By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 17:11-19
Years ago, when my husband, Britt, and I were living in Dayton, Ohio, we were driving down a road on the west side of town when suddenly, in the middle of the road, was a puppy. The little guy had collapsed in the road. His head was slumped over a stale, crisp leaf which had fallen off a tree months before. He appeared to be attempting to eat the leaf. Britt and I seemed to gasp in unison and Britt stopped and walked toward the puppy. He was a pitiful sight. He was so undernourished that his skeletal frame was visible all over. He was deformed – swayback, flat feet and misshapen legs. He was filthy and his smell made me sick to my stomach. Nevertheless, he was such a pathetic little thing that something stirred even deeper in my gut: a feeling of compassion.
I scooped him into my SUV and headed to the local animal rescue shelter. It was a no-kill shelter where the animals are kept for as long as it takes for them to be adopted. Even the shelter workers cringed when I entered the door with that little guy. They examined him announcing that he was dehydrated and severely malnourished and very close to death. None of which was news to me. They gave him some subcutaneous fluids and then proceeded to explain that there was no room at their facility for this puppy. I had two options, I could take him to one of several shelters in the area which would give him a limited time for adoption and then euthanize or Britt and I could become his foster parents until he recovered enough to be put up for adoption. So, home we went with worming medication and instructions to feed him a ¼ c. of dog food every two to three hours for the next three or four days. Before his meal, he received a bath which made him a little easier on the nose. A member of my congregation was regional manager for a local pet store chain and was happy to contribute to the cause by loaning out a kennel. The shelter had emphasized that part of the pup’s deformities could be corrected with nutrition and exercise. That first weekend life revolved around that pathetic little puppy. His kennel was in our finished basement. Every couple hours, we released him from the kennel and put him in the backyard to do his business. We stood and waited while he, in a weary and wobbly fashion, meandered around the back yard. When he did business, he was greatly praised then we headed inside for a meal and a drink. The flight of stairs to the main floor was encouraged for exercise. Nevertheless it could take up to five minutes of coaxing and praising to entice him up those stairs. It was such a huge effort for him, all I wanted to do was lift him up and carry him to his dish. Once he made it to the top of the stairs there was, again a great deal of praise and a dish of food and water waiting in the kitchen. After he ate and drank, he wobbled back down the stairs to his kennel where he fell into an exhausted heap and slept until we awakened him three hours later to begin this whole procedure again.
As it turned out, we wound up fostering that little pup for two months. Now, two months is too long to simply be addressed by “hey puppy” – especially when there was already one puppy and two dogs in the house. So, we named the little guy Elos, an adaptation of the Greek word for mercy. We suspected, and the shelter affirmed, that Elos would not have survived much longer. Without our intervention, Elos would have likely been dead within a day – a victim of starvation, dehydration and exposure. Only mercy saved him. He looked hideous, he smelled disgusting and he was too weak to demonstrate any interest in anyone or anything. Elos needed mercy and mercy was what he got. A warm house, a soft blanket, nutritious food, cool clean water, affection, training and exercise all were his for the next two months and Elos thrived on them. His body weight doubled in those two months. His bones and muscles strengthened and some of those skeletal deformities did correct themselves. And he grew to be the happiest puppy you could ever see. He had a zest for life and was full of orneriness. His wobbling turned into bouncing. Elos seemed to bounce with glee wherever he went. He loved to roll around on the floor with our Doberman puppy and they took turns chasing one another around the dining room table and the backyard. We dubbed our Dobe his “physical therapist,” a relationship encouraged by the vet for its beneficial effects physically, mentally and socially. Elos especially loved to drag throw rugs and other items around the house. But, his greatest delight was over-turning water dishes – the fuller, the better. Little Elos was a puppy so much in need of mercy. Mercy not only spared his life, but made him whole. And his joyful bounce, playful antics, and generous affection were the canine version of gratitude.
Catholic priest and theologian Henri Nouwen says that a ministry community – that is, a church – is characterized by gratitude and compassion.[i] In other words, a ministering community is one in which the mercy of God is recognized and acknowledged through outward expressions of gratitude. Throughout the Old Testament, “mercy” is lifted up as a primary attribute of God; it is integral to God’s identity. In the Book of Exodus, Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to get the commandments from the Lord. There on the mountain, God appears to Moses and announces himself with these descriptive words: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…”[ii] Mercy is the outward manifestation of God’s compassion for his people. In our gospels, Jesus reveals that same compassion; a compassion demonstrated by his acts of mercy. In Luke’s gospel, the Virgin Mary proclaims the coming of Jesus as a fulfillment of God’s promised mercy to his people. Jesus – who he is and what he does – is the expression of God’s eternal mercy in the face of human suffering and need. As I felt compassion deep in my gut when I looked at that sad little puppy near death; Jesus feels compassion (a gut-wrenching response) when he looks upon us in our need.
