St. John's Episcopal Church

Sermon given Sunday, October 13, 2019

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Carol Hancock


St. John's, Centreville
October 13, 2019
Proper 23 C
Luke 17:11-19
     God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
     Our Old Testament and gospel lessons this morning have to do with healing and gratitude. Although Naaman and the leper are physically healed, there is also an inner transformation, drawing them both closer to God. They are not just cured, they are healed.
     I like the story of Naaman. He is so human, so proud, so righteous. He is the commander of the army of the king of Aram, a powerful man. But he has leprosy, some kind of skin disease. He hears about Elisha from a captive slave girl and goes to see him with horses and chariots and servants. A bit showy, don't you think? So this great procession pulls up in front of Elisha's house. Elisha sends out a messenger to tell Naaman to wash in the Jordan River seven times and he will be cured of his leprosy.
     Well, Naaman doesn't like that one bit! For a man of his stature, why doesn't Elisha come out of his house and speak to him personally, rather than sending a messenger? And why does he have to wash in the Jordan, when the rivers of Damascus are much better than the waters of Israel? To put it simply, his nose is out of joint. He feels he has been snubbed.
     Fortunately, one of his servants has a bit more sense. If Elisha had given Naaman something hard to do, wouldn't he have done that? This is simple. Why not give it a try? So Naaman washes seven times in the Jordan River and he is cured of his leprosy. Naaman returns to Elisha and exclaims, "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel." Naaman is not only healed physically, but he receives an internal transformation, coming to know that the God of Israel is the one true God to be worshipped and praised.
     In our gospel lesson, there are ten lepers who call out to Jesus as he is passing by. Because leprosy was considered to be contagious, those who had it were ostracized. It was a terrible disease. They could not live in the community with family and friends. They had to live away on the outskirts, with little means to sustain themselves.
     Jesus is passing through this "no man's land" between Samaria and Galilee and these ten lepers call to him from a distance. However, they do not ask to be cured of their leprosy. They ask Jesus, the Master, to have mercy on them. They seem to know who he is. Jesus does not lay hands on them as he does in other healings. They are at a distance and there is no immediate healing. Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests, who will pronounce that they are clean and are able to return to the community.
     So as the lepers are on their way to see the priests, they realize they are cured. We can imagine their joy, their cheering, maybe high-fiving one another. But ONE of them realizes what Jesus has done for him and he turns around and goes back, prostrates himself at Jesus' feet and gives him thanks and praise. And he is not an Israelite but a Samaritan.
     Then Jesus says to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." Your faith has made you well. Now that can be a hard thing for those who struggle with an illness or disability and who have prayed and prayed for healing and it doesn't come. But I think that Jesus is talking, not about physical healing, but more of an internal healing, a spiritual awakening. The leper realizes who Jesus is. He is grateful and returns to give thanks and praise. It is the gratitude for Jesus' generosity that transforms the leper, not the physical healing. The other nine lepers who are also healed physically do not return to thank Jesus. Perhaps they just don't get it. Perhaps they still don't fully realize who Jesus is. Or maybe they are so wrapped up in their own joy that they do not think to return to give thanks to the One who has given them new life.
     In the time of Jesus, lepers were shunned and ostracized and treated as invisible people, because they were thought to have sinned and this was God's punishment. But Jesus "saw" them. Even though they were at a distance, Jesus SAW them. His seeing them, really seeing them as God's beloved children, indicates his compassion for those who suffer and are marginalized from the world.
     Who are today's lepers? Who are the marginalized, those on the edges of society, who we choose not to see? Certainly the homeless, those who hold their cardboard signs on the street intersections, asking for help for food. Some may have mental health problems, some are veterans who have returned from war with PTSD, some are down on their luck, some are substance abusers. And some may be scammers.
     How many of us will not acknowledge them, will not look them in the eye, will not see them as a child of God? I admit I struggle with this, partly because I fear that they may ask me for more than I can give. Am I supporting their addiction if I give them money? Is it better to support organizations that help the homeless? But the bottom line is that they are all children of God and should be treated with dignity and respect - to look them in the eye and acknowledge them as God's beloved.
     Who else are today's lepers? Perhaps some who are disabled, either mentally or physically. Some are not able to leave their homes and are not able to participate in society. The working poor, those who provide services, taking our orders in restaurants, or checking in our dry cleaning, or checking us out at the grocery store - do we really see them as children of God, or just as those who serve us?
     A movie entitled "Maid in Manhattan" came out some time ago, about a maid in a nice hotel in Manhattan, played by Jennifer Lopez, and a wealthy politician, played by Ralph Fiennes. He did not notice her or speak to her when she was cleaning his room as the maid, but when she playfully wore a rich woman's clothes, he was immediately attracted to her.
     In our gospel lesson, all ten lepers were cured of their disease, but only one was "made well". Wellness is wholeness, not just the curing of a disease. It has to do with a change of heart. The expression of thanksgiving to God sets the soul free to soar and it transforms lives. Even though we endure hardships and struggles, gratitude and thanksgiving for all that God has done for us can lift our spirits like nothing else can. We can see God's miracles in our lives, whether we are cured physically or not. Frederick Buechner once said, "Faith in God is less apt to proceed from miracles than miracles from faith in God." Our faith helps us to see God's miracles, helps us to see those that society has left behind, helps us to put our faith into action.
     May we continue to see God's healings and miracles in our lives and the lives of those around us, and to be grateful many times each day for all that God has given us. Amen.

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