alienation, exclusion, and estrangement. By law they were cast out of their communities and forced to live only with people like them. They had to scream out that they were unclean anytime they came near anyone; they could not touch nor be touched. We meet them today in a borderland, on the edges of two regions- between Galilee and Samaria. They are on the margins of their societies in every sense of the word.
If ever there were a group of people who would seemingly have a case for giving up on God, for lacking motivation for obedience, for feeling far from grateful- I think we can all agree these folks would qualify. However, they approach Jesus, though respectfully keeping their distance, and how do they name Jesus? They call Jesus, Master. Master... as slaves would call their owners... master. And so it is that we are reminded of the previous parable. But lest we think of them as passive and content with their lot, listen to the passion of their plea "HAVE MERCY ON US!" They were weary of their existence; they wanted change.
Does Jesus come over and touch them? Do they experience dramatic, on the spot, healing and reintegration? Is their plea met with instant satisfaction? They ask for mercy and receive... a command. "Go and show yourselves to the priests." If they had been healed they would need to show themselves to the priests, this was what the law required if they wanted to be reintegrated into society. But they weren't healed. They asked for mercy and received a command.
And how do they respond to this command? Do they yell at Jesus in anger and resentment? Do they slouch away discouraged and dejected? No. They simply obey. The master commands and they obey. They may not see much point in their obedience, suspecting that they'd get to the priests and be sent away, rejected again, but... the master commanded, and they obeyed. Jesus said "Go" and they went.
And somewhere along their journey to the priests, a potentially long journey, a journey on which they surely continued to call out "UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!", they are made clean. They obeyed even before they had much to be grateful for and along the way they receive the gift of their hearts' desire, in the midst of their obedience they receive the grace that inspires gratitude.
Surely all 10 lepers were grateful. I can see them doing the gratitude dance all the way to the priests. I can hear them shouting praises to God as they continue on their way. But... by continuing to go to the priests they were continuing to be obedient- both to Jesus' command and to the demands of Jewish law. They were exercising a double obedience if you will.
But one of them, an outsider among outsiders, a Samaritan, saw that he was healed and his gratitude dance sent him twirling right around and heading back from whence he had just come. He had asked for mercy and he received a command, but when he got the mercy, he went back to say thank you. Perhaps because he was a samaritian, an outcast, someone who would not have been welcomed by the priest, he felt a stronger pull of gratitude. His obedience was extravagantly interrupted by gratitude- a gratitude that led him to shout praises to God and kiss the ground at Jesus' feet.
Jesus wants obedience; he made that quite clear in last week's reading. But this week's reading complicates that a bit for us, or deepens it a bit for us. Jesus seems disappointed that only one came back- the other nine were simply following his command and after last week we'd think he'd be grateful for that, but he certainly seems disappointed. "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?"
It seems to me that while Jesus desires obedient disciples, he does not desire lifeless disciples. While Jesus wants us to follow the path he has traveled, while he wants us to live into his teachings more and more fully as time goes by, he doesn't want this to be a matter of simply going through motions, or of mindless drudgery. He knows that sometimes, even, our obedience might appear to be disobedience when we get spun about by gratitude. He wants our obedience to be infused with gratitude. He wants us to be joyful and lighthearted and able to turn on a dime and give thanks- a thanks that involves our whole selves- our voices, our bodies, our hearts, souls, and minds.
What he wants are disciples so committed to him, so in love with him, that thankfulness and obedience become intertwined. Where they compliment one another day in, day out. What he is offering is more than just cleansed bodies, he offers cleansed beings. Hearts, souls, spirits renewed through the faith in the faithful one! He seeks a relationship with us, as a people, and as individuals. A relationship with a master whose mercy is so great we call out for it even at a distance. A master whose mercy is so true that he gives it before we even begin to kneel at his feet. This is the God we worship! This is the God we know and love. Remember his words of healing and wholeness! Remember his words “Rise, my child, your faith has made you well.”
This thanksgiving, this obedience, this faith. They are all intertwined. Our lives should be full of them all in order to experience the life of a disciple of Christ.
We had a study of Ann Voskamp’s 1000 gifts last Spring. In it Ann speaks of the eucaristic life, a life lived in thanksgiving. Giving thanks to God in all situations, in all things, at all times. Living a life of thanksgiving leads to a life of faith and obedience that we cannot begin to describe.
These do not guarantee perfection. They do not guarantee a life lived without struggle. Instead they allow us to walk through the struggles of life understanding that we are not the ones in charge. Understanding that the great God we love and serve holds all of us in hands that love and care. It is sometimes hard to see. This week with the horrors of Haiti and the devastation of the South East Coast after Hurricane Matthew it might be hard to picture a provident, caring God. But that does not mean God cares any less for God’s creation. I see God at work in the amazing preparation efforts that saved countless lives with advanced warnings and evacuations. I see God’s mighty hand moving through the recovery efforts already beginning again, even in places like Haiti who feel all they have done for the past decade is recover. I see God in this small denomination called the CP church already beginning efforts to help their fellow children of God in Haiti by planning mission trips and providing funds to aid those in need.
And in seeing God’s actions I am moved. I hope I am moved to gratitude, but perhaps I am first moved to obedience; to follow the call Jesus issued to “love thy neighbor.” May we all be moved to obedience and gratitude, to living lives that are full of both so that we may live lives of the faith that makes us whole.