Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Sermon on Luke 17:11-19 - Jesus Heals Ten Men with Leprosy

 Luke 17:11-19 - Jesus Heals Ten Men with Leprosy

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him — and he was a Samaritan.

Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”


Something that always strikes me about the Gospels is that you have all these stories, and they're all drawn from ordinary life and the real people Jesus met: farmers, and housewives, and sowers, and merchants, and weddings guests, and shepherds, and travellers, and many more; and yet taken together, they describe the most profound reality about our lives, our world, and our society; the Good News about the Kingdom of God. Every single parable and episode is teaching the same truth, but with each story, each parable, you get a slightly different perspective, a different nuance, that builds up that rich, complex insight into God's Love and Purpose for our world.

The encounter we have heard today is a brief one on the page, but it tells us something about the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Certainly, in the middle of Lockdown, we can do with some Good News. In the reading, Jesus is crossing over the border from Galilee, where he grew up and did much of his teaching, into Samaria, the land of the Samaritans, so he can travel on to Jerusalem where he died and rose again. The Samaritans were the most closely related people to the Jews, but there was fierce hatred between the two groups. They say that fights within families can be the most bitter fights, and Civil Wars are the worst wars, and despite their close history and similar beliefs, this was true between Jews and Samaritans. We see this still in the world today, when we think of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, or in Northern Ireland between Unionists and Nationalists. These are all people who live basically as neighbours with each other, but are divided by fear and distrust.

As Jesus enters a village he's travelling through, he meets ten men with leprosy. Now, leprosy in the Bible refers anyone suffering from a disease that disfigures the skin and produce boils and sores that could be spread by infectious contact. People with these diseases were required to live away from all other people - even family or friends - to avoid spreading these infections. As such they were often reliant on generosity from other people to survive, and would shout and ring bells to warn other people of their coming, and hopefully attract charitable gifts.

Well, at least part of that will be suddenly familiar to all of us this year. Of course, we are mostly lucky that we are forced to keep away from each other, not because we have a disease, but to avoid getting one. But at least temporarily, we are all feeling the stress that comes from being separated from our family and friends, without the human contact that is what normally makes life worth living. We are so blessed we can still meet through the wonders of technology, and we look forward with hope to a vaccine that will allow us to resume ordinary life. But we are reminded by this great trial, just how reliant we are on each other, both for practical help and support, and the emotional nourishment we need to live happy and fulfilled lives. 

Again and again, the Bible talks about Jesus as a healer of the sick, he brings fullness of life not just to the body but also the mind and the spirit. The plague of Covid threatens our bodies, but the fear of Covid, and all the restrictions we now live under, threaten our mental wellbeing, and the isolation from our communities and the loss of our shared worship of God can sap our spirit.

As part of our church service we often give thanks to God for the gifts we have received with the words, "all things come from you, and of your own do we give to you". Now, this may seem like an odd time to count our blessings, but that means this is exactly the time we should be counting our blessings. Because that is the way we will maintain hope, and we will protect our hearts from being overwhelmed by this situation.

The Book of Job in the Old Testament of the Bible is a profound parable that grapples with the question of how bad things can happen to good people who believe in God. It's quite long, but there are two famous quotes that sum up how Job responds to the terrible things that have happened to him. He says, "The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord". Which means he recognises that all the Good things he enjoyed came from God, without God he would not have had life, or joy, or blessings; so how could he curse God when he does not have some of those blessings anymore.

Amid the chaos around us we must still reflect on the fact that God is the creator of every good thing in our bodies, our minds and our souls; both the ones we've had in the past, the ones we still have today, and those we hope for in the future. In our modern society we are justly proud of the wonders mankind has produced, but we should always be aware that both the Physical Material of the world that we manipulate into construction and technology; and the gifts of intelligence and insight that allow us to discover new Science and Knowledge, all those things come from God.

We don't know how long the ten men who met Jesus had been suffering from Leprosy: for some it may not have been long, for some it could have been many years. They were suffering, and they were isolated. But they had not lost hope, they had not lost the will to do what they could to change their situation; and in Jesus they saw someone who had the power to change their situation: "Jesus, Master, have pity on us". 

Job, too, in his own suffering was not just resigned that 'easy come and easy go', his faith in God was that in the future still to come, God would restore him and bring joy out of sadness, justice out of suffering, and new hope from loss. He said, "I know that my Saviour lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And even if my skin is destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him, with my own eyes". 

Because God is the Creator of all things, we should still be grateful for all the blessings we have had, and still have, even in Lockdown; but because Jesus Christ is our Saviour, we know we have hope that endures through and beyond everything we have lost this past year. That we will see life and joy again; even those people we have lost from this life; and we will be together again. 

With the ten lepers, as on so many occasions, Jesus, when faced with the someone reaching out in hope, did not wait to respond, but reacted immediately to send them to the priests, the people who could certify that they were no longer at risk of spreading infection. But they were not yet healed, they went, in faith and obedience to the instruction they had received, and it was in going, they were healed. Following that instruction took a remarkable trust in Jesus, after years of being trapped by their condition, and it was by taking action in faith, in the face of a seemingly impossible situation, that they changed their lives.

It is when we retain hope despite difficulty, when we step out in faith that we can change both our own lives, and the world around us. Every great achievement and journey begins because someone takes a step in faith, with a new idea, or a new invention, or to a new job, or a new place. The world is not changed any other way. And very often God prompts us, but he doesn't show us every step we have to take, it is by keeping hope, and having the courage to take the first step, that God equips us with the strength and gifts to take the next step, and the next.   

All ten of those men were healed through their faith, but one of them went further, he came back to Jesus, and shouting and singing out in praise of God. That must have taken great presence of mind, because although they had already been healed, the ten men could not return to their lives and their families until that had been officially confirmed by the priest. And that's where Jesus sent them. And as they went, they must have seen everything they had before them in their lives. But still, one man turned back to give thanks to God first. He stopped in the midst of the most important thing imaginable for him, to be grateful and to express that, to someone who had helped him, before he rushed on with his life. And that is an amazing thing. When we show our gratitude to someone, when we say thank you, we bless them and ourselves. A thankless burden is a heavier one, but a grateful word makes it easier to bear, and it's completely free. 

So, in this short reading we have hope and faith in the face of suffering. We have the love that Jesus showed, which transformed their lives, and we have the gratitude shown by one man in response.

And who was that man? He was a Samaritan, a foreigner, someone a Jew would not normally have trusted. But time and time again the New Testament emphasises the fact that it is not our background that determines what kind of people we are, but the hope, faith, love and gratitude that we display in response to the challenges we experience.

News of vaccines comes ever closer, but it will still be some months before our lives can really return to normal; and we don't even know what will happen with Christmas. It is an incredibly challenging time for everyone, but perhaps it may help to remember when Jesus met ten men with leprosy on the outskirts of a small village, and how hope, faith, love and gratitude can give us the strength to carry on.

Amen.

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