Sunday 28 • 9 Oct 2016

Jeremiah 29:1,4-7
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

Rev. Chris Udy

Stephen Donaldson is an author,
born in the USA in 1947 -
but from the age of three
until he turned sixteen
he lived in India, where his father was a doctor -
an orthopaedic surgeon.
His father’s work often involved surgery
for people who had leprosy -
and in 1977, when Stephen Donaldson published
his first series of novels,
they were about a man who had contracted leprosy,
and how his leprosy had marked him.
The novels are called
‘The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant’ -
and Thomas Covenant, the central character,
is a man who lives with the awareness
that his disease will someday kill him -
that while medication and surgery can hold it at bay,
his leprosy can never finally be cured,
and it waits in every cell of his body to return
should he ever forget
to keep himself clean,
to constantly watch for small cuts
or bumps he can no longer feel,
but could quickly become infected
and cost him a finger or a toe.
He lives with the understanding
that if he forgets that he’s a leper -
if he relaxes and tries to live a normal life,
then he is lost.
If ever he believes that he’s cured,
and stops his constant vigilance,
then he will have lost his battle with the disease.

Over the years
Thomas Covenant’s disease
completely dominates his life.
His wife and son desert him,
unable to cope with his illness,
even though it isn’t contagious.
The town he lives in threatens him with violence
should he ever leave his house -
because they don’t understand,
and they’re afraid.
Finally he isolates himself,
refusing to let anyone come near him,
for fear that he might come to care about someone,
or hope for another way to live,
and find that hope more dangerous
than his loneliness.
So Thomas Covenant lives
with this illness and darkness inside him,
with an unending struggle just to stay alive,
and with an overwhelming sense
of rejection and distance and isolation.

One day when Jesus was walking
near the border of Jerusalem and Galilee,
ten men who had leprosy
came and stood at a distance,
shouting out as loud as they could -
‘Jesus, master, have pity on us’.

As you’ll have heard often before -
the life of lepers in Israel was horrible.
You might have read parts of the OT
where the Law details what a leper had to do:
- to leave their homes -
and usually they were burnt as they left;
- to live outside the towns and villages,
and never to approach a well or a market -
so utterly dependent on their families or someone else
to bring them food and drink;
- to carry a bell that they were required to ring
if ever they saw anyone come near,
and shout out ‘unclean, unclean’ to warn them away;
- all the time waiting without medical treatment
for their illness to kill them.

Leprosy produced bitter despair and hopelessness,
and those 10 lepers were very brave men,
who came to the edge of the village
to ask for help from Jesus.
It would have been much safer and much easier
for them to just give in -
to avoid the risk of another rejection
and stay clear of the threats and stones
of frightened and ignorant people
and not stir up their longing and hope for healing.
It takes great courage
to challenge the way things are,
to hope for something better,
and to step forward and ask for healing.
Sometimes it’s easier to live with our illness -
to stay with habits and attitudes we know are killing us -
our bodies or our spirits -
because hope and healing are disruptive.
They lead us to change,
and when we change we not only disturb our own lives,
we also disturb the people around us,
and sometimes they can be deeply resentful
and try to keep things just the way they are.
So - these 10 lepers were very brave men -
and Jesus responded to their courage.
He sent them to the priests,
just as the law required.
If the priest examined them
and pronounced them healed,
they could reclaim to their homes,
return to their villages,
and hopefully resume a normal life.
So the 10 lepers went -
and as they travelled
they found that the marks and symptoms -
the stigma of their illness - disappeared,
and they were healed.
One of the 10 then turned around
and came back to Jesus,
praising God in a loud voice.
When he arrived
he threw himself on the ground
and poured out his gratitude.
Jesus then asked -
‘But weren’t all ten of you healed?
So where are the other nine?
Was the only one who returned and praised God
this foreigner from Samaria?’

Then he turned to the Samaritan and said
‘Stand up and go - your faith has made you well.’

Luke tells this story for a specific reason.
He was part of a movement in the early Church -
led by Paul -
who wanted the Gospel to move beyond Israel,
and to take up the mission to the Gentiles.
Luke and Paul and others like him
encountered enormous opposition.
Many of the other leaders in the early church
didn’t want Gentiles in the Church.
They saw themselves as Jews,
and they said - if Gentiles want to follow Jesus,
they’ll need to become Jews first,
and then they can join the Church.
It almost seems as if
they didn’t want their lives disrupted and disturbed
by these uncultured and unpredictable
and possibly dangerous aliens – people like us -
so Luke included this story
of a gentile - a Samaritan -
who was the only one to give praise to God
when he received God’s healing.

Luke had a specific point to this story -
but that doesn’t exhaust what it means.
Whatever Luke’s Church politics might have been
this is a story of God’s healing,
and we need to remember
that God is as active today as God has ever been.

