A sermon from 2 Kings 5:7-15 and Luke 17:11-19 on 10.13.13
I remember well my weekends as a child and a teenager. My brother, who is two years younger than me, played travel team soccer, and it seemed like every weekend, our family was away in some strange city—from Virginia Beach to Toronto to Roanoke.
I loved watching my brother play soccer. He started on the high school varsity team as a freshman and he played on the Olympic Development Team throughout high school. And I was excited to be at all of his games. I spent much of my time on the sidelines of a soccer field.
I grew up playing neighborhood touch football with my brother and the neighborhood kids out in the street. I was all-time quarterback. That was during the fall and winter when we could see our breath in the crisp, moist air of those cold days in Richmond. And during the summer, to my father’s dismay, we used the front yard as the neighborhood baseball field. A was all-time pitcher. We played with ghosts.
Ghostman on first and second!, my brother would exclaim as he hugged the tree that was first base.
Those were sweet years. And I love every memory I have of them. But as I got older, I realized that all those years of watching soccer from the sidelines was not just a way to describe where I stood as my brother played. It also was a way to describe how I was beginning to feel about my own experience as a person who wasn’t quite sure what my talents were. And it occurred to me that “standing on the sidelines” was a good way to describe where I was in relation to my own life. I began to wonder what I was good at. Where was my place? I began to wonder what “my soccer” was. I hadn’t yet taken the time to discover what was important and fun and life-giving to me. Yes, it was time for me walk onto the field of my own life, to emerge from the sidelines—that in between space that really isn’t anywhere at all.
Siblinghood! It’s so complicated!
Jesus is walking along the borders, the edges, the sidelines of two nations, Galilee and Samaria, and he walks into a village. And as he enters this village, he’s immediately hounded by 10 lepers.
Borders are funny things. Weird things go down at the boundaries between two places. When we cross over from one country to another we have to go through all kinds of security checks. We have to show passports and it’s a huge pain. Tensions are high near borders. There are people with guns up in watchtowers. When you approach a border it’s almost like you’re driving up to a prison. Borders are strange and lonely places. When you get to a border between two nations, there’s a line where civilization stops and suddenly all you see is deserted space. There are big signs on the side of the road instructing you on what you have to have with you if you want to make it to the other side.
Borders are desolate and hopeless. They are the seams in between civilizations. They were in Jesus’ time also. Not many desirable people live close to the borders of countries. The fringe live there. It’s no mistake, then, that the first thing Jesus sees when he crosses the border between Galilee and Samaria was a community of 10 lepers. Outcasts living on the edges of their society. Castaways who had been banished by Jewish law and were forced to live on the border between two vibrant and populated nations.
We hear a lot about leprosy throughout the bible. Leprosy is an umbrella term that was used to describe lots of different skin disorders and bodily disfigurements. It was thought that if a person’s body didn’t look the same as everyone else’s, then that person was a leper. Even mildewed pieces of leather or other pieces of clothing could be deemed leprous. Leprosy then, as you can imagine, was a very common thing in Jesus’ day. And people who were found to have leprosy were banished from their towns, taken from their families, and rejected by society—forced to live in leper colonies on the borderlands.
Lepers had to deal with the pain of their skin diseases, yes, but the worst part of leprosy, by far, was the isolation. Once a priest declared you had leprosy, you were called unclean, and you were removed from your family and village. You were cast away into the fringes, and there was very little hope of ever coming back.
There was no cure for leprosy. The priest could count on one hand the number of lepers he had proclaimed cleansed from leprosy. Being cured from leprosy and reinstated back into community again was a near impossibility.
As Jesus crossed through the desolate borderlands between Galilee and Samaria, 10 lepers approach him.
No clean person has ever been this close to a leper colony. The threat of becoming unclean and being banished from family and village and community was too great a threat for anyone to take any chances. But here was Jesus, walking across the borderlands and right into a leper colony.
Jesus, have mercy on us!, they cry out.
That’s all they say. Perhaps their social isolation has crippled them and the only thing they can ask of Jesus is mercy. Maybe they ask for some relief of their pain and their loneliness. Maybe some kind of understanding is all their asking Jesus for.
Have mercy on us!, they say.
Their bodies covered with the ugly signs of leprosy.
Jesus says to them,
Go and show yourselves to the priest.
That’s all that Jesus says. Jesus offers no instant healing. No anything. Just a simple “Go.” Their scars were still there. Jesus words to them have made no difference, but still the 10 went away to the temple where the priest could proclaim them clean. Each one doing what Jesus had asked them to do.
