Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Mercy and Thankful Hearts - even for Samaritans. (Luke 17:11-19)

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Fellow-Redeemed in Christ our merciful Master:

The Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke, the 17th chapter:
On the way to Jerusalem [Jesus] was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. (Luke 17:11-14 ESV)
I have finally come up with a plan to write a book and make so much money from sales that I can retire when I'm fifty-two. I know it will be a best-seller because it is exactly what the world — and our old, worldly nature — thinks it needs to have a truly thankful and joyous and happy and fulfilled and blessed life. I already know what the front cover will look like: a photograph of me in a nice suit with a few big gold rings and a Rolex and a big smile (and a little more hair on the top of my head). And the title of the book in big letters: "Thirty Days to a Thankful Life."
Inside the book will be thirty chapters detailing thirty steps that, if done in just the right way, will promise the truly blessed life. The truly happy and successful life. The truly thankful life that everyone wants but no one, seemingly, can achieve — until now. Until my proven 30 step program to the truly thankful life.
The great thing about selling my book on "thirty days to the thankful life" is that the world — and our old, worldly nature — is already selling this formula in its advertisements and movies and novels and poems and television specials.
The 30 days between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Eve is the perfect time to get regularly hit over the head with the judgment that we have been — again — for another year — found as poor, miserable failures when it comes to being the always thankful people we should be.
This is the reason Hollywood stars come out once a year to dish out turkey to homeless people. This is the reason we are entertained by special presentations of the Grinch and Dickens' A Christmas Carol. This is the reason for the insanity of these thirty days between November 26th and December 24th: the world — and our old, worldly nature — have fallen for the temptation to stake everything on the belief that we can make satisfaction for our shame and guilt and become truly thankful people by promising more, entertaining more, doing more, and buying more.
And unfortunately, much of what calls itself Christian today promotes the same dead-end belief: changing the fallen human heart by fallen human will power.

