A sermon preached on October 14, 2007 based upon Luke 17:11 – 21, entitled, “The Kingdom of God is Within.”
One of the fascinating things about Scripture which I keep rediscovering as a preacher is the way you can read a particular passage and, over time, keep hearing new things in it. For instance, take this morning’s story of the ten lepers whom Jesus encountered between Galilee and Samaria. I’ve been preaching for over 26 years which means this story has come up in the lectionary maybe nine times, not to mention at extra Thanksgiving services where this story fits nicely because it has the Samaritan returning to Jesus after he is healed to say thanks.
My usual interpretation of this passage has gone like this: Gratitude and praise are crucial to life. Whatever we have been given in life, if we don’t experience it in a spirit of thanksgiving, there’s a sense in which we might as well not have received it at all. And so I’d point out that there are lots of people in this world with all kinds of money who walk around feeling shortchanged and anxious, and then there are lots of people who have little more than their daily bread and yet experience their life as a gift, and so that in the truest sense, being rich or poor has more to do with the state of our hearts than with the quantity of our blessings.
I generally make the same observation regarding health; that often those of us with physical health take it for granted, not realizing what a gift it is. Ironically, sometimes it seems necessary for us to get sick before we come to appreciate what a gift and health and life truly are.
The same can be said for family and friends and all other good gifts.
And so the Samaritan leper experiences two levels of healing: Along with the other nine, his skin is cleansed and he is restored to his community. But apparently only the Samaritan entered into the deeper healing which is related to faith, wherein he experiences himself as truly blessed and empowered.
This interpretation of the story is, of course, a wonderful message, and it wouldn’t hurt to be reminded of it repeatedly, since we are so prone to take everything for granted.
But this time as I read this very familiar story I noticed a detail that either I hadn’t noticed before, or, had noticed but didn’t put much weight to since it didn’t seem to fit into the interpretation I knew I was already headed towards.
And the detail was this: Jesus gives orders to all ten lepers: “Go, show yourself to the priest,” which, apparently, all ten begin to do. The Samaritan, however, stops doing what Jesus told him to do when he discovers he has been healed, while the other nine continue to do what they were commanded. Jesus, however, praises only the Samaritan. The nine obedient ones are criticized by Jesus, while the one who is disobedient is praised, which is a somewhat jarring detail to notice if you think about it.
For years there is a voice that has become immediately recognizable to me that I hear at night when I’m on a long car ride, spinning the radio dial, trying to fight off boredom and sleepiness. It’s the voice of a Bible teacher named “Brother Camping” and the most distinguishing aspect of his voice is how incredibly boring and tedious it is. He speaks in a dull monotone with very little expression. I’ve never once heard him tell a joke. And yet he’s always there, somewhere on the dial, omnipresent, answering the questions of a steady stream of callers.
Recently I discovered that not only is he always on the radio, but he also has his own cable TV channel, where you can see him sitting there in his suit, his Bible open in his lap. He is older than I realized, like 90 maybe, so I give him credit for plugging away so late into life. On TV you can see that there is a studio audience, people sitting in front of Brother Camping listening to his every word as he expounds on the Bible, their Bibles open in their laps as well.
And so I couldn’t help but wonder, what gives here? How does a guy this boring generate an audience so devoted that he succeeds in taking up so much airspace every night?
The answer, as I thought about it, seems pretty obvious. Brother Camping appeals to the desire in people for an absolute truth that takes away all the messy ambiguity of life and all the perplexing mystery. Brother Camping confidently offers up certainty, and that is why so many people are willing to overlook the fact that he is as boring as sin.
There are a couple of things I’ve noticed about Brother Camping:
1) He never says, “I don’t know.” He pretty much always knows.
2) Although his teaching gives a very exalted place to the Bible, he isn’t really encouraging people to read the Bible for themselves. The clear implication is that if you read the Bible on your own without Brother Camping there to interpret it for you, you’re pretty much guaranteed to screw it up. And 3) He never expresses any curiosity regarding the people themselves who call in to ask a question about the Bible. It’s as if the personal story of the caller is completely irrelevant. All that matters is the Bible itself.
It occurred to me that Brother Camping’s style of religion is found in the Gospels. The Pharisees preferred black and white answers to life’s questions, looking for them in the detailed laws of the Torah. They too were lacking in humor. And generally speaking, they didn’t get along too well with Jesus.
There is an interesting exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees that comes at the end of this morning’s scripture lesson. They challenge him as to what are the signs of the coming of the Kingdom of God. “When we look out into the world, what, Jesus, should we be looking for that will let us know the day is getting closer?”
In response, Jesus says an interesting thing. He says the kingdom of God isn’t something you will look for out there; instead, “the kingdom of God is within you.”
Hearing this directly connected to the story of the ten lepers also encouraged me to go in a new direction with my interpretation.
One way to talk about the difference between the Samaritan and the other nine lepers who get healed is to describe them as focused on external authorities. The cues for their actions are taken exclusively from outside themselves, in this case from Jesus, who tells them what to do.
