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Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA October 13, 2013.

21st Sunday after Pentecost; Year C (RCL): 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Ps. 66:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth Your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

     

      Years ago, when Chrissie worked in a secure facility, I came to her office to play Santa Claus for their holiday party. Dressed in a two-piece business suit and tie, carrying a bag that held my costume, I followed Chrissie as she walked ahead of me, flicking lights to get people's attention and announcing to the staff, UNCLEARED! UNCLEARED! Stop talking about whatever you're working on, and leave no sensitive information out in the open! HE IS UNCLEARED!

     

While it was at the start of a fun occasion, it was a necessary action. But I admit to feeling out of place. Because of me, her colleagues had to be warned--that's what it felt like--and with my presence had to watch what they were doing and saying.

     

As the Rector and I talked about today's sermon, he reminded me how social outcasts of today's lessons would have been made to wear bells about their neck so they would be heard before they were seen, and would have to announce to the crowds UNCLEAN, UNCLEAN, for they were lepers. I have just the very slightest sense of what they may have felt.

     

In Second Kings today, we hear about Naaman, a Syrian general, who suffers from leprosy and Elisha the prophet, who miraculously cures the general's illness.

     

Leprosy is an affliction affecting the skin that may contaminate clothes and even walls; anything it touched could contract this 'condition.' It was likened to "whitened flesh" and caused the afflicted to be deemed as UNTOUCHABLE. If you're interested, there are two rather lengthy chapters in Leviticus that we rarely hear in church which deal with this anomaly or abomination: Chapter 13 addresses Leprosy, with its varieties and symptoms; and Chapter 14 outlines the purification of lepers and leprous houses.

     Most lepers were ostracized for being "unclean." It was a purity matter as much as one involving illness. Being deemed ceremonially unclean meant you were unfit to worship God, and isolated from others. The distinction was between the pollution of society versus the contagion of a disease. An unclean person was a threat to the wholeness and completeness of the social body and consequently was alienated for their physical ailment.

     

As God is holy, perfect, complete and pure, it was expected that God's people would be so also. Those who were afflicted had to be set aside, kept apart, alienated from community. They were anomalies at best and abominations at worst. According to Jewish Law, a cured leper had to appear before a priest to be declared clean.

     

We do not know if Naaman's leprosy actually corrupted his skin; we only hear that his flesh is "restored like the flesh of a young boy." Naaman is cleansed of the leprosy only after he realizes, with the help of his servants, that he also needs healing for his pride. Afterward, this foreign general then acknowledges the sovereignty of the God of Israel.

     

This story of healing is also a story of a foreigner's conversion. Naaman was not just made well, but he was brought into relationship with the Almighty, which might be a different form of making him well. This is also what we hear in our gospel reading.

     

Luke tells us Jesus was on the border between Galilee and Samaria when he is met by a band of ten lepers. I've preached before about the animosity between Jews and Samaritans. I remind you it was a bitter rivalry that makes the Washington-Dallas football contests seem petty by comparison! Yet, this group of ten included at least one Samaritan. A shared affliction of the skin had broken through racial and national constructs. In the plight of their leprosy, they remembered only that they were all outcasts, and in need.

     

Traveling toward Jerusalem, the ten see and approach Jesus, seeking God's mercy. They all are made clean. They display enough faith to obey Jesus, hoping the miracle they sought would return them to society, and allow them to become part once more of that which had cast them out and put them away. They were all physically healed and given again social status. But were they "made well?" Were they "made whole?" Were they "saved?" Were they like the foreign general Naaman?

     

Luke shares in his gospel again that Jesus' mission included making the unclean whole once more. But Luke records only one who is cleansed returns to give thanks to the Lord. The Samaritan, an outsider and a foreigner, is the one who saw God at the center of the miracle. How could he not be thankful? How could he not praise God? Unexpectedly, a cleansed Samaritan leper becomes a model of those who would praise and worship God and give thanks for God's mercy.

     

Earlier in his ministry, Jesus told John the Baptizer that "lepers are cleansed" as a sign that He is the "one who is to come." (Matt 11:5; Luke 7:22). By this action, Jesus accepts the cleansed back into community, breaches boundaries, heals hurts, restores family and kin, thus knitting the world back together. Jesus did not consider valid the distinction society made between clean and unclean. Many times he noted that a person's outward condition did not make one unclean; rather, that which proceeds from the heart would determine one's standing before God.

     

The failure, if I might characterize it that way, is that the nine did not return to glorify God to the Son of Man who healed them. Perhaps at the temple, before a priest, they did just that, but not before our Great High Priest.

     

But imagine how the two foreigners in these readings must have felt by being made clean. They were given new lives. So they were thankful to the One from whom they knew they had received healing. No longer suffering from their illness, they are restored to a life of wholeness.

     

For us, how wonderful it is each time we receive the Body and Blood of our Savior in worship! It is a true Eucharist - a true Thanksgiving - of what our Lord has given to us. Each time we feast on the bread and wine - the true presence of Christ - Jesus fills us with good things: the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.

     

Yet today, as then, many encounter hardships of all sorts. Second Timothy suggests that, like the Apostle Paul, we all suffer. But our God joins us in our sufferings and in our hardships and makes us whole through Baptism and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in and through us.

     

Many of us know that almost three years ago, our gathering place for worship across the street and up The Holy Hill burned in a catastrophic fire. We suffered a tremendous loss, both for Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill and Virginia Theological Seminary. Immanuel was lost, yet God was still with us all. We had to learn new ways to gather as communities of faith. For a long time, a charred ruin remained. But more recently, ground has been turned to begin raising a new Immanuel Chapel, and last Wednesday the Chapel Garden was dedicated as new space set aside for worship in a new way. We have a sense that God is at work among us to restore us in due time.

     

We may be quite good at praying to God for things we think we need or want, but often are not so good at following up to thank God for the blessings provided us. Too often, we are like those nine lepers who, though healed, continue along their journey, neglecting to give thanks for their blessings.

     

We're in the middle of our annual Stewardship campaign so I would be remiss if I didn't quickly point out that one of the ten lepers returned to give thanks. That's 10% of that cleansed population. A tenth of the whole offering thanks. Like the Biblical tithe to offer thanks back to God from the first fruits of our blessings.

     

As we share the Good News, how can we instill in our hearers and in ourselves the discipline of being like that Samaritan leper, always returning and giving thanks to our Healer? Do we need to have a bell around our necks reminding us that we come before God as sinful people, unclean because of our brokenness, our pride, and our internal selfish illnesses? Must we shout unclean, unclean before we come to the table?        

     

I say NO! It truly is a miracle! And here we hear of multiple miracles! The waters of Holy Baptism have healed us. The Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist have made us whole. We have died with Christ and been raised with Him. For all this, we return again and again to offer thanks. From this place we are sent on our way rejoicing to share the Good News. We do not need bells. We are NOT not redeemable. If we are set apart, it is for God and not from God. We have been redeemed through the Passion on the Cross and the Blood of Christ Jesus.

     

We can, and should, take great joy in committing ourselves anew to respond in love with grace and gratitude for the love, forgiveness and wholeness bestowed upon us all by God.

     

AMEN.