Twenty-first Weekend After Pentecost (C/RCL)
October 8-9, 2016
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
At Notre Dame the various dorms have rectors, adults who live there and mentor the residents, like a housemother. The rector of the dorm I stayed in junior and senior year was a Joliet Franciscan, a sister. She’d been elected to some leadership position in her order and had traveled internationally, including a trip to South America that involved a visit to a leprosarium, a home for people with leprosy, where some members of her order ministered. She told us college kids how she used a photo of herself taken in that place for her examination of conscience. When she’d take time to acknowledge the ways she’d fallen short of loving her neighbor as herself, she’d stare at this picture. If I remember right, it was a group shot of residents, staff, and the visiting contingent from the States. Everyone else had an arm around the person next to him or her, except for Vivian, who stood in the front row clutching her sunglasses and touching no one. She was ashamed of her fear, ever after.
“Unclean! Unclean!” is what people with leprosy used to have to shout if they got close to anyone without the disease. One rule of thumb I read about is that if the wind were blowing from the direction of a leper, that person should maintain a 50 yard buffer between him or herself and any healthy person. 50 yards: half a football field. Wow. The Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Bible, part of the Torah, the Law of Moses, stated that anyone with leprosy had to live alone, OUTSIDE the camp (Leviticus 13:46). People with leprosy were ejected from the community, for religious AND for public health reasons. They didn’t know back then that a bacterium causes leprosy, but they did know that if you got too near someone with the disease, you could catch it. They knew it was a communicable disease. The community was kept healthy by isolating the sick individual.
This was understandable but really sad for the sick person, who now wasn’t just ill but outcast, too. The Jewish identity in particular is a communal one. To be cast out of the community was a form of living death. No wonder, then, that when Jesus healed people with leprosy, He always commanded them to show themselves to the priests. The priest had to examine a person, hopefully find him or her disease-free, and then give the green light for readmission into the community. Like the woman with the flow of blood, these people with leprosy received more than a physical cure when Jesus healed them– they also received the gift of return to the community, where their lives were rooted and where they, like we, found their joys multiplied and their sorrows divided.
Today we say people are lepers if others scatter when they appear, like a homeless person who smells or a known child abuser who moves into the neighborhood. When we describe people as lepers, we mean they’re socially unacceptable – just the kind of folks Jesus loves the most.
When I was a hospital chaplain in training in the early 80’s, people with AIDS were often treated as if they had leprosy. We’d hear stories how at home everyone else ate off china and used silverware, while the family member with AIDS ate off of paper plates and used plastic cutlery. After the meal someone wearing plastic gloves would whisk the disposable dishes and cutlery off the table and plunge them into the garbage. There were instances, too, of hospital personnel who were willing to be fired rather than care for AIDS patients.
The family members and staff who did these things weren’t heartless; they were deathly afraid. In their fear of contracting what was then almost always a fatal disease, they added emotional pain to the physical trauma that the patient was experiencing. Like the people with leprosy of Jesus’ day, the persons with AIDS were left not only sick but isolated: just the kind of people Jesus loves the most.
St. Luke says of Jesus that:
When he saw [the ten lepers], he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” (Luke 17:14a)
And he also says:
Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. (Luke 17:15)
Both Jesus and the one leper saw with more than their eyes. They saw with their hearts. Jesus saw not just a gaggle of scary lepers; He also saw their crying need. The one leper saw not just healthy skin; he also saw God’s goodness in making him whole, and saw God present in power in Jesus of Nazareth.
Whom do we see, really see? Do we see only the people we plan to see, only the people we want to see, people who can help us whittle down our to-do list, people we enjoy spending time with, considerate people who never ask for more than we’re willing to give? Or do we also see the people who need what we have to offer, no matter how inconvenient the timing of their need may be? Do we see the ones the world overlooks, chooses to ignore, for whatever reasons? Jesus always did: the poor, the crippled, the women, the children, the sick, the crazy: they were His specialty. They are the most vulnerable, portrayed in St. Luke’s Gospel as the ones Jesus loves the most.
Jesus saw, recognized the need of the ten people with leprosy. The one grateful man saw, recognized God’s hand in his healing. He didn’t miss, dismiss or explain away God’s gift, as we sometimes do. He didn’t convince himself there was another, logical, non-supernatural explanation for God’s blessings, like:
· Sure I prayed for a promotion, but I earned it, after all, with my hard work.
· Sure I prayed for the surgery to be successful, but it probably would have gone fine without the prayers.
· Sure I asked God for a child and I now have one, but try long and hard enough and you’re bound to get pregnant.
We can’t imagine someone being cured of leprosy and explaining that away, but each of us has probably “explained away” more than one miracle!
May the Lord give us eyes to see, to really recognize our brothers’ and sisters’ need, hearts to love and respond accordingly, hands to serve the most vulnerable, and voices to praise our loving God. May our Lord’s saving presence and power not go unnoticed, unappreciated, unheralded on our watch. Amen
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham