Without Recognition

Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs, 10/14/18

By the time we get to chapter 17 of Luke’s Gospel, it has been a long time since the disciples dropped their fishing nets to follow Jesus.  They are no longer new converts fresh out of employee training.  After years of service, they have heard all the sermons a dozen times, memorized all the teaching footnotes, reminded Jesus of how his parables end when he forgets.

When they arrive at the edge of town on their way to Jerusalem, Jesus must have been considering what last lessons to share before giving his disciples the keys to the kingdom.  Just then, the member of a leper colony quarantined on the other side of the railroad tracks screams out, “Savior of the world, could you please spare a few coins, yesterday’s casserole, an extra coat?  We must beg to stay alive and our survival requires your generosity.” 

Routinely giving far more than what’s asked of him, Jesus doesn’t toss any crumbs their way.  Instead, he gives them the one thing they forgot was even a possibility.  But every bit as miraculous as the healing is the importance of what Jesus is imparting to his followers before his departure on the cross. 

In today’s text, what then is Jesus trying to teach the disciples about the practice of ministry?

Luke 17:11-19 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, 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 made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Congregational Responses:

Your ministry is where people are suffering. 

Healing doesn’t require a building or an organized religion.

It is often the unchurched stranger who is the most faithful.

In seminary, I was required to take a class on Church Administration.  We learned about how to run a meeting. Space communicates power.  Organize the chairs into a circle and let the arrangement encourage dialogue. As pastor, your voice shouldn’t be primary.  While the world clings to hierarchy, it is your responsibly to undermine it.  When nominating chairpersons, be wary of the member far too eager to be in charge.  He’s likely been demoted at the factory and stifled at home in his marriage.  Churches are flush with people desperate to grab authority, especially on committees.  The peaceable church is often the church closest to death.  The most alive congregations are the ones with the most conflict because they are filled with debate and struggle, congregants invested enough to disagree.  Trust the healthy arguments because that’s where the Spirit moves.  Then we moved on to lay empowerment, or how to mobilize the ministries of members.  But before the professor could finish the lecture, he went off script into editorializing.  I remember him saying something like, “I cringe when the fellowship hall gets dedicated in the name of the wealthiest benefactor; I despise handing out certificates of recognition to the high school students who just completed their first mission trip.  I get so frustrated by the church that trots the Sunday school teacher up onto the chancel and thanks her for 40 years of service.”  Exasperated, he concluded, “Why do we reward Christians for practicing their Christianity?”

When Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit to preach the good news at his home church, Nazareth didn’t celebrate him.  Instead, they ran him out of town.  When he risked it all to find the one lost sheep, the lamb just rejoined the flock without even a lick on the cheek.  When he was dying on the cross for the sins of the world, the executioners mocked and spat on him.  After three years of full-time service, working 120 plus hours a week and getting almost every day off interrupted by the crowd’s endless needs, Jesus is offered praise exactly twice.  Even more shocking, according to Luke, he gets thanked only one time in his entire ministry.  By the Samaritan. 

When Jesus heals the 10 lepers, 90% don’t even acknowledge the very miracle that saved their lives. With their disfigured faces and scarred skin no more, they turn their backs on the divine physician.  As the nine walk away, Jesus wants the disciples to understand that the more thankless the task, the more it is done in God’s name. The practice of ministry can never be dependent on someone’s reaction to it. 

The culture of ingratitude hasn’t changed much in two thousand years.  But if you’re called to help heal the world nonetheless, then know the work of the Church will go, mostly, entirely unnoticed, come without celebration, and rarely, if ever, be followed up with by a word of appreciation.  Perhaps that’s what Mother Teresa intended when she penned this poem called Anyway:

“People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centered;
Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.

What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.”