Sermon – October 13, 2019 – Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

What Are the Odds?

A few years back now, novelist and writer on the spiritual life Anne Lamott wrote a book suggesting that all human prayer, when distilled to its essence, comes down to three simple words.  No matter what our life circumstances, no matter how many words we pour into our supplications, three little words really cover it all.  Those words are: Help.  Thanks. Wow.  Oh, the order might vary, but those three words pretty much say everything that needs to be said.

Our text today shows us all three.  When those ten lepers see Jesus, they see something in him, something more than meets the eye, and so they call out, “Jesus! Master!  Have mercy on us!”  And while having mercy may sound more elegant, what those words really mean is simply, “Help!”  Help us, Jesus.  We don’t really know what to ask for, but please help us, help us anyway.

Now, it’s curious to me that these lepers don’t ask for healing, for restoration. Maybe they have been sick and outcast, isolated and alone, for so long they don’t even dare to hope for that anymore. Or maybe their dreams about what could have been have died because of the unrelenting harshness and isolation of their lives.  Maybe they think that a crust of bread, a coin or two, is the most they can hope for, the most that anyone can do for them, a little bit of pity to get them through another day.

But Jesus isn’t just anyone.  And beyond the fancy words, he hears their desperation, their cry for help, and does more for them—infinitely more for them—than they dare ask or even dream.  “Go show yourselves to the priests so you can be pronounced clean,” he tells them.  Now, it isn’t clear that anything has changed just yet—the leperous spots are still there, still set them apart from everyone else—but when you’ve got nothing left to lose, you might as well take your chances, right?  If you didn’t get the crumbs you were expecting, well, who knows what still might happen? One place is very like another when you’re an outcast after all. And so the ten set off to find the priests.

And while they are still on their way, they aremade clean.  The spots fade away and their skin is clear as it hasn’t been in oh-so-very-long. Life with all its possibilities suddenly opens up before them once more.  Then, when this one guy looks down and sees the miracle, he turns right around in his tracks to head back to Jesus, praising God as he goes.  And what is that except the exuberant “Wow!” of one set free?

Well, you know what happens next.  He rushes back to Jesus, falls at his feet, and—here’s the third prayer—declares his thanks.  And that’swhen Luke tells us that this man is a Samaritan, an outsider among outsiders, an outcast among outcasts.  Jesus marvels at his response and then tells him, “Your faith has made you well.”  The Greek word used there means “to make well, to heal, to make whole.”  But it also means “to rescue, to save”—“Your faith has rescued you…. Your faith has saved you.”

Now, we need to notice that all ten lepers have been made clean; all ten have received the blessing Jesus gives. Nowhere does Luke suggest that the other nine will have that taken from them because they did not return to Jesus to say thank you. But while all ten are “clean” again, only this one is pronounced well. Gratitude, Luke suggests, is what makes the difference between merely being cured and being healed, being made whole, inside and out, ready to live life in all its fullness once more.

So where are we in this story?  What is it that Luke wants us to take away from it so that we can lead more faithful lives?

Well… all of us pray the same three prayers. All of us pray, “Help…. Wow….  Thanks….”  As Anne Lamott notes, that’s part of being human.  But for many of us—and I’m including myself—the prayer for help is the one that springs most readily, most easily to our lips.  “The check hasn’t come and the money’s all gone—help, please….” “I can’t take another day without my loved one—please help me bear the grief….”  “I’m lonely….”  “I’m weary so weary, and I can’t go on….”  “The doctors say it might be cancer….” “My child is in trouble and I don’t know what to do….”  “Help, Lord, oh, please, please, help!”

There’s nothing wrong with those payers, nothing at all.  God cares and wants us to turn to God, for help, for comfort, for solace, in the hurts and hardships of our lives.  God promises to be present with us in those things. We are not left to wrestle with our fear and our doubt and our pain alone.  That’s why the Psalmist can declare, “I fear no evil, for You are with me.” (Psalm 23:4)

But when “Help!” is the only prayer we pray, maybe even when it’s the prayer we pray most often, we can lose sight of God’s great goodness and mercy surrounding us, holding us, never letting us go.  It can be so easy to do.  When our attention is directed to our trials and troubles, we can all too easily go from crisis to crisis to crisis to crisis.  And that can erode our faith. And we can start to think, “And what have you done for me lately, God?” instead of resting in God’s goodness and God’s love for us, which has brought us through, time after time after time after time.

Stopping to notice the blessings and bounty around us—stopping to pray, “Wow!”—is part of the antidote to that sort of faith-poisoning, of course.  The awe we experience moves our focus off of us and onto God, the One who is always, always, always at work to bring blessing and goodness out of hardship and suffering, if we will only allow God the time and space to do that. But awe alone, “Wow!” alone, isn’t enough for a healthy spiritual life either.

Have you ever seen one of those little three-legged camp stools that used to be so popular?  As long as the three legs worked together, the stool was stable, a steady seat that could hold a surprising amount of weight.  But if one leg were missing or deformed in some way—well, you’d better watch out when you sat down because you were going to take a tumble.  If we are praying “Help!” and “Wow!” we still need the third leg—we still need “Thanks!” if we want a prayer life that will hold up, no matter what.

And sometimes, this prayer of gratitude is the easiest one for us to neglect. Oh, we don’t intend to.  But other things just come along to distract us.  We get so caught up in doing what we’re supposed to—just like the other nine lepers, doing just what Jesus told them to—that we miss the moment when gratitude is fresh and wants to be spoken aloud, wants to be expressed with leaping and shouting and praising God.  Before you know it, the miracle has passed and its outcome is something we take for granted again.  Life goes on and our thanksgiving gets left behind.

Or maybe we get in the habit of being grateful for the same things, over and over again—our health… our family… this congregation… a beautiful day…. That’s safe; that’s comfortable.  We don’t have to think, or feel, too much.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with those prayers, nothing at all.  But if they become too routine, then our gratitude starts to seem a like a dusty old relic, not something fresh, something new, something life-giving.  We don’t have to try too hard, don’t have to look too deep when we limit our gratitude to the familiar.

But here’s the secret, something I think the tenth leper knew already: Each and every day brings a miracle for us, if we will only see it.  Each and every day brings something “Wow!”-worthy—something for which to praise God and give thanks.  God blesses us; God restores us; God gives us a future, no matter what.  But if we want to be healed, if we want to be the whole person God created us to be, God intends us to be, we need to train our hearts for gratitude and our lips for praise.

Help.  Wow. And always, always, always thanks. May this be our prayer, today, tomorrow and forever.  Amen.