Sermon Given on October 13th, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23.
It’s tough being on the outside, to be excluded from the group.
We don’t choose to be excluded most of the time, except for those moments of principle: it simply happens to us. We get sick; we become part of the class of people who is unhealthy. Sometimes we are quarantined; and then we feel contagious, so we avoid others; or deserving so we are ashamed. If not, we ask, “how did I become such as one of these, a leper, an outcaste?”
We’ve been a part of the tribe; we begin to notice the way people avoid our faces, who stop returning our phone calls, who quickly end their conversations with us. Or there are the voices of pity and feigned concern, just enough time to assuage their guilt and truncate the relationship. We become lepers.
Or perhaps there are people around us we cannot touch. It could be that they have transgressed a boundary; and we are worried that what they have and who they are will ooze of and cover us so that we will be in that poorer tribe. Most of the time we’ve got our gated communities, our unspoken rules that keep us safe from each other, that keeps us from feeling the disgust we have of other people.
So there is the first miracle; Jesus heals the lepers, brings them in back to the family. The whatever has excluded them has disappeared. They can even go to the priest. What made them clean, Jesus Magic? A simple faith in a merciful God who unlinked sin from punishment? No matter: they are happy now that they’re back in, so who cares? Let’s go to the priest, then go shopping, drink some beers and feast on pulled pork sandwiches.
Certainly God’s presence is in the healing; but it is not merely disfigurement, but a refiguring. Instead of the shame implicit in leprosy, Jesus speaks of reattachment; inclusion. And yet Jesus does not finish at the healing but reveals another layer of invisibility: being a foreigner, an enemy, who is even doubly unclean. They may be undocumented workers for some; Muslims for others; or just New England Patriots fans (for the Giants fans among us).
Jeremiah reminds us that we have been exiles in Babylon; and we were commended to plant gardens, marry, have children and uphold the city even though we are a country, peasant, virtuous people. We survive as immigrants; through the journey of being an immigrant, of being in a foreign place, we are more attentive to who God is. In short, we’re paying attention when we’re not in familiar surroundings. We are more likely to appreciate what it takes to survive when our normal crutches aren’t there.
The tenth leper was not merely scraping the bottom because he was a leper; even within that community he was the tenth man. The marginalized of the marginalized – and yet he was the one who could see. In his desperation By being perpetually on the outside, whose life is under the control of other people; who is always close to death, does he see where God is.
One German philosopher wrote that the ability to reflect begins in the relationship between slave and master; that the slave must reflect in order to understand what the lord was thinking. The master can afford to be distracted, unreflective, inattentive to the world – many of the powerful are. It is the servant who remembers how utterly dependent they are, upon the web of relationships around them, the tapestry of life that makes dust into life. Perhaps hour humanity requires that we recognize that we must be servants to the world upon which we move and breath and have our being.
With all our abundance, with all our conveniences, we become forgetful. When we are healthy we do not think of sickness; when we are surrounded by friends and a community that thinks like us, we’re unlikely to find value in difference. The nature of holiness, however, is more dangerous and wild; we easily mistake our own comforts for the work of God, when we’ve merely made a series of distractions.
To be welcomed and to welcome may be a miracle; but to see the world clearly is the precipitating gift that makes understanding others possible. We find it easier to resist shame and shaming others; for we have the clarity to remember that we too were exiles, and the strangers among us also have seen the Almighty.