10/9/16: Were Not Ten Made Clean? Luke 17:11-19
Were Not Ten Made Clean?
First Lesson: Psalm 66:1-12
Second Lesson: Luke 17:11-19
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
I was recently introduced to this poem, Those Winter Sundays, by the great African-American poet, Robert Hayden, who was once Poet Laureate of the United States.
It’s taken directly from his boyhood in Detroit Michigan in the early part of the 20th century, remembering how his father would rise early in the morning “in the blueback cold”—even on Sundays—to start the fire that would warm their small house. Only then would he, the poet as a boy, slowly rise and dress, and make his way to the fire, “speaking indifferently” to his father who had “driven out the cold and polished his good shoes as well.”
What did I know—he says again—what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
And isn’t that an odd word to end with there—love’s austere and lonely “offices”—offices has many resonances: an office where you work, the office of a position (the office of the president) and even office in the religious sense. In the Catholic and Anglican traditions, the daily prayers are called the “Divine office,” the noon office—for instance—being the prayer offered at midday. (1)
The word “office” comes from a latin word that means simply “performing a task,” its root in this mundane sense of simply doing something. How little did he know then, as a young boy, but does know now, about the “austere and lonely,” the plain yet overlooked, actions, tasks, doings, in which love is shown?
And how little do any of us know of these things? Or did we, at a young age?
We’re in the process of teaching Billy how to say please and “thank you,” and he’s doing okay. “Please” usually comes only after we remind him—in other words, he’ll demand something and we’ll say, Billy, how do we ask for thinks nicely? And we might get a forced and exasperated, Please. “Thank you” is coming a little better, but when it does, it’s only after he’s been given whatever it is he’d just demanded. We’ve not yet managed to instill in him the kind of gratitude that would lead him to thank us for more basic provisions such as the roof over his head, the clothes on his back, the safety and security of a loving home, not to mention all the dirty diapers we've changed. We haven’t got him there yet. He turned 3 yesterday, so maybe by this time next year?
No, that’s not how it works.
Gratitude of that kind comes much later, if it comes at all, I’m afraid. In fact for all the markers we could think of for “adulthood”: turning a certain age, getting a job, supporting oneself, or what have you—the purest measure of maturity might be one’s level of gratitude. The level of awareness you have of all that’s been given to you, and the humility that can only spring from it.
The great theologian Howard Thurman tells a story about being a young boy in Lagrange, Georgia, and coming upon a very old man planting pecan saplings. And he asked the old man why he would plant trees he would never eat from himself. And the old man looked at him and said he didn’t see the problem; he’d been eating from trees he didn’t plant his whole life, it only seemed right to leave some for others.
Gratitude is rooted, if you will, in understanding that we all eat from trees we ourselves didn't plant.
Over the course of a lifetime, we’ll all fail at recognizing this from time to time, but it’s a sure sign of an immature and emotionally childish person who claims to be completely self-made, unable to see all that’s been granted to them. And I’m not even speaking here of whatever material advantages we might have inherited, but those much greater gifts, much deeper and perhaps harder to see gifts of life and health and being itself. Who has ever earned her first breath?
More than emotional maturity, gratitude is also probably the purest measure of one’s spiritual condition, or one’s faith.
Gratitude, you might say, is the beginning of faith. It’s that first impulse of or toward faith, where we acknowledge something beyond ourselves and confess that we’re not sole creators of whatever success or comforts or position we enjoy. It’s a fledgling faith’s first steps, buckling-knees, off-kilter center of gravity and all, a skill or impulse we hope to gain mastery over as we grow.
For all the complicating parts of this little story about Jesus, still on his way to Jerusalem, coming upon a group of ten lepers and healing them, it finally comes down to this interplay of gratitude and faith.
Jesus enters a village, we know not which one, and ten lepers approach him, keeping their distance. They call out to him together, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us! Jesus sees them and responds, telling them to go and present themselves to the priests. And as they went, we’re told, they were made clean. Their skin is healed.
But one of them, seeing that he was healed, turns back, praising God with a loud voice, laying himself down at Jesus’ feet and thanking him—and he was a Samaritan, we’re told, a sworn enemy of Israel is the one who acts faithfully (Jesus never misses and opportunity, it seems, to make his audience uncomfortable). Jesus says to him, Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return to give praise to God except this foreigner? Then looking at the man, Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.
Isn’t that odd—your faith has made you well? Were not the rest of them made well, too, even though they didn’t come back?
Two weeks ago, Julie opened up the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which comes just a few verse before this story in Luke, in which day after day the unnamed rich man fails to see the desperate man, Lazarus at his gateAnd she talked about our need to see each other—to truly see our neighbor, to truly see our co-worker, our friend, our spouse, our child. And Jesus models this here, it says he saw these men coming toward him and heals them—he sees and acts. But he’s not the only one who sees in this story. The tenth leper sees. Did you notice this? It says the man, seeing that he was healed, turned back, and praised God. He sees not someone else in their distress, but himself in his sudden, miraculous good fortune. And he, too, acts in the way faith compels him, and us, which is that he turns around, and gives thanks to God.
The act of faith in this story was not the ten of them asking Jesus for help. The act of faith was the one of them coming back and saying thank you. Or more, the act of faith was seeing what had been done for him, seeing how the miracle of God’s grace and love and mercy had been poured over him, and responding in gratitude.
Yes, we must see each other, we must see each other in our joy, in our sorrow, in our comfort, in our distress. We must see each other—this is a practice that faith demands. But faith also demands that we learn to see ourselves. That we learn to see all that surrounds us, all we’ve been given, the gifts of others, but also those innumerable gifts from a loving God, wholly unearned, that come with the expectation to do some good thing with—this is, after all, what it means to live by faith: to live in response to the working of God in your life.
And how exactly you will do this, what form this response will take—just what this good thing will look like—is entirely up to you.
And despite how you may have heard it, this isn’t meant to weigh on you like some debt you could never repay—this isn’t so much paying back as it is paying forward: see what you have been given and do what you can to give of it to others.
Gratitude may begin in recognizing you eat from trees you didn’t plant, but it’s completed in the planting of trees you know you’ll never eat from yourself.
And it needn’t be a large tree. Just so long as it bears fruit.
Fruit as small as forgiveness.
As sweet as a second-chance.
As satisfying as a single day lived with purpose and hope and possibility.
As tender, perhaps, as a poem to your father that he’ll never read, but where you nonetheless get to say that you saw him all those mornings.
What will it be? What will it be?
(1) Grateful to have been introduced to this poem and to worksop it at the Wilshire preaching Practicum at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, TX over October 3-4, 2016. Christian Wiman was our facilitator.