This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, March 1, 2020, the First Lord’s Day of Lent at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s the first in a series of sermons exploring the marks of membership in United Methodist Churches: prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. It interacts with Pastor Adam Hamilton’s The Walk: Five Essential Practices of the Christian Life (Abingdon Press, 2019).
It’s based on Luke 17:11-21.
In Five Practices of Fruitful Living (43-44), Bishop Robert Schnase tells a story about a woman he calls Linda. Linda was in her early forties when she found herself wandering into a church one Sunday morning. Linda had never been “a church person.” But she wanted to see her daughter sing with the youth ministry she’d been attending with friends. She entered the Narthex, where she was greeted by people and handed a bulletin. She wasn’t sure where to go, but she followed the flow of people to the Sanctuary. She wasn’t sure where to sit, or if she should ask someone to move down in the pew or step across them. When the pastor stood to begin worship, others around her responded with the words on the screen in ways that were foreign to her. She didn’t know the songs or the prayers. But she was touched when, during the prayer time, someone mentioned a family that was grieving and they all prayed, “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.” Linda remembered how she’d felt so alone when her husband had died, and wondered what it would be like to have had a community surrounding her and her daughter. As her daughter stood with the group to sing, a wave of parental pride washed over her, and the energy of the song nuzzled into her spirit. She wasn’t sure about what the pastor was saying, or what she thought about God, but she sensed a certain kind of good news about God. As the service ended, the mother of one of her daughter’s friends came up to her. She apologized for not having seen her, gave her a gentle hug, said, “I’m so glad you came. Next time you’re here, let’s sit together.” Then, in her car in the parking lot, she found herself lost in thought, pondering the song her daughter sang, brief snippets of the sermon, and thinking about the family they’d prayed for.
In Schnase’s story, “Linda” comes to worship as a stranger to the church and the practice of worship, but somehow, she senses in the experience that God loves her, that she can be surrounded by others who will love her, and that she can play a part in supporting and loving others. Perhaps you’ve felt like Linda at one point in your life or another: broken, lonely, disconnected, and distressed. Simply coming to worship won’t fix all this, but Linda’s story suggests that, through the practice of worship, God meets us and works in our lives to bring healing, restoration, comfort, hope, belonging, and purpose.
As we think about Linda, let’s turn our attention to Luke’s account of Jesus and the ten lepers. They too felt isolated, alone, separated from their community, largely because of their diseases – lumped together under the term, “leprosy.” When they see Jesus enter their village, they hurry to him, while keeping their distance, because he’s known as a healer of lepers (Lu 7:21-23). Linda too, was apt to keep her distance through her suspicion.
Jesus responds to their request for healing by sending them to the priests, who will, presumably proclaim them cleansed, healed, and saved, and allow them to re-enter the community and their families. But one, seeing that he’d been healed, turns around quickly, praising God with a loud voice, and returns to Jesus bowing down and thanking him. In our story, Linda was never quite at this point, but there was something about the message that struck a chord with her.
When the Samaritan man returns, thanking Jesus and praising God, Jesus does two interesting things. First, he notices that only this man – a double outsider, because he’s a leper and a foreigner, a non-Jew – has returned with thanksgiving and praise. We might not make too much of this, but Luke’s gospel consistently shows Jesus with such outsiders, revealing the universal scope of Jesus’s mission: the good news of God’s kingdom he proclaims and embodies is good news for all.
Even so, Jesus’ second response is especially important today: he tells the man, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you” or “saved you,” which is another translation of the Greek word. This is an astounding statement. The only expression of faith the healed man has shown is his thanksgiving and worship. Jesus links faith with thanksgiving worship, and proclaims that such faith brings about healing, transformation, wholeness, even salvation. Further, Jesus links this faith response with a sense of mission: Jesus sends the man back into community with thanks on his lips. Linda caught whiffs of this when she caught herself praying for a family she did not know as she left worship that day.
Given the story of the healed leper and Linda, what can we say about worship today?
First, worship is something we do both together and alone, through which we experience God’s presence and work in our lives. This Lent, the challenge of The Walk is to walk with Jesus in worship and prayer regularly, together and alone. That’s why one hand on the art piece at the front has a fist: we worship together, as often as we can, as Christ’s body. Through worship, God forms us as God’s people, and there’s no supplement for this gift of worship – every week matters. I felt this personally last week. Because I led all the music, I wasn’t able to connect with other people here. I left feeling like I’d only half worshipped. I’d praised God with thanksgiving, but I hadn’t experienced God forming us together as the Body of Christ for the world. Linda noticed the power of this togetherness by her sense of being an outsider, but she also sensed its possibility in the way people prayed for each other, and the way someone invited her to sit with her next time.
Second, when the healed man returned to Jesus, he did so with thanksgiving. At its root, worship says two things to God: “Thank you!” and “I love you!” These two statements – “Thank you” and “I love you” – are the foundation of our worship each week together. Practicing saying “Thank you” and “I love you” through worship, together and alone, enables God to shape us as God’s people of gratitude, faithfulness, and love.
Together in worship, we weekly practice saying, “Thank you” and “I love and follow you,” but this is too great a gift of God to practice only on Sundays. And so, this Lent, we’re thinking about our personal prayer practices as our individual, daily worship. The open hand on the chancel reminds us of a challenge to pray at least five times each day. Of course, the goal, which Paul emphasizes in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 is to “pray continuously,” but for this season, let’s set the bar a little lower. Let’s try praying these five times: in the morning, at breakfast, at lunch, at supper, and in the evening. These five fingers can also remind us of ways to pray, as I talked about with the kids: praise, thanksgiving, confession, petition, and yielding.
By engaging in both corporate worship and daily prayer, Jesus forms us as his body, and shapes us as God’s people of gratitude and faithfulness. Through worship and daily prayer, Jesus proclaims, as he did to the healed man, “Your faith has healed you”: Jesus frees us from that which binds us, molds us more fully into the image of God revealed in Jesus, and makes us whole, healed, and saved. Through worship and daily prayer, Jesus takes our hands and leads us on, as it says in the old hymn “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” (UMH, 474). And through worship and daily prayer, Jesus calls to us saying, “Get up and go as my mission, my witnesses, my presence in the world.” May it be so.