Do you all realize just how lucky you are that I am even here today? Of course not. But it’s true. When I was growing up, I often heard my father’s story of how he had wanted to move to Hawaii and work at the leper colony with Fr. Damien. Had he actually done that, he wouldn’t have married my mother or had three beautiful daughters—and we wouldn’t be having this one-sided conversation about Luke’s story of the ten lepers. And yet, here we are . . .
Recently on the news, I heard a story about a rise in leprosy in this country—especially in Los Angeles. And although the numbers here are still very low—about 150 cases per year in the United States—there are over 200,000 new cases of leprosy reported annually around the world, with the majority occurring in India, Brazil, and Indonesia.
While I never attended medical school, I did learn how to use Google, and there I found out about leprosy, also known as Hansen’s Disease. The oldest skeletal evidence of leprosy is from India and dates to about 2,000 B.C. The disease causes nerve damage, loss of strength, loss of feeling in the limbs, kidney damage and kidney failure, as well as the infection and ulceration of affected areas.
Fortunately, today this disease can be cured with antibiotics, but in Jesus’ day, lepers were shunned and ostracized from their communities. Thus, we have today’s Scripture reading where ten lepers approach Jesus and his disciples, asking for healing.
“Healing from what?” we might ask. Healing from the physical trauma of open, weeping lesions, to be sure. But that would just be a beginning of the healing necessary for these lepers to be made whole. They have been disenfranchised by their friends and families, left to forge out an existence by begging and by living always isolated from their communities of origin, forming some type of community with others similarly afflicted. In a way this reminds me of how we isolated people with tuberculosis in sanitariums until the 1950’s, how we dealt with the AIDS epidemic, and how the homeless are often treated today—as if hard times were contagious.
Today’s account in Luke leaves many unanswered questions, some of which are posed for us by Rev. Kathryn Matthews, retired dean of Amistad Chapel. How did these ten lepers hear about Jesus? Did they all agree to approach him and his disciples? What were their hopes and expectations? Were they disappointed at being sent away? Was there dissention among the group before they realized they were being healed? Did they continue their association with each other after being healed? How did the Samaritan leper become part of the group to begin with? Where were the priests to whom they were to appear to be given clearance to rejoin their communities? What about the Samaritan leper? Where was his temple? How did he feel when he threw himself at Jesus’ feet, since he had not been able to have such close contact with others since contracting leprosy? Were Jesus’ companions afraid when the Samaritan returned? Would WE be?
I guess the Scripture passage leaves us with only the barest details—yet that seems sufficient for the Gospel writers. While it might be fun to muse about the unanswered details, that would not get us to the heart of the matter, namely, the faith that led to wellness.
We reenact this ritual every week as a community of believers when we lift our concerns in the Prayers of the People. We offer thanks for the gifts God has bestowed on us, and we bring to God our concerns and need for physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. Like the lepers, we say, “Lord, have mercy on us,” acknowledging our weakness and imploring God’s help in all areas of our lives and the lives of those we love. And we leave our worship service to live out God’s grace in our daily lives.
The nine lepers who were instructed to go show themselves to the priests were not wrong in doing so. They understood the law and fulfilled their duty to it. As directed, they presented themselves to the authorities to be given clearance to rejoin their communities. I can’t imagine that any of them was ungrateful for their healing, yet only the outcast among them—the Samaritan whose status as an enemy of the Jewish people made him an outcast among outcasts—responded to the miracle by returning to loudly give praise to God and to humble himself at Jesus’ feet. It reminds me of the question, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Where else but to God, in awe of the blessings we have been given?
Today’s Scripture reading is not a bit subtle about its message: God is alive and acting in our lives, leading us to wholeness in a God-centered life filled with faith. God is the healing and wholeness we seek. I wonder if the ten lepers ever thought through their request when they agreed to approach the Lord. Did they anticipate the changes that would come about? The tensions and struggles in reclaiming their lives? Did they know they would never be the same again? Do we? When we pray “Thy will be done” are we prepared to live out the challenges God’s will presents?
Today’s bulletin cover makes me smile at the child’s bewilderment. I like to think that that’s how the Samaritan leper looked. There’s a reason we only turn spoons into airplanes and fingers into bumble bees for the very young. As they grow, they come to understand. Similarly, the leper did not understand how Jesus had cured him, but he knew who had cured him, and that was enough for him to return in gratitude and awe, praising God for his healing. Is our faith sufficient to allow us to follow Jesus in this way?
We do not need to understand the outpouring of God’s love—which is good, since “God’s ways are not our ways.” But we need to walk by faith, trusting God’s presence and purpose for our lives. In the book, The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom writes about the lice in the cattle car she and her sister rode in during the Nazi invasion. Her sister told Corrie to thank God for everything—even the lice—because the lice kept the soldiers out of the cars, which allowed the prisoners to read their smuggled Bibles and to pray. The line that sticks with me is, “The will of God is my hiding place, for there I shall be safe.”
Two verses after the ending of today’s Scripture, it says in Luke 17:21, “The Kingdom of God is among you.” That is truly the good news. But do we dare to believe it? Do we live each day in anticipation of God’s healing of the world? Do we live as if we are a part of that healing? Can we say the words we use at Communion and mean them: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; speak but the word and I shall be healed”? Can we return to Jesus with a grateful heart, trusting in God’s goodness and presence in our lives and the lives of those we love?
Meister Eckhart offered this bit of wisdom, which it seems the Samaritan leper knew 2,000 years ago: “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” And so, let us say “Thank you,” loudly and boldly, as if we had just been cured of our leprosy—because we have. Together, let us now in unison say to our God, “Thank you, God, thank you.”
In the name of the one who draws us to himself and offers healing according to our needs, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Notes: UCC Sermon Seeds October 13, 2019 by Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews
SCRIPTURE: 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 Jesus 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 Jesus said to him,
“Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.