One Time in Ten (or The Tenth Leper) Luke 17: 11-19

When I first read over our scripture for today, my Bible Belt childhood flashed before my eyes.  I could see exactly how a story like this might be preached in my home state of Texas.  In my mind’s eye, I could even see the reader board outside the big white church.  The reader board would proclaim:

Make a U-Turn to Jesus!

Sometimes a scripture portion is infuriating.  Sometimes it is impenetrable.  Sometimes it is so familiar that it slips inside one ear and out the other, never registering in our heads—let alone in our hearts.

But I have come to believe that every portion has power—the power to push us, pull us, cajole us, shape us, strengthen us.  Our tradition tells us “For God has yet more truth and light to break forth from God’s Holy Word…”  Today, our mission (and our joy) is to gather together, and to let this word be broken open in us and among us.

Will you pray with me?  May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable to You, our rock, and our redeemer.

W.H. Auden wrote:

When grace enters, there is no choice—humans must dance.

But as beautiful as those words are, and as much as I wish they were true, our scripture points to another reality.  When grace enters a room we should begin to dance but, sadly, more often than not we let something get in our way, sometimes, we don’t even hear the music.


Now one way of breaking open a scripture so that we might hear a Word is to ask ourselves—

  • “Who am I in this scripture?”
  • “Am I the one who calls out to Jesus?
  • Am I the one who longs for healing?
  • Am I the one who takes a chance that the Holy One might look my way?”

Or we might consider,

  • “Am I more like the one who is healed, but simply goes on his way, not letting the miracle keep him from the next item on his to-do list—after all, Jesus said, “Go show yourself to the priest—so he knows he has to get over there, and quick.  I mean, everyone knows they close early on Tuesdays.”
  • “Or am I more like the one who when he sees that he has been healed, turns and heads back, praising God in a loud voice?  Am I like the one who throws himself at Jesus’ feet ,thanking him and praising God?”

Do these questions resonate with you?  Do you know in your heart that you are the one who calls out, or that you are the one who longs for healing?  Do you wonder if maybe you are like the one who ignores the healing and miracles all around him?

Would you take a minute—would you take a risk—and turn to the person next to you and share what came to you?  What stirs in your heart as you think about today’s reading?


Thank you.  I have a working theory about this passage that I want to explore with you all today.  My theory is this—that we are—each of us—every person in this story.

  • We are all, at different times, the one who sits outside the village, excluded from community, alone in our misery and pain.
  • We are all, at times, the one who gathers courage and calls out to God—See me!  Heal me!
  • We are all, at times, blind to God’s work in us and around us
  • We are all, at times, so busy getting on with what we’ve been told to do—with what we have been told is the right way to live and to be—that we think we don’t have time for gratitude,  time for praise, time for joy
  • But every once in a while—praise be—we are the one who sees the miracle right before our eyes—the miracle happening in our own body—the miracle happening in our own heart and soul—and when that happens, we drop everything, turn around, and fall on our knees in thanksgiving and praise.

If we are all the different characters in our story—that suggests that nine times out of ten we miss what is really happening, nine times out of ten we downplay its true significance, nine times out of ten we let the busyness of our lives push the miracle from view.

Nine times out of ten, we take healing for granted.  We explain it away.  We push it to the back of our minds because it just doesn’t fit.

But one time in ten (please let it be at least one time in ten)—God’s healing power and overflowing grace and unbounded love hit us squarely in the heart; one time in ten we turn toward God in awe and thanksgiving and praise.

And it is those times I want to explore a little more with you all this morning.

What is it that happens that one time in ten?  What makes the difference? I have this hunch, this hope that if we can understand a little more about that one-time-in ten, we might be able to make more room for healing in our lives and in the lives of all those we love and serve.

Let’s go back to our text and look for clues:  At the outset, we seem to have ten good-little-lepers.  What I mean by that is this: the ten lepers are doing what they are supposed to be doing.  They are sitting outside the village gates; they are calling out to those who pass; they are begging for handouts from those on whom they depend.

And even when Jesus—the one they have heard so much about

Even when Jesus—the one some say has the power to heal

Even when Jesus walks by, they do not break ranks.  They do only what they are allowed to do:  they call out together,

Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.

Seemingly, Jesus does not stop.  In this story there is no conversation, no healing work by spittle and mud, no healing touch or special word at all.   When Jesus sees their plight—their missing fingers and thumbs, their half-eaten faces, their pain and loneliness—is he moved with compassion, does he slow his steps?  Our text does not tell us.  It simply says,

When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

And again, the lepers did what they were told.  Even though I imagine Jesus’ words made no sense to them, they did what they were told.  They followed instructions and as they did they were cleansed.

But what I am really interested in is what happened next.  And out text doesn’t really tell us—so we have to use our holy imaginations to look inside the story.  Here is what I imagine—as they went to do as they were told, they were cleansed—the scabs went away, the color returned, the feeling came back into limbs that had been numb for years.  And nine kept walking,  headed into Jerusalem to show themselves to the priests, where they would be certified as healed and restored to society.

But one leper turned back.

So what is it about that one leper?

Or, back to my earlier theory—what is it that gets into us—that one time in ten?

What makes the difference and opens me up to the healing, the joy, the blessing, the miracle of God at work—right here, right now—

What makes me stop, turn around, and give thanks with everything that is in me?

Barbara Brown Taylor—in her sermon on this text—suggests that it is love.  She says all ten of the lepers were cleansed, and all ten were glad of it, perhaps even thankful to the mysterious healer to whom they had called out for mercy.

But the one leper who turned back, Barbara Brown Taylor points out—he behaved like a man in love.

The one leper who turned back—not only was he cleansed, but his heart was broken open with love—and that love stopped him in his tracks.    He couldn’t just go on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.  He had to make a u-turn to Jesus.

So what can we take away from this—what can we see with new eyes and new hearts?  In the beginning of my sermon, I told you I have this hunch, this hope that if we can understand a little more about that one-time-in ten, we might be able to make more room for healing in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

We can follow the rules.  We can ask for mercy. We can pray to be healed.  And there is nothing wrong with any of those things.

But we are invited to more.

We are invited to fall in love with the Holy One!

We are invited to let love in, to let love break us open, turn us inside out and upside down.  We are invited to live a live overflowing with thanks and praise, a life overflowing with grace and joy and love.  And God knows we can’t do it all the time.  God knows we will fall short again and again.  There are times we will fail to notice God’s work in us and around us.

But we always get another chance.  Another invitation.

As Alice Walker tells us in her book, The Color Purple.  Listen to this conversation between Shug and Celie—

Listen, God love everything you love – and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.

You saying God vain? I ast.

Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

What God do when pissed off? I ast.

Oh, God make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see God always trying to please us back.”

God loves everything we love, and a whole bunch of things we don’t.  God just wants to share good things—good things like healing, like joy, like the color purple.

And maybe nine times out of ten, we fail to notice.  But God doesn’t give up on us.  And every morning we wake to a new day—and to a chance to let our hearts be broken open with love, so that we might be like the leper who made a u-turn to Jesus, that we overflow with joy and thanks and praise.

And love.


this sermon was preached at Keystone Congregational UCC on Sunday, October 13, 2013


Luke 17:11-19  New International Version (NIV)

11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.

17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”


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