Sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy Ahrens, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost 27, The Reign of Christ Sunday, November 24, 2002, dedicated to Sarah Ruth Sitler Ahrens on her 7th birthday as her life gives me reason to believe in Thanksgiving every year and always to the glory of God!
Dt. 8:1-17 and Luke 17:11-19
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength & our salvation. Amen.
Since childhood, I have always been unnerved by the images of lepers. In several films I recall, I can still remember scenes where lepers, missing fingers and parts of their faces appear and approach the main characters - usually Jesus - for healing. Of course, things always work out for the grotesquely disfigured lepers when Jesus appears because he offers them healing. But, their disfigured countenances remain in my minds eye and I can't help but fear the skin disease that made them so physically distorted. Their hungry, eaten faces remain as they cry out "Unclean, Unclean" and reach to me for something I cannot give them.
While I can conjure up images from my mind's eye from Bible-related movies; for people in the Bible, leprosy was a very real, very dread, but common affliction. It was so common that lepers had a prescribed social and religious role. The book of Leviticus spends two entire chapters teaching priests how to diagnose the disease, how to declare lepers ritually unclean and how to perform rites of purification once they have been healed. Leviticus 13:45-46 speaks of the lepers as well. The one "who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair on his head hang loose, and he shall cover his lip and cry, `Unclean, Unclean.' He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp."
However, leprosy was not seen as a punishment for sin. It was understood instead as an inexplicable act of God, which in many ways, made it even more frightening. If there was nothing you did to deserve leprosy, then it followed that there was nothing you could do to avoid it, and so lepers were shunned - because their disease was contagious, clearly, but there was more than that. It was their pain, their loneliness, their unspeakable fear that no one wanted to "catch." So they were kept at a distance barred from community, and declared unworthy before God. They were unclean, outsiders, having nothing in common with the clean, insiders. Do you understand? They live over there. We live over here. We are not like them. God knows we feel sorry for them, but one must remain sensible about these things.
The lepers did not challenge this system. They couldn't work, so they depended on charity. They dressed as they were told, and spoke as they were told, didn't cross the line that separated them from those with unblemished skin. They were obedient and followed orders. Even when Jesus appears in their village they approached from a distance and cried out according the proper way of crying out - "Jesus, Master, have mercy upon us."
Looking at them, he saw what anyone could see, they were eaten up with leprosy and needed all the mercy he could offer them. He did not touch them - no mud, no spittle this time, no talk of faith healing, just an order offered to ten obedient, socially outcast lepers. "Go and show yourselves to the priests," Jesus said. And off they went, disappearing as obediently as they appeared in the first place.
Not one of them asked why. But, there was only one reason to go see the priests and that was to receive a diagnosis of clean or unclean, insider or outsider, member of the community or beggar on the edge of town. None of them asked why, but as they went the scales fell away, the color returned to their faces, feeling came back to their fingers and toes after numbness had held them for years. Nine followed orders. One did not do as he was told.
One, when he saw that he was being healed, turned back, cried out praising God in a loud voice, came to Jesus, threw himself down in the dirt at his feet, and thanked Jesus. The text tells us at this point, "and he was a Samaritan" (Luke 17:16). The one who made a scene. And the one that made a scene was not even a Jew. He was not even a believer in the Torah. He was a Gentile foreigner. In other words, he was a double outsider - once by virtue of his leprosy and twice by virtue of his non-Jewish blood. Here was a double loser lying at the feet of Jesus, thanking God as if God was somehow present in a man, and very present in this man, Jesus. He was one (and the only one) who could see what the clean could not see. Having seen the truth, he refused to be separated from the presence of God which gave him life!
Jesus is obviously touched by this man. He starts asking questions about the other nine lepers. "Were there not ten? Where are the other nine? Was not one of them found to return and give thanks and praise to God except this foreigner?" Jesus turns to the tenth leper and says to him, "Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well" (Luke 17:19). Or as the Greek says, "your faith has saved you!"
