This sermon was given by Rev Sue on Wednesday 14 November. You can read it again here:
Modern leprosy, or, Hansen’s disease is a terrible skin disease that leads to numbness in the affected area and can cause paralysis or blindness. It was prevalent in the Middle Ages, and thankfully is now much rarer. It is infectious, but takes months of contact with a sufferer to catch. But Biblical leprosy is another matter entirely. It covers a range of conditions like eczema and infections resulting from a burn. The Old Testament book of Leviticus has strict rules about lepers, but they are not primarily about preventing infection, but about ritual uncleanness, which meant they couldn’t take part in the worship of God. If someone was found to have leprosy he or she had to wear torn clothes, have uncombed hair and shout “unclean, unclean” to warn others to stay away. They had to live outside the camp away from other people until they no longer had the symptoms. Similarly, clothes and even houses that showed signs of mould had to be destroyed. So a house that was declared leprous had to be pulled down and the stones taken outside the camp. The priests would inspect the person, clothing or house and decide whether or not the leprosy rules applied. The psychological affect must have been devastating. To have to declare oneself unclean, to warn other people to keep away, for years on end would sap anyone’s spirit. To be labelled as untouchable and dirty and to be excluded from their families and the community must have left deep scars. I am reminded of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. People refused to touch anyone with the disease or even touch anything they had touched. In 1987 Princess Diana shook hands with an AIDS patient without wearing gloves. There was no risk that she could catch the disease, and it was a turning point in people’s understanding. Until then people with AIDS had been vilified and feared, and were in many ways modern day lepers.
In today’s reading 10 lepers came to Jesus and asked for healing. He told them to go to the priest, who would declare them free from the disease. On their way they looked for their symptoms and realised that they had vanished. Nine of them carried on towards the priest, as Jesus had told them to. One turned around and came back to him, praising God and thanking Jesus for the healing. The one who returned was a Samaritan, who would have been bearing a double burden as he would have experienced prejudice from the Jews all his life. Jesus said to him “your faith has made you well”. Now, the Greek word for “well” can also mean “saved” or “whole”. All 10 men had been cured of their leprosy, but the faith of the Samaritan had gone beyond that, and he was not only physically well, but he was restored to wholeness, as the words of Jesus overcame the shame and lack of self esteem, and his soul, too was healed.
Being rejected, discriminated against or excluded is an experience which is not confined to people with illnesses. We have made huge strides forward in making sure that people with disabilities are catered for, and there is far more understanding of other ethnic groups and different sexualities. But one great divide remains. Poverty effectively excludes many people from normal social activities. There are children kept away from school because they don’t have shoes to wear. People of working age who can’t socialise or shop except in walking distance because they can’t afford the bus fares. Elderly people who have to save for the train fare to visit their families. Rough sleepers have it even worse. Even if they are given a job when they have no permanent address, they need to be able to shower and wash clothes in order to present themselves ready for work.
These people are often vilified in the media and looked down on by others. Our churches need to be welcoming places where we listen to the stories of the poor and speak out for those who have no voices. In doing so we will follow in the footsteps of the One who healed the leper in body and soul.