October 10, 2010: Learning From a Leper

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

All I wanted to know about lepers, I learned in Sunday school. I learned quickly I didn’t want to know much about them. Leprosy is a ghastly disease. Bacteria are transmitted from human touch. The disease eats skin, bone and even the face away. In the Bible world, catching a disease or having an infirmity means a person is being punished for some sin. But leprosy was different. It was thought to be a random act of God, and not a punishment for sin. You could live a decent life, sacrifice at the Temple, make amends, and still get leprosy. And if you’re declared leprous you’re banished. Imagine having no contact with family and friends, no more Starbuck’s cappuccino, dinner at a restaurant with a movie afterwards, no more trips to the mall. You couldn’t go to church, even at Christmas and Easter. Lepers kept at a distance and were required to yell, “Unclean, unclean,” to warn they are close by. Lepers were told that even God has no use for them, because God doesn’t mess with unclean people like you.

In Jesus’ day priests were important and respected. They wore lab coats and carried stethoscopes. They were also doctors doing diagnoses, part-time. If you thought you might have a skin disease you went to the priest, not a dermatologist. The priest studied your skin. Raw skin, a boil, or even a pimple renders you unclean and banished. If by chance or miracle your skin clears, you make another appointment and go back to the priest to see if he says you are cured. With so many trips to the priest, just hope his practice is covered in your health insurance plan.

One day Jesus is walking through foreigners’ land to Jerusalem. Ten lepers spot him. They might have heard he was passing through. Instead of yelling “Unclean,” they cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” From a distance he yells back, “Go show yourselves to the priest.” As they run off to find a priest, they notice their sores are gone. Their arms are clean, spotless. Nine lepers keep running toward the priest. But one leper stops in his tracks, turns around, and sprints back to find Jesus. He is why we remember the story. He’s not just a leper. He’s a Samaritan, an outsider. He can worship God at a distance, but he’d never be invited to a Foyer Group. That’s the leper who goes back to find Jesus. When he does, he falls down before Jesus. The leper makes a scene – praising God with a loud voice – making an embarrassing racket. He thanks Jesus. As an aside, Jesus asks the crowd and us, “Were not ten made clean? Where are the other nine? None of them returned to praise God, except this foreigner.” But weren’t the nine just following orders? The one leper doesn’t complete the mission to be certified clean and cured.

This leper needs no priest to pronounce him clean. Jesus will do just fine, because he’s seen more of God in Jesus than in the priests and religious systems that obscure God and won’t let him in. Truly encountering the holy brings us to our knees in worship, thanksgiving and praise.

Jesus gives him a new order, “Get up go on your way; your faith has made you well.” In the Greek, “well” means healing, health, wholeness, and salvation. Being made well changes a cure into a healing, salvation. The man probably has no idea what he did. He simply says, “Thank you.” He knows something amazing has happened and he’s grateful.

We are certified cured each Sunday by the pronouncement of forgiveness. When we catch on, we’ll stop in our tracks, turn and fall on our knees in worship and thanksgiving. The nine cured get a priest’s pass saying, “You can return to your normal life again.” The tenth leper is changed by God’s mercy declared through Jesus. He’s healed, saved – made whole and knows who did it. The others get cured. Note the difference.

Sometimes I wonder if we could use a tenth leper around here. I try to muster up some gratitude. But we are Episcopalians. We are proper and orderly. We control our emotions to prevent embarrassing spontaneous outbursts. Besides, Jesus knows we are grateful, right? I understand the nine too well. I serve the church by being on Diocesan committees, give some money, defend the church against critics, do institutional duties, and I think I am serving God. The tenth leper – the one least likely to teach us anything about God is the one we most need to teach us. When Jesus heals our lives and souls, we are sent to heal others, to change the world for which Jesus dies and God cares – the world right out there. Too often I suspect the modern church stops at the point of getting a cure – for institutional hangnail, our discomforts relieved, and making sure our coffee is hot, paying more attention to us inside the walls. We need a thankful leper who shows us what it means to be fully healed. That’s the beginning of faith – of salvation. The nine weren’t bad people. They just didn’t quite get it yet. A sign we have – is recognizing our experience of God’s love, mercy and grace, and responding with thanksgiving and gratitude – that allows God to shape our lives and church, our decisions, our mission and ministry, our resources around an experience of being touched and healed with unconditional love. The world longs for this healing – to have places of community, to tell stories, to find wholeness and purpose. We are the tenth leper. We have been more than cured.

God’s mercy, inclusion and healing are given to all of us – the good and those who could be better, the unclean and the clean, those with no power and those with a lot. That’s the good news. How do others know we believe it – and experience Christ’s Body present and healing the world? As we turn from doing so many church things, so we can do Godly things – I think they’ll begin to see what faith looks like in us – a faith God can use. “Rise up, your faith has made you well.” And those are Jesus’ words, for a priest can’t do that.


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