Lectionary Sermon for 13 October 2013 on Luke 17: 11-19 (Year C)

On Relating to the Tenth Leper
When it comes to healing, healing is not quite the same as being made whole again. Most of us have probably had a whole range of accidents and illnesses by the time we reach adulthood if not certainly by the time we reach old age. Yet although we have recovered from most of these, we all show scars, signs of skin damage, while radiation damage from sunlight and chemicals in our environment continue to take a toll and an electron microscope would record chromosome damage as well.

There is for example, a good chance that some here might have had pneumonia at some time in their life and although recovered to the extent they no longer show the symptoms yet their lungs will now show the signature of some long-term damage. Even diseases like leprosy if left untreated usually eventually burn themselves out – but sadly if not treated early enough there will be serious nerve damage and while the disease is still active the numbness in the limbs often means minor infections are not recognised before they can set in often producing gross deformity and even loss of fingers or toes.

But even if the physical healing is apparently complete, the more serious dimension, the psychological aspect also needs attention. Today’s story is more readily understood when we see that it is a healing story that goes beyond physical healing.

This is not to say that physical healing does not matter, however being made whole again in the sense that we also feel right in ourselves and are at peace with our neighbours and the world can still be achieved regardless of how incomplete the physical healing might be.

Which brings us to Geshe Chakawa and his experiences in 12 Century Tibet.

Actually that particular story starts even earlier when a man called Atisha from India had visited Indonesia where he learned of a form of healing which addressed the idea of enlightenment which in turn he then took to Tibet where he started using it as a form of healing. This healing took the name Tonglen.

In the 12 Century a man called Geshe Chakawa recorded his own success with the Tonglen method and according to Buddhist lore, Chakawa claimed good success with his students – a majority of whom were lepers.

The method is still used today and a Buddhist nun – a woman called Pema Chodron. This Buddhist nun, speaks of Tonglen taught nowadays in hospice settings and other situations where there is no hope of cure. The idea she says is not so much that it can physically heal incurable forms of cancer or diseases like AIDS but rather because it seems to heal the spirit.

The story in this morning’s Gospel reading – the story of the healing of the ten lepers is a story that in some ways addresses that special form of healing, the healing of the Spirit. Certainly it is a story that has problems from a modern perspective – but it still deserves our careful attention.

In fact, if you think about it, this account is one of those pivotal stories right at the heart of what the faith is supposed to represent. Some of you may for example know that when Martin Luther was addressing the amazing changes in understanding and belief that characterised the church reforms of the sixteenth century, someone challenged him to describe the characteristics of true worship. His reply? The tenth leper turning back.

The gospel story is straightforward enough. Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem in an area between Galilee and Samaria is recorded as meeting 10 lepers. Jesus heals them (presumably in the bodily sense) and sends them off to have the healing confirmed by a priest in accordance with the law. They all set off, but one, the Samaritan in the group, returns to thank Jesus, who tells him (at least according to some translations) that his faith has made him whole.

As a story today’s gospel reading may not hold up as a literal truth. After all the Bible historians tell us that there was no area between Galilee and Samaria where the story might be set since the two areas had a common boundary and Luke, writing well after the event, was known to have made other geographical blunders. The other problem is again like a number of other stories about Jesus there were no independent witnesses which raises the question about how the story was recorded in the first place.

On the other hand Luke appears to have a good grasp of the intention of Jesus’ teaching and an equally good case can be made for Luke not so much reporting this event as an eyewitness but rather telling this story with a clear theological message with the intention of bringing us closer to the essential message of Christianity.

So, with that in mind, looking at the setting for the message, it is actually helpful to us to realise that the story is indeed set in a middle ground, for that is where many of us must start. A sort of mid ground between Galilee representing the people who are supposed to be the people of God and Samaria representing those whose beliefs are sufficiently suspect to disqualify them as bona fide people of faith. Perhaps to you this sounds suspiciously like an appropriate setting for those with good intentions but sufficient weaknesses to make them appear like many of us today.

Secondly we note the ordinariness of this particular healing miracle takes away much of its mystery. Ten lepers might equally be ten with any of a multitude of aliments or miseries. And yes, regardless of how we might prefer to make sense of miracles, we too are often released from at least some of our miseries by the ordinary intervention of people who care. And moving on, just as Jesus instructed his apparently cured lepers to seek a standard formal recognition of the healing – we too should be warned to do our checks according to standard practice.

So you think you have been cured of alcoholism, or of cancer or of some psychological misfortune like paranoia or loneliness – don’t assume the problem has gone away. Get yourself checked out.
And don’t think that just because nine of the lepers were not there to thank Jesus for his intervention that they were somehow being thoughtless or unfaithful. After all, didn’t Jesus apparently help all ten, then ask them to show themselves to the priest in accordance with the law? Thus when Jesus asks the tenth leper who comes back to thank him, “Where are the other nine?” It would presumably have been in order to reply: “They are merely off to show themselves to the priest – and come to think of it, is that not what you told them to do?”

But that tenth leper. What was it about this man that Martin Luther was so important? What lifts his actions to the point where Jesus can tell him his faith has made him whole.

Note that Jesus’ words give the credit, not to Jesus, or for that matter to any external force, but rather say quite literally that what ever has happened has been a result of something that emanates within. Jesus did not for instance say: “my faith“, or even, “my blessing has made you whole!” But rather “Your faith has made you whole“.

Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that the question for us is not Jesus’ question: ‘where are the other nine?’ but ‘where is the tenth?’…

Where (she asks) is the one who follows the heart instead of the instructions?

A good question indeed to ask ourselves because which of these we would have been likely to have been – and which we will intend to be may start to reveal what is most important to each one of us..

Presumably what ever had just happened to the nine lepers also happened to the tenth leper – and there is no indication in the story that there was a difference between the lepers in the physical healing. Yet the tenth leper appears to have seen the situation rather differently. He followed his heart. This seeing things differently in some ways might also be said to be the heart of faith and certainly as Luther saw it, was also the attitude at the heart of true worship.

The thinking of humans its takes meaning and force only when the thought is defined enough to be represented by words. Ideas do not crystallise until we put them into words, so the tenth leper – in all probability struggling to work out what has happened to him, has it make sense as he he delves inward and puts it into his own words to give thanks. In the story Jesus asks the grateful one – and where are the others? Yet noticing that the other healed ones had not shared that moment of insight, or even agreeing with some of the commentators in their interpretation is not sufficient to take us all the way. Just because the tenth leper had identified the need to thank the one behind his healing, his thanks does not absolve the others.

I guess another way of saying the same thing is that just because someone else is engaged in true worship, it would not follow that we too can ride on their coat-tails. Saying AMEN to someone else’s prayer does not necessarily mean it is our prayer.

Perhaps we should learn from this because true worship in the sense that Luther referred to is so very different from simply being present, or for that matter nodding assent to other people’s familiar words and phrases and somehow believing that in so doing we are taking part in genuine worship. In Luther’s framework, true worship then, is not following the rules of faith. Rather it seems more akin to starting by looking back among the swirling memories to find there the things for which we truly give thanks, particularly those that we associate with what we understand Jesus to stand for…. and then, as best we can, finding there the words that make us whole. If we can allow ourselves to follow our hearts rather than the customs of belief maybe it is only then we come close to true worship indeed.

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