Leper Colony

A sermon, based on Luke 17.11-19, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, October 13, 2019

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Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in mutual love;
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.(1)

This 18th century English hymn, with its image of human relationships reflecting a divine, ideal life, is one of my favorites. As a child, it was a comfort to me growing up in a not always pleasant, sometimes turbulent household – taking years for me to comprehend the how and the why of it all – where I learned that, despite outward appearances, there are things other than love that can bind human hearts, blinding us to heavenly glory.

Recently, all this came to mind. Pontheolla and I were dining with dear friends. The hospitality was gracious. The food and libations, generous. The conversation, engaging and, at some point, personal. Very. Each of us was invited to answer the question: What are your life’s issues?

When it was my turn, I didn’t say all I could have said. (Who does? Ever?) I shared that I still wrestle with anger and trust. As I was hurt first and worst by those who said that they loved (or, as I’ve oft thought and felt, should have loved) me most and best, anger always is a shield and shelter close at hand and trust, a value, a virtue hard to come by. Now, these qualities, these liabilities don’t constitute the totality of my self. Nevertheless, they stain my soul. Like leprosy.

Unlike that horrible skin condition, my issues with anger and trust aren’t visible. But, as they’re always there, you can see them when you come close enough to know me well enough to notice my occasional hypersensitivity and non-committal retreat. Over the years, it’s gotten better, I’ve gotten better. Yet, again, they’re always there.

Anything like this (and, if not this, then some other issue or issues) in you?

The Healing of Ten Lepers (Guérison de dix lépreux) (1886-1896), James_Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum (2)

Whenever I reflect on Jesus’ healing the ten lepers, I always feel sympathy. Sick unto death, they were segregated from society. Exiled to “the region between Samaria and Galilee.” Isolated literally on the edges, in the margins of two societies. Nine of the lepers were Jews. One was a Samaritan. Their terrible disease – if anything can be said that was good about it! – had obliterated the barrier of the historic hatred between Jews and Samaritans. Their shared suffering made common company of former enemies.

Yes, I pity the lepers, yet I also identify with them. For in acknowledging again my issues, my soul-deep afflictions, I admit to myself and to you that I, in my own way, am one of them.

Any awareness like this in you?

Jesus heals the lepers, telling them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”(2) But this requirement of God’s Law that the cure of a leper be certified by a priest to allow a formerly diseased person to be readmitted to society applied to Jews. The Samaritan had no place to go to give thanks, but to come to Jesus.

Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.” Well! Not merely healed in body (though wonderful enough that would be!), but made whole in soul. Your faith, your trust in calling out, in crying out to a power greater than yourself, “Jesus, have mercy!”, has made you well.

There are many descriptions, characterizations of the church…

Chief among them, the Body of Christ.(3) The church is the earthly, visible body of the resurrected Jesus. We are his eyes to see the world’s need, his hands to reach out to the needy, his mouth to proclaim his word of healing.(4)

Then there’s that old saying: The church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.(5) The church is no dust-laden repository of stiff and unmoving statuary honoring good people of the past, but a place where those who know they fall short of God’s glory come to confess their sins, receive God’s forgiveness, and, in the strength of the Holy Spirit, rise to strive to fulfill God’s will.

Expanding that hospital metaphor, I suggest that the church is a leper colony. A community of all who take the risk of acknowledging, whatever our individual issues, our common brokenness in spirit and illness of soul. Therefore, a community of folk who know how to call out, to cry out, “Jesus, have mercy!”

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Jesus’ love;
This fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

 

Footnotes:
(1) Blest be the tie that binds (1782; text altered), John Fawcett (1739-1817)
(2) See Leviticus 13.2-3, 14.2-32
(3) See 1 Corinthians 12.12-27
(4) A reference to the words of Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582): “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
(5) Attributed to Dear Abby (Abigail Van Buren) from her newspaper column, “Sinners and Saints”, Park City (Illinois) Daily News, March 29, 1964.

Illustration: The Healing of Ten Lepers (1886-1896), James Tissot (1836-1902)

4 thoughts on “Leper Colony

  1. Sooooo much is in this sermon Paul!! I could relate to every part of it.

    Years ago during my long illness I heard a lot “your faith has made you well”…I explained it by saying I simply believed that God would heal me in spite of what my doctors were saying. It took longer than I had hoped to be healed but it came as o was patient and faithful.

    As for the parts of us that are leper-like without being seen, we all have them and we all try to hide them, so I understand why you weren’t totally forthcoming during the dinner conversation. My biggest thing right now is somewhat similar to yours. I have big trust issues these days, and when people do me wrong, I only give them one chance! I don’t always tell people why I’m upset, most times I expect them to figure it out on their own. I definitely need to work on that issue…. BUT it seems that this year more than most any other year, people make promises and keep none of them, especially during my home renovation process. In some respects I’ve lost faith in people’s word meaning anything.

    I think what this sermon has helped me with is recognizing my issues and working on them. Maybe it will help me turn this issue around.

    Much love

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  2. So good to “hear “ you again. My mind was reading in your voice and with your cadence. Wonderful sermon, Paul.

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    1. My dear Donna, thank you. Yours is a kind and generous word. And, as I’ve always loved and respected you, your word to me, for me, is high praise. Again, my thanks.

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  3. Loretta, one of the things I said in this sermon, but I did not put in the posted text (funny how it always works out that way; for, it seems to me, that some words spoken in real-time to a given people work in that moment, but, perhaps, may not be equally effective when read by those who weren’t there) was this: “Now, I know or, at least, I believe that I know that though my questions – ‘Is there anything like this in you?’ – were rhetoric, as you are human as I am, that means that you have life-long issues, too!” It was a rather “in your face” statement, but folks seemed to take it…to receive it well.

    Now, as for the issue of trust, which you and I share, I have come to believe – for, as I said to my folk in the sermon, “…it’s gotten better, I’ve gotten better…” – my wrestling with trust always will be a part of my engagement with life and with others. And being better, therefore, doesn’t mean I’ll never be mistrustful of another circumstance or another person. Rather, being better means I don’t walk into a situation lacking trust or preparing not to trust, for my instincts or my capacity to discern what/who is real and truthful and what/who isn’t are sharper, more refined, more alert. Moreover, I’ve also come to believe and to know that the quality or depth of my relationship with another or my commitment to a cause/circumstance also effects (increases) my capacity and willingness to trust (thus, also, to allow my capacity and willingness to be angry lessen/subside)…

    And every day is a learning experience and an adventure!

    Love

    Like

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