This morning’s gospel is a story of ten lepers who cry out to Jesus for mercy. Being a leper involved more than a painful skin condition. To be a leper meant one was considered unclean and therefore exiled from community. Lepers were cast out – cast out of their families and villages; forbidden to enter the Temple for worship. These ten lepers know the reality of their condition so they cry out to Jesus from a distance, begging for his mercy. And Jesus sees them; he sees their sorrowful condition and their suffering stirs compassion within Jesus. Jesus shows them mercy. He instructs these lepers to go and show themselves to the priest. Only the priest could pronounce a clean bill of health and allow re-admittance to home and village and Temple. As they go on their way, they experience healing; they see it happen. It is a radical transformation of their life and yet, only one of those ten turn around and go back to express gratitude to Jesus. He falls at Jesus’ feet. His action is described with a word that means most literally “to descend from a higher place to a lower place.” The word also describes a posture of worship. This one leper humbles himself before Jesus he thanks Jesus and worships him.
Friends, today after our worship, we will celebrate the success of our brick campaign. This beautiful sanctuary was built in 1869. For almost 150 years, people have stepped through the doors into this sanctuary to worship and give God praise and we do so because God’s mercy has changed our lives. God’s mercy gave us life. God’s mercy gave us Jesus as Lord and Savior. God’s mercy places his Spirit within us to sustain us and guide us. God’s mercy is the reason for our gratitude and generosity. Just as mercy is the outward manifestation of God’s compassion, generosity is the outward manifestation of our gratitude for all that God has done for us. Ultimately, generosity is not the result of wealth or even wise management of resources… although both of those things can contribute to generosity. But, more than anything else, generosity is the outward expression of gratitude; a spiritual practice, a spiritual response to our recognition of the incredible difference God’s mercy has made in our lives. As thankful as I am for the contributions so many of you made to our brick campaign, today is not really about celebrating us. Today is about giving thanks for what God has done for us; for the mercy he has shown; for the blessings he’s bestowed.
And if we can interpret the celebration of this day in that way, it changes us; it saves us. 10 lepers were cleansed of their leprosy; but only the one who returns thanks to Jesus – only the one who humbly kneels and gives praise – only over that one does Jesus proclaim salvation; a healing and wholeness; a restoration of our relationship with God and with others.
Friends, our celebration today is really about seeing and giving thanks for all that God has done for us as individuals and as a congregation.
One of my favorite movies is the 1991 film What About Bob that starred Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss. Murray plays Bob, a character in great psychological distress. He is referred for treatment to Dreyfuss’ character, Dr. Marvin, a distinguished psychiatrist who takes himself a little too seriously. At Bob’s initial appointment he learns that the doctor is headed out of town for an extended vacation with family. Unable to wait for his return, Bob persuades the answering service to disclose the doctor’s location. Bob boards the bus and shows up on the doorstep of Dr. Marvin’s lakeside vacation home. Bob quickly ingratiates himself to Marvin’s wife and children. My favorite scene takes place one evening over a lovely and simple home-cooked meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy. Bob eats in gregarious fashion, lavishing compliments on Marvin’s wife. As he chews, he seems to enter a euphoric state – throwing his head back, closing his eyes, and mmm, mmm-ing his way through the meal. His simple behavior infuriates Marvin who cannot see what Bob sees so clearly: the blessings of good home cooking, a family that loves you, and a quaint cottage by the lake with fresh air and plenty of trees. Bob is humble and simple and gushes with gratitude for the mercy Marvin’s wife and children show him.
Friends, it is easy to take the blessings of life for granted. It is easy, like those other nine lepers, to take what we can get and go merrily on our way. Yet the real joy in life comes when we humble ourselves; when we see what God has done for us and give thanks for the compassionate mercy of God; and when our gratitude is made manifest through generosity. That is true salvation; that is the mm, mm-goodness of our God.
[i] The focus of chapter 9 in Nouwen’s book Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith. Harper Press; 2006.
[ii] Exodus 34:6
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