Unity Lutheran Church + Christ the King Campus
13 October 2019 + Lectionary 28C
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
For the past several weeks, I’ve been carrying one, single, “AA” battery with me in my bag. And not just any “AA” battery, but a dead “AA” battery. And you might ask, “Pastor Josh, why are you carrying one, single, dead ‘AA’ battery in your bag?” I will tell you why! It’s because I am stubborn, and I refuse to throw away something that can be so easily recycled. Sure, it’s just one battery and I could just as easily throw it in the garbage. But with that thinking, “just one battery” here and there quickly becomes 10, 20, 100 batteries…and before you know it, you have a landfill. I’m not trying to guilt all of us into becoming even better stewards of the environment (though if that happens, happy accident!), but it strikes me as a prime example of the power of one.
Recycling one battery on its own doesn’t seem to do much, but recycle many “just one batteries” and you can make an impact. One drop of water doesn’t feel like much either…until you’re caught in a downpour. And one small candle might not light up a whole room…until another and another are added. You get the point.
There is power in even just one healed leper who returns. But not because he gives praise and thanks to God or for anything he does…but for who he is. It’s also easy for us in this story to wonder about the other nine lepers who were healed but didn’t come back. Why didn’t they return? Were they not grateful for what Jesus has done for them? We don’t know what’s going on in their minds, but I would venture to say that of course they were grateful – cured of a disease that was not only painful and life-threatening but also ostracizing. Those who had been unclean were made clean. Those who had been cut off from their communities for fear of being contagious have been restored. Of course they were grateful. So grateful, in fact, that I imagine they ran to their families and friends to be reunited, to catch up on everything they had missed, to be a part of each other’s lives again.
But enough about them. I want to focus on the one who came back. Because this one, Luke tells us, is a Samaritan. Luke mentions Samaritans and their home region of Samaria more than any other gospel writer. To say that Jews and Samaritans had a rocky relationship is to put it gently. In Jesus’s day, the animosity dated back hundreds of years to the time when the northern tribes of the kingdom of Israel, including the region of Samaria, broke off to establish a rival kingdom. Not long after, that rival kingdom would be conquered by the Assyrians. With foreigners in their midst came inter-marriage, and new and different ways and places of worshipping God, and from the perspective of those who didn’t break away, those living in Samaria had compromised their already-alienated Jewish identity.
By Jesus’s day, the long-rooted hostility had become so entrenched that those traveling from Galilee (to the north of Samaria) on the way to the temple in Jerusalem (to the south of Samaria) would go completely around Samaria, even though it added significant mileage to their journey. Samaritans were not just outsiders…they were enemies to be avoided at all costs.
What does it mean that this enemy outsider is the only one to come back? With Jesus, we might find ourselves asking, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Already in Luke’s gospel, we’ve heard the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” When his fellow traveler has been beaten, robbed, and left for dead, it is explicitly a Samaritan who extends love and care to his neighbor, without regard to her identity as a foreigner. Now, in today’s story, a Samaritan becomes the recipient of that same “indiscriminate love” as Jesus heals him.
This is not a moralistic lesson about gratitude. This is not a story about one healed leper who returns to give thanks and to shame the nine who don’t. This is a story about what God has done for someone who was treated like an enemy outsider. This is a story about God’s “indiscriminate love and radical inclusion” (Ira Brent Driggers) that comes to us where we least expect it.
The power of just one Samaritan who returns shows us what God’s love looks like. God’s love is all-inclusive and wildly expansive. God’s love extends as far as we expect and then even a step further. God’s love goes straight through the region of Samaria and doesn’t take any detours to avoid “those people.”
The power of just one Samaritan who returns reminds us that if God’s love is even for the Samaritan, then God’s love is even for us – for we who doubt and question God’s presence, for we who are pushed aside, for we who do the pushing aside.
Last Sunday, when I was on vacation in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park that spans several city blocks in the heart of the city – including the home where King was born and raised until age 12, the church where King’s father and later King himself served as pastors, and the tomb of King and his wife, Coretta. It is holy ground and inspiring to be surrounded by so much history.
The civil rights movement for which King and others worked so tirelessly attests to the power of one: one woman who refused to give up her seat on the bus, one preacher who refused to stop preaching love, every one act of resistance in sit-ins and boycotts to protest racial segregation…one plus one plus one plus one…and suddenly you have a movement.
The power of one is the foundation of what it means to be the people of God who are called to love our world and all who live in it. We know we can’t do this work alone, but our own voices and hands are needed, too. I need you, you need me…it’s a beautiful relationship of mutuality.
But at the end of the day, it’s not even all about us (thank God!). Just like this isn’t a story about the Samaritan who gives thanks and praise to God, this is a story about what God does for us. This is a story about God who heals one Samaritan, who searches the entire house to find one lost coin, who runs to the very edges of the wilderness to rescue one lost sheep, who rejoices at the return of one lost son who comes back home.
This is a story about the power of one that attests to the love of the One who loves us first and always. This is a story about who gets to be included in the kingdom of God (spoiler alert: everyone!). This is a story about the kind of deep gratitude that comes when we know what it means to belong and be loved for who we are. When like the late poet Mary Oliver, we know what it means to be “married to amazement,” as she writes in one of her poems – amazement at what God has done for us and continues to do for us, every time we are gathered here, invited to this table. Around bread and wine, in the power of this one meal, and the singular love of God who revives and sustains us.