Proper 23c, October 13, 2013

October 16, 2013

The Power of One
Luke 17:11-19

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

I don’t know what was wrong with this group of people who were miraculously and graciously healed when they made their appeal to Jesus. According to the Pareto Principle, there should have been 2 people to return to praise God and give thanks to Jesus. The Pareto Principle is also known as the 80-20 rule or the law of the vital few, and it identifies this remarkably predictable pattern that occurs within many events where 20% of the people account for 80% of the outcome. The Pareto Principle is named after Vilfredo Pareto, who made the observation in 1906 of how influential 20% of any given population is to the outcome of any situation.

He took note of the fact that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people and he knew he was on to something when he realized that 20% of his pea pods were responsible for producing 80% of his peas.

This 80-20 distribution of cause and effect has been reinforced by a number of different statistics. Many businesses report that:
• 80% of a company’s profits come from 20% of its customers
• 80% of a company’s complaints come from 20% of its customers
• 80% of a company’s sales come from 20% of its products
• And 80% of a company’s sales are made by 20% of its sales staff[9]
In addition to these business statistics, criminologists report that 80% of crimes are committed by 20% of criminals. A sociologist created a study that showed how 20% of rats in a given population will dominate 80% of the rest. And I don’t know if our Treasurer, Ryman Johnson, has acutally done the math on this, but I’ve heard him speculate that 80% of our budget is supported by 20% of our constituents.
There seems to be something true about this Pareto Principle. And if statistics ruled in matters of faith, there should have been two of these ten healed lepers to return to Jesus to praise God and to give their thanks. But statistics go out the window when it comes to faith. And as Jesus identified in the mustard seed story last week, the smallest amount of faith can go a long way. It doesn’t take 20% of the people to change everything. One person with genuine faith can do the work of a thousand people.
On one hand, this morning’s story is sort of dismal. Only one person out of ten understood the magnitude of the situation and returned to Jesus to acknowledge this great gift. You would think this amazing transformation would have moved these men to exceed the standard Pareto parameters. You would think at least three of the men would have thought to return to the One who had changed their lives so thoroughly.
But the Pareto Principle isn’t the only predictor of human behavior. There is also the Herd Mentality to take in to account. It’s not easy to go against what everyone else is doing. And while we don’t know if this Samaritan man who returned to Jesus was the only Samaritan in the group, but if he had been, it’s easy to see why nobody else came back with him – good Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans – unless they were lepers. Leprosy was a very leveling condition.

It didn’t matter who you were if your skin was infected – you weren’t welcome. The only people you could associate with were other lepers and Jesus, but the bonds that existed between fellow lepers weren’t so strong. Nine of out ten of these men who were healed of their leprosy didn’t look back – they got their clean bill of health stamped by the priest and they were ready to forget their former associates and to reestablish their place in society.
I can imagine myself doing the same thing. Nobody wants to be cast outside of the standard group. Nobody wants to be seen as different. I know a little bit about that. I had a face full of freckles when I was a child. I guess I still have them, but wrinkles, whiskers, and decades of weathering have pretty much masked my natural spots, but I was really self-conscious of my freckles when I was a child. Grandmothers thought they were cute, but I wanted to fit in with 4th graders. I hated my freckles. I felt different, and that was a terrible feeling.
Of course that was a small burden compared to what many people endure as children and as adults. I don’t know if there is anything more painful than being considered different – or even worse – to be considered unacceptable. I don’t really know what moved my gradeschool and highschool classmate, Lyndon, to take his own life soon after we graduated from High School. I’m sorry to say I don’t really know what happened to him because I didn’t know him very well. In fact, I didn’t know anyone who knew him very well. But what I do know is that Lyndon was very quiet. He was shy. He was sensitive. And now he is gone.

This world can be a terrible place for people who don’t fit in. Being labeled as a leper in the region of Galilee and Samaria in the 1st century was an unbearable condition. It meant you weren’t welcome in anyone’s house. I don’t know, but I’m guessing that this is how my classmate might have felt. I don’t know if Lyndon was gay, but I suspect that he was, and I know how unacceptable that was among the righteous people of Small Town, Arkansas in the 1970’s. And I don’t know, but I suspect that could have been a factor in his death.

What I do know, is that this is a scenario that has played out in many ways in many different communities. And there continue to be young people who take their own lives because they are bullied by classmates who somehow see them is as different. And what I also know is that anyone who feels so alienated from their peers can be touched in a powerful way by the hospitality of one person. It’s not easy to step out of the herd and to risk respectability in order to reach out to people who have been pushed aside, but that’s what Jesus did.

It was a huge thing for Jesus to respond to the plea of this group of lepers to have mercy on them because they were the object of scorn by everyone else. What Jesus did for them was nothing a respectable person would ever have done. The American version of Christianity has gained a highly respectable place in our society. You can’t be elected in this country if you aren’t someow associated with a church, but maintaining respectability is often very counter to living a life of faith. The nine men who chose not to return to Jesus had regained their respectability, and that was all they wanted. It was just the one man who wanted to express his faith in Jesus, and Jesus told him he was well. The others were cleansed – this man was saved.

Nine of those lepers were able to reenter society, but this one man became reconciled with God, and my sense is that it wouldn’t even have mattered if he contracted leprosy again. He had let go of his old identity as a Samaritan. He had become a man of faith in the living God, and that wasn’t an identity that could be taken away from him by a priest or anyone else.

It’s easy to want to stay with the herd. And honestly, I often long to feel the comfort of the herd. I have to confess, I can find myself wishing I was the pastor of a church that was more successful than we seem to be. It’s painful to be the Sr. Pastor of a church that wears the label of unsustainability, which is our current status in the eyes of the conference. And my pain moves me to try to lay blame. I can find myself trying to figure out what’s wrong with you people. And I often find myself dwelling on those things that I know to be wrong with me.

It’s not easy to be a leper, and in some significant ways that’s who we are as a church – that’s who we are as individuals. And that’s our gift. Because if we didn’t have some form of leprosy we wouldn’t be crying out to Jesus for help. That’s where I am right now, and that’s not a bad place to be. That is a place from which there’s some real opportunity for God’s grace to abound.

I often find myself longing for respectability. I desperately want us to be one of those churches that pays 100% of what’s expected of us. I want to be seen as a success by my peers. And I don’t feel bad about that, but what I also know is that there’s something far more important than the labels of respectability and success. We are primarily called to be people of faith who know that there is nothing more important than to praise God for the love and the healing we have already received, and to give thanks to Jesus for showing us where to find it.

I am reminded by this passage of scripture that our challenge is to obtain something far greater than respectability. We are challenged to step out of the herd, and to be like this one man who truly had faith. We are called to be people of faith – people who aren’t just healed and restored to life as usual, but people who are truly made well and who abide in the kingdom of heaven regardless of what happens on earth.

The Pareto Principle doesn’t apply here. It doesn’t appear that 20% of the population ever arrives at this place we call faith, but we’re all invited, and we are well positioned to get there.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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