"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Sunday sermon: Jesus and the Ten Lepers from Luke 17:11-19

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “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?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.

 Some context: We are walking with Jesus in the final months of his life, toward Jerusalem. For many months he has crossed Israel preaching the gospel of the Kingdom, doing many miracles and healings, showing compassion and sympathy, tenderness and mercy but also speaking firmly about judgment, to awaken the people to the necessity of looking to Him as their Saviour, their Messiah.

We join him this morning passing between Samaria and Galilee and we witness a healing: a healing, unusually of a large group rather than individuals...ten people with leprosy.

Lepers were, of all the sick, the most to be avoided. That's why we’re told they stood at a distance. What must that’ve been like? Have you ever been isolated from family or other people? Such as being in prison? Or, being in the military and posted overseas, without your family? Or, moved to a different community where you knew no one? Or, went away to university for the first time and all was new and different? If so, you have the beginnings of a sense of the isolation leprosy brought.

In the ancient world they didn't know about bacteria, antibiotics, rates of infection, or any of that but what they did understand was that sometimes what starts out as a simple rash on the skin, can lead to disaster, and what starts with one person can end up affecting many more. So what did they do? They separated the lepers from other people, and didn't let them live with anyone or eat with anyone, or even talk with anyone, except for other lepers. It could cost you your family and friends and life as you know it is gone. Unclean -- outcast -- away you go, off with the other lepers. The people you needed most, the loving family and friends, you couldn't come near. You couldn't associate with other people in the synagogue or any social environment whatsoever. You were an alien from all of life.

And there were rules to make all this happen as set out in the Book of Leviticus: laws about how far away lepers had to stand from other people, about how they had to wear worn-out clothes and warn people in a loud voice whenever they were walking down the street, and people at Jesus' time believed that leprosy was the punishment for sin, something the leper had done to deserve this fate so they tended to be very unsympathetic. These were the most miserable of all people, believing that they had been cursed by man and cursed by God as well.

It is against this background that Jesus demonstrates compassion, sympathy, and power and in doing so, challenges and undoes what the people would have assumed was a divine curse. It is a powerful indication of the Kingdom at work: the old order is passing away and, for those willing to see it, there is a new future. It is an astounding and incredible healing from all perspectives. 

I don’t know whether that’s something we consider very much – well, I don’t, perhaps you do: our isolation from God is over and for most of us here it’s been over for a long time.

There are a number of directions we can take at this point in terms of a theological reflection and learning points – something practical we can take away from this morning. A lot of commentators concentrate on the ungrateful nature of the nine and there is clearly a huge area we could explore there in relation to our responses to God’s grace. Others concentrate on the fact that of the ten, the only one to come back is the Samaritan, the despised foreigner, and we could usefully have a discussion about the limits we and others like to put on God’s grace.

I think I’d like to look at the nine: not the ungrateful nine but the nine as they can stand for models of discipleship following the gift of God’s grace.

What happened to the nine is, of course, speculation. We don’t know what became of them but it is Jesus who invites us to speculate; it was he who asked, “Were not ten made clean? Where are the other nine?” Yes, where were they? What could have happened to them? Luke doesn’t give us an answer, so the question remains, hanging. It is up to the reader to wonder, to imagine, to speculate, to guess.

When we hear Jesus ask, “Where are the other nine?” I think we tend to hear a tone of judgment and criticism in his voice, as in, “Where are the other nine? They should be here!” But I can’t help wondering if it was more a deep sense of compassion that led Jesus to ask that question. “Where are the other nine? I wanted their healing to lead to a life of wholeness.” I find that interesting because the nine clearly had faith – they called out to Jesus to be healed and they were: it wasn’t faith that they lacked so what went wrong?

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to compare us to the lepers and their lives after their encounter with Jesus to ours. We’ve had an encounter with Jesus: at some stage in our lives he has touched us and changed us. How has it gone from there? Well, it strikes me that there might be some models of discipleship amongst the nine that might be a challenge to us.

Let’s speculate about the first possible group of lepers. Perhaps their first thoughts were of their families. After all, how long had it been since they had last seen them? For many years they had had no contact with them. Like all lepers and other unclean people, they had been forced to live outside society and keep their distance from all others.  What if the families weren’t open to receiving them back? The healing becomes a curse. Things won’t be as they once were.

Describing one’s self as a disciple isn’t always a universally welcome thing amongst friends and family and rejection is a reality for some people who take the path of Christian discipleship. When someone comes to the Christian faith from another faith group, that conversion can cause untold antagonism and uproar. Others face indifference, ridicule and cynicism from a secular environment. How lonely that discipleship becomes: it could lead one to give up on it.

And a possible second group: what if they tried so hard to be accepted but others couldn’t forget what they had once been and they were never truly welcomed back?