Think about this for a moment . . . This is all very odd. Didn't Jesus tell all ten to go and show themselves to the priests? And didn't the nine follow his instructions? Didn't this one, in fact, not do as he was told? He even flaunted his disobedience by returning and slobbering all over Jesus' feet. And weren't they, in fact, all healed? Then why did this one get special treatment? Why did he receive word that his faith had made him well? Isn't that what Jesus did for all ten? What's going on here?
We live in a time, although not a place, much like Jesus. Leprosy itself, while not having been cured, is certainly much more under control (except in some parts of the third world). But, in our society, we still find ways to separate people and treat them as if they were lepers. There are still those among us who get pushed to the side and either emotionally, physically or socioeconomically end up outside the circle of community. Like lepers of yesteryear, it is their pain, their loneliness, their unspeakable fears that no one wants to "catch."
Such persons may have diseases such as various forms of mental illness, or AIDS, or alcoholism or drug addiction. Or they may be treated as lepers because they are different from the insiders - gay or lesbian, divorced or single, overweight or anorexic, homeless or poor, intensely shy or not as physically beautiful as the rest of those inside the community, so they may be shunned, treated as lepers. What is even more frightening and disturbing to me is that so-called "Christian ministers" of the gospel (obviously not the Gospel of Christ), stand in pulpits across our land and damn those who they, through some divine insight, deem as lepers.
But the self-righteousness of leprosy-proclamation can also happen in global politics. Currently, our leaders and the leaders of other nations have deemed Saddam Hussein a leper among world leaders. He has, once again, been isolated and cast out of the circle of recognized leaders. Osama Bin Laden and other Al-Queda terrorists have also gained the banishment of lepers among the nations. While there are grounds for isolating heinous leaders -- and certainly these two and their army of soldiers meet the definition of heinous -- the danger comes when in attempt to isolate and respond to the guilty - villages, cities, and thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of lives are destroyed or placed at risk. We cannot be party to any policy which returns to earlier mentality of "destroy the village to save the people" - still a haunting reminder of foreign policy gone astray.
But, beyond these reflections on the personal or social dimensions and implications of leprosy in our times, the question still remains, why did one healed from leprosy return to give thanks, while nine did not? What can we learn from all of this? I believe from the nine, we learn obedience. They do as they are told. Having been healed, they continue on from the Nazarene's side, as they are commanded and we never hear from them again. I am mostly like the nine. I find that most of us are. We do as we are told. We follow the rules. We read our bibles, say our prayers, pay our pledges. And believe me, there is nothing wrong with all that. It is steady, law-abiding discipleship.
But, the tenth leper still interests me. The outsider. The double loser. From the nine we learn obedience. From the tenth leper, we learn love. The tenth leper captures my imagination. It is he who confounds me. He does not need a priest to certify his cure. While Jesus asks, "where are the nine?" I wonder, "Where is the tenth?" Where is the one who follows his heart and not the instructions? Where is the one who accepts his life as a gift of grace and embraces the feet of the Grace Giver? Where is the one whose thanksgiving is so deep inside his soul that he changes direction, runs back to Jesus and throws himself down in the dirt? Where is the disorderly one who failed to go along with the crowd, the impulsive one, the fanatical one, the one - if you will - who followed the beat of a different drummer?
Ultimately, I want to know about the tenth one, not so much that I can follow him or run after him. It's just - what does he know that I don't know? What is it that he feels that I don't often feel and follow? And I pray that when I find him, I will learn from his thanksgiving praise! I trust that I will learn that the prison of leprosy - its loneliness and pain - need not contain me. I trust that I will learn how to praise God with a louder voice, a voice transformed by mercy and grace. Amen.
(Inspiration for this sermon was drawn from Barbara Brown Taylor's The Preaching Life, Cowley Publications, Boston, Mass., 1993).
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