So what might the story mean for us today?

Over the last few years
the Church has been asked
to get involved in all kinds of social programs
and community development work -
and that’s great.
Many leaders in government and in society
have realised that the Church can be very effective
in providing support and encouragement -
and many people who work in and for the Church
will go the extra mile
when it comes to helping other people.
But a few years ago,
when one of the Church’s rural counsellors
was speaking to a Synod meeting
he said - ‘It’s important to do the practical things -
organising support groups,
assisting people through crisis times,
helping people to make transitions -
all of those things are necessary and helpful.
But don’t forget
that the most effective contribution of the Church
in times of distress and crisis
is the basic teaching of the Gospel.
The Church has been given a message of hope -
and hope is desperately needed
in the world today.’

We are surrounded by hopelessness:
children who harm themselves to attract attention;
youth who act out fantasies of anger and destruction;
young adults locked out of the housing and careers
they’ll need to provide for their children;
political parties that walk away
from people who are poor, sick,
aged, disabled and different
because they’re afraid to challenge people of privilege;
and because they don’t want to disturb and disrupt
those who are comfortable
with the way things are.
It’s easy to give in to hopelessness -
to grow more and more self-seeking and cynical,
to convince ourselves that nothing will ever change
and to be wary
of anyone who offers the chance
for healing and liberation.

A few weeks ago on ‘One Plus One’
Jane Hutcheon interviewed Chris Sarra,
who left an academic career in 1998
to become the first Aboriginal headmaster
of the primary school in Cherbourg, in Queensland.
Everyone told him he was foolish,
and said the community was a disaster area,
where the kids only came to school,
to break and steal things -
and to assault the teachers.
Chris Sarra tackled the community’s resistance,
asked for the teachers’ trust and commitment,
started rewarding kids for coming to school
and ‘growling’ those who mucked things up
for everybody else.
Along the way Chris Sarra
was accused by some of being rough
and heavy-handed with his discipline,
but by the time he left Cherbourg most kids could read;
most came to school most days,
and they were proud of being black
and “strong and smart”.
In 2010 Chris Sarra was honoured
as Queensland’s Australian of the year,
he was NAIDOC’s Person of the Year this year,
and in June he was appointed Professor of Education
at the University of Canberra.
There’s hope that what he achieved in Cherbourg
might not be a once-off healing,
and now he’s working
with other communities and schools
who will hopefully adapt and use his methods
to change the future for aboriginal children.

The nine lepers who were healed,
but who stayed away from Jesus
seem to have been half-healed -
the marks of their illness are gone,
the physical, surface indications of disease
have disappeared
but something inside them stayed the same -
they are still frightened and isolated
and ultimately hopeless.
But the Samaritan,
the man who came back to Jesus,
had seen something deeper than the surface -
he’d had a much more profound healing -
and he’d realised that his healing
was the beginning of a new way of life.
Instead of snatching at his healing
like a looter in a burning city,
he could see it as the first step
into a life that was integrated and complete,
and full of purpose and promise.
He also recognised
that this new and hopeful life
was a gift - a gift from God:
part of God’s intention for the world.
So he came back to Jesus
to thank him, and to praise God -
not only for his healing,
but for this vision of a world made whole.

Maybe that’s why,
when Jesus made his final comments to the Samaritan,
he changed the word he was using
to describe the healing.
For the other nine he used a word
that means ‘cleansed’ or ‘cured’ -
but for the Samaritan,
the word he used means ‘saved’ -
‘Rise and go’ Jesus says -
‘your faith has saved you’.

It isn’t all that difficult
to find short-term solutions
for the problems of the world -
all of us have things we do
to run away for a little while;
we find ways to ignore our loneliness
and act out roles that look friendly and comfortable -
but we know our problems will return,
sometimes made more difficult
because we ran away.
But God’s mission is not a short-term solution -
God’s intention is to bring us healing -
to overcome the illness within us
and to give us life with truly eternal potential.
Where the other 9 were cleansed,
the Samaritan was ‘saved’ -
he was delivered, made whole,
because he could see
that God was doing something much more significant
than just healing one poor leper.

In Jesus he recognised
that God was beginning a movement of healing
that would not only change individuals,
but would also change whole communities,
whole cultures, and the world itself.
In the end,
the world will not be hostage
to bigotry and fear about those who are different,
or to terror and the hopelessness
of those who have given up on humanity -
because the realm of God is bigger
than the broken world we see.
Just as Luke was helping his readers
to see beyond Israel to the world,
we also need to look
beyond the fears and boundaries
and limits of these days
and see God’s healing and God’s peace
extend throughout the world. Amen.