10 September 2007

Homily - Trinity 14

This very fine homily comes from one of my seminary field-education students, Mr. Dan Pool. I post it here with his permission and consent.

Trinity 14

Luke 17:11-19

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Unclean! Unclean!” The law required that lepers of Jesus’ day cried out these disturbing words whenever anyone was too close. Leprosy was an extremely contagious and destructive skin disease, which literally ate away human flesh. Today there are treatments for leprosy; then, there were none. Because of the high risk for transmission, any kind of personal contact was forbidden. Lepers tore their clothing as if they were mourning and covered their mouths with a cloth. Their dress warned others to stay away.

Thus, they lived alone and in despair. Apart from the physical trauma, the emotional distress must have been dreadful. Isolated from their families and friends, they lived as outcasts. They were to be considered as the living-dead, corpses awaiting the day when leprosy would ultimately take their lives. People ran from their presence to avoid any kind of contact. And everyone hoped to avoid their fate. Lepers lived their own horror movie.

Can you imagine a life like this? Try it some time. Cover yourself in ash. Tear your clothes. Put a cover over your face and walk through the Galleria or Union Station yelling “Unclean! Unclean!” People will do more than avoid you; they will run away. You will quickly find yourself alone. The only attention that you will find is from security or the St. Louis Police Department. Okay, so maybe this is not such a good idea. But it would give some understanding of the social trauma with which the leprous lived.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Luke tells us of the story of ten lepers. Jesus was walking along the border of Galilee and Samaria, traveling to Jerusalem when these ten lepers spotted him, and they knew who He was. They had heard of Jesus and what He could do. They saw in Him the hope of a cure from their physical, social, and emotional maladies.

Now, before Luke tells us of the story of these ten lepers, he tells us about the healing of a different leper. In this miracle, Jesus did the improbable and impossible. He touched this leprous, untouchable man, and then He healed him. Luke reports that, even though Jesus charged this leper to tell no one, the news of Jesus’ miracle working power traveled quickly. Perhaps our ten lepers had heard of Jesus’ ability to heal, even to heal the dreaded disease of leprosy.

As I mentioned, lepers were to cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” Yet here in this passage, we hear that the ten lepers cried out something else. They cried out words of faith. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Martin Luther in his sermon on this miracle said, “Faith makes man bold…to bring his troubles unto God, and earnestly to pray for help.” Theses lepers offer an interesting example of faith. There was no pride left. They had nowhere else to turn. They were utterly helpless. So they lifted up their voices, crying out to the only One who could help! And Jesus heard them.

Now, because these men were unclean, the socially responsible thing for Jesus to do was to stay well away from them. Jesus could have treated them like the living-dead that they were and everyone would have understood. They certainly had nothing to offer to Jesus. All they had left was their disease and their uncleanness. But Jesus did respond to them.

However, He did not give them exactly what they were expecting. He sent them away to Jerusalem, but He sent them away unhealed. They had only their leprous bodies and Jesus’ command to show themselves to the priest as if they were clean. The law required that anyone who was fortunate enough to survive leprosy, to prove their absence of leprosy to the priests. So, off they went to Jerusalem, still leprous. Jesus put their faith to the test.

As they were walking, perhaps they remembered the story of the test and healing of Naaman. Do you remember Naaman? In 2 Kings we hear the story of Naaman who was the commander of the army of the King of Syria. Although Naaman was a mighty warrior, he suffered from the same dreaded disease from which our ten lepers suffered. Now, among Naaman’s slaves was a little Israelite girl who knew of the Prophet Elisha. God had performed many miracles through Elisha and at the young girl’s prompting, Naaman went out to meet Elisha.

However, Naaman received a greeting and a test that he did not expect. When he arrived in Israel, Elisha refused to come out and meet Naaman. Elisha rejected Naaman’s many gifts. Finally, Elisha told him to wash in the Jordan River.

