Sermon for Pentecost 18, 2022
Sermon – St Brendan’s By The Sea, Warnbro
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, October 9, 2022
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke.
Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten men with a skin disease approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14 When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’s feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? So where are the other nine? 18 Did none of them return to give glory to God except this foreigner?’ 19 Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I want to start with an unpleasant thought experiment.
So, before that, a joke.
An old Irishman walks into a bar, hauls his bad leg over the stool, and asks for a whisky. ‘Hey,’ he says, looking down the bar, ‘is that Jesus down there?’ The bartender nods, so the Irishman orders Jesus one too.
An ailing Italian with a humpback walks in, shuffles up to the bar, and asks for a glass of Chianti. Noticing Jesus, the Italian orders Him a glass of Chianti too.
A redneck swaggers in and hollers, ‘Barkeep, set me up a cold one! Hey! Is that God’s Boy down there?’ The bartender nods, so the redneck orders Him a bottle of beer.
As Jesus gets up to leave, He touches the Irishman and says, ‘For your kindness, you are healed!’ The Irishman jumps up and dances a jig.
Then Jesus touches the Italian and says, ‘For your kindness, you are healed!’ The Italian’s humpback straightens, and he does a flip.
Just then the redneck yells, ‘Hey! Don’t touch me. I’m on disability pension!’
So this is the thought experiment:
What is the worst kind of person you can think of? They may be so morally depraved that even thinking of them makes you feel disgusted, even a bit dirty. They may be so lacking in empathy that there is no lid on their violence; they are happy to lash out with fist or weapon at anyone, child or adult, ordinary citizen or officer of the law.
They may be so different from you that you feel you can’t understand them and their culture. You wouldn’t want your granddaughter to marry one, or even get friendly with one.
I remember my Dad and others of his generation talking about the Japanese as Nips who were both cruel and not real men. Thankfully, that intolerance has gone away as memories of the war have faded.
During the dangerous times of Covid-19, people were intolerant of those who wouldn’t be vaccinated. In fact, some people thought anti-vaxxers should be segregated from the rest of us, like lepers. And I heard anti-vaxxers say similar things about Government officials and employers.
In some parts of the community, people think of refugees in that way; not as terrified folk fleeing for their lives, but as terrorists and opportunists coming to take our land and our children’s jobs. But in most surveys church people in Australia welcome refugees. So, we in this room are less likely to hold that prejudice.
You may have thought of sex offenders, nasty folk who prey on children and other vulnerable people. Maybe you want a separate town where these people are sent to live; or their addresses known so you can tell kids which houses to avoid.
You may have thought of dictators. There are some at the moment, one or two, who I feel the world would be better without. Put them on an island in the South Pacific, I say, without their armies and nuclear weapons and their egos, and let them get on with each other. Just so long as they don’t threaten our peace.
Whoever this group of people is, your desire is to exclude them from society. One way or another, you want them gone.
Ordinary people in Jesus’ time thought that way about lepers. Whether or not the skin disease in the Bible was the modern Hansen’s disease, the lepers then had severe disfigurements, difficult to look at. It was better to put them out of the towns and villages so you didn’t have to look at their deformed faces, running sores, or twisted bodies. Living with a leper in close quarters, washing them, having them cough over you, over a period of months you may catch it. Better to separate them from the rest of us.
Even 1300 years later in Europe, in the time of Saint Francis of Assisi, people still felt that way about leprosy. Push lepers away from society, avoid all contact with them, let them survive on the fringes of the community with the bandits and the very poor.
So, for Jesus to get near enough to lepers to talk to them would have seemed totally unadvisable. Not only might Jesus catch the disease, it gave the wrong message. Don’t encourage them to think they can get better.
Even so, it didn’t seem to bother Jesus. Saint Matthew tells us of another occasion when a leper knelt before Jesus and Jesus ‘stretched out his hand and touched him.’ (Matthew 8:3) Actually touched him. Like hugging a pedophile. Disgusting.
So the unpleasant thought experiment boils down to the question, ‘Who is your leper? Who would you put out of the community?’
Jesus’ actions are astonishing. He approaches lepers. He speaks kindly with them. He blesses them. He heals them. Once the priests certify that they are clean, they can pay their thank-offering. They can go back to their family, to their community. Jesus doesn’t just heal their disease, but he gives them their whole world back.
