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Lepers, then and now

Two thoughts.
1. Pope Francis is around, being awesome again this week, ministering to a man afflicted with a skin ailment.  So while leprosy, and the knee-jerk reaction it once elicted, might seem like a historical memory, while it might seem like we’ve all moved past that–there’s ample evidence to the contrary, as we all are amazed again by the pope actually doing what we’re all called to do.

2. I don’t tell this story in the sermon much, because of Rule #3.  Also, it feels odd to condense the whole life and witness of a person to a few lines in one of my sermons.  So here’s hoping I did them justice, at least a little bit.

 

 

 

October 12-13, 2013

 

Proper 23, Ordinary Time, Year C

 

Luke 17:11-19

 

 

 

When I was a small child, my family had two friends: Mark and Arliss.  To my child-centered mind, I thought Mark and Arliss were terrific, mainly because they played Barbies with me when I asked nicely, and listened to interesting music, and visited our local pool on occasion to go swimming. They were great.

 

They were so great, that I found everyone else’s behavior very strange, bordering on inexplicable. I didn’t understand when my mother had to remind me to lie and, if I was asked, tell the neighbors that Mark and Arliss were relatives–or the neighbors wouldn’t let them come back to the local pool.  And when Arliss was in the hospital, nurses refused to treat him, and everyone else on staff wore multiple layers of gloves, layer on layer on layer, and got out of his room as fast as they could. Because Mark and Arliss had AIDS, and this was the late 1980s, and this was Southern Virginia.

 

Except for a handful of people, they were isolated, totally isolated.  Society viewed them with suspicion at best–and that is an awful way to live a life.

 

 

 

It’s draining, it’s dehumanizing, when every interaction with the world is shaded with the world’s distrust and fear.  And I watched the toll it took on my friends.  The modern day leprosy, the news pundits called it, at the time.

 

 

 

Leprosy! Practically the standard by which all shunned people are measured!  And here in the gospel today, we have ten lepers. Because Jesus is travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem, and passing through the wilderness, he runs into what amounts to a leper camp.

 

And now, two things become important here:

 

one: anyone diagnosed with leprosy would have been shunned:  kicked out and shunned immediately by everyone, either until they died, or until they were cured.  No one would have come near them, or touched them, or given them food or work.

 

 

 

And two: a cure wasn’t a crazy thought, because what we translate in the Bible as leprosy was any spot or rash appearing where it ought not to appear..  So this included anything from an allergic reaction to bed bugs, to the thing everyone was terrified of: actual leprosy–that would kill you and spread rapidly from person to person.

 

But it also included things like mold, or mildew.  There’s a really entertaining section of Leviticus that details how to cure your house and books of leprosy.

 

 

 

Anyway, Jesus encounters ten people with skin problems living cast out of society because of their affliction and he’s travelling, and they cry out for help.  “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

 

Even as they ask him for help, they don’t approach.  There were strict rules about how people classified as lepers were to behave, because there was so much fear of the disease and its spread.  You had to stay so far away from the uninfected.  You had to warn people who were approaching, in case they didn’t notice you, and they bumped into you accidentally.

 

All in all, it was an incredibly dehumanizing and lonely experience to be treated as a leper, because the society was so terrified of even the possibility of this disease.

 

 

 

And so it’s not hard to imagine that the lepers, or those so diagnosed by society, were used to that, to some extent. After months, years of being avoided by everyone they knew, they might have grown used to it, or thought that since that was the way society operated, that was the way it always was, and always would be.

 

 

 

Being oppressed, being cast out like that, does something to a person.  It wears on your spirit–when the voice of society questions your worth, your value at every turn.

 

 

 

All of which is to say–when the one ex-leper returns and approaches Jesus–that’s a surprising moment.  Not only is he a Samaritan, so he’s crossing some religious lines here, but he’s going against everything society had been telling him he was meant to do.  Don’t talk to people, don’t go near them, certainly don’t touch them.  He does that in one moment of gratitude.

 

And Jesus marvels.  And notice that in Jesus’ comment about gratitude, and where the other healed lepers are, he doesn’t take back the miracle.  God’s healing grace, it turns out, doesn’t depend on our being grateful enough for it, or praying hard enough, or some imaginary yardstick. God is gracious because God is gracious.

 

Jesus marvels, and Jesus comments on the man’s faith.  Your faith has made you well.

 

 

 

Because, Somehow, through the grace and power of God, this man has held on to his belief in his essential humanity.  He held on to a faith in the idea that no matter what the voices around him said, God loved him, and God created him in God’s image and nothing could destroy that– no isolation or fear or disease.  So when Jesus restored him to health and to community, he didn’t run away.  In faith, in a way, he had been there all along.

 

 

 

For all of us, there are constant voices telling us that we aren’t what we are supposed to be.  Advertisers who would like to sell us something. Politicians who would like us to vote for something.  In our society, we are constantly being told that we aren’t quite what we should be: we should all be richer, thinner, paler, (or tanner, as the case may be), younger or older, depending, we should be healthier. We should have more stuff. We should care about different things than we do.  And we should all certainly be cooler than we are.  And then, we will be perfect–ever more perfect each year.

 

It’s a constant Greek chorus of doom, that warns that the consequence of not being so perfect means that we will end up alone.

 

 

 

So this preys on what we know, what we were told at our baptism, and what we reiterate  each week here: we are made in the image and likeness of God.  We are loved by God, and nothing changes that.  No sickness, no fear, nothing the world derides as imperfect separates us from the love of God, or his image in us.

 

 

 

It is that faith that carries us through and empowers us to recognize the image of God in other people.  It is a faith that opens us up to see the grace of God bringing healing to our lives and our community.  And it is this faith in the image of a God in us that lets us act as agents of that grace in the world.

 

 

 

Because the world has enough voices counting the ways we aren’t good enough. It really doesn’t need any more.  What the world needs are people who believe in the love of God for each person.  The unshakeable, un breakable love of God imprinted on each human heart that will not quit, no matter what.

 

And when we rely on our faith in that, when we carry our faith in a God of that kind of love, out into the world, that is the sort of faith that brings miracles.

 

 

 

Amen.

 

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About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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