Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Ten Lepers

This is the sermon I preached at the midweek service at Saint Elisabeth's, Reddish.

I was flattered when asked to lead this service this morning. And then I wondered, what can I, a Unitarian, say to you - Anglicans - about this reading from the Christian Gospels about Jesus curing the ten lepers?

In the synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke – there are some 13 stories of healings, ranging from Leprosy, Dropsy, Fever, a withered hand, a bent back, paralysis and a severed ear: Jesus mustve been pretty good with a needle and thread or had some superglue handy for that one! Even though we are not dealing with a literal or even a “Newspaper account,” or whether or not thhis story is factually true, this story show us today, in 2013, not only show us what Jesus’ early followers thoughthim a charismatic healer, but they can also offer us an insight in how to respond to the "other", to those "beyond the pale."

By touching the leper, did Jesus make a physical change in the leper’s skin condition?  Or did Jesus do something that in his time was at least equally as profound: daring to touch someone who had been declared ritually impure, thereby demonstrating — as had the Hebrew prophets before him — that God cares much more about inner purity, right intention, and acts of loving-kindness, than God does about hypocritical masks of outer righteousness that conceal inner deception, selfishness, and corruption?

That the healing may have been about transgressing social mores is made even clearer when we realize that there is a consensus among mainline biblical scholars that the Hebrew and Greek words traditionally translated as “leprosy” do not refer to what we call leprosy today. According to New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan,

What we call leprosy…was…known in New Testament times but was then called elepha or elephantiasis.  Ancient…lepra, on the other hand, covered several diseases, all of which involved a…scaly or flaking skin condition – for example, psoriasis, eczema, or any fungal infection of the skin.

This difference in the meaning of the word leprosy today and lepra in Jesus’ day is one reason you see a distinction being made in the Gospels between “healing” the sick and “cleansing” the lepers. The lepers were unclean (that is, ritually impure according to the Jewish holiness codes), but not sick per se. So, the concern in Jesus’ day concerning what they called leprosy was less about physical contagion and more about the social stigma attachment to those with skin ailments.  Not only that, but of the ten lepers, the one which returned to thank Jesus was not even a Jew! He was a Samaritan! The Samaritan – the ever-popular hate figure in 1st Century Palestine – responded as only they knew how: with gratitude. And it was their faith that set them free.

Quite literally, Jesus reached out across the narrow boundaries of his day and touched the untouchable. And, more than that, he showed that God loves those whom society considers beyond the pale.

Who are today’s lepers? Who are the untouchables of today? As followers of Jesus we too are called to reach out, in love to all those whoever they are, are considered beyond the pale by society, by narrow confines of religion, and touch them, move them, in body and in soul. To offer them healing; wholeness; Love.

The Christian life is about the whole self: heart, soul, mind, body, emotions as well as our relationships with others, society, and all of Creation. Likewise, Christian healing is not only about the body, but also about the healing of our heart, soul, mind, and emotions as well as the healing of our relationships with others, society, Creation, and God. We cannot manipulate God or predict what God will do.  We can only open ourselves further in prayer to God’s healing, loving, graceful presence. Amen.

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