It's interesting that when first-time visitors come to worship services here at Redeemer and are asked, "Did you feel comfortable with the service this morning?" the answer is more often than not: "Everything was nice — except for that beginning part. You know, that part where we have to say that we are poor, miserable sinners. Do you guys actually say that every Sunday?"
The crazy thing about disdain for the confession of sins is the fact that those same people join the world these thirty days between Thanksgiving and Christmas and secretly confess a very similar thing — that:
"I have failed to be truly thankful by what I have done and by what I have left undone. I have done unthankful things. I have (at least on occasion) found myself stingy or greedy or selfish — maybe even grumbling about things I shouldn't really be grumbling about."
"I have failed to be truly thankful by what I have failed to do. I have not cheerfully given as much as I should to my parents, my spouse, my children, my grandchildren and the rest of my family. I haven't been happy in sharing my things with others — especially those in need. I haven't shown thankful behavior to those God has placed in my life. I haven't always said, "Thank you" when others give me things. I failed to write a note or make a call or stop and show appreciation for the simple blessings God continues to give through my neighbor: my family, my co-workers, my congregation, the leaders in my community."
But although we as believers in Christ and the world make similar confessions, Scripture reveals that our condition is much more desperate than what the world would ever imagine. Our un-thankfulness can't be corrected with a simple swipe of the credit card or our pledge to do better next time around.
Plenty of people after eating too much turkey and gravy will look back on Thanksgiving Day and convince themselves that things went better than expected. Uncle Henry didn't walk away from the table after arguing about the difference between the teachings of the Lutheran Church and the Church of Scientology. The kids didn't scream about which Black Friday sale to camp out in front of. Everyone was polite. Some even said "thank you" for hosting the dinner or bringing the dessert. Bobby even helped with the dishes.
But is that the core and center of what makes people truly thankful people living out truly thankful lives?
Contrary to what some parents confess when I ask them why they chose Redeemer Lutheran as the place to enroll their preschooler, Jesus has not come to merely make our behavior look more "Christian." (Actually, if you want the best "Christian"-looking behavior, you might be better off to go to your Hindu or Mormon neighbor.)
All ten lepers in today's Gospel reading were thankful and obedient. They did just what Jesus had told them to do. They went to show themselves to the priest and, when pronounced "clean," they made the required sacrifices at the temple according to the law of Moses.
All ten decided to do the proper and polite thing and plead for help and mercy and healing without approaching Jesus and risk getting him infected with the disease they were suffering under. There were probably more than a few in the group who had resolved on their way to the priests that they would later send a thank you note and even a check to that Jesus of Nazareth for pointing them in the right direction - for giving them the formula for a truly thankful life - for being so helpful.
But the real Christian life is not about confessing Jesus as helpful. It is something much more difficult, much more unexpected, much more radical.
On the way to Jerusalem [Jesus] was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11-19 ESV)
The Word of God has come in human flesh to affirm and fulfill the work of Moses — the work of Moses that does not ask that we promise to act more thankfully, that we enroll in a thirty day, thirty step program to change our hearts and transform ourselves into truly thankful people, despite what the TV evangelists say.
Christ came — Christ comes to you and me this day — to first affirm that our leprosy is truly leprous. It forever bars us from communion with a holy, perfect God and his holy people. When we say "amen" to the holy and perfect will of God for us and for the world, we find ourselves under the realization that our un-thankfulness has placed us outside the camp. Our sin has relegated us to wander in the wilderness of sickness and disease and failed promises and a will-power that just can't sustain our good intentions. We stand afar from the God of heaven and cry out in total despair, "Despite our un-thankful hearts, have mercy on us Lord. Come quickly to save us, for we can in no way even begin to save ourselves."
Martin Luther and the Scriptures reminds us that God brings the rain for the just and the unjust alike. God provides his life-giving, life-sustaining gifts not just to pious pilgrims and believing Missouri Synod Lutherans. He gives undeserving gifts to those who have true saving faith and those who do not. For we know that in his heart-of-hearts, our Lord loves to abundantly show grace and favor and mercy — even toward his wayward creation, even toward unfaithful children, even toward the un-thankful. For he gave his greatest gift: his precious, only-begotten Son for a world bent on either successfully turning him into merely a nice Savior — or rejecting him altogether.
The Samaritan leper — unlike the other nine — was comfortable with believing that he should have never been healed. He was outside any demand before God or his spokesmen to be cured, either in this life or in eternity. The Samaritan leper received salvation at the hand of Christ as complete, unexpected, undeserved, unmerited grace. And, we see, that gift of faith in the grace of God alone produced the fruits of faith: a truly thankful heart that would not rest until due thanks and praise was placed at the feet of the Christ, the Messiah, the One anointed by heaven to, as we heard at the beginning of this passage, journey to Jerusalem, there to do what only the Christ could accomplish: fulfill what the sacrificing of doves and goats and bulls could only point to. The winning of salvation on behalf of an entire rebel world.
The scandal of Christianity is the scandal of Christ and his Cross: that only in faith in Jesus as our substitutionary sacrifice for our leprous sin is there to be found true thanksgiving — thankfulness that lasts through December 25th and January 1st and into eternity.
You won't read that in this morning's paper. You won't hear that during this afternoon's half-time show. You won't see that on one of the giant comic strip character balloons during a Thanksgiving day parade. But it's heaven's truth just the same.
Human behavior that looks thankful is simply that: outward show from fallen, weak and helpless people that the world may applaud for a day, even though it counts for nothing when it comes to our salvation before the almighty Creator of heaven and earth.
As fallen children of Adam and Eve, we need healing under the Word of God himself. As fallen children of Adam and Eve, we need to be re-created from the inside out and given thankful hearts that see everything through the mercy of Christ and his Cross.
In true faith and the thankfulness it produces, we can give thanks to God that he has come to us in Holy Baptism and will continue to see us through — through heart-ache, through loss, through the most hopeless of difficulties. Even if we think we are like that one Samaritan, completely unworthy of being healed from what bars us from God's heavenly presence.
It doesn't take a 30 or 40 day program to make someone struggling with their sinfulness into someone truly thankful. It takes one Savior and his merciful, forgiving, healing Word — his Word that changes even as-well-as-dead leprous hearts into beating, believing hearts that willingly, joyfully — thankfully —join Christ on his journey to the Cross. And as he said to the Samaritan leper he says to you today: "In my death and resurrection you have been healed. In God-given faith and thanksgiving — take up your cross and follow me."
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.