Nearly twenty-five years ago- though it hardly seems possible
that it could have been that long ago- something happened
which those of us living in Charlotte, NC at the time will never,
ever forget: Hurricane Hugo hit with all the force that nature
could possibly lash out at us- or so it seemed. And we realized,
I think...at least most of us did...that we were in the grips of
something over which we had no control...not a comfortable
place for us humans, to say the least.
I remember looking out the windows at the rear of my house in
the pre-dawn hours of that Friday morning, hearing the roar of
the wind, and watching the rain come straight toward the
windows...and realizing that no matter what I did, I could not
stop that storm! There was a sense of real powerlessness in that...
a sense of being very dependent...very powerless.
And most of us living in Charlotte experienced what it was like to
literally be without power, as the electricity went out- and stayed
out- for many days...in some cases, for many weeks, the result of
the countless downed trees and storm debris which littered nearly
every street and made getting around Charlotte nearly impossible.
We learned what it was like to get along without electricity,
without telephone (this was pre-cell phones, remember), without
running water...all of those things we are so accustomed to having...
and it was out of our control! And we found ourselves asking over
and over again, "Where's the power?"
We became very dependent on those work crews from Duke Power
and Southern Bell...on all those volunteers from around the
country who came in to help cur trees and clear debris. Suddenly,
our lives were not the same and we felt isolated, helpless...very
dependent...and very powerless.
Which brings us to today's Gospel, the story of the ten lepers as
told by Luke, the evangelist- master story-teller, reporter, and
interpreter of events. Jesus and his disciples are on their way to
Jerusalem, heading toward that final, decisive confrontation with
the religious authorities...the old guard...the keepers of the law...
which will result in Jesus' death on the cross...
"And entering a village," Luke writes, "Jesus was met by ten people
who had leprosy." Lepers were the true outcasts of Jewish society...
isolated, unclean, untouchable, and totally powerless. Leprosy,
in biblical times, was a death sentence, but long before bodily
death came the death of relationships as the sufferer was kept
isolated from family and friends, from ALL other people, until
they were either cured or died.
Separation from human contact for LIFE...this was Levitical law...
and that law also specified that lepers had to go around with
their heads uncovered, unprotected from sun and wind...had to
rend their clothing...had to cry out a warning to all people that
they saw- "Unclean! Unclean!" lest anyone healthy get too close.
Think of it- total isolation from the touch of other human beings,
from the joy of watching your children grow, from sharing life
with your spouse, from all of the normal activities of daily living.
Your only relationships- such as they were- were with other
lepers- outcast! despised! And forced to live by begging, a part
of the fellowship of the cursed.
Picture that scene...those ten wretched people, clothing shredded
and torn...hair tangled from the wind and matted with sand...
hands outstretched...voices calling, "Unclean! Unclean!" and then,
seeing Jesus, crying out, "Have mercy! Eleison!" for that's the
word in Greek...and it means so much more than the word
"mercy" means in English. For us, it's a word that talks about
feelings...it's a sense of pity...and thus, inactive. But in Greek,
eleison is an active word...a call for action...a word which says,
"Do something to help us, please! DO SOMETHING!"
And these were voices crying out in pain, the voices of wasted,
wretched humanity...and good Jews averted their eyes, stayed
their distance. After all, the Law permitted, even encouraged,
that ,since the general belief was that, as a leper, you were
being punished by God for some sin or other. After all, why else
would something so terrible befall you? You must have done
something to deserve it, to incur God's disfavor...and if we get
too close, WE MIGHT GET IT, TOO!
And even today, in the 21st century, with all of our knowledge
and medical understanding, some still see tragedy or misfortune
as punishment from God...poverty, homelessness, AIDS...YOU
MUST HAVE DONE SOMETHING TO DESERVE IT! So, like those
Godly people in the first century, we turn away...we don't see,
don't hear...perhaps they'll just go away...the street people...
the mentally ill...the victims of AIDS...the throwaway kids...
these isolated, unclean, untouchable, powerless ones. They
offend our sensibilities even as they reach out to us, crying,
"Eleison! Have mercy! Somebody do something to help us-
His name was John and he had wild hair, wore t-shirts and jeans
with holes, and preferred to go barefoot. This had been his
wardrobe for his entire four years of college. He was brilliant...
admittedly eccentric, but very, very intelligent. He had become
a Christian while attending college in this particular town.
Now, across the street from the campus was a church with a
well-dressed, well-to-do congregation. They said they wanted
to develop a ministry to the college students but were unsure
of just how to go about it. One Sunday morning, John decided
to go to worship there. He walked in- more than a bit late- and
started up the aisle, looking for a seat, but finding the church
completely full. As John got closer and closer to the front,
people in the pews began noticing him and many looked more
than a little bit uncomfortable. The minister- about ready to
stand in the pulpit- was frozen, unable to begin his sermon.
Finally, John reached the front of the chancel and sat down
on the carpet!
By now the buzz in the congregation is audible, and tension
was thick in the air. Then the pastor noticed that one of the
ushers, named George, was making his way up from the back
of the church. The man was in his eighties, with silver-gray
hair, a three-piece suit, and used a walking stick. As he
neared the front, people were saying to themselves and one
another, "Now this will be handled properly. After all, how
can you expect a man of George's age to understand and
approve of some scruffy college kid sitting on the floor,
disrupting the service?"
