A Leper

A Leper October 13, 2013

A Leper

Many Voices, One Story

Luke 17:11-19

Our gospel lesson today is about a leper.  Ten lepers, to be exact.

I’m aware that, for most of us, thinking about leprosy is kind of an intellectual engagement: we know leprosy is largely eradicated these days; we know that it’s called Hansen’s disease; we know that it’s not nearly as contagious as it was once thought to be…in fact, it’s unlikely that very many of us have even ever met someone with leprosy.

For me, though, reading about Jesus and the lepers has a very familiar ring to it, and that—as you may have guessed—is directly related to my childhood.  I grew up in Hawaii, and I remember as early as third grade learning Hawaiian history in school every year.  Hawaii is one of the states in our country that has a pretty tragic history leading up to statehood and beyond, and that history is largely related to the exploitation and victimization of native peoples.

As kids we learned that Captain Cook discovered the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, though of course they’d been discovered long before that by Polynesian voyagers.  But once Captain Cook arrived, Hawaii became a regular stopping point on various trade routes.  Because of that, the natives of these islands who had been so isolated up until that point, were exposed to all sorts of diseases they’d never encountered before.  Sailors and traders came to the islands bringing their diseases, and the native Hawaiian people had no immunity to such.  Between 1804 and 1806 alone, for example, a full half of the native Hawaiian population was decimated by cholera.

As traffic to the islands increased, the native people continued to suffer incredible losses due to disease, until eventually at its lowest point, the native Hawaiian population dwindled to less than 600,000 people.

One couldn’t live in the islands during that period without being aware of the ongoing and increasingly severe health crisis facing the Kingdom.  Native Hawaiians still did not have immunity to diseases like syphilis or influenza, or one of the most scary diseases running rampant in the Hawaiian Islands at that time: leprosy.

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At that time leprosy was thought to be highly contagious—and it was a debilitating and crippling disease.  People were terrified of contracting leprosy, and because of that fear, in 1865 the Hawaiian legislature passed the “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy.”  Health inspectors regularly searched out people with signs of leprosy and forced them into quarantine on the island of Molokai in settlements like the most famous, Kalaupapa.

Kalaupapa settlement is on a peninsula, protected from the rest of Molokai by a steep mountain ridge, so exiles and any mail or supplies were brought in by boat.  While they weren’t originally meant to be penal colonies, these leper colonies quickly became such because the Hawaiian government hadn’t planned for enough resources to support the people there.  Circumstances in the settlements quickly became dire; being exiled because of possible leprosy was a constant fear held by everyone living in the Kingdom of Hawaii.

We’d learn all of that as kids, and our learning was done in the continuing shadow of fear and misunderstanding of the disease of leprosy…because over 8,000 Hawaiians were sent to Kalaupapa starting in 1866…and ending in 1969.  For your reference, 1969 was just 9 years before I was sitting in my third grade classroom learning all this.  Because of this terrible history, the fear of the disease, so deeply ingrained in the psyche of the Hawaiian adults in my life, remained.

And a fear-filled shadow just like that was present in the gospel passage we read this morning, too.  While scholars have not been able to prove that leprosy actually existed at the time of Jesus, whatever these ten men had, it was some kind of skin ailment that made people scared of them.  According to Levitical law, when such an ailment was discovered you had to leave the community—go live outside your village alone or with others who were sick.  You had to tear your clothes and keep your hair disheveled, and anytime someone passed by you had to cover your mouth with your hand and yell, “Unclean!”

So, such was the situation in which these ten men in today’s gospel lesson found themselves.  And, along comes Jesus, Luke tells us, in the region between Galilee and Samaria.  Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, increasingly drawing the ire of those in power, and traveling in a region populated by Samaritans—people whom good Jews would consider unclean just by virtue of their race.  Outsiders.

The interesting thing about Luke’s story here is that there is, technically, no region between Galilee and Samaria.  The way the geography went back then there was Galilee up north, then the region of Samaria in the middle, then the region of Judah in the South—where Jerusalem was.  It’s likely that Jesus was traveling down the side of Samaria, along the Jordan River, but whatever the case, Jesus was definitely in a land where HE was the outsider—probably avoiding villages and giving settlements wide berth just to be safe.

So here they are, Jesus and ten lepers, who run into each other along the road.  All of them, the lepers and Jesus, were outcasts in one way or another.  And that fact right there should make our ears prick up, because in Luke’s gospel it’s most often when outsiders—people on the margins—enter the story, that we see God.

Well, you know what happened.  The lepers called out for help, as they would to anyone passing by.  They were likely looking for some food or money, begging.  But Jesus calls back and tells them to go show themselves to the priests—that they were healed.

