The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, 2016
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
The worst thing about being a leper isn’t the disease itself.
It isn’t your flesh, boiling and scabbing, that’s the worst. It’s not skin and hair turning yellow, or the swollen and raw flesh that’s worst. Nor is it, even, the pain penetrating deep into your muscles and bones.
All of that is terrible, to be sure, but it’s not the worst part.
The worst thing about being a leper is the alienation, having to call out “Unclean! Unclean!” to keep even your loved ones away from you.
Fearing the spread of disease, lepers were cast out.
If a priest determined that a man had leprosy, his duty was to announce him as unclean. His clothes and possessions were to be burned. All his days, he shall be unclean. He shall dwell alone. He shall dwell outside the camp. That’s Leviticus chapter 13.
That’s what it is to be a leper.
And there’s a good comparison here.
The laws regarding leprosy have no bearing on our day-to-day lives anymore. We’re no longer under the pedagog of Mosaic law.
But how about this: sin is a spiritual leprosy.
Sin is a debilitating infection, contagious to all who interact with it, and serious irrespective of degree.
Sin changes you and makes you hideous, harming you as much physically as emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
And it’s not just a surface change but soul deep.
For fear of its spread, the community will even excommunicate you, given certain circumstances.
Since the sin of Adam and Eve, we are corrupt, and no soap or pious thought can remove the stain of sin from our body and soul. And, try as we might, there’s no corrective action that can change the fact that we are sin and we do sin.
The worst thing about being a leper was being an outcast.
Sin does the same thing. The greater problem we face, though, is that sin isn’t as obvious as leprosy.
What if it were?
In The Scarlett Letter, Hester Prynne wears an “A,” which tells everyone around her that she is an “Adulterer”.
What “A” do you wear?
Does your “A” stand for “Angry”? Or how about “Accusatory”? Or maybe you just “Advise” everyone, everywhere, all the time, because you know better than they do? Or how about “A” for “All of the Above”?
Or does your “A” stand for “Awesome”? We turn our sins into achievements, sometimes. Proud of how we got our way.
The “A” that you wear, whether you realize it or not, stands for “Alienated.” Your sins alienate you from God and from your neighbor. From the Church and from the communion of the saints.
The devil, the world, and our flesh are masters of alienation. There’s nothing the devil or the world loves better than to alienate. Even when it’s the sin that gives you a sense of community, it’s still a sin that alienates you from others.
Filling the void in your life with sin is like filling a hole with air. You can accomplish something. It will wear you out. And, in the end, you will have nothing to show for it.
Or look at it this way, how many marriages are colder because one spouse alienates the other. In how many marriages have cellphones, Facebook, the Kardashians, work, sports, or drugs replaced the meaningful relationships that were there in the first place?
Inundated with information and the ability to communicate, we have never been more alone than we are right now.
Maybe that’s an overstatement. Maybe.
St. Paul gives his diagnosis this way. This is what today’s leprosy looks like: “The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).
Sin often looks like it gives you so much. But it can and does end up taking everything from you. It can separate you from your family, friends, and even your church. Left to your sinful devices, you can alienate everyone and everything in your life.
Our leprosy is that serious.
As it was for the leprous sinners in today’s Gospel lesson, so it is for us. The only remedy is Jesus.
The leprous sinners recognized what they were—unholy, sick, diseased, and alone. They recognized where their only help could come from—God Himself.
The lepers, even from far away, lifted up their voices and cried, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Luke 17:13).
This is a cry of repentance, of faith. A cry from total helplessness. A cry that looks to and trusts in Jesus.
It is a Christian prayer.
That’s why it’s some of the first words in our liturgy. Every Sunday we leprous sinners cry out, “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.”
In the prayers of the church, the petitions often conclude with “Let us pray to the Lord,” to which you respond with your plea, “Lord, have mercy!”
In the Agnus Dei, right before you come forward to receive your Lord’s Body and Blood, you sing, “O Christ thou Lamb of God…have mercy upon us.”
And in the Post-communion collect we give thanks to God and implore Him in His mercy to strengthen us in faith toward Him and fervent love and charity towards one another.