We are constantly told that the church is a family and I know that over the years many people have settled here because they’ve not been made welcome elsewhere or have felt uncomfortable with the teaching they have experienced elsewhere. They’ve had the encounter with Jesus and then spent a period in the wilderness of the institutional church: they’ve drifted from the church but that encounter with Jesus has brought them back, perhaps a number of times, but the church has shown no welcome. The church isn’t always good at practicing what it preaches. As many of you know, I had a period with another denomination and would now class myself as a returner to Anglicanism. I can’t pretend that I have been universally welcomed back and in some quarters I’ve been treated with a degree of suspicion bordering on hostility. It seems to be what I was that defines me in the eyes of others, not what I am now or could go on to be. Such disciples run the risk of being kept on the margins.

Consider a third group: having been lifted from the bottom of the social order, they forgot that experience and could find no compassion in themselves for others who were outcast and marginalised.

We’ve met those Christians before haven’t we? I remember the Lent group here where we were examining the series “Rev” and we came upon the actor Darren Boyd’s funny but rather scary cool-priest with his juice bar and life of black and white certainties and the disappointment he expressed in Adam Smallbone’s spirituality with its layered shades of grey. For those Christians there is only one pattern of discipleship – theirs, and for these disciples the touch of Jesus has led them to look down on others as a consequence.

And some in that third group: what if they’d noticed that one of the lepers had been a Samaritan –“someone not like us”?  What if they couldn’t reconcile the way God had treated someone else with their own set of values; a set of values which counted some people as more worthy than others? That way could lead to hurt, resentment and bitterness in the disciple.

Well, we know them too don’t we? This is the next stage up from scary cool-priest. This is the monstrosity who is Adam’s Archdeacon. The Gospel is about theological and doctrinal orthodoxy and about putting others down: they are scathing and dismissive of those who hold alternative views – not that there are alternative views of course. Their certainty brings them a sense of superiority and it shows in their dealings with others. These Christians are arrogant, lacking in humility and lacking in the warmth of human kindness. Other wings in the church are to be tolerated – but only in as much as they can also be undermined. Yes, the touch of Jesus that might lead to superiority as a model of discipleship.

What if the healing was perceived by others amongst the lepers in such a way as to make them believe Jesus had seen something special in them? If that were the case, then surely others would also see in them something special. Perhaps they now had expectations.

This is a hard one I think: there are many people who truly believe that God has touched them and have called them to some form of ministry and service and they struggle to find their place in the scheme of things. I think it’s difficult because we are all called – “the priesthood of all believers” – so how do we discern what that calling is and how open are we to hearing the perceptions of others in our search for that role? In this model of discipleship the touch of Jesus might lead to disappointment and recrimination.

And a sixth group: what if some of the lepers had been on the margins for so long they couldn’t make the transition to the new life? What if that led to self-doubt and a sense of unworthiness? Did they really belong in this new world after all? Maybe Jesus had made a mistake.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come.” 2 Corinthians tells us. That doesn’t always ring completely true for some people does it? For some the struggle of discipleship means a huge turn around in terms of what they are leaving behind and for some there are the expectations that the church and other Christians put on them which might not themselves be what Jesus would have asked in terms of discipleship. Here the healing touch might lead to our being oppressed by others in the church with their perceptions of what God requires of us.

What if the seventh potential group truly wanted to give thanks to God and perhaps give their lives to serving others – when they got themselves re-established and their lives sorted out. But life has a habit of getting in the way doesn’t it? There’s always something else that needs to be sorted before I can take that next step.

I’m sure this has applied to most of us at some stage in our pilgrimage of faith. What opportunities for service have we missed because life got in the way? “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” may not be a Biblical text – although it is attributed in some form to St Bernard of Clairvaux – but it pretty well sums up how we consistently fail to take Jesus at his word and allow other stuff to get in the way. “As soon as I get this sorted …. I’ll probably find something else that needs my attention.” The touch of Jesus here could lead to a discipleship of unfulfilled potential.

So, where does all this leave us? Can we identify a default position? Possibly in others, but we may have missed the point if we can’t see something of ourselves in these styles of discipleship.

I don’t know the answer to this, but the question is worth each of us asking: in what ways have we responded to Jesus after our encounter with him? Can we see ourselves in any of the models of discipleship I’ve speculated on for the nine who got it wrong? Have you spotted another style in there I’ve not considered and is that, too, inadequate as a response to Jesus?

I was careful though to couch my analysis of these models of discipleship in terms of “might” and “could”. It doesn’t have to be that way.

So, if the answer to either of those questions is yes, then the supplementary question has to be: what are you – and I include me – in the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, going to do about it in order to be like the leper who Jesus perceived had got it right?