Message on the Ten Lepers (Pentecost 18) Luke 17:11-19 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas
Shared pain brings people together—sometimes even enemies. The ten lepers included men from Samaria and Galilee—traditional adversaries. Normally, they would have nothing to do with each other, but here they are, living together as exiles from their respective communities and creating their own island of misfit toys, if you will, in the borderlands between Samaria and Galilee. They were all outsiders who belonged nowhere—no country, no home, no community who wanted them or could have them for fear of contagion. They live on the outskirts of a village away from everyone.
The ten lepers shared a common ailment that caused both physical and mental distress and pain—whether it is the leprosy known has Hanson’s disease today or another skin ailment that disfigured them, it made them look like the walking dead—it was like the first zombie apocalypse right there in the wasteland between two rival territories. Their shared suffering fused a common bond—a small community in which they endured not just a social isolation in their life at the edge of civilization, but also economic deprivation, religious rejection, political disenfranchisement, personal powerlessness.
Notice how when you have nothing—no one has energy for enemies—they are all suffering together and ultimately—what difference did it make if their worship practices, ethnicities, histories, skin color or whatever were different? Deep suffering bonds us together as one thing: human. Do you think survivors and rescuers in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian who were reaching out for help and offering help were asking each other if they were a democrat or republican? If they were vaccinated or not? If they supported governmental disaster relief or the current governor? If they were for or against abortion rights or the current direction of the Supreme Court? Of course not-- because they are living in the borderlands of shared suffering—where holding onto enemies and adversaries makes no sense—and human community with whomever shares our plight or shows up to help, is a sign of God’s presence and the gift of life and hope.
I want us to notice what we never talk about in this story—which is that these lepers living with immense suffering, are building community across enemy lines before Jesus even shows up. They recognize the God of their common ancestor Abraham and they find a way to get over enmity.
We have been living in the borderlands of shared suffering the last 2 ½ years, yet I am afraid it has caused us to become more divided, and more prone to make enemies than to reach out to one another in compassion for the grief, fear, trauma, loss, and isolation we have all experienced. It is almost like we have lost the ability to have a civil conversation with someone who has a different viewpoint than we do on politics, masks, race, or any other issue, rather than being able to identify the very real fears underneath that many of us share: Will my children or grandchildren be ok—not just physically healthy, but mentally, socially, and emotionally? How do we help them heal and make progress in school? How am I going to handle these rising costs; will I ever be able to retire? Or will my income last my lifetime at this rate? I fear I am being left behind and my story or my families’ story no longer matters.
Instead, we find out one tidbit of information about someone, and we write them off and make all kinds of assumptions about who they are and what they think. I wonder what it would be like for us to listen to someone’s pain instead of their politics, to inquire and empathize with their suffering instead of their social stances.
The one thing these lepers did for each other before Jesus even arrived, was they listened and understood each other’s pain, and that was more important than the fact that some were Jews from Galilee and others were Samaritans from Samaria. The do not lie about the truth or the terrible reality of their lives; they do not cancel each other for saying the wrong thing or being from the other side. And it’s a good thing. Because no one else was noticing, listening, or paying attention to the walking dead in the wasteland between Galilee and Samaria outside a small insignificant village.
Until, of course, Jesus showed up with his disciples. Word has gotten out about Jesus’ healing powers because they call him by name. And not only that, they address him as if they were his disciples, calling him, “Master:” What’s more, they do not ask for healing individually—there is no individual identity, there are no mavericks in this group, looking out for #1—they ask for healing together: “Jesus! Master!” Have mercy on US”—not me, US—have mercy on US, together—as a group—enemies who have made a community of support through suffering as outcast lepers. They are all for one, and one for all. “Jesus, Master Have mercy on US.”
Jesus enters the wasteland of the suffering and does what no one else does. Jesus starts by doing what they have done for each other—He sees them, he listens to their pain, and pays attention to their suffering regardless of who they are, and where they come from, and then kicks it up a notch as the Messiah. But he does not heal them instantly.
