Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Tenth Leper...

This is a reworking of a sermon I first gave in October of 2010. I rethought some of the text, so it is different, but it would be disingenuous to not point out that I am basically pulling this from what my first preacher-mentor called "The Barrel."

I really wanted to say something about the "lepers" in our society. Hopefully, those who hear and read can make the connections. But it is one reason I enjoy preaching passages about leprosy - in seeing the person behind the "uncleanness," in daring to touch, in daring to heal, Jesus showed amazing and life-altering compassion for the marginalized, the hated, the forgotten, the despised. I cannot but believe that if we in Western Christian culture were to emulate that active love-as-a-verb, no one would ever be in the outer darkness of society again.

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 wound its way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples topped the hill and trudged down into a cluttered gathering of houses, shops, and animals. Even out here in the borderlands, this arid “no man’s land” between Galilee and Samaria, word traveled ahead of Jesus, and they could see people clustered around the gate of the village.

Everywhere Jesus went, a crowd was sure to be waiting, hoping to see a miracle or perhaps get a free meal. The disciples could hear them begin to call out 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. But the disciples knew that all Jesus was interested in was another opportunity to preach about the Kingdom, to do the work of his Father, and to get on to Jerusalem… and as confusing and terrifying to all of them as that prospect was, they trudged onward with Jesus.

Jesus began to speak, and the crowd fell silent. In the distance, 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 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 moments, even the lepers fell silent, waiting to see what Jesus would do. Finally, Jesus spoke: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” 

The lepers paused, looking at Jesus a long time before they finally turned and trudged 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 at all very interesting happening. 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 in that day and age 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 ring a bell and cry “unclean!” wherever they went as a warning to others lest they, too become unclean, the leper was required to live apart from the community, and excluded from worshiping God. Far from being pitied, lepers 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 those lepers who still had hope dreamed of the day they could go and be pronounced clean, and rejoin their families and their community. Stories always circulated of this one or that one who had been pronounced clean, but like all urban legends, no one seemed to have firsthand knowledge of this happening – always a friend of a friend who lived three villages over, my brother-on-law’s cousin’s accountant’s sister, 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? As time wore on, and the stories of this man grew more frequent, it certainly seemed more and more possible. If this was the same man who was said to have brought sight to the blind, cured the lame and even cast out demons, surely 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.

So they rang their bells and cried their cries, and confronted, at a respectful distance of course, this miracle making man.

When Jesus simply told them to go and show themselves to the priest, they were a bit puzzled, of course, but 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.

And it was in that singular act of faith that they were made whole.

I have always wondered about the other nine… like Jesus, I wonder why they, too, didn't come back and fall at his feet. I assume that they went ahead to see the priest… that was, after all, what the Law demanded. And it is easy at this point to sound cynical, to say that it wasn't the Law that cured them, it was Jesus, how could they think of following the rules at a time like this… but…

One of the things I hope I have conveyed whenever I have spoken about leprosy was just how horrible a disease this was. Whatever it actually was, and we really don’t know, the person with leprosy wasn't simply sick. The person with leprosy was damned.

Think of it – the person who contracted leprosy had done nothing wrong. Yet in the mere act of becoming infected they were forced from their community, singled out for hatred, and denied access to worship – they not only lost their home and family and job and everything they held dear, they were denied access to God as well!

I think of the picture Jesus drew of those not allowed into the Kingdom in the last days, like in Matthew’s eighth chapter; they are “cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” That kind of hopelessness, that kind of loneliness, that kind of bereavement. All because they got sick.

I can imagine that, the second they realized that the leprosy had gone, thoughts of seeing their spouses and their children, their homes and their friends, after all these years, everything that was finally possible flooded their minds and all they could think of was getting home right now! I can imagine a whoop of joy as they set out at a dead run to find the priest, to be given the freedom they had missed like a drowning man misses air.

Nine run off, and one man stands, silent, looking at the clouds of dust their ratty sandals kick up.

The Scriptures tell us that he was a Samaritan, and while this is a significant point to the narrative, he was not all that different from the nine, who (we can assume from the way Jesus speaks about them) were Jewish Galileans. This man would have had a home, and a family he loved, and worked that provided for his loved ones, and a place he went to worship God, and yes it was the same God the Jewish people worshiped; just worship interpreted in a different manner.

He had thus lost the same things as everyone else had when he became sick, and he had just the same opportunities opened wide for him in this moment.

But he didn't run away. This man turned back.

No, that isn't accurate. I don’t think he turned back, looking at the crowd, hearing Jesus speak while calculating his next move. There wasn't an internal debate about waving to Jesus as he strolled across the border into Samaria.

There is some discussion that, since he was a Samaritan, going to a Jewish priest wouldn't have done much good – after all, Jews considered Samaritans unclean anyway, and a priest wouldn't pronounce him clean of that, ever. There is truth to this, of course, but I don’t think the Samaritan spent any time thinking about this.

I think, I imagine, that this man, alone among the ten, understood all that had happened.

We can speak of “sin” in a couple of different senses. We can speak of actions or inactions that are sinful – murder, adultery, and so on… and we can speak of sin as a state of being – the state of separation from God.

We Resurrection people understand that it is in that state of separation, when we were furthest from God, at our most despicable and unclean, that Jesus Christ died for us. God in Jesus Christ loved us at our most unlovable, and though we did not deserve it or know to ask for it, the blood of Christ cleansed us from our unrighteousness, destroyed the barrier of separation caused by sin, and brought us in to right relationship with God.

What happened to that one formerly sick man on that street in that nameless village that day is a tangible representation of what Jesus Christ has done for us all. And while any statement concerning the thoughts of that Samaritan is purely conjecture, I can fully believe that, in that moment, somehow, he knew it.

Those other nine, they saw what had happened for them in the immediate, in the temporal, and yes, it was glorious. But that one man, maybe his first thought was being able to once again worship on Mount Gerissim, to offer his sacrifices and songs of praise… to feel connected to his Creator once again.

So no, he did not simply turn back, he ran 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.

Barbara Brown Taylor puts it like this: “[Nine] behaved like good lepers, good Jews; only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love.”

For this one man, no priest would do. The priests hadn't given him life. What that Samaritan did was return, at a dead run, 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.

Worship is response. We don’t worship because we hope God will save us, we worship because God, through Jesus Christ, has already saved is, is saving us, and will on the last day save us.

And 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 and say and sing 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 in the moment, 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. Worship is an act of praise, and it is an act of service – we worship when we sing or pray, yes, but do we not also worship when we give, when we serve, when we speak?

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, may we, too, sing because we have a song, and may we, too, spend our days falling in love.

No comments:

Post a Comment