Transcribed from the sermon preached November 23, 2014
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 8:6-18, Luke 17:11-17
Most of you have probably seen the movie Ben Hur. As a child, the Valley of the Lepers terrified me. The scary people in the shadows of the cave, with rotting fingers and tattered clothes. Ashamed, frightened, at the mercy of people who were afraid of them.
Leprosy terrified the people of Israel too. Leviticus spends two full chapters discussing it. If someone has a leprosy-like skin disease he is examined by the priest. If it hasn’t taken over the whole body and doesn’t look too raw, the person is quarantined for seven days. Then again the priest examines him. This may go on for a few rounds of seven day quarantine. At the point the person appears to get worse, he or she is declared unclean and, as it says in Lev 13:45-46: “The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper 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.”
This is where the scary valley of the lepers comes in. The leper is cast out. Alone. Homeless. Lepers are not a part of the economy; they have to beg for a living.
Isn’t it strange how sometimes we define ourselves by our condition? Either we or they or both think they should announce their condition at the beginning of an encounter. I’m not talking about something as contagious and unknown as ebola – which clearly we want to be reasonably careful with, even as we are compassionate to each other. I’m talking about non contagious stuff we nevertheless feel obligated to announce. Sorry, I’m old. Sorry, I have MS. Sorry, I am poor. I am single. I am bipolar. I’m gay. We feel that we should warn people so we know right away whether to expect mercy or rejection. Somehow from society or our family we get the idea this thing is what defines who we are.
Every so often a young person will knock on the door. And when I open it they start by saying, “I’m not here to rob you, or get in your house, I just want to stand here on your porch and talk to you. I’m just selling these magazines so I can get a scholarship to college.”
This is painful to me. I was hurt that the person thinks the first thing I am going to think is that he was unclean, that he is a threat to me. I fear that is part of the sales pitch, a way of making people feel guilty or sorry for the kids they hire so they will buy the product. I am offended if people are making money off that way of thinking, off telling kids that is the way they should present themselves, rather than with a confident smile, a hello and a handshake. If it hurts me to hear it said, how much does it hurt the young man who feels like he has to say it? It is painful that we live in a society where children learn that because of their skin they are defined as a threat, as if they had a contagious disease, and should begin a conversation by announcing that they recognize this socially defined stigma and will therefore keep their safe distance, so the other is not infected. It is messed up that enough people are infected with the leprosy of racism that it has infected the thoughts and interactions of all of us. I feel sick. Infected but repentant, some of us feel we have to announce ourselves to make a sin offering: I know I’m a straight, white male, but I have a good friend who is gay, I won’t shoot, I voted for Obama and I like Mexican food We feel like we have to get it out there; we have to warn people. I feel unclean.
That kind of interaction makes me feel like I should go out of the city, form my own leper’s colony, where we can quarantine ourselves and call it a suburb. No matter what form of social leprosy we have, if we just hang out with others who have the same form, then we can forget we have it; we don’t have to warn people because they are just like us. We don’t have to be reminded that we feel unclean. Even though we have ten people we can hang out with that look and feel like us, deep down we hurt, we feel the loneliness, the dis-ease. We hope and pray for a better way. For healing. Jesus, Master have mercy on me!
Now back to Leviticus for a moment: If the priest finds the person clean of disease, then some combination of two lambs and two birds are offered as a sin offering and a burnt offering. Then the priest declares you clean and you can return to the community.
So Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and ten lepers cry out, keeping a proper distance, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us! Jesus says; go show yourselves to the priest. Jesus is observing proper protocol. They are to go be examined by the priest if they are going to be restored to the community. As they go their leprosy is cured.
Now one of them was a Samaritan. He had a double stigma according to those connected to the house of David in Jerusalem. He was sick and of a different people. While all ten would have followed the same Torah, this tenth guy would have a different temple and different priests to go to. Note that Jesus is not checking their race or national origin, he is not checking to see if they have the right doctrine, are of the right denomination before he heals them.
The ten are healed and the one Samaritan returns, praising God in a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus feet and thanked him.
Barbara Brown Taylor is fascinated that the Samaritan didn’t continue on to check in with the priests as commanded:
“Where are the nine?” Jesus asks, but I know where they are. Where is the tenth leper?” That is what I want to know. Where is the one who followed his heart instead of his instructions, who accepted his life as a gift and gave it back again, whose thanksgiving rose up from somewhere so deep inside him that it turned him around, changed his direction, led him to Jesus, made him well?
The proof is not in the declaration of cleanliness from the powers that be, not in the blessing from the doctor or psychiatrist, priest or minister, but in our love and gratitude to God. Get up and go; your faith has made you well. In Jesus we get to be together again. Rather than declaring what separates us, we get to celebrate and give thanks for what unites us. We are each God’s children, brothers and sisters. And while our humility and gratitude to God is important, we are not to lie there prostrate. We are to get up and go.
Whenever I think of an attitude of gratitude, of empowering positivity I think of my friend Roger Crawford. He was born with a rare condition where he only has two fingers on one hand and one on the other, and he has a prosthetic leg. Yet he became a professional tennis player. He says “a broken spirit is a lot more disabling than a broken body.” He says, I remember being in a classroom and having the teacher say this. We’re going to take a piece of paper and some paint and make something for your parents. Hand prints. Roger put his head down started to cry. The teacher came over and asked, Roger, what is wrong? He said, I can’t do it, I’m handicapped. But the teacher said, you are not handicapped, you are Roger Crawford, my student. Yes sir. So he put his hands in the paint and placed them on the paper. Roger says, I took that painting home, and my parents placed it in the most prestigious art gallery in the world: The Crawford refrigerator.
Humble faith, gratitude, get up and go. Get up and go, stand up tall and go, know you are created and loved by God. Paint that painting, sell that magazine, interact with people, all people, as if God has called you into this world to be who you are, for yourself, for others, for God. Imagine Jesus has a giant refrigerator, and as a mother, she can’t wait for you to give something to put up there. And to Jesus, it is beautiful. It is priceless. You are priceless.