Wow!  Probably not what they expected at all, but they knew, if for some reason their symptoms disappeared, what they had to do to be able to return to their families and communities was to go to the temple, show the priests they were better, and go through ritual cleansing.  Seeing that they were, in fact, miraculously healed, they did what anyone would do: they hurried toward the temple—as Jesus had told them to do—so they could get clearance to go home.

Along the way to the temple, though, one of them stopped.  He felt pulled to turn around, go back to Jesus, and say thank you.  And you see what the text says here?  “And he was a Samaritan.”  An outsider.

Watch for it!  Luke’s giving us another clue that this is a holy moment!

Jesus says (if you were here last week you’ll know about my frustration with the lack of tone descriptors in the Bible)—in what I’d imagine is a bit of an ironic tone—hey, weren’t there ten of you?  Where are the rest?  Look at that—only one returned—and that one’s a Samaritan to boot!

And as he was saying thank you, prostrate with gratitude, Jesus said, “Get up and go on your way.  Your faith has made you well.”

You’ll recall that we’re in a month-long season of stewardship right now, working with the theme, “Many Voices, One Story.”  Here we have another voice, the voice of a leper and outsider, helping Jesus tell the story.

And what story, exactly, is that?

It’s good to say thank you?

In my family growing up my mother was a maniac about teaching us manners.  We always had to call grown ups by their correct titles; every Saturday we sat at the dining room table and wrote letters to our grandparents, at dinner if we forgot to put our napkins on our laps we had to go to our room and count to 25 before coming back to the table, and we had to answer the telephone with the phrase: “Hello, this is Amy.  You’ve reached the Dill residence, may I help you?”

I’m the oldest of five, and my youngest brother Matthew is eleven years younger than I am.  I remember one evening we were sitting in the living room talking about how my mother thought Matt, about five then, was old enough to try answering the telephone on his own.  We were helping Matt practice the greeting we’d all learned when the telephone actually rang, and my mother nodded: it was time for Matt to try it out.  So Matt walked to the telephone, took a deep breath, picked up the receiver, and said: “Hello this is Matthew.  You’ve reached the Dill residence…and, you need help!”

I tell this story about my mother’s insistence on all of us learning manners, because the easy and obvious way to look at this passage from the gospel of Luke is to say that Jesus was trying to teach a lesson about good manners.  In other words, that it’s one of the principle tenants of the gospel of Jesus Christ that whenever somebody does something nice for you—especially if they heal you from leprosy—you should always be sure to say thank you…?

Right?

No, not really.  While I am sure Jesus approved of good manners, and while I think it really is a good thing to say thank you for even lesser things than healing from a fatal disease, I think there might be something a bit deeper going on here.

Note that everybody in this story is doing what they are supposed to be doing.  Jesus is moving along toward Jerusalem and the culmination of his ministry.  The lepers are living outside the village and, upon lucking out at getting healed, they hurry back to the temple to do what they are supposed to do.  But somewhere in all of that, something deeper is going on.  That tenth leper connects with Jesus in such a way that his skin is clear…and his heart is changed.

“Your faith has made you well,” Jesus tells him.  And that declaration has nothing to do with his skin.  His whole perspective on the world has shifted; he’s moved from being an outsider to being an insider, touched by love and grace, and unable to live in any other way than with open and grateful response to God.

It’s the difference between doing what you’re supposed to do, and responding with a fullness of heart that’s all consuming.

The writer of Luke was cluing us in all along, so we shouldn’t have been surprised.  It’s the outsider here who encounters God.  He’s healed on the outside, it’s true, but even bigger than that, his heart is transformed.  He cannot respond in any other way than with deep and humble gratitude.

Master preacher and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor has a beautiful sermon on this text, in which she agrees that everybody here is doing what they are supposed to be doing.  Like us—we all try hard to fulfill our obligations, to obey the rules, to give our money, to volunteer our time.  Taylor writes, “Nine behaved like good lepers, good Jews; only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love.”  “I know how to be obedient,” she writes, “but I do not know how to be in love.”

We talk all the time around here about giving in grateful response to God’s transforming work in our lives.  And when we do, this is what I am talking about.  We’re not here because we’re obligated to be here.  We don’t give because our parents taught us we should.  Offering our time is not something we do because we know it will look good on our resumes.

If we’re here because of any of those reasons, we might as well be doing, well, just about anything else.

We’re here, we give, we serve, we join our voices to tell the story of God’s love for the world, because our hearts have been captured—somewhere along the way we ran into Jesus, he healed us; and, more than that, our faith has made us well.

What more could we possibly say in response to that than, “Thank you.  Thank you, thank you, with everything I have and everything I am: thank you.”

Amen.


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