Of course, Naaman was insulted and indignant. Who was this prophet to insult him with a command to take a bath in a muddy foreign river? While he was preparing to leave this obnoxious Israelite prophet, his servants convinced him to respond to Elisha’s simple request. As he reluctantly stood in the Jordan, he was cleansed from his leprosy. He walked out of the water clean. His skin had become like that of a little child. God healed him.

But our ten lepers, still walking to Jerusalem, very easily could have doubted. With the story of Naaman, Elisha the prophet made it very clear that if he washed in the Jordan, he would be clean. Unlike Elisha, Jesus was not so clear. Jesus did not explicitly say whether He would heal these lepers. There was plenty of opportunity for doubt, but they trusted in Jesus. They believed in Jesus and in what they could not yet see. And as they went on their way, Jesus healed them.

Now the Gospel does not tell us exactly what happened when the ten lepers were healed. We only know that just one returned to give thanks to Jesus. As much as we have recognized the faith of the ten lepers, we now see that their response to the miraculous work of Jesus was pitiful, at least for nine of them.

So why did only one return? Some have suggested that these nine were simply being obedient to the words of Christ and that they continued on to Jerusalem after the healing in order to see the priests. Others have suggested that all ten went to the priests. And it was the priests who convinced the nine not to return because the priests opposed Jesus. Regardless, there must have been some conversation among the ten lepers, and finally, the one leper found himself returning to Jesus alone. The nine had already received all that they wanted from Jesus, and now they were finished with Him.

Thankfully, one did return. And the one who returned offers us an excellent example of the response of faith to the fulfilled promise of God. He came back praising God in a loud voice, he fell at the feet of Jesus, and he gave Him thanks. Following Jesus’ inquiry into the missing nine, He proclaimed to the one leper, “Rise and go your way – your faith has made you well.” This verse might just as easily be translated, “Rise and go your way – your faith has saved you,” for faith receives the promises of God. Jesus told him that not only was his body cleansed, but his sin had been washed away as well. Although Jesus had cleansed him from the physical, social, and emotional maladies of leprosy, the cleansing he needed even more was the cleansing from sin.

See, unlike the ten, we do not suffer from a leprosy that devours our flesh from the outside. Nevertheless, we are leprous. The Apostle Paul in our Epistle lesson, names the leprosies from which we suffer. Our leprosies are “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” He continues, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Although we may not identify with everything on this list, we certainly all identify with something on this list. With these things, we have made ourselves unclean. We are leprous. We have been caught up into our own self-made horror movie. We are the living-dead. And this leprosy separates us from the Kingdom of God, and every Sunday we admit it.

We come to the Divine Service and like the ten lepers, we cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” Which, if you will allow me a little bit of freedom, may be loosely paraphrased in the words of our liturgy, “Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” And like the lepers, we cry out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

So what will Christ do with us, a group of poor miserable sinners? Like Naaman and the ten lepers, we have nothing to offer to Jesus. Yet, He does not treat us as we deserve. Because of our sin, we deserve the treatment given to lepers in Jesus day. We deserve God’s rejection and alienation. But Jesus treats us as he treated the ten lepers. Like the lepers, we experience a miracle through the words of Christ. Not the disappearance of a skin disease, but an infinitely greater miracle. Jesus cleanses us from our sinful uncleanness.

We hear Jesus say to us those amazing words, “Rise and go your way – your faith has made you well,” “your faith has saved you,” “your sins have been forgiven.” Through the Cross, the alienation is ended, and we are brought into a healthy and clean relationship with our heavenly Father. Through our Baptism He has washed our leprous hearts with water and His Word, leaving us without spot or wrinkle. Through the Sacrament of the Altar, the blessings of forgiveness are poured out on us anew. When we rise from the Communion rail, our Lord is again telling us, “Rise and go your way; your faith in Me and in the gifts of My Body and Blood has made you well.” Through His Word, we are made clean. Our horror movie has ended.

Unlike the nine, we join our voices with the one leper and respond. We fall at Jesus feet, giving thanks for what He has done for us. We are clean and “for all this it is our duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.” And we do so each Sunday, as Pastor proclaims, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” and because He has cleansed us we concur by saying, “It is right to give Him thanks and praise.”

Now may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

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