While I was researching materials about this Sunday’s readings, I ended up going down a rabbit hole of what leprosy is. See, it gets mentioned several times in the Bible, notably in this week’s readings from Luke and from 2 Kings, but also in several other books of the Bible. I looked it up, and leprosy, which is called Hansen’s disease in medical terminology, is a bacterial disease that deadens nerve endings and deforms your fingers and toes by eating away the cartilage. Throughout history and across cultures, leprosy has been treated essentially the same way: by outcasting and isolating people with it.
Up until the late nineteenth century, there was even a leper colony in Hawaii established by the American government where otherwise healthy people were sent to live in isolation together. People in developing nations with the disease are regularly shunned and avoided. And in the Bible, the prescription from the book of Leviticus for the disease—and pretty much any skin disease resembling it—was ritual isolation, wearing your hair long and messy and your clothes tattered and ragged, and shouting “unclean” anywhere you went so people knew to avoid you.
All of this is made even more tragic by the fact that leprosy isn’t contagious 98% of the time. But these are the kind of people who encountered Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and asked him to have mercy on them.
Now these lepers knew their place in society. They kept themselves isolated, only congregating with other lepers. And not only that, we see how they’ve been trained to live with that isolation by the fact that they deliberately kept their distance from Jesus to ask him to have mercy. Like all victims of trauma and abuse, they’d learned to live within the bounds of how they had been treated all their lives.
But with Jesus, there’s a chance that might change. There’s a chance this miracle worker who had healed a man with leprosy before would do it again. So they asked, and Jesus told them what to do. I always imagine this scene with the ten lepers solemnly heading down the road toward the Temple where the priests are, hopeful but not certain that this means they’ll be healed, and as they walk, one of their group falls back—the Samaritan—because his priests aren’t in Jerusalem. They’re back in Samaria.
But because he’s taking a moment to realize he has to go a different direction from companions he’s had for who knows how long, he sees that his leprosy is gone. Like most of Jesus’ miracles, there’s no fanfare around the healing—it just happens without explanation. And when he turns around and sees Jesus standing a ways away, he raised his voice and praised God for the miracle, and then does something he hasn’t been able to do for a long time—he goes right up to Jesus, closer than he was ever allowed to with leprosy, and falls down at his feet to thank him for what he did. How many of us have literally fallen down to the ground to thank anyone for something before?
Then the language is interesting here, because the gospel says that the ten were all “healed” of their leprosy as they went along their way, but there’s a different word used for what happened to the one who came back to thank Jesus. It says he was “made well.” There was more than just physical healing that took place for him. The Samaritan leper saw the kind of difference that God made, and reacted by going back to the one who healed him to thank him. He might have been healed of his leprosy, but it was reacting with praise that made him whole, that restored him, that completed his healing. Just imagine that: his praise is what made him whole.
And as we welcome Morgan into the family of faith, I think that’s a pretty great lesson to hear for her first sermon as a baptized Christian. See, we say a lot of words around baptism. We confess the creed that the confirmation students are learning this year, about who this God is that we worship. We deny the power of the devil and all the forces of evil. We all made promises to Morgan—and to every baptized child—to teach her the faith she’s being welcomed into. And knowing those things is important. It is important to spend time hearing the stories of the Bible, learning what the creed tells us about God, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and what it means, learning the Ten Commandments—but the Samaritan leper reminds us that those things will heal us, but it’s praise that will make us whole.
It’s praise for a God who doesn’t need our big, fancy gifts or our feats of strength like Naaman wanted to bring. It’s praise for a God who heals the ten lepers just because they asked. It’s praise for a God who empowered this congregation to make more than seventy quilts and dozens of infant care kits. It’s praise for a God who brings us joy in life by blessing us with family and friends, beautiful sunrises and blustery winds, warm homes to live in and good food to eat. It can be so easy to focus on learning the faith, memorizing the doctrine, crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s that we forget that God wants to bring us wholeness, and not just healing.
So how does God bring you wholeness in your life? How does God make you want to jump for joy and bow down to the ground in praise? What life that is more than just life does God give you every single day, and how are you called to praise God for the wholeness God brings through that life?
Because that’s what the life of the baptized is. We come to God for healing in the waters, and we leave with wholeness of new life. And we get to live with the joy of what God has done for us and is doing through us every single day—and we get to share that with others. We get to show others the kind of amazing, wonderful, wholeness of life that is given to us because that’s what the kingdom looks like.
Let’s share that joy with others.
Thanks be to God. Amen.