After what seemed like a lone time, the elderly man reached
the boy. The church was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.
All eyes were focused on the usher named George, as the
congregation held its collective breath. Even the minister
was watching, unmoving. And as they watched, this
distinguished elderly gentleman dropped his waking stick
to the floor and, with great difficulty, lowered himself to sit
down next to John and opened a hymnal to worship with him.
When the pastor regained his self-control, he stepped into
the pulpit and said, "What I am about to preach, you will
never remember. What you have just seen, you will never
And Luke writes, "Seeing them, Jesus said..." Like the elderly
usher, Jesus looked...Jesus SAW. To him, these lepers were
not merely the nameless, faceless dregs of humanity. THEY
WERE CREATED CHILDREN OF GOD! And he reacts in a way
in which was not exactly what they had expected- simply
saying, "Go! Present yourselves to the priests." Why? Because
the Law required it...only a priest in the temple in Jerusalem
could pronounce a leper truly healed...clean...and after that a
ritual cleansing of eight days would follow- this was the Law...
and it was the only way a leper could be restored to society,
to his or her family and community once again.
And then Luke goes on, "And as they went, they were cleansed."
"As they went...", doing what was asked of them, as strange
as it seemed, the leprosy disappeared. Imagine their joy!
Their incredible, amazing, disbelieving joy! No longer untouchable
or powerless...but able to resume their lives, go back to their
homes and families...given new life, rebirth...in a way they
could never have imagined.
Isn't that most often the way the Holy God acts in our lives? In
ways unexpected and grace-filled? God acts FIRST...the Holy
ACTS FIRST! And it is NOT dependent on our faith, but on
God's generous grace. After all, God did not tell the Israelites,
"If you only have enough faith, I will lead you to the Promised
Land." God led them out of slavery in Egypt FIRST- and we all
remember how many times they turned away from faithfully
following. God did not tell us, "If you have enough faith, I
will send Jesus to show you the depths of my love." God sent
Jesus anyway...and we choose to follow or we don't.
Now Luke writes, "And one person, seeing he was healed...
saved...made whole...restored to well-being (the word in Greek
means all of this) returned, praising God with a loud voice and
fell at Jesus' feet. And, Luke tells us, he was a Samaritan.
Here is where we moderns miss much of the tongue-in-cheek
of so many of the words of Jesus...and it's important not to
miss it, I think. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus is continuously
in conflict with the religious leaders, the Pharisees, whose
emphasis is on keeping the Law- AT ALL COSTS. Think of the
number of times Jesus is chastised for healing on the Sabbath.
And always, Jesus puts the needs of the people he encounters
first, ahead of the letter of the Law. After all, he continually
tells those around him, the Law had been intended to aid and
empower, not to hinder and divide.
Now, Levitical law, as I have mentioned, commanded, demanded,
that the leper who considered himself or herself cured go to the
priest in Jerusalem to be pronounced healed and to receive a
certificate of healing. Then they would begin eight days of
ritual cleansing at the temple before they could return home
to resume their lives. But the temple in Jerusalem bore the
inscription, "No foreigner is to enter," and the Samaritan was
surely considered a foreigner, an outsider. The nine could thank
God at the temple, could participate in the rituals needed to
restore their lives- but the Samaritan COULD NOT! He would
need to return to Samaria to the temple there, since even
being healed of leprosy did not mean he was an accepted part
of Jewish society. To good Jews, he was still unclean, an outcast-
Make no mistake- I believe Jesus was emphasizing this to his
audience as he asked, "Where are the nine?" He knew that they
were now in the thrall of Jewish law, that most important thing
to the religious leaders, so only this outsider, this alien, could
come back to offer a personal thanks as he headed back to his
home in Samaria. Separated from his Jewish sisters and brothers
by their law, the only response he could make to acknowledge
the miracle, the gift, the wonder of his healing was to give
thanks and praise to God from whom all blessings, healing, new
life, empowerment, flow.
And sometimes, during the storms of our lives, when things
happen that seem out of our control...when we have pain or
problems for which there seems to be no answer...each one of
US at sometime in our lives- PERHAPS RIGHT NOW- feels like
one of those outcasts- isolated...unclean...untouchable...
powerless. With all of our resources exhausted, we stand at
the fringes of our society, our arms outstretched, our faces
stained with tears, our bodies bent with pain and fatigue...
crying, "Eleison! Have mercy! Someone do something to help
me- please! Do SOMETHING- please..."
And then, when we least expect it, the powerful, empowering
love of Jesus the Christ comes to us...in the hug of a friend...
in a note or phone call or email saying, "I love you, I'm
thinking of you. How ARE you? Is there anything I can do?"...
comes in the midst of the community of faith gathered around
the communion table with Jesus the Christ as the host, sharing
the family meal of bread and wine where ALL are welcome and
included...Jesus' body and blood given FOR YOU.
And we are EMPOWERED...MADE CLEAN...MADE WHOLE...by
the loving word, the living word of Jesus the Christ, spoken
IN and THROUGH and BY our sisters and brothers. And the
only response we can make, the only really appropriate
response to such RESURRECTION...is PRAISE...THANKSGIVING...
Praise God from whom all blessings flow! And so we join the
tenth leper at the feet of Jesus, free from the past, free from
all that has kept us bound...new people...whole, clean, redeemed.
Where is the power?
People of God, IT IS HERE!!!
(I'll be preaching this sermon this Sunday.)