Parts of this sermon were strongly influenced by a sermon written by the Rev. Richard Fairchild. My prayers of thanksgiving for his work and willingness to share his talents with the world go up to God this day. Amen
Jesus was walking toward Jerusalem. On his final journey there that would end on the cross. He was near the border to Samaria when ten lepers call out to him. These people had a disease that was the equivalent of AIDS in the early ‘80’s, if you are old enough to remember the fear of AIDS at that time. These people were under a sentence of death. Leprosy was so feared that the victims of this disease were total outcasts.
By the rules of their society, rules created by a fear of contamination, lepers were forced away from society except with other lepers, and when they encountered healthy people, they rang bells that said to others, “keep away – I am lethal!”
Until very recently, people who had leprosy, what we now call Hansen’s disease, were treated as the living dead: shunned, avoided, feared, they were believed to be unclean, as men and women of the greatest misfortune (if not guilty of huge sins) as people beyond help and not worthy of notice except, perhaps a little charity.
As Jesus entered a village these lepers approached him and called from a distance: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” They must have cried out with a sense of futility, for so few people even acknowledged their presence. Jesus did something unusual for him. Rather than saying, “be healed” – “stand up” – “take up your bed and walk”, Jesus responded to their cry by saying “go and show yourselves to the priests.” Now Jesus was referring to Leviticus chapter fourteen, which specifies what a priest is to do with a leper who happens to get healed. If cured, the leper could gain readmission to the temple, and to the rest of society, if he was ritually purified and certified as “clean” by a priest.
Yet, despite the unusual response of Jesus, they turn and go, and as they walk down the path towards the priest in the village, they are healed. The Greek word translated “healed” in verses14 and 17 is a word that literally means cleansed or cured.
As we know, one of the ten, a Samaritan man, realizing he had been made clean, turned back and praising God with a loud voice he came to Jesus and prostrated himself: he fell on his knees and his face before Jesus’ feet, and thanked him. And Jesus looked down on him and said to his disciples:
“Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And then he said to the man: ‘Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.’”
The word for “well” used here in the Greek can mean cured or healed, but it also means to be made whole or to be saved. My Friends, Jesus’ point is that it is faith that makes us whole. In this story, we have the opportunity to see faith in a different light than we might normally see it. We have the opportunity to see faith as something that leads us to a life that is more than just being well: it is what leads us to wholeness. Through this story we can see that faith is nothing more difficult, nothing more profound than remembering what God has done and giving thanks to him for it.
What, after all, is the difference between the nine lepers who are made clean and the tenth leper who is not only made clean, but also made whole? Just this one: of all the healed lepers, the Samaritan, realizes real resurrection. He alone comes back to say “Thanks”. He realizes that his healing comes from God, through Jesus, and that God has put him in a relationship with Jesus and that relationship alone has made him whole and alive again.
Both last Sunday and today, our reading from Jeremiah has focused on the people who were exiled: taken into Babylon when Israel was conquered. The people torn from their homes and their way of life, are similar to the lepers in our gospel. And there are people here in Central Texas who have been made to feel like exiles. There are many more around the country, and I believe that God is calling us to love them, to let them know that He loves them, just like we are told God loves all of Her creation.
There is something going on in our country that is being almost shouted from the rooftops. I think we’ve finally realized that we are drowning in incivility. People’s rudeness toward others covers the spectrum, with everything from road rage to employee abuse, to people taking their anger out on strangers. But what has really caught my attention, and most probably yours, if you put any focus at all on the news, is the increasing numbers of teen suicides as a result of bullying. Suicide is currently the second leading cause of death among college-age students (after auto deaths) in the United States, with some 1,100 deaths a year. In yesterday’s paper I read about four high school kids in one Ohio town who killed themselves during the last year: one was a girl named Sladjana, whose family recently immigrated from Croatia, and she was ridiculed for her accent and unusual name. She hung herself. Another girl was gay, and another was teased mercilessly because she had a learning disability. Eric, a boy from the same town wasn’t gay, but the school bullies decided that he was because he liked to dress differently. He shot himself in the head.
You may have heard about the death of five teens that took their own lives in the month of September. Raymond Chase, 19; Seth Welsh, 13; Asher Brown, 13, here in Texas; and Billy Lucas, 15, in Indiana, all committed suicide after being bullied and harassed about their sexual orientation. And, just a little over a week ago, Tyler Clementi, 18, of New Jersey. He did it because he didn’t know how to live with what was done to him. A brilliant musician, Tyler was a freshman in college. He had an amazing future in front of him but, in torment over his roommates “outing” him by broadcasting a video of his sexual encounter with another man, Tyler threw himself off a bridge.
Honesty and openness about sexuality is difficult at any age. For teenagers, it can be simply paralyzing, an almost impossible subject to discuss with parents or other adults. Kids don’t know what to do, or how to protect themselves, and harassment is devastating to fragile, emerging personalities.
But bullying isn’t just about sexual orientation. It is a tragic and deadly trend in our schools that students are not being held accountable for their disrespect of others. In Bob Lively’s Faith column, also in yesterday’s Austin paper, he quoted theologian Richard Rohr, saying that though our human problems are for the most part psychological, the solution for those problems is mainly spiritual. It is so obvious to those of us who know and follow the Lord Jesus Christ that our world is hurting so much because we are not following his command to love one another and to treat each other as we would like to be treated.
In our baptismal covenant, we say that seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
our neighbor as ourselves. We say we will strive for justice and peace among all people, and will respect the dignity of every person. As followers of Christ it is our place to step up in protecting those who are being harassed, and to try and show bullies a better, more compassionate way to be.
As the lepers were shunned and shut out of society, so are many of our children being shunned and shut out, or even worse. One of the many reasons I love my job is because I have the privilege of knowing the youth of St. Paul’s. I cherish each and every one of you, and you can pass the word to any and all of your friends and acquaintances. It doesn’t matter to me what the trouble is: anyone, any time, can feel free to come talk to me about anything in confidence– there will be no judgment given, only caring concern, and thoughtful support. There is nothing you can tell me that will shock me – and with love and God’s help, we can find a way to make things better.
The good news is that we can do something about this. Each of us has a responsibility to be present in the lives of our youth, offering them reminders of their belovedness as members of the Body of Christ, and giving them the support they need to thrive. As Jesus pointed out in the Gospel today, as we love and care for one another, and as we give thanks to God for his grace given to us, we have the opportunity to become whole. That it is through God’s loving grace, manifested through His people, that we all find healing and wholeness from the hurtful things of this world. And as one helps another, and that one loves another and helps them, the world can be changed. Amen, and amen.