A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Luke 17:11-19

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying … Amen.

Chapter 29 of the Book of the prophet Jeremiah contains a letter. The prophet Jeremiah is writing to the people of Israel in exile. Last week we read from the Book of Lamentations and we heard the words of Psalm 137 sung and we witnessed there expressions of the awful grief that overwhelmed a people when they lost all that gave their lives meaning and identity – when their city was destroyed and they were taken into captivity in Babylon. God would have us know our grief and express it. God would have us pour out the truth of it. Jeremiah’s letter almost seems to have been sent to be read after the expression of grief has calmed for a while, after the crying is over, when the moment of quiet comes, as it usually does when we are bereft. Jeremiah’s letter shows that God knows and God sees, but that God also knows that, in many times of struggle, sometimes there is no quick way out. That sometimes we have to settle in and find a way to live well in a time of pain. This was true in the time of exile. And so God guided God’s people on how to live:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. God says. Take wives and have sons and daughters and nurture your families. And, though you might struggle with this at first, seek the welfare of the city where you have been sent into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.

Even seek the welfare of those who live where you do not wish to live. Settle in. For there is no quick way out of this. We know that feeling don’t we? That sometimes there is no easy way out of a place, a foreign place, a place that feels far from home, a place of pain.

And yet, sometimes, we sense that there is a time to cry out, to protest, to beg God to set us free, in the case of the exiles, to bring us home.

Across the world in recent weeks, many who care deeply about our lack of care for our planet sense that time is too precious, that we cannot endure any longer, that without an awakening, an opening of our eyes, and a determination as individuals, as communities, as corporations, as governments to put the need to care for our planet before almost any other need, it may be too late to reverse the effects on our beautiful earth and its creatures of our neglect. Bishop Rowan Williams has said that “not only the well being but the being of our species on this planet”[1] are under threat. Many are crying out. Children are gathering, taking a day from school, to protest their concern.  Adults, many who tell us they are inspired by their own children’s fears, block the streets of Westminster in London, and the streets of other cities. Advocates like David Attenborough, use all the passion and poetry in their power to raise awareness of this urgent need. It is a time to cry out.

And the story of Jesus’ healing the ten lepers that we heard read this morning, gives us hope that God will hear our cry. That God’s wisdom, courage, determination, and fierce love for all that God has made might bring healing at this great time of need.

For the stories of Jesus’ encounters with those who are in places of pain often show him bringing healing. Healing in response to a cry.

This morning’s story from the 17th Chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke is as much about the healing of the eyes as of the healing of a skin disease. Jesus encounters ten lepers on the way to Jerusalem. Jesus is always on the way to Jerusalem, always bringing life to those he encounters as he goes to the place of his death. The gospel writer would have us remember this.

Lepers in Jesus’ time and place are outsiders. According to the Jewish Law, they are to live “outside the camp” (Numbers 5:2-3) and to cry out, “Unclean, unclean” whenever anyone comes near to them (Leviticus 13:45-46). If the leper is healed, a priest is needed to confirm the healing before the person can re-enter the community (Leviticus 14:23).

When Jesus approaches the ten lepers, they do not, however, cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” They keep at a distance but they cry out something else. Something in them knows that Jesus will see more than their disease. These ten lepers have faith that he will see the way to their healing. The lepers, seeing Jesus, cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

Jesus sees the lepers. And his eyes see what God sees. Human beings, made in the image of God, loved by God, broken as all human beings are, at times, by sickness, this time a sickness that renders them outsiders to their community. Broken. Not outsiders to God, though.

Jesus simply sends the lepers to the priest. They do as he tells them, trusting him, and on the way they are made clean. What matters to these lepers is that they are restored to their community, enabled by the words of the priest. What matters is belonging. It is a little different in our time and place. What usually matters a great deal to us when we are struck down by serious illness is the damage to our ability to function. We hate not being able to do the things we are accustomed to doing – our work, our supporting of those we love, the things that give us joy, walking, travelling, keeping company with those who give us life. We grieve our capacity to function. It was different in Jesus’ time. What mattered most was belonging in the community and healing was about restoring this.

We might remember this when, for example, we visit a loved one in an aged care facility who has lost so much of what made them dear to us – their insight, their conversation, their support of us. We might remember this when we see them loved and valued and treated with great respect by those who care for them, and when their faces light up as we enter the room. That in God’s eyes healing might be taking place, not a restoration of functioning, but a restoration to community, a different community, that is true, but a community in which we can find a place with them.

The story of the healing of the ten lepers does not end with their encounter with the priest. One leper’s eyes are opened. One leper sees that he is healed and goes back to Jesus. This further healing, spiritual healing, really, is shown in several ways. Firstly, the leper praises God with a loud voice. The leper sees deeply the source of his healing. God has healed him. And he praises God. Praise is a curious word in a way. What does it look like? When we worship in the presence of the glorious music of organ and choir, praise is often expressed in music, can be imagined as music. But are there other ways of expressing praise? I think what matters is that the leper notices, realises, that God has acted, God is present and active in his life. The leper has the humility to know that this healing is a gift beyond his control.

Secondly, the leper falls at Jesus’ feet thanking him. The leper knows that God has healed him through Jesus. I love quoting one mystic, Meister Eckhart, who said that if you have said “thank you” you have said all the prayers. We often worry about how to pray, what to pray; maybe “thank you” is enough. The leper knows the source of his healing and offers up his gratitude to Jesus. He enters not only the community in which he lives and works but enters into “a life-giving relationship with God [who he knows] in Jesus”[2]. Entering community again… healing is about entering community again … this time the community that is God.

The poet R. S. Thomas wrote about gratitude in this way:

I have seen the sun break through
To illuminate a small field for a while,
And gone my way and forgotten it
But that was the pearl of great price,
The one field that had the treasure in it.
I realize now that I must give all that I have to possess it.
Life is not hurrying on to a receding future,
Nor hankering after an imagined past.
It is turning aside like Moses
To the miracle of a lit bush,
To a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once,
But is the eternity that awaits you.

When we are grateful, we look at an experience, a bird, a friend, a meal, again, we know it twice, and therein we find God, we find, as R. S. Thomas puts it, eternity. Our eyes are healed.

We can hear, though, Jesus’ grief that only one of the ten lepers returns to him.

 Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner? (Luke 17:17-18) Jesus questions.

This foreigner … as in the story of the Good Samaritan that we heard and reflected upon a few weeks ago… the one character who knows the way of God, knows how to respond as God would respond is an outsider, a Samaritan. Those hearing the story would have, again, been utterly shocked. Maybe, though, in the shock, they saw a truth.

Jesus says to the man, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Jesus honours the Samaritan’s gratitude is an expression of faith. It is not so much that he asked Jesus for healing of his leprosy; it is that he can see that God has healed him; he has expressed his gratitude at that healing. The outsider belongs.

When we think about our readings this morning, from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah and from the Gospel according to Saint Luke, it seems that when suffering strikes, to paraphrase the passage that we know well from the Book of Ecclesiastes, that there is a time for enduring and a time for being set free.  … a time for enduring and a time for being set free. And we might wonder about having the discernment to know which time we are in.

What we glimpse in each reading is that God is with us. God is a witness to us and our struggle. And God’s loving presence will guide us as we discern when it is that we must settle for a time and when it is that we might cry out for the healing of God to set us free.

[1] Church times 15 March 2019

[2] John Shea The Relentless Widow p.286.