Proper 23 C Pentecost Episcopal Church at Yale
The Rev. Dr. Paul J. Carling October 13, 2019
The Courage to be Grateful
Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7; Luke 17:11-19
God grant us the courage, the wisdom, and the strength to seek always your will, come whence it may, and cost what it will. Amen.
You’ve just heard one of the most dramatic passages of the New Testament, Luke’s gospel story about Jesus healing a group of lepers. Today, of course, leprosy is a rare and eminently treatable disease, in spite of Hollywood’s image of disfigured, contagious characters, creeping out of caves, crying, “Unclean, unclean!”, bells around their necks ringing, and hands with missing fingers extended, begging for food.
In the Ancient Near East, though, leprosy actually referred to any skin condition, including what we now call ‘psoriasis,’ ‘eczema’ or even ‘acne.’ “Lepers” appeared before a priest, who decided whether the severity of their condition warranted banishing them as beggars to the outskirts of town.
Since lepers were required by law to keep their distance, Jesus could have ignored them. But he knew they were the most visible symbol of his society’s all – pervasive tendency to decide people’s status based on what they looked like on the outside, rather than what they were actually like inside.
There’s no dramatic healing here. All Jesus says is, ”Go and show yourselves to the priests.” This was the way to be re-certified and allowed to return to their homes, to be hidden away, or even to the community as “normal,” and they quickly obeyed. Luke tells us, “as they went, they were made clean.” But then comes the twist – one leper decides to disobey. He turns back, praises God, and falls at Jesus’ feet, thanking him.
Ten lepers were told to show themselves to the priest, but only nine did. Maybe, for the nine, what happened was essentially an outside event, a stroke of good luck. Apparently, ten were made clean, but only one was made whole.
Why the difference? Remember, the tenth leper was a Samaritan, a religious outsider, and a social inferior. Healed of his leprosy, he still remained an outsider, so he bypasses the pastoral visit with the priest and immediately embraces Jesus’ message – to become part of the “Jesus movement,” a way of life that welcomes Jew and Gentile and even Samaritan, rich and poor, male and female, slave and free into a community of equals. In the process, he answers Jesus’ radical invitation to heal him not only of his physical disease, but also, of his social marginality.
In reflecting on this passage, theologian Alan Culpepper asks, “Are we self-made individuals beholden to no one, or are we blessed daily in ways we seldom perceive, cannot repay, and for which we often fail to be grateful? Gratitude,” Culpepper continues, “is the best barometer of our character and our spiritual health. Faith, like gratitude, is our response to the grace of God as we have experienced it. For those who have become aware of God’s grace,” Culpepper concludes, “all of life is infected with a sense of gratitude, and each encounter with the effects of God’s grace becomes an opportunity to see and to respond in the spirit of the grateful leper.”
This is the faith that allows us to see life itself as a gift, not a given, that reminds us that every one of us is a living miracle. The fact that you and I woke up this morning was planned for, even assumed, but it was never guaranteed. Today isn’t an accident; it’s a gift of grace. One more day to love God and each other, to do good work, to heal the world just a little bit more.
My friends, we are all lepers. Although privilege supposedly inoculates some of us against the pain of economic or racial or religious disadvantage, it also impoverishes our spirits through the social isolation and ignorance of different experience it perpetuates. Its’ social structures – where we live or eat or play – systematically divide us from the experience of those of other income or education, other race, ethnicity or religion, other gender or sexual identity, other immigration status or simply zip code. And our larger culture constantly invites us to deepen those differences, even fear them, rather than bridge them – not unlike the culture of Jesus’ time.
You may say, “Well, sadly, that’s simply the way the world operates,” and you’d be right. But remember Paul’s words in today’s Epistle, that in spite of our best efforts to the contrary, “…the word of God cannot be chained.” And the hymn we just sung, “…thy love unknown has broken every barrier down.”
The good news is that the Jesus movement, of which we are all members, reminds us that, even if that is the way of the world, we don’t have to consent to live that way. Over the centuries, this movement has matured spiritually, and has so grown in wisdom and love and in the awareness that God’s grace showers upon all of God’s people, that we now dare to hope for a world that welcomes not just lepers, but everyone into a community of equals, a community that heals and transforms body, mind and spirit.
How? Simply by its spirit of acceptance and inclusion, by its understanding that, none of us is free until all of us are free, knowing that if we are to survive, we all have need of one another.
Jesus’ response to the lepers’ social isolation was to heal them, not only of their disease, but also from the trauma of their social exclusion, and the sense of internalized powerlessness it created within them. And through baptism, that responsibility to heal and empower becomes ours, as we promise to “…seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves…, (and as we)… strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
We have no special gifts to accomplish this, only open hearts, courageous spirits, and a willingness to risk our superficial advantages for a coin of much greater value: our own freedom, and that of every other child of God.
In today’s gospel, Jesus invites us not only to be grateful for the blessings in our own lives, but to pray for that greatest of all blessings: the eyes of faith that help us see God’s presence and action all around us, weaving and binding us together as a human family – in all our messy diversity. Just as Jesus became present to the ten lepers, may we become just as present to one another, as agents of healing and reconciliation, as brothers and sisters of the living Christ.