Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 28), October 13, 2013
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15, Psalm 111, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen
Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Have you ever looked at something, and your first reaction was “ew, gross!” I don’t mean just a mild feeling of ickyness, I mean something that really and truly repulsed you? Something that made your skin crawl at the very thought of touching it? For me as a child, that was sea creatures. Don’t get me wrong, fish can be fun to look at, and I enjoyed going to the Oregon Coast Aquarium. But some of those creatures—ugh! Like octopi—they just don’t move right, and they’re fast, and those eyes are really, really creepy. There are other sea creatures even grosser to look at. I quickly skipped over the pages with pictures of them in my science textbooks, because they grossed me out. It was stupid, because it wasn’t like the picture could do anything; it was just ink on the page. It couldn’t do anything to me. But I couldn’t even bring myself to touch the picture because it just looked icky. Have you ever felt like that?
Have you ever felt like that when you looked at a person? Because that was about the way people felt about lepers in Jesus’ day. They just weren’t right. They were creepy. They were tainted. And there were all kinds of rules and regulations to keep them away from “normal” people. They couldn’t live with normal people; they couldn’t live anywhere they might come into contact with normal people; they couldn’t touch normal people; they couldn’t allow anything they had touched to touch normal people. Because then normal people might be contaminated by them, see? Normal people shouldn’t have to put up with the creepy grossness of lepers.
And there were all kinds of rituals about leprosy. If a normal person touched a leper, they were contaminated and under the same restrictions as lepers. To be accepted back into society they had to go to a priest to be purified. There was a ritual bath, the priest would inspect them and make sure they weren’t a leper, the whole nine yards. It was a really big hassle, but you had to do it because otherwise even your family would have nothing to do with you.
That’s why the lepers kept their distance from Jesus, calling out to him but not coming near him. They knew their place; they knew the most they could hope for was that he would shout a blessing to them. Maybe the blessing would heal them, maybe it wouldn’t, but it would probably be the first kind word they’d heard in a long time. Imagine that. Imagine if your own family, your closest friends, wouldn’t have anything to do with you. Imagine if nobody ever touched you—no handshakes, no hugs, not even a pat on the back. Imagine if people saw you coming and started walking the other way. For some of you, who have always had a strong and loving community around you, it may be hard to imagine what that would be like to be so isolated. But I know that some of you have had times where you felt just as isolated, just as ostracized, as those lepers.
Now, let’s remember that there’s no medical need for this extreme quarantine and revulsion. They didn’t have science, back then, and they had almost no knowledge of how disease spreads, but even to them it would have been obvious that leprosy doesn’t spread easily. 95% of all people are naturally immune to Hansen’s Disease, our modern name for leprosy. And even if you’re one of the unlucky 5% who can actually get the disease, you have to be in pretty close quarters with someone who has the disease to catch it. And most of what they called “leprosy” in Biblical days wasn’t actually Hansen’s disease; everything from really bad acne to rashes to the scars left by the pox got lumped in as leprosy. No matter how bad your acne is, it doesn’t spread by contact! Scars do not pass disease either. And while some rashes are contagious, many aren’t … and even the ones that are contagious may not be anything but an annoyance. So the danger lepers posed to society was pretty darn small.
But that didn’t really matter; lepers grossed people out and made them uncomfortable, and so society made darn good and sure that no nice, normal people had to deal with them. And if that meant the lepers starved, if that meant their lives were made ten times more horrible by the isolation than by the disease itself, if that meant lepers suffered alone, well, nobody really cared. They didn’t like lepers, and they’d convinced themselves that meant God didn’t like lepers either.
Except it turns out that’s not the case. Jesus never met a leper he didn’t cure. Jesus treated lepers the same way he treated everyone else, as beloved children of God. It didn’t matter whether they were faithful followers of God; it didn’t matter whether they were good or bad. It didn’t matter what ethnic group they belonged to or what gender or social group or anything else. When Jesus saw a leper, he immediately cured them and sent them on their way to the priests to be inspected, washed clean, and allowed back into society. People in Jesus’ day were so sure that lepers should be excluded, and so sure that that’s what God wanted them to do. It never occurred to them to do otherwise. And they were wrong!
Who are the lepers in our modern-day society, I wonder? Who are the ones we don’t like, the ones we exclude, the ones we don’t even want to share a street with, much less a classroom or a restaurant or a home or a pew with? It seems we human beings are always trying to figure out who’s in and who’s out, who’s good and who’s bad, who should be welcomed in and who should be given the cold shoulder? The funny thing is, we can treat leprosy nowadays—and so many other diseases that are even worse. We can cure a lot of things, and even those things we can’t cure, we can at least make them better. There are people that look at Jesus’ miracles of healing and shrug, because compared to what doctors and nurses can do, they don’t look all that impressive. But taking the people the community doesn’t like and healing them and bringing them back into fellowship? Now, that takes a miracle.
We are very good at sharing God’s grace with people we like. People who look like us, think like us, live the way we think people should live, vote the same way, and fit into our ideas of what good people should be. If a pillar of the community gets a serious disease, out come the sympathy cards and the visits and the casseroles, and any fundraising needed. But for people who aren’t pillars of the community—or people whose troubles aren’t socially acceptable—it’s a different story. Particularly if they aren’t faithful Christians. Any time a Christian organization wants to help people, you’ll hear it: “well, they aren’t Christian, so why do they deserve it?” Or “well, they’ll only waste it, so why bother?” Or “we’ve given them all this and they haven’t ever come to church.” And you hear it in the pews on Sunday morning. “I can’t believe so-and-so dared to show his face here.” Or, “Well, I suppose that even those people have a right to come to worship—but that doesn’t mean I have to sit by them or shake their hands at the passing of the peace.” Some of the reasons to keep people out seem pretty good to us—just like excluding lepers seemed pretty good to the people of Jesus’ day.
But Jesus didn’t keep them out. Jesus, in fact, healed them and restored them to the community whenever he saw them. Not just the ones who deserved it; not just the ones who had faith; not just the ones who said the right thing or did the right thing. All of them. When Jesus healed the ten lepers, nine went on their way without a second look back at Jesus; only one bothered to seek Jesus out. And that one was a Samaritan, a man who would have been ignored and excluded from a Jewish community even if he hadn’t been a leper. He had two strikes against him, not just the one. And Jesus welcomed him and praised him! And you know the other nine? The others who were healed and never even came back to say thank you to Jesus for restoring their lives to them? They were still healed. Sure, it would have been better if they came back to Jesus, but that wasn’t a condition of their healing. Jesus didn’t say, “well, I only heal people who follow me.” And he didn’t take away their healing when they didn’t come back! He saw the lepers, and he healed them, and he praised the one who was faithful, and he sent them back to their homes and communities.
There are many kinds of illness. Some kinds are physical, like leprosy; some kinds are mental and emotional. But sometimes the community gets sick, too. Sometimes, the community excludes people whose only crime is to be different. Sometimes, we can’t see past our own prejudices to see the children of God in the people we don’t like. But God can see past the things that blind us. God loves all his children, and God is always working towards healing, of people and communities. God seeks out the lost, and those who have been cast out, and brings them home rejoicing. Thanks be to God.