sermon preached at St George’s by the River, Rumson NJ
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Ten lepers. Ten lepers who come to Jesus. Ten lepers who came to Jesus — not too close, because lepers aren’t allowed to come too close, being too infectious — not too close, because they belong to the outcasts of society and no one would want them too close. Ten lepers who come to Jesus — not too close, but close enough to be heard. And when they get that close, not close enough to offend, but close enough to be heard, they call out to Jesus. Jesus, master, have mercy on us. And Jesus, instead of touching them, instead of going to them himself, sends them to the priests, that is, to the officials who are responsible for making pronouncements about the health or otherwise of the people, to the local public health officers, if you will. And as they went, we are told, they were made clean. When they got there, we can assume, they were pronounced free of their sickness. They were healed.
Or were they? For one of them — only one of these ten — when he saw that he was healed returned, came back to Jesus. And not only did he come back, but he came near and prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. To this former leper — only to this one of the ten — did Jesus say, “Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.”
Ten were cleansed of their leprosy, ten were made clean. But, it seems, only one was healed.
This story offers us, I think, two key messages. The first relates to that initial point of healing. These lepers come to Jesus to ask for healing: they recognise their need. But what Jesus tells them to do is to get on with their normal religious life. Go to the religious officials. There is something important for me here about the way in which our religious disciplines can be healing if we allow them to be. We do need to take time out to know our need, but we can also trust ourselves to our own religious structures and systems. They can and do mediate grace. That is an important message in a society which encourages us always to be looking for something new.
But this story also offers us a poignant reminder that there is more to healing than outward appearance. Lepers in the ancient world (and in some places even today) were outcasts, not a part of society, existing on the fringes of communities. Lepers belonged to the group of people that no-one wanted. Most people in that situation, most of those who had lived with their illness for long enough, must have found ways of living with it, must have adapted their lives, made it their normality. And perhaps for the other nine lepers, it was the case that they had learned to live with their illness. Perhaps these nine, now cleansed of their leprosy, still felt themselves to be outcasts, misfits, excluded; perhaps it was still impossible for them to imagine approaching anyone without the stigma which their illness had given them.
They were cleansed, but they were not yet healed. They were cleansed of their affliction but still unable to break through the terrible burden of separation that their illness had laid upon them. Cleansed of their illness, but unable to break out of the straitjacket of behaviour imposed by who they had been, unable to stop being the people whom society had taught them to be. Clean, but unable to change, unable to acknowledge who they might now have the potential to become. Offered the gift of healing, they were unable to take it: unable to turn back to the person who had given them this chance, and to speak the simple words of acknowledgement and thanks which might mark the beginning of the deeper healing. They were cleansed but they were not healed.
But one was healed: one — and he a foreigner — was able to break through what was for him a double burden of distance and exclusion. For this one the realisation of his cleansing was also his healing. This one was somehow able to break through the barriers – to reach across the gulf between Jews and Samaritans, to close the distance imposed between society and lepers, to come close, to approach a normal healthy human being. It must have taken courage to approach this person who had made him clean – but who might still reject him. It was a huge risk. But this one leper did it: and that he did so is an acknowledgement that a deep change has taken place, a recognition of true healing.
Ten were cleansed but only one was healed.
What the tenth leper did was far from easy. It requires extraordinary courage to come to a place where you think you might be rejected, to fling yourself at the feet of one who might still draw his feet away in disgust at what you are (a foreigner) – or at what you once were (a leper). But the tenth leper had that courage, and it was rewarded: Your faith has made you well, said Jesus. This leper was not just cleansed but also healed.
There is something very important for us here in this distinction between cleansing and healing. For it would seem that true healing requires reconciliation, and reconciliation requires conversion: turning around, going back, not in the sense of retreating but of revisiting, of repentance. The healing of relationships requires us to take our courage in both hands and address what is difficult, not just to excise what is hard, what hurts, but to face it, and go through it, and to discover the reconciliation that may lie on the other side.
We need such healing in our society, broken and alienated as it is. In these times of division, or political discourses which separate and drive apart, we need the courage to come closer to one another, to open ourselves to those very people whom we have learned to reject, or who have learned to reject us. We need to learn new ways of being together, of recognising the human in each other. Not long after the September 11th attacks in 2001, in an article that has stuck in my mind, Raghida Dergham, an Arab American journalist, wrote in Newsweek that Arabs and Americans are “so much alike, in the end, living each in our own worlds, disconnected, talking past each other.” It is not different today, nearly twenty years later; it is not different where I live in Britain and in Germany. It is not different in the Church. So often we live in separate worlds, separated by a distance across which we shout insults, or threats, or, when divisions and suspicion become deeper, throw bombs. It is this distance that we need to heal. And that healing will not come about by ignoring or excluding those whose existence we find difficult. We cannot be healed by purging ourselves of those with whom we disagree. The horror of the term “ethnic cleansing” which arose in the context of the tensions between different cultural and religious groups in the former Yugoslavia offers us a stark reminder that such a divisive, destructive cleansing has nothing at all to do with healing.
Healing comes about when we are ready to reach across the boundaries which cage us in, or shut us out, when we are prepared to take the risk of being rejected, when we are ready to approach those who we are afraid will reject us. That is, healing comes about when we are prepared to enter into relationships that may require us to change. All of this is what we mean when we talk theologically about repentance. For healing means repentance, it means allowing our faith to shape our lives, to shape our being together; it means to allowing our faith in Christ to shape us and make us — and the relationships in which we live — well.
None of this is easy — I am all too aware of how very much easier it is to speak of what is needed to create healing relationships than to actually to create them — but it is necessary. Cleansing may be purging; healing is to do with reconciliation. Healing is about involving ourselves in the risky process of reconciliation, in the knowledge that we may be rejected. Healing is about having the faith and the hope, that when we do muster up our courage to do reach out to those who have rejected us in the past, we might this time be met with acceptance, forgiveness; that we will indeed be able to hear together the voice of Christ: “Get up and go on your way. Your faith — the faith we share – has made you well.”
 Newsweek, 15.10.2001, p. 56.