- Pentecost 21.16 “The Wrong Crowd and No Crowding” Luke 17:11-19
Where are the nine? It’s a great line (I use it anytime a group is not as large as hoped/expected. Like this morning. “They let a little hurricane keep them away? Really? C’mon!”) Of course, since it comes from Jesus, naturally it will be a great line. But I wonder if we fully absorb all that Jesus is saying here? For a little line, it packs a wallop (as Jesus’ Words always do!).
The scene is familiar to most of us. Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem (to die on a cross! an idea His own Apostles are not wild about, at all). He’s going through Samaria and Galilee, infamous as the bad neighborhoods, the hinterland hoodoo parts of Israel where the not-so-beautiful—the mad, the bad, the wrong crowd—dwell. Not a place you’d expect to find Christians—Samaria or Galilee, really. Because we are used to hearing about Jesus popping up in Samaria and Galilee, we forget they’re not at all the sort of places you’d expect the Messiah of Israel to frequent. The Samaritans were notorious heretics, syncretists, blending all sorts of pagan religions with a dash of the Israelite into a truly bad brew. The voodoo children of Palestine! Savanah, GA has nothing on them. Samaritans were a motley crew of resettled refugees from Syria and Persia that the Assyrians had dumped in the conquered Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BC, hoping to cause chaos thereby (sure glad that kind of stuff doesn’t happen in our day!). And time had not made Samaritans any more appealing to anyone. And the Galileans, well… they had been slackers and losers, time out of mind, since the days of David a millennia before. Good, devout Jews avoided both places like the plague!
Because, in addition to a centuries old refugee problem they also had… lepers and other infectious diseases rampant in the area. You think zika is bad? Leprosy is worse, a highly contagious and essentially incurable disease that will, first: disfigure you, then: slowly, horribly, and painfully kill you, over the course of years. So, naturally, as soon as Jesus enters a certain, nameless village, ten lepers met him right away! The Welcome Wagon. They stood a little ways off (but probably not the 500 feet their restraining order required) shouting at Him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Welcome to Samaria! Land of the sick, dispossessed, heretical, and hopeless. Have a pleasant stay!
Jesus is not phased. Without breaking stride, with barely a glance, He shoots back: “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” A fairly weird response! (though it does clear out the lepers, and gets Jesus through the village, quickly. He’s got places to go, Jesus does!). Usually, when Jesus heals the diseased He will say something like: “I’m going to heal you now,” or “Be cleansed”. But here, just: “go, show yourselves to the priests”. Like it’s not really His problem, since the Law appoints the priests as the ones to deal with it. But Jesus suggests they’re fine with Him. We learn from the Old Testament that, sometimes, very rarely, lepers would get well. But not very often. Still, the lepers, without any question, simply do as Jesus says. And as they went, they were cleansed. Before they get to the priests, they see their leprosy has vanished, entirely. And one of them, when he saw he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a voodoo chile… uh, a Samaritan. And Jesus responds with that laconic, delightful line, “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?”
Where are the nine? This seems to be the question, the obsession of the modern American denominations. Dozens of surveys and anxious books and articles are being written about the decline of Christianity in the Western developed world. Church attendance has been plunging in Europe for decades, everyone knows. But over the last 20 years, it’s been nosediving in America too (after more than 200 years of steady growth!). The more “liberal” American denominations (not to name names, but like the Episcopalians) discovered that from 2000 to the present they’d lost more than 20% of their membership. The ELCA too. And just as articles appeared a few years ago, blaming liberal social policies for these declines, pundits noticed that “conservative” churches like the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention had also lost about 20% of their membership, and are still slipping, numbers-wise. Our Synod President led off his convention address to the Synod this summer with a lengthy and thoughtful analysis of the scope and reasons for the decline which is quite measurably real in all parts of our church. Even congregations that are growing are doing so largely from temporary demographic blips and/or from picking off members from other congregations that have less money to spend.
So, where are the nine? Well, Jesus has good news and bad news for us on the whereabouts of the nine: the good news is the nine are where they always are; they aren’t lost, and it isn’t our bad attitudes alienating them. Simply put: the nine just aren’t much interested in Jesus—then or now. Our situation is no worse than that of Jesus Himself, numbers-wise—the crowds in orthodox churches are always more than a bit disappointing to common expectations. The bad news is the same—our situation is no better than that of Jesus Himself, numbers-wise. The problem is really our expectations: we imagine that since Jesus is Lord and God and wields all kinds of cool, magical, and healing powers, that crowds will always flock to worship Him—that He will always be the most popular Kid in school, Class President and all that, with adoring throngs of cheerleaders and jocks hanging all over Him. And there were times that thousands flocked to Him, after He fed them free lunches, healed them, or rode into Jerusalem like a King, on a donkey. But within hours or days, the crowd is thinned, as soon as they hear what Jesus actually has to say—“eat My Body, drink My Blood, take up the Cross and follow Me!”!
The worship of Jesus from Day One has ever been thus: the wrong crowd and no crowding. Which makes us feel better and worse, right? Ten/ten should be flocking to Him, offering their glad adoration. Really, “How Can I Keep From Singing”? Well, it turns out: fairly easily, actually! Our knees are stiff. Our voices hoarse (“when I hear you chant, I’m reminded how beautiful a spoken service can be!”). We have all kinds of excuses to keep us from singing, bowing, worshipping Him. We have from the beginning, in the Garden.
But One of Ten (like Seven of Nine, that Borg from Star Trek?) find the Way. Some poor, refugee foreigner will always be there, at His feet. Less than what even Jesus hoped/expected, but all that you really need for a truly Divine Service. Sometimes, less is more. Sometimes our expectations are all that keep us from singing, from returning, with Doxa (Glory) to God. Because Jesus has a wonderful way of flouting all our expectations: appearing humbly, lowly, bringing life out of death, joy out of the suffering and shame of the cross. Sinners never get the Jesus we want, but always, only, the Savior we need.
The wrong crowd is alright with Jesus. Slackers, Sinners, Samaritans—come one, come all! The impossibly incurable find healing, here. Because the worship of Jesus, the bowing, the singing, the Doxa-Returning, by this He transforms us. Wrong on our own, we’re alright, flat on our face before Jesus, hearing only: “Arise, go your way. Your Faith has saved you.” Faith He gives, and Peace surpassing understanding, guarding heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.