Gospel: Luke 17:11-19
1st Reading: 2 Kings 5:1-15
2nd Reading: 2 Timothy 2:8-15
I'm sorry to have tell you all this, but you've got leprosy. There is nothing more we can do for you. I know it is hard to digest, but here is a referral to a leper colony. Someone will collect your belongings for you. We can't risk you going back home and infecting your family and friends. From now on, you have to keep your distance from people. You're whole life will change, but you won't be alone. You'll be among your own kind. Grab your stuff. Let's go.
As far as I know, none of us has leprosy. We've made significant advances in managing it and understanding it in the past 50 years. Some of us have been on the receiving end of bad news related to our health or the health of a loved one. We've lived the burden of diseases of the body and mind just as debilitating and isolating as leprosy, both our own and of those we love and care for. We know the pain of addiction and depression, and we know our own diseases of anger, entitlement, selfishness, and greed. We struggle with these diseases that hurt us and others. We wonder is there a cure? How do we treat maladies like these?
We are Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram. We suffer from our own forms of leprosy, yet somehow we push through each day, we are high-functioning, we have everyone around us fooled. And yet deep inside we wonder—why? Did I do something wrong to deserve this? Is God punishing me? Do people avoid me because I am different—because of my disease?
We are the 9 lepers who meet Jesus. We've been sick and isolated for a long time. Jesus brings us healing. We follow his instructions, to the letter and head off to the priest. Yet, is there something missing? Could God have more in mind for me than just going back to the way things were.
We try everything to cure our leprosy. We go to endless doctor appointments and try every possible test, we try hypnotism, we try acupuncture, we try home remedies, all kinds of creams. We read every self-help book, change our diet, try different kinds of exercise, read up on WebMD. Nothing works.
Then a friend of ours suggests that God can heal this disease. Forgive me if I'm a little suspicious and jaded by this point. Forgive me if I don't get my hopes up. I'm willing to try, I guess, but it doesn't sound very likely. This cleansing involves something called baptism. You have to humble yourself to receive it—admit that you are human and hurting, admit your diseases, that you can't do it on your own. You die to your old self, be drowned in the waters of the Holy Spirit, and rise with new life in you. You become part of a community that teaches each other how to live a life of love and compassion. You become part of the body of Christ, responding to needs in this world.
After your baptism, you don't feel any different, or at least the joy fades away after a time. Life is still frustrating. Your leprosy is still afflicting you, your depression, your grief, your anger. Some give up at this point, probably 9 out of 10. But some endure. Some endure out of habit. Some endure out of hope. Some endure because they know about delayed gratification and letting something new have a chance to work.
Healing begins slowly for many. It isn't in the expected way. There is not usually a flash of light, or waving arms. There is no exact moment when you can say, “I am healed.” But bit by bit, you notice a difference. You notice yourself making connections with others in the community, in the body of Christ. You find yourself with more of an attitude of praise. You find yourself noticing the good qualities in those around you and eventually in yourself. You find opportunities to pitch in and make life better for someone else. You find yourself cultivating gratefulness in yourself. You find yourself thanking people. You find yourself thanking God. You find yourself falling at Jesus' feet. You find your life changing.
Jesus heals ten, he heals all. Where are the other 9? Where are the other 90%? Jesus will continue to heal each one, because that is what Jesus does. Jesus provides healing. Not always in the way we hope he will, but his area of expertise is restoration, love, and new life. He provides this for 100% of us. But he can't live that new life for us. He gives it to us and we decide whether upon finding ourselves healed we are comfortable enough with our old life, or whether we will go on in a new way and use what we've learned during our time of trouble and isolation to live a fuller life in gratefulness, in praise, in hopefulness.
The ten lepers were all cleansed. They were healed of their physical ailment. They were restored to their community. However, the Samaritan leper wouldn't be received by the priest. Jesus is the only priest who shows no partiality. He is the priest of us all, powerful in healing, powerful in inclusion, powerful in love. Jesus says to the healed Samaritan, “Your faith has made you well.” It actually should be translated this way, “Your faith has saved you.” He is not only healed physically, but he is saved, his life is saved, he has new life to live. It seems that at least this time, the other 9 missed out on a deeper healing in which their lives are saved and they go on to live in a different way than they did before.
