Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Tenth Leper: Falling In Love

I love preaching about lepers. There are, after all, so many "lepers" in our society. But this sermon turned out to be about (CLICHE WARNING) being in love with Jesus.

Yes, it's cheesy. Yes, it's been overdone. Doesn't make it not true.

Thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor, Kate Huey, and Lindy Black's delightful website "Sermon Nuggets."

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

2 Timothy 2:8-15
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David-that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful-for he cannot deny himself.
Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

Luke 17:11-19

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

This is the Word of the Lord.

On the dusty road that winded its way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples topped the hill and trudged down into a cluttered gathering of houses, shops, and animals. People clustered around the gate of the village, of course; everywhere Jesus went, a crowd was sure to be waiting, hoping to see a miracle or perhaps get a free meal.

The crowd began to call out to him as Jesus neared. Anyone else would have found their cries a reason for cynicism – always wanting a miracle, a sign, bread from heaven, proof that he was the Messiah. Even out here, in the “no man’s land” between Galilee and Samaria, news of Jesus feeding the five thousand, healing the sick, and raising the dead was a hot topic of debate.

Then, the crowd fell silent, and the disciples heard a new noise. An unwelcome noise in that day and age. Bells tinkling, and weak voices calling out, “unclean! Unclean!” The crowd around the shabby gate didn’t so much part as it recoiled in horror at the sight of the ten lepers, swathed in rags, raised their hands in unison and began to cry out to Jesus, “Master, have mercy on us!”

The hot wind swirled dust around the feet of Jesus and the disciples. After a few minutes, even the lepers fell silent, waiting to see what Jesus would do. Finally, Jesus spoke: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
The lepers barely paused before turning and trudging off toward the synagogue on the other side of the village.

The disciples felt the weight of the crowd’s disappointment. They had hoped to see something astounding, and the whole incident passed with nothing. The grumbling had already begin, an undertone to the sound of Jesus beginning to teach.

The crowd didn’t see what was happening just a few yards behind them. The lepers had stopped, stock-still, staring in shock and joy at one another’s faces and hands – the scars and open sores of the leprosy were gone! Their skin was a healthy brown, not a mark in sight! At a dead run, nine of them tore off toward the synagogue, already shouting for the leading rabbi.

No one is exactly sure what Biblical leprosy was. The 13th chapter of Leviticus describes several different diseases, including forms of psoriasis, and the text appears to lump some forms of mildew into the mix when discussing leprosy. What we understand today as leprosy, or Hanson’s disease, is curable with multiple drug therapies. According to the World Health Organization, the number of people affected by the disease is steadily falling.

But the problem with leprosy wasn’t simply that the people who had it were sick. No, the real horror of leprosy was that the people who suffered from leprosy were believed to be cursed by God, to be suffering punishment for their sins. They were instructed to wear rags, to cry “unclean!” wherever they went, to live apart from the community, and excluded from worshipping God. They were feared, hated, loathed, despised.

The Jewish Law instructed the leper who had been cured to go to the priests, to be inspected, and to make an offering of thanks. Everyone knew this, and the lepers dreamed of the day they could go and be pronounced clean, and rejoin their families and their community. Stories circulated of this one or that one who had been pronounced clean, but no one seemed to have firsthand knowledge of this happening – always a friend of a friend who lived three villages over, that kind of thing.

Then the lepers began hearing about a traveling rabbi who had done the impossible, touching a leper and healing him instantly! Could it be true? The same man was said to have brought sight to the blind, cured the lame and even cast out demons. Surely if these things were true, he could even make the unclean pure!

When the news came to the band of lepers that Jesus was coming, they decided it was high time they took a chance on this teacher – perhaps he was a prophet, perhaps he could cure them as he had others. When Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the priest, they turned and went, because if you learned anything from the story of Namaan, it was that when a prophet gave a leper an instruction, you did whatever you were told.

So, from one perspective, the fact that the nine went on ahead wasn’t wrong. The Law clearly instructed them to go to the priest, and Jesus himself had told them to do just that. They needed to get their certificate, after all. Be pronounced clean, get the stamp of approval, all that. But not the tenth one. He turned back.

And not just turning back, no, running back, shouting praises at the top of his lungs, falling flat on his face at Jesus’ feet, lost in the joy of the gift of life and wholeness he had been given.

Why? Why him, and not the others? What was the difference?

One argument might be that this man was a Samaritan. Despised, hated, and an outcast even when he wasn’t eaten with the sores of leprosy. The priest might have pronounced him clean, but that wouldn’t have made any difference. He still wouldn’t be a part of the community. He was an outsider by birth. But if that’s all there is to it, why make such a spectacle of himself? He was healed, perhaps he could have waved at Jesus as he strolled back over the border to Samaria.

I think perhaps Barbara Brown Taylor has found the key. She agrees that the nine were fulfilling expectations and doing their duty by obeying the Law. She writes that “[Nine] behaved like good lepers, good Jews; only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love.”

Jesus had done something for this Samaritan, this leper, that no one else had ever done, that no one else could ever do. Jesus had given this leper life! For this he knew that no priest, no synagogue, not even the Great Temple on the mount in Jerusalem would do. The Samaritan must go to the source of his life – the feet of Jesus.

Martin Luther was once asked to describe the true nature of worship. His answer? The tenth leper turning back.
Wonder is the basis of worship. Worship is response, worship is acting out our beliefs. While it is true that we are here in this place at this time for the purpose of worship, the things we do here are not all there is to say and feel and experience when it comes to worship. Worship, for the person who is daily growing in relationship with Christ, is lived every moment of every day. It isn’t a ritual, it can’t be taught. You can't really tell someone to be thankful, you can’t really instruct in a life of worship. That would just be putting on an act. Thankfulness, worship, comes from within.

Birds don’t sing because they’ve learned how. Birds sing because they have a song. The tenth leper didn’t worship at Jesus’ feet because he was told to, he worshiped because he was in love.

May God grant that you and I realize that we, too, have been given our life as a gift from Jesus Christ, and may we, too, spend our days falling in love.

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