Sermon October 13, 2013


“The Long Walk Home”


October 13, 2013

The Reverend Jonah K. Smith-Bartlett


Psalm 111:1-10

1Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.

2Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.

3Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever.

4He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful.

5He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.

6He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.

7The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.

8They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.

9He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name.

10The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.


Luke 17:11-19

11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”



This morning’s reading from the book of Luke is a healing story.  Healing stories aren’t uncommon in the gospels.  They are one of the hallmarks of Christ’s ministry.  They are miracles and miracles are always used to astonish us, amaze us, and direct us from looking at the awe of the present moment toward the awe of the eternal God.  The God whose miracles great and small have left their mark upon creation and in profound ways pieced back together.

Ten lepers are healed in this story from Luke.  Ten lepers approach Christ, calling out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  And ten are healed.  In that moment, the lives of ten men and women are forever changed.  For ten the pain has resided.  For ten, they no longer must eat, sleep, or live on the margins of society.  For ten, they were granted the gift of human touch anew and human relationship anew and reconciliation with the person that they once were before this horrible disease had forced them into an unwelcome transformation.  For ten, this is a miracle that heals, astonishes, and points them from looking at the awe of the present moment toward the awe of the eternal God.  This gift!  For all ten!  But only one returns to Christ.

The trajectory of the gospels is always pushing toward Calvary, the cross, and then the empty tomb.  It is always marching onward to the moment of atonement and the gift of grace.  Grace is the greatest gift, the forgiveness of all people through the death of Christ. It is the greatest miracle.  It is the greatest moment of healing. The people who are healed are all people.  From that moment forward and as theologians have pointed out, from that moment backward in time and space as well.  For Adam and Eve and Noah and Ruth and Peter and Judas and Paul and so forth and so on… a healed people by the power of grace. The people who are healed are all people.  The nine who walk on to their next destination, and the one who takes the long walk home to Christ.

The nine and the one.  There is the hinge of the narrative.  There is the essential cog of the machine. There is the distinction upon which this story of the gospel rests. All ten are healed.  Nine walk on.  One returns to Christ.

Here is something to be said.  Some critical self-awareness.  When we hear this story, I would guess that many of us consider ourselves to be like the one.  In my best moments I consider myself to be like the one who thanks Christ for the gifts that I have been given – the gifts of healing, love, and grace.  We are, after all, worshipping this morning in praise of God and Christ.  We are, after all, gathered in this community that identifies itself as diverse in political views, diverse in social understandings, and areas of expertise.  But we gather here, all of us, under the common banner of modern disciples of Christ, as flawed and faithful as the first fishers of men.  How could we return here, week after week, except to believe that we are returning, as the healed Samaritan did, down the long walk home to Christ?  For Christ, indeed, is home.

If we do consider ourselves to be like the one who returns- stumbling or striding, then we inevitably turn to understanding the other nine… trying to understand the other nine, receivers of grace themselves, who have trudged along other paths for quite some time now.

There is a pessimistic view.  There is a pessimistic view that assumes that we value exclusivity.  There is a pessimistic view that drives us toward a particular question- what do we, the more faithful… we, the more loyal, gain?  What do the less faithful lose?  When the last hand is dealt- how will our fortune play out?  The grace of the nine is cheap grace.  The grace that we receive… the grace of the staunch believers who have said a familiar prayer before every meal, who have memorized favorite lines of scripture, who have served neighbors in the name of God, who have worshipped week in and week out- how could it possibly be fair?  How could it possibly be JUST, should we, at the end of the day, find ourselves seated at the same table, sharing the same meal… why take the long walk home if the shortcut is just as effective?

I don’t think that the judgment of fairness is the central difficulty of our modern lives.  I believe that is the pessimistic view and the view that on our best days we have truly moved past.  Why we care about the nine, the nine who have been healed by grace but have not returned to Christ, is because we know the nine.  We care for the nine.  We want them to be our companions in that long walk home.