Their highest hope is to go back to the way things were. They want nothing more than to go to the synagogue, be with their friends and family, eat together with friends, and get their old job back. But the Samaritan has never fit in, has never been welcome at the synagogue, has always been spit on by neighbors of other religions, isn't allow to hold the same job as others in the community, and has never received the same wages as others in the same position. The Samaritan has higher hopes than this. The Samaritan's faith is not in the old system, that he knows oppress and hurt people, it is in Jesus, whom he praises. He may very well not even have hoped that Jesus would offer him healing, too. He probably expected to be overlooked like so many times before. But even he receives Jesus' cleansing and blessing, and not only that but Jesus' commendation, Jesus' praise, because he comes back to say, “Thank you.”
It isn't that Jesus has such a fragile ego that he needs to be thanked. It is that Jesus recognizes new life springing up in this Samaritan. He knows that things will be different for him from here on out. He will be living a new life—one of gratefulness, one of hope, one of compassion. His leprosy was not caused by God, but the healing of it was, and the direction of his life from this point on will be shaped by this healing and this love and the fact that even he was included.
How do we cultivate gratefulness? How do we grow gratefulness in our lives? How do we come to better appreciate what God has done for us? There are many ways. One is to reflect each day on what you are thankful for. Keep a note by your bedside or wherever you plan to reflect so you don't forget. Thank others for the kind things they do for you or others. Be sure to include thanksgivings in your prayers—we started formally doing that in the prayers of the people at church every Sunday a couple of years back. Start a gratefulness jar in which you put pieces of paper marking all the things you are thankful for. Then each month, sit down with your jar and see how much God has done for you. Gratefulness is both good for the one who is thanked, but it is also good for us. It may be a key to healing and wholeness. Healing brings about gratefulness and gratefulness heals us, in a cycle that goes on and on.
Today we bless the Purple Hats. These hats have come out of a great tragedy, Shaken Baby Syndrome. They are reminder that babies cry sometimes for no reason, sometimes for hours on end, but that they grow out of it. They are a reminder for all of us to get the help we need when we are overwhelmed. These hats are made because babies have sustained brain damage and death and parents, as devastated as they were, had to move forward. There wasn't hope that things would go back to the way they were, because the children harmed would never be the same. The parents found an even greater hope than this, that other families would be prevented from going through the same tragedy, that awareness would be raised, that people would help each other when newborns screamed for hours. These parents had a vision of what could be. It wouldn't bring their child back, but it would ensure that others wouldn't know the heartache that they knew.
I'm sorry to have to tell you, our world has leprosy. It is messed up for the vast majority of people. 62 million refugees worldwide have fled violence in their home countries, Haiti has been devastated by Hurricane Matthew and before that the major earthquake a few years ago, children and the elderly are going hungry in our neighborhood, people can't afford their rents, we're polluting our earth, burning fossil fuels and heating our planet, depleting our soil, and we're in the midst of a mass extinction. We have leprosy.
Jesus is offering us healing, hope, love, even us!
We can't go back to the way things were. We have to hope in the new life that God offers. But he's not going to be able to live it for us. We must grasp for this greater hope, receive this greater vision of what would mean life and healing for all. The first step is to stop, turn to face the one who gives us this new life, and praise him, thank him, acknowledge him. Then, we don't head back to everything that made us comfortable, we go to those seeking comfort, whose leprosy afflicts them in every area of their lives, knowing we are not alone but Jesus is with us, and showing compassion to them.
We are all on a journey of healing. Jesus heals us all in different ways. Sometimes we stop to thank him, sometimes we don't. If we are faithless, he remains faithful. He continues to heal us, hoping we will soon see beyond my own healing and what Jesus can do for me, to the vision he holds up of new life, and wonder what Jesus can do through us to bring healing and love to this leprous world. In the end it isn't my faith or your faith or all our faith that makes us well and saves us, it is Jesus' faith that saves us and brings us to wholeness and new life.