And as they went, they were made clean.
Hear that again: “As they we went, they were made clean.”
Henri Nouwen was a prolific Christian writer and a Catholic priest. He was a man who understood what it was like to walk among the fringes of society because throughout his time as a priest, he worked and made his home at the L’Arche Community in Toronto.
L’Arche is a community for people with disabilities, but its whole mission is to be place where people with and without disabilities come together into one community to share lives of faith and friendship.
Drawing from his wisdom serving at L’Arche, Nouwen wrote about what it is to be beloved and blessed. Nouwen says that we are a broken and fearful people who are often anxiously in need of a blessing. Blessing literally means to speak well of someone. It’s not a shallow pointing out of someone’s talents or good deeds. When we give a blessing, rather, we affirm another. We say “yes” to a person’s belovedness.
Nouwen says a blessing is the most significant affirmation we can offer one another. When we are blessed by another, we are given affirmation that we do indeed belong to a loving God who will never leave us alone, who will guide us by love in every step of our lives. And when we are blessed by God, it is a deep and abiding affirmation of our true self by a God who created us and calls us God’s own.
Nouwen says that every blessing we are given is an expression of the blessing we have already been given by God.
Each of the 10 lepers run off to see the priest just as Jesus commanded them to do. It was right for all 10 to run off to show themselves to the one who had the power to declare them cleansed and healed of their leprosy so that they could re-enter society once more—so they could return to their families and towns, cured and whole again.
It was as they went, that each was made clean. It was not in the presence of Jesus that they were healed, it was in their walk toward the priest to show themselves in the temple that found their healing. Sometimes healing doesn’t come instantaneously. Healing comes when we have the courage to trust God enough to take bold steps out from the sidelines and the edges and borderlands we inhabit—where we’ve felt stuck for far too long.
Healing comes when we take steps away from the edges of experience and we begin to claim our place in the center of things. When we claim our own blessedness and we begin walking into the center of our own lives, after all those years on the outskirts, and we begin claiming space in and among the world.
Yes, each leper was healed. Each leper did exactly what he was told to do. To go out and show themselves to the priest. And it was in their walking away from their brokenness in the borderlands and into the rich center of their communities where they found healing. All 10 of them. But one leper—one out of the ten—comes back to Jesus.
Healed and whole once again, this one leper, a man from Samaria—in Jewish culture the most despised of all nations—comes back to Jesus.
Were not 10 made clean? But the other 9, where are they?, Jesus says to this one leper.
Should not all 10 come back and pour themselves out in gratitude for the healing that Jesus has given them? Only this Samaritan leper, this double social outcast, returns to thank Jesus. This man throws his healed body down at Jesus’ feet and thanks him.
Jesus tells this man to get up, to go on his way. But before the Samaritan leaves, Jesus says,
Your faith has made you well.
It is in this one man’s gratitude for what Jesus has done for him that he receives a blessing from Jesus.
Each leper was healed, yes, but this one leper, the one who came back to give thanks and pour himself out at Jesus’ feet—he is the only one Jesus blesses.
Henri Nouwen offered many blessings to the people he lived and worked with in the L’Arche Community. Residents with and without disabilities, even staff, used to line up to receive blessings from him, some simple (but personal and poignant) affirmation that they are loved by God and by him.
Get up, Jesus said, and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.
Many may be healed. Many may be proclaimed clean and many will become unburdened by what once made them sick and outcast. But it is only in our returning to God to express our gratitude for all the ways that God cares for us that we are made well and can live full and blessed lives.
It is only in returning to God to pour ourselves out in thankfulness and gratitude for what God has done for us that we are blessed and made well.
Get up and go on your way.
Emerge from the skinny and dark places along the borderlands of life, Jesus says, and into the full and bright places. There you will find healing and wholeness. And if you take time along you way to return to God to tell God of your gratitude for living such healed and whole lives, then you will be blessed, too.
Whether we are sick or well, leprous or cancerous, young or old, healed or still looking for healing—whatever the trials or tribulations of our lives, blessing and peace come to us when we take time to return and give thanks to the One who offers us healing and wholeness.
Let us give thanks with grateful hearts that we have a God who we can return to again and again to give our thanks and our praise, no matter what life throws at us.
It is in our grateful returning, again and again, to the Source of all life that we receive blessing and find our hearts made well.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful.