“A Leper’s Faith”
Rev. Justin Nickel
October 10, 2010
Luke 17:11-1911 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" 14 When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" 19 Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."
Beloved, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.
The unyielding routine of it all must have eventually gotten to him. I mean, day after day, week after week, perhaps even year after year, sitting and waiting for something that was probably never going to happen, but at least the hope that it could get better was better than giving himself over to despair entirely. That kind of unrelenting sameness can grind a person down until there is nothing left, and his was a battle against the hopelessness that everywhere threatened him. Here he was, exiled in his own community, set apart by a disease that allowed others to call him impure, cursed. His disease had quite literally moved him to the very edges of communal life, and any interaction he had with others, with his neighbors, his loved ones or even strangers was too brief and too sterile to be called human. And oh, the suspicion with which they stared at him. The pastor had long since stopped visiting him, having declared him unclean and not fit for life amongst the pure. To avoid him was to avoid God’s anger and judgment, realities that he now wore on his body. Indeed, he was one that others did not want to touch or smell, lest the stench of his disease stain them, as well. Somewhere along the line he had stopped being human and was now only a leper, a thing to be pitied, but ultimately avoided.
And so he did what all the exiled and forgotten do, he found ways to survive and friends who shared in his walking damnation. They gathered at soup kitchens and in alley ways, and together, they found ways to ensure a tomorrow. They stood on street corners with signs and worked as day laborers. They slept in shelters and on park benches, and ate food prepared by those who seemed both frightened and fascinated by them. They, the ten of them together, counted on the charity of strangers who thought them unclean, and what a tenuous existence that was. Yes, they, from time to time, took advantage of those who tried to help them, and about that, he had some regrets. He had cheated and hustled, he lied and told stories, but his survival was at stake, and how much that same struggle for survival was beginning to weigh on him. The exhaustion was even beneath his bones now, and, at some point, laying this whole mess down might be the only escape. The world had simply turned too cold.
Had he heard rumors of this man? Well, of course he had, who hadn’t? There were stories that seemed entirely too good to be true, rumors of healing the sick and recovery of sight, but he never took it all that seriously. They began to sound too much like the local boy done good sort of thing, and he had an inherent mistrust of that kind of folk lore. Stories have a way of getting out of control, and he learned a long time ago that unfounded hope was entirely lethal. It never occurred to him, though, that this Jesus fellow might be returning this way, after all, everyone who actually gets out of Galilee tends to remain as far away as possible. Galilee was a place for the crude and the uneducated, the desperate and the impious, an outpost for the riff-raff and those who have to scrap together a living. There was no culture, no university, and if one had the good fortune of leaving for the bright lights of Jerusalem with its sophistication, its lawyers and its temple, there was very little reason to return.
And even he was surprised by what he did when he saw Jesus walking by. For a brief moment, he gave himself to hope. How strange that old sensation felt, having lived for so long without it. Maybe, just maybe, some of those stories had in fact been true, and perhaps his cynicism was premature. So he, along with the other nine, began asking for, well, they weren’t entirely sure of what they wanted this man to do. Shouting for mercy across the divide of their disease, he was not even sure that he expected a response. So when the word came to go back and find a priest, they all looked at each other with a mixture of unbelief and the beginnings of joy. If this Jesus was telling them to go see a priest, well that could really one mean one thing: they were, in some way and at some point about to be cleansed of their disease. Finally, finally the drought was coming to a close. That this moment, this moment that had often carried him to sleep at night, that this maybe, just maybe, actually might be happening was too much to comprehend all at once. His thoughts sped out in front of him. He could once again try to find work, he could find his wife, assuming she had not moved on, and tell her with genuine conviction that he was a changed man. Yes, his body would be a testimony to that fact. He could return to worship and be invited to parties. He could, once again, be human.
When he recalled the encounter later amidst the easy comfort of family and friends, he did not really remember turning back around and running towards Jesus. The way he would tell it, he saw that he had a patch of clean skin and the next moment, Jesus was telling him to get up, to rise, to be resurrected. He was unable to recite, with any real precision, the praise of God that thundered from his mouth as he realized what had happened. For, in that moment, he had found himself in a mercy that claimed his voice, his body, his whole being. His song, was in some sense, not even his own. What he could remember though, with alarming clarity, was the encounter that happened next, for it was so bizarre, so entirely unexpected that he would come to later regard it as his second birth, the day on which he was yanked out of the grave.
For when this Jesus told him that his faith (faith he did not realize he had been given until that moment), had made him well, had made him whole, had in fact saved him, Jesus was indeed speaking of something added to his cleansing. No, this was not simply Jesus reflecting on what he had done for all ten of them, but was speaking about whatever had drawn this man back to Jesus’ feet. The man could only speak of that force, that presence, that Holy Spirit by approximation and metaphor, but he knew, as certain as he knew anything, that it was God. It was God’s Holy Spirit that had cleansed him, and God’s Holy Spirit that had drawn him back to the source of all healing, this eccentric man, Jesus. It was God’s Holy Spirit that graced him with the vision to see his flesh had been cleansed by God en-fleshed, and it was the Spirit who gave him the song of praise that spontaneously erupted from his lips. Indeed, it was the Spirit that gave him back to Jesus; it was the Spirit who saved him.
And it is this same Spirit, the Spirit of love, mercy and holiness that delivers us to the source of our cleansing, as well. The same Spirit that claimed our ancestor in faith, some unknown leper, and a foreigner at that, that is the same Spirit who gathers us together in this place and once again carries us to God’s mercy. It is God’s Holy Spirit, moving in this body and in these sacraments that gives us the gift of faith and hope in the God whose love extends to the margins where the lowly and mourning gather. It is the Spirit that resurrects us from the stale fear that separates us from our neighbors and gives us the courage to help those who we would probably rather ignore. Indeed, it is God’s Holy Spirit that gives us the faith of the leper. Thanks be to God, amen.