Imagine your lepers. Imagine Jesus blessing your lepers. Because, be assured, that is what Jesus does. He accepts and embraces the very people you and I can’t stand.
And we are challenged to see that acceptance as Good News. We are invited into a world in which your lepers and mine are included, blessed, healed, welcomed by Jesus.
The Gospel goes a step further. It invites us to emulate Jesus, to copy his way of loving. Not only are we to rejoice that Jesus welcomes those terrible people, but also Jesus dares us to reach out to them in love, and so heal them and reconcile them back into our community.
I mentioned Saint Francis, because he changed his mind. He admits that he was disgusted by lepers. Seeing a leper one day as he rode by, he dismounted, walked over to the leper and embraced him. Then, Francis recalled later, everything changed. Everything that ‘had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.’ (The Testament, 1, FAED I, 124.) In fact it was so transformative that Francis realised later that he had embraced Jesus.
With his brothers, Saint Francis went on to set up a rough hospice for lepers, risking contagion and finding joy in nursing them. Saint Francis encourages us: if we are willing to imagine a way to bless our lepers, and act on the imagining, that action will bless us in return.
We can start by praying for them – regularly, every day. It’s amazing how holding our lepers up to God helps us see them as God sees them, as whole, healed human beings.
We can imagine their lives; how they’ve got to where they are now. How their disability or twisted personality has cost them relationships; how they miss out on love because of how others see them, maybe because of the way you see them. Once we know their name, and their story, we see them as an individual, and when we have seen their unique personality, their special contribution to the world, we can’t unsee it. They change from ‘them’ to ‘you’.
When we see them as people, we might risk reaching out to them. What do they most need? We all need to know we are loved. What practical things can we do to ensure that our lepers know they are loved by God?
Gary Chapman is a Baptist pastor and author from North Carolina in the US. He speaks of five ‘love languages’, five practical ways we can express love to other human beings.
The first love language is ‘words of affirmation’. Encouraging and supporting people builds their self-esteem.
The second love language is ‘quality time’. You express how valuable a person is to you by giving the gift of your attentive time.
The third language is ‘receiving gifts’. Physical gifts are symbols of our love. Using this language is as much about the humility of receiving gifts as it is about giving them.
The fourth is ‘acts of service’; doing tasks for a person that will make their life easier.
And last of all is ‘physical touch’, because we all need more than FaceTime and Zoom. We need to feel the bodily presence of a person to know they care about us.
If you haven’t heard of the Five Languages of Love, it’s worth searching on the internet for ‘Gary Chapman, Five Love Languages’. (https://www.supersummary.com/the-5-love-languages/summary/)
With your leper, you don’t have to do all five aspects of practical loving. Start with one of the languages. One may be enough to turn them from despised to esteemed.
There’s one more surprise twist in this morning’s Gospel.
Samaritans were hated by Jews: pious Jews travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem refused to travel through Samaria, which was the straight and easy route. They crossed the Jordan and travelled down on the Transjordan side before crossing back to get to Jerusalem: a longer trip, and through more desert country than the Samaritan route.
Not Jesus. Luke makes a point of telling us that Jesus was travelling through Samaria. Jesus was taking his disciples the quick way to Jerusalem, through the territory of the despised neighbours, the Samaritans. And the only leper who turned back to give thanks to Jesus was a foreigner, a dirty foreigner, a darky, a Nip, a loathed Samaritan.
This Samaritan, this ex-leper, give thanks, and Jesus commends him for it. This foreigner gets it right, the other nine miss this step.
How hard it must have been for the disciples to hear that a Samaritan got it right with God. We too have been welcomed, blessed, healed and restored by God, just like the Samaritan, and this despised alien shows us how we should respond to Jesus. Our lives, like his, should be lives of gratitude.
Bryan spoke last week of faith. We already have it. The answer to every prayer, Bryan said, is ‘I am with you.’ Our faith is real. And our faith is that the marvelous healer Jesus continues to be involved in our lives. What can we say to that except ‘Thank you’, and go on saying ‘Thank you’?
The Samaritan is the model of Christian spirituality. Not a Jew. Not St Peter who recognizes Jesus as the Son of the Living God. But a Samaritan. Just as the Samaritan earlier in Luke showed us how to love our neighbour. Our leper shows us how to love God. We should be surprised. And we should go on giving thanks. We will know the sweetness of soul and body as we are embraced by Jesus.