Monday, October 11, 2010

Praying with Lepers

In Nomine Iesu
St. Luke 17:11-19
October 10, 2010
Pentecost 20/Proper 23C

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus~

I don’t know if you’ve ever considered it or not, but a pineapple doesn’t really look like much from the outside. It’s not very colorful like some other tropical fruits. The skin of a pineapple is rough and jagged. In fact, if you’re not careful, you could hurt yourself with a pineapple . . . or hurt somebody else, I suppose. To walk by a display of pineapples at the grocery store does nothing to catch your eye or make you salivate with anticipation.

But of course, everybody knows that the appeal of the pineapple is what’s on the inside. It’s sweet. It’s juicy. Cut it open, take a bite, and let your taste buds be transported to someplace tropical—not to mention all the vitamins and nutritional benefits that come from fresh fruit. No, pineapples may not look like much on the outside; but dare to go deeper and you won’t be disappointed.

That’s exactly how it is for me when I hear the account of Jesus cleansing the ten lepers. From the outside, this well known story seems so basic and straightforward. No surprises! Anyone who’s attended Sunday school knows that leprosy was a debilitating disease of the skin that affected many people in Bible times. And again, anyone who’s done the Sunday school thing knows that whenever Jesus encounters diseased people, there’s a fairly good chance that He will heal them. About the only surprise here is when but one of the healed men returns to give thanks to Jesus. And the importance of saying “thank you” is something that most of us learned, well, in pre-school.

But today I’d like you to go a little deeper with me. Let’s do more than scratch the surface. Let’s pause, and ponder, and dig down deep, and take to heart the sweet, golden good news of the Savior—which is perfectly ripe for our hearing.

First of all, the bad news about leprosy: It was more than just a disease of the skin like acne or eczema. Aside from the pain and disfigurement it could sometimes cause, the emotional and spiritual pain was greater. According to the Old Testament law, leprosy made you unclean. And if you were unclean, that meant that no one could have anything to do with you. You were essentially cut off, cast out and quarantined. Leprosy meant separation from family and friends (no cell phone, no facebook, no twitter or texting). Leprosy meant separation from worship and the temple and the God who dwelt there. Leprosy, therefore, meant depression, grief, and unimaginable loss.

Knowing all that—and knowing that Jesus had already healed at least one leper up to this point in His ministry—what do you suppose those ten leprous men would be saying to Jesus as He came within earshot? What would you be saying and praying? Jesus, heal me? Jesus, make me better? Jesus, cleanse me of this disease? All those would be perfectly suitable requests to make. Yet that wasn’t the prayer of the lepers.

Their prayer to Jesus wasn’t specifically for healing, but for mercy. “Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy.” It’s what you pray when you’re stuck and helpless and hopeless. It’s what you pray when you are in dire straits and powerless to do anything about it. Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy. It’s what we pray here in this place almost at almost every service. It’s a beautiful, faith-filled prayer, really. I’m afraid that we often say those words thoughtlessly and far too casually. But there was nothing thoughtless or casual about this prayer as it was shouted from the lips of lepers.

When you pray “Lord, have mercy,” you’re praying for God’s help. But like the lepers, you’re leaving the details of your deliverance in God’s hands. You’re leaving the particulars and the specifics up to the Lord. You’re trusting Him to provide you with the help you need, but you’re leaving the methods and the timing in His hands. I’m telling you, it takes faith to pray, “Lord, have mercy.” It’s like saying, “I am nothing, Lord, and You are everything.” This prayer has an intensity and a zeal that we too often forget. But don’t forget this: Whenever we pray, “Lord have mercy,” we are praying together with lepers. We are admitting our helplessness.

Incidentally, this is a prayer that Jesus cannot and will not ignore. When Jesus heard their prayer He stopped and said but one sentence to the lepers: “Go,” He said, “and show yourselves to the priests.” Okay. (From the outside, that doesn’t sound like much.) Notice that there were no explicit promises from Jesus. No encouraging words, no “fear not,” no angels choirs or shafts of light beaming down from heaven. No, Jesus just says some words. “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”

In the book of Leviticus it says that you’re supposed to show yourself to the priest after you have been cleansed of leprosy. The priests would verify your healing and offer a sacrifice to mark the occasion. Jesus’ words make perfectly good sense for someone who had already been cleansed of leprosy. Only these ten men had not been cleansed of leprosy. Their skin was still festering! They were still outcasts! Nothing had changed! The only difference was that now they had the words of Jesus ringing in their ears.