There is the first, saved by grace, our friend who holds Jesus in high esteem as a moral and ethical leader.  The first who finds in their personal faith journey, in their honest search for truth, that Jesus is one of the greatest prophets in the still unfolding history of the world, leader and teacher, Roman insurrectionist and global revolutionary- but not the Son of God.  We love the first.   We honor the first.  But some days we wish that the first would just walk with us…. home to Christ.

There is the second, saved by grace, our family member who weighs the evidence of science and the world, measures the immeasurable tale of the universe, and finds – perhaps to much chagrin – there is no room for God here.  There is no room for Charles Darwin and Genesis or Neil de Grasse Tyson and the gospel writers. These are those who find a heartbreaking absence in the heavens – walk with us home.

There is the third person, saved by grace, who can’t find the good news in the church when the church will not open its doors to them.  The fellowship that they find is too entrenched in the ways of the past that it can’t see the blessing of the future.  A vulnerable blessing brought humbly by them and offered to the children of God.  Walk with us home to Christ.

There is the fourth, saved by grace, who like many we love find in the evening news and discover through heated conversations Jesus Christ as the tragic, divisive figure of Jerusalem.  One body, but many members who strive for bitter independence.  Our God is not a divisive God.  Christ is the great reconciler.  Let’s go home.

There is the fifth, saved by grace, who has set up camp at the nearest, familiar peak.  They look out across the landscape of their religious hope.  They yearn there for a mountaintop moment- like Moses, like Noah, like the disciples before the transfigured Christ.  They wait for the booming voice and find themselves depleted by silence.  For most of us the common prayer is a muted prayer.  Walk with us home to Christ.

There is the sixth, saved by grace, the parent who has lost a spouse, a child, a friend, to illness or disease.  They call out to Christ like Christ once called out to God in Gethsemane.  Why have you forsaken me?  The most moving of Christian anthems and the most complex Christian theologies cannot answer that question.  Still we search for the answer.  As we walk back toward the Christ that heals us.

There is the seventh, saved by grace, the person halfway around the world, who is a victim of violence.  There is the neighbor who suffers quietly next door.  The stranger and the beloved neighbor are created in the image of God and when they are affronted and assaulted, so God is affronted and assaulted.  As they are harmed, so Christ is harmed, so Christ becomes a stranger, so the path back to a familiar Christ is a very long way down the road.

There is the eighth person, saved by grace, who finds in the good news of the gospel falsely identified words of hate.  Divinely-inspired parables and poems become sharp as knives and heavy as clubs.  The works of God and the teachings of Christ become litanies that lift oneself up upon the back of another instead of upon the firm foundation of the community of the church.  The authentic Christ, the loving Christ, is a long way down the road.

There is the ninth person, saved by grace, who finds that the good news of the gospel spares one from the need for Christian community.  The faith of the individual stands alone.  Outside the walls of the church.  Resting comfortably without the movement of the Spirit or the voice of the Christian neighbor.  There is no Christian desire for religious isolation no matter how intellectual or profound.  The community of Christ begins with Christ, who is a long way down the road.

Why do we, the healed people, walk back to Christ?  Why do we strive to offer our gratitude? Because in the words of Christ, “your faith has made you well”. The faithful walk has made you well.  Christian wellness isn’t the verdict offered to the best of us at some final hour.  It isn’t the last refrain of the last song.  It’s the movement of the journey.  It is the blessings of THIS lifetime, not in material goods but in spiritual flourish.

Praying without ceasing, singing psalms of joy, living the difficult life of discipleship – forgiving seventy times seven, turning the other cheek, leaving behind all that you have to take up your cross and follow me… this walk, the Christian journey, wears us out, exhausts us, demands more of us than any job or any vocation possibly could and ultimately, a long way down the road, a long way home… at the side of Christ, this walk redeems us, revives us, and makes us well.

We continue to walk with the gift of grace, we continue to witness to the love of Christ, we continue to walk humbly together but with room between us to either side.  When a new face turns toward Christ, when a new story joins our own, let’s make room for them, let’s follow the path they tread.  Let them lead us anew to the call of Christ that welcomes them home.

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