Jesus’ mercy is the beginning of your healing. He recognized your situation and passed your way, not leaving you alone.
Jesus heard the cry of the lepers and healed them. He healed them by His Word and command. He said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17:14), and as they went, they were cleansed. Jesus says, “Go,” and because of His command and His mercy, in their “go”-ing, they are healed.
God works that way. He gives a command—either an action or a physical element—and he attaches His divine, miraculous power to it.
He does the same thing today.
In Holy Baptism He doesn’t say, “Go,” but rather, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). And in being baptized, you’re saved. In the Lord’s Supper He doesn’t say, “Go,” but rather, “This do…” and in this “doing,” according to His Word, the bread and cup which we bless are the body and blood of the Lord for your salvation.
His miraculous Word makes washing and eating and drinking divine. It’s not our doing of the act that makes a thing divinely beneficial but God’s command and power, His promise and His mercy working in and through the act that make it so.
Jesus heard the cry of the lepers and He healed them; He hears your cries (no matter how alone you feel, your Heavenly Father hears your prayers and answers them). By Word, Water, and the Supper, God heals your spiritual leprosy, forgives your sin, and saves you.
So, “Go, show yourselves to the priests,” Jesus says.
For the outcast sinner, excommunicated from the temple and the priests, these words are nothing less than perfect absolution.
It’s as if Jesus says, “I accept you back. You are part of God’s people once again.”
He sends them to the priests.
And here’s where the most interesting thing happens. You have to read between the lines or you’ll miss what’s going on.
God’s law required many things to demonstrate the restoration of the leper.
According to Leviticus chapter fourteen, there was a sacrifice involving birds, cleansing with cedar and hyssop and water, cutting of hair, bathing in water, the putting on of new clothes, and waiting. The leprous person, in the rituals regarding cleansing, would wait until the eighth day.
Then, on the eighth day, the lamb would be sacrificed. The blood of the lamb would be sprinkled on the leprous person, to cleanse him by the blood.
The nine Jewish ex-lepers went to the priests as commanded. They’ll make the sacrifices, they’ll wait until the eighth day, and they’ll be cleansed by the blood of the lamb, but they won’t and don’t recognize Jesus as the priest and lamb of God.
The one Samaritan ex-leper is the one who understands the gravity of what’s before him.
“Go, show yourselves to the priests,” Jesus says. And the Samaritan realizes that there’s no true priest like Jesus. No true temple like the Son of God Himself. No washing, no clothes, no cleanness like what Jesus gives.
There’s no sacrifice, no blood, no lamb, no atonement like that of Jesus, the True Lamb of God.
Realizing this, the Samaritan goes and shows himself to the Priest.
The Samaritan “turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet [worshiping Him], giving him thanks” (Luke 17:15-16).
Ten were cleansed. One returned to praise and thank God.
It doesn’t say He thanked the Father. It doesn’t say he thanked the Holy Spirit. It says “he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks” (Luke 17:16). He recognizes that Jesus is God in the flesh, the Messiah, the healer of leprosy, his and yours.
In the command to the lepers, we see God’s will for us today. And in the response of the Samaritan, we see the response of the faithful child of God.
“Go, show yourselves to the priests.” Go to your High Priest. Go to the temple of His body. Cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Sing the Kyrie. Pray the prayers of the church. Sing the Agnus Dei. And sound forth your Amen! to the Post-communion collect.
Receive the healing that the True Priest has earned for you by His all-availing sacrifice and death on the cross.
Fall on your face before Him, in humble worship.
Christ Himself is present in His Church in bread and wine, in water and Word, in the Gospel, for the forgiveness of your sins—even the ugly, leprous ones.
Return to Him who has mercy on you.
Glorify Him with the loud voice of hymns, give thanks to him in your prayers. Join your voices with those of the new Israel, all Christians, for you are cleansed, reconciled, and welcome in the Church, the precious and holy Body of Christ.
“Alienated” no longer, the “A” we wear is one of “Alleluias” sung to our “Almighty” God, the “Alpha” and Omega.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!