Like the other nine, the Samaritan pays attention to the authoritative voice of Jesus that comes from beyond himself. But the Samaritan also pays attention to something else — he also pays attention to what is going on inside of himself, in his own soul. What he experiences there is a profound sense of gratitude and wonder which demands an original response from him: he turns around and heads back to Jesus where he falls at his feet to give praise and thanksgiving.
Where is the kingdom of God? It is within you.
There is something very challenging here. When we think about what a faithful life looks like, often what comes to mind is somebody who is obedient. “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, than to trust and obey.” Follow the rules of appropriate behavior and make it a point to get along with everybody.
But when you look at the Gospel of Luke, the examples given of what faith looks like don’t really fit that image. For instance, there is that one, solitary story we have from the life of Jesus between his infancy and the start of his ministry at age 30. You know the story. It describes the 12 year old Jesus, and curiously it tells of disobedience rather than obedience. Jesus disobeys his parents, returning to the Temple when his parents had told him it was time to return to Nazareth. You might, however, say that the boy Jesus is obedient in that moment to something deeper than the external authority of his parents — he is obedient to the holy spirit from within to spend extended time in his “Father’s house.”
Now it would be quite wrong to picture Jesus as having been a little, rebellious hellion throughout his childhood. Luke makes a point of telling us that pretty much from that point on, Jesus obeyed the authority of his parents.
I, myself, have a 12 year old son, and I find it helpful to remember this particular story about the disobedience of the 12 year old Jesus. To say that Bobby gives me total obedience in respect to my parental authority would be, well, simply not true. Oftentimes I bemoan the fact that he doesn’t give me more obedience. But if I could wave a magic wand and suddenly transform Bobby into the perfectly obedient child, would that really be something to be desired? I don’t think so. You want your child to pay attention not only to the external authorities, but also to what is going on inside themselves. An inability to listen to the voice coming from within is responsible for a lot of evil in this world where people simply carry out orders, never listening to the still, small voice inside that would say, “No, this is wrong!”
The inability to listen within is also responsible for the fact that there are a lot of dead souls walking around who have no clue what it is they truly desire and need in life, because they never learned to pay attention to what their souls were telling them.
The people Jesus commended for their faith seem to have a lively capacity for listening to the nudges that come from within. Here’s a quick review of these people:
1) The four friends carrying the paralyzed man to Jesus. If they had simply obeyed the rules, they would never have torn the hole in Jesus’ roof.
2) The woman with the flow of blood, if she had obeyed the rules she wouldn’t have been out in public in the company of a rabbi, let alone touching the hem of his garment.
3) The Gentile Woman who invaded Jesus’ vacation to request a healing for her sick son wasn’t obeying the rules. Gentiles, not to mention women, were supposed to stay clear of Jewish rabbis.
4) If Blind Bartimaeus had been obedient to the crowd telling him to be quiet and not make a scene, well, he wouldn’t have gotten his sight back, or be commended for his faith by Jesus.
5) And Jesus himself in the little story we will hear next week tells of a widow who refused to obey the authority of the unjust judge, persisting on banging at his door until she finally gets justice.
And this morning’s Samaritan carries on the theme: “Jesus told me that I was supposed to go show myself to the priest, but right now I’ve got praise and thanksgiving in my soul and I just gotta express it!”
Now a couple of weeks ago I mentioned that every sermon, if it were the only sermon you ever heard, would be heretical. Sermons focus on a piece of the truth — not the whole truth. This morning’s sermon is a good example of this principle. If we were to suddenly make a habit of disobeying all external authority in deference to what our insides tell us, well, that would be pretty awful.
But the point here is that as we pursue “truth” in our lives, if we are only looking out there beyond ourselves, we’re missing something critical.
It’s a little like what it means to be a good patient. Some people might think that a good patient is one who strictly does what the doctor says, without asking questions. In truth, the patient is best off when the doctor and the patient form a partnership. “Hey Doc, please explain why you think I need this test or this medication. I’m not really getting it.” Or, “Hey Doc, my gut tells me we might be barking up the wrong tree.”
Some doctors might find this kind of input annoying, but I think the best doctors appreciate that a patient involved in the process does better than a patient who just sits there and nods obediently.
This is actually good Methodist doctrine. Where do we look for truth, asked John Wesley? Well, first we look in Scripture, but that’s not the only place we look. We also look at tradition, which is to say, we consider what wise people who came before us had to say about what is truth. But don’t ignore reason, Wesley said. The final component in the search for truth, said Wesley is our own, personal experience. It was John Wesley, after all, who experienced his heart as being strangely warmed when he finally discovered the great love that is God.
Discerning the truth requires a mysterious blending of scripture, tradition, reason and experience, Brother Camping, not withstanding.
Brother Camping represents a form of religion that would deny the significance of our own experience. But the secular world is quite capable of pressuring us to do the same. We are bombarded by messages from advertising and the media that pressure us to go along with the herd. The world is happy to take over the job of directing us as to what we are to think or feel or desire.