Ten lepers (October 9, 2016)

The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 23, Lectionary 28, Year C
October 9, 2016

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

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I find myself increasingly troubled by the task of preaching. There was a time in which I had all the passion and cockiness of youth, a time in which I thought I knew exactly what the texts meant and how we should be as believers. But whether this is a season in my life, or a maturity of experience that brings a deeper humility before the texts, I find myself feeling like I cannot adequately preach these texts.

When Jesus walked into this village on the border of Galilee and Samaria, the events that transpired required no explanation to his followers. When Luke tells this story to his congregation, it does not require any explanation. But we have heard this story so many times –we have heard it used at so many Thanksgiving services or referred to on so many stewardship Sundays – that the story has been sucked dry. It is like a forgotten lemon in the back of my refrigerator. I know it used to be a lemon, but it is no longer useful.

How do we resurrect such a story? How does it become again for us a life-changing moment? How do we taste all its sweetness and tartness? How does it make us a joyful people? How can it make us a grateful people, a welcoming people, a compassionate people, a transformative people?

It should do all these things…although, even as I say this, I remember that the things Jesus said and did didn’t please everyone. It got him killed.

So let’s spend time with this text. And then you can see what happens in your heart, whether the story moves you to gratefulness and praise or whether the story moves you to rejection and murder.

First we have to understand that whatever afflicts these men is not leprosy as we know it in the modern world. The horror of this disease is not that it slowly attacks the nerve fibers leading to injuries that result in infected and unhealed flesh. The horror of this disease is that it marks you as unclean. It is some defect in the skin that is not simply a surface abrasion, but something that raises the question whether the barrier that marks the limits of the body is somehow defective.

The book of Leviticus spends a lot of time talking about this problem. It is something that can afflict not just people but pots and fabrics and the walls of your home. It is something that implies some weakness in the barrier between the world out there and the world in here.

And when people sense this impurity in a person, it is like finding a rotten apple in the basket. You feel this immediate need to get rid of that bad apple, to separate it from the others, to search the others to see if any others have started to “go bad” – and any that are tainted we toss out.

Now imagine that we are not talking about rotting fruit, but people.

When this skin problem appears, they are immediately pushed out of the community. They are unclean. They could make us unclean. They will destroy our way of life. We need to isolate them. They need to know their place. We need to build a wall. We make them wear a yellow star. We need to cleanse our community of them.

These are the people who cry out to Jesus as he draws near to their village. It is a desperate cry. A cry to be made whole. A cry to go home. A cry to have a place in the community. A cry to be welcomed. A cry for life to be restored.

It is a cry for hope. It is a cry for connection. It is a cry for meaning. It is a cry for the world to be set right.

Here we begin to get close to understanding the power of this account. These ten are not just some sick people, some strangers, some of “those people” on the fringe of every city or country; these ten are members of this village. They are people whose names we know. And for every one who dwells in the scrubland outside the village, there are dozens who are husbands and wives and sisters and brothers and parents and children and neighbors and friends. The whole village is wounded. The whole town is torn. The whole world waits to be made whole.

And for every person who is already infected, there are tens and hundreds who fear discovering a spot. Who fear losing their place. Who fear the police discovering they are illegal and separating them from their children. Who fear a disease that isolates you from your friends. Who fear a mistake that will make you hide in shame. We fear losing our jobs. We fear losing our ability to care for ourselves. I will never forget a woman in a dreary nursing home in a tough and neglected part of inner-city Detroit, who struggled with what her life had become, but clung to this one little shred of dignity, saying: “At least I can still wash myself.”

For every person who has lost his or her life in the community there are thousands who fear losing theirs.

And now here stands Jesus. He speaks no word of healing. He makes no grand gestures. He says simply, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” Show yourselves to those officials who have the authority to inspect you and declare that you are clean, those who can let you go home, who can say the prayers and do the ritual that marks the transition from unclean back to clean.

And so these ten set off with nothing more than the implied promise that their alienation is over, that there is a future for them, that reconciliation and restoration await them.

They set off. And on the way they are made whole. The community is made whole. The world is set right.

In the presence of Jesus is the healing of the world. In the presence of Jesus the outcast are brought home. In the presence of Jesus the unclean are made clean. In the presence of Jesus fear is silenced. In the presence of Jesus the future opens. In the presence of Jesus the past no longer condemns. In the presence of Jesus is the power of God to make all things new.

In the presence of Jesus is the power of God to open the grave.

And how shall we respond? Not how should we respond, but how will we respond? What will we do when we see the unclean made clean and the world made whole?

We stand in the presence of him who is the end of every harsh and angry word. We stand in the presence of him who is the end of every fear. We stand in the presence of the one who is the end of all shame and sorrow. We stand in the presence of the one who is the end of every division,

We stand in the presence of the one who is the end of all hardness of heart, the end of all prejudice, the end of all resentments and greeds and failures.

And will we just go on our way, thinking how lucky we are, how good God has been? Or will see that everything is changed and turn back?

Will we be glad we are now on the inside and then drive out the next person who develops a spot? We will see with the same old glasses or see with new eyes? Will we love the darkness more than light or will we receive him and become children of God?

What response lies in our hearts?

The message of this story is not that we should be grateful. The message is that we stand in the presence of our redemption. Does our heart bend down? Do we recognize one who is our lord? Do we proclaim his glory? Do we follow his instructions to do such simple things as forgive one another as God has forgiven us?

It is the Samaritan, the one who was already an outsider, who had lived with that sense of alienation all his life – he is the only one who comes back and bows down at Jesus’ feet. It is this outsider, this marginalized person, this alien, this stranger, who reminds us of the truth, who calls us back to turn back and bow down, and go home forever changed.