Healing for the ten lepers is participatory and it requires action before results. Jesus instructs them to “go and show yourselves to the priests.” The priest can declare them clean and restore them back into the community, welcome them back into worship, and send them back to their family. But they have to get moving to the priest on faith while they still look like zombies! Nothing has changed yet. There has not been any healing. They have to act in faith before they are healed!
Now the border they have to cross is in their own heart. Are they going to act on Jesus’ words when there is no evidence to show that it will work? It’s like the movie, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade—he has to step off the cliff and trust that the bridge across the chasm will appear so he can reach the Holy Grail—the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper (just in the movie!)
Following Jesus requires stepping out in faith and obedience before we see the results of what we are called to do. Jesus wants the lepers to participate in their own healing. He does not just zap them and send them on their way. I think sometimes we wish that’s how God works—we can lay on the couch, isolating and judging others and then get zapped by God. No—faith is a relationship –it is participatory—it requires doing our part and taking action.
Jesus wants the lepers to trust in his power and his word and to start their journey out of the borderlands, out of the margins, out of this place of isolation. Jesus invites them to claim a new life before it becomes a reality. Perhaps you have heard the phrase “fake it till you make it” or “act as if”—in other words, “act as if you’re confident, until you feel confident;” act as if you have given 50 presentations at work until you have.” Jesus sends the lepers off, acting as if they are already healed—behaving and believing the miracle is complete before it has happened. Believing Jesus Christ will act on your behalf, that he is with you and will provide what you need even before he does—that’s faith! Hebrews 11:1 tells us, Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
The ten lepers do have this kind of faith, they can step out in obedience and trust because—they have already done the impossible—
• they already connected with each other making community among enemies;
• they already embraced adversaries through shared suffering;
• they already experienced the miracle that their common humanity was more powerful than centuries of hatred.
So when Jesus, the great Healer shows up and says, start walking out of this wasteland of suffering, even though you still look affright, their spirit was ready, they were already obedient to something greater than their own ego, they already believed in a power greater than themselves, they already trusted the God of Abraham, their common ancestor, who showed them a new experience of community.
So they followed Jesus’ instructions obediently, and they were made clean on the way. The miracle happened AFTER they started participating in their own healing—as a group. They got better “on the way..”
Now, I wish all ten of them had turned around to thank Jesus once they were healed—but only 1 Samaritan—an enemy of the Jews does so.They are all healed, and one becomes whole—one has a relationship with Jesus through gratitude and he moves from physical cure, to whole soul redemption because he finishes the relationship loop with Jesus. He’s obedient and trusting and does what Jesus says, and when the gift comes, he returns for worship, gratitude and praise. That’s what y’all are doing here at worship—you are the 10th leper, retuning to Jesus for gratitude and praise, so “good on ya” as my dad likes to say (has anyone told you you're the 10th leper full of gratitude for being here?!). Those are church statistics—don’t you know 9 folks who are not in church today? Well, there you go. Good on ya, for being the 10th leper and going for the whole soul healing with gratitude in a relationship with Jesus.
That’s step 3 in the story. So when you go from here today, I want you to engage in steps 1 and 2—who can you connect with who is an adversary, or someone who is very different from you and with whom you can create a conversation? I want you to find one person this week to connect with who has different views and find a point of commonality that helps stop “othering” them, and with the power of Jesus, moves you toward compassion. Practice seeing them, hearing them, listening to them without arguing or writing them off.
Secondly, where is Jesus inviting you to step out in faith—is there a relationship, a work situation, a personal situation, where you cannot see the outcome, you do not know the end result, but it’s time to step out and move forward and trust that God is with you? Pray about this question and ask Jesus where he wants you to move forward in faith trusting him with the results.
This is the faith journey of the lepers—of all us in the borderlands. But God shows up in these in-between spaces in new ways with unexpected community and the gift of Jesus Christ and his healing for all. Jesus can take the walking dead and raise them to new life and us with them. A new life that restores hope and healing turning enemies into friends, and zombies into disciples where spirits come alive!
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