And right about now, my friends, we are approaching the center of the pineapple. In one short sentence St. Luke gives us what may just be the juiciest, most sticky-sweet bit of good news that you’re going to get for a while. Luke writes: “And as they went they were cleansed.” Now, if you were daydreaming about pineapple upside down cake, you might have missed what I just said. So let me read it again: “And as they went they were cleansed.”

I don’t know about you, but if I had been one of those lepers I don’t think I would have hurried off quite so fast. I think I would have needed to see at least some evidence of healing before I set off. “Seeing is believing,” or so they say. But not these lucky lepers. All they had were the words of Jesus ringing in their ears and they were good to go. “And as they went they were healed.”

There’s sticky-sweet, 200 proof gospel good news in that sentence. It’s a great illustration of the Christian life. We’re just like the lepers. We’re helpless and hopeless and so sick with sin that it’s killing us and cutting us off from those we love. We’re desperate for cleansing and healing and hope. And every so often Jesus passes our way right here in this place and we can’t do much but lift our voices and pray the prayer of those desperate lepers: “Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy.”

And in response to that prayer, Jesus puts His words in our ears. “Go,” He says. Go and love me above all other things. Go and serve your neighbor. Go and love your spouse; honor your parents. Go and forgive those who sin against you. Go and do the holy work of the vocations I’ve assigned you. Go and take up your cross and follow me. And as you go, Jesus promises healing and cleansing. Along the way of life, as you place one foot before the other, Jesus promises help and hope and the forgiveness we so desperately need.

The question is, “Will you go?” Do you believe it? Will you walk with the lepers and step out in faith—even though you have no evidence of deliverance—even though your life is still festering with sin and doubt and fear? Will you go? Will you walk into the days and years ahead confident and expecting that Jesus will fulfill every promise—even though right now, at this moment, things look grim? Jesus knows what it’s like when things look grim. His own journey led to death by crucifixion. He was sacrificed as your substitute. The One who laid down His life for you is the same One who will carry you through this life in faith—all the way to the life of the world to come.

If those lepers had decided not to go—if they had stayed stuck in their despair—if they had decided to do the safe thing and stay put—this story would have ended far differently. The promises were from Jesus. The healing was from Jesus. The miracle was from Jesus. But it was the faith of the lepers that enabled them to receive that promised healing. “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus said.

That’s the same faith God gave to you way back when you were cleansed in the splash of your baptism. That baptism of yours is the reason you can indeed go when your God says “go.” That baptism means that you have cleansing and healing from every sin. That baptism means that Jesus’ perfect, sinless life counts for you. It means that He’s already died your death, so that the life you live today—you live for Him.

Hear again this simple, sweet sentence about the lepers: “And as they went then were cleansed.” As they went where their feet carried them in faith, they received cleansing and healing. Today, your feet have carried you in faith to this place. Your feet will carry you in faith to this altar. And as you go—as you walk this way—the Savior will feed you with His body and blood. And by that holy food you will be cleansed. You will be healed. You will receive forgiveness, and the strength to keep on going in faith—all the way to eternal life.

As you come and go from this place—with the words of Jesus ringing in your ears—you are being cleansed. There’s a miracle happening. Oh, your life is probably messy and complicated, riddled with anxiety and weariness, but you are being cleansed by Jesus. You are being healed. You are being saved and delivered from death. This is how your God operates. He cares for you more than you can know. No detail of your life is too small or insignificant. You are holy and precious to Him—as precious as the blood of His Son and as holy as the perfect life of Jesus, our Savior. So savor the sweet, golden goodness of that good news. Be reminded of it the next time you savor some fresh pineapple. And learn to pray together with the lepers—the least, the lowly, the losers of life: “Lord, have mercy.” Amen.

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