Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
There is that word: “grace.” It’s such a religiously sounding word that can come across as pious and out of reach. So when a prayer, such as our collect for today, talks of God’s grace going in front of us and behind us, we sort of shrug, say “fine” but do we really think about what it means at all?
In today’s collect, the description of grace is a reminder of God’s glory in visible form, as a great light, which the story of the Ancient Israelites went in front of and behind the children of Israel as they escaped Egypt and went in search of the Promised Land. Yet escaping from Egypt and looking for a Promised Land seem so very far from our experiences at work, or at home, even in church.
The readings today try to give practical examples of what “grace” means. Inevitably they are stories about, or reflections on “grace” set in a very different world than ours. No cars, no supermarkets, no global warming, no politicians -it all sounds wonderful! But what have two stories about lepers and one bit of advice to young Bishop Timothy have to do with high blood pressure, a fight with the teens or our parents, and mortgage payments, or even job insecurity?
Leprosy was once the scourge of all illnesses. It was incurable. Those with it were shunned and shunted off into separate places, ostracized and feared.
Hawaii has its own intimate relationship with leprosy. In 1865, acting on the counsel of his American and European advisers, Kamehameha V, then King of Hawaii, signed into law "An Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy," which criminalized the disease. In the first year, 142 men, women, and children were captured. The law in various forms remained in effect through the annexation of Hawaii by America in 1898, the adoption of Hawaii as the fiftieth American state in 1959, and until the middle of 1969, when it was finally repealed.
Under the law, persons suspected of having the disease were chased down, arrested, subjected to a cursory exam, and exiled. Armed guards forced them into the cattle stalls of inter-island ships and sailed them fifty-eight nautical miles east of Honolulu, to the brutal northern coast of Molokai. There they were dumped on an inhospitable shelf of land of the approximate size and shape of lower Manhattan, which jutted into the Pacific from the base of the tallest sea cliffs in the world. It was, as Robert Louis Stevenson would write, "a prison fortified by nature." Three sides of the peninsula were ringed by jagged lava rock, making landings impossible, and the fourth rose as a two-thousand-foot wall so sheer that wild goats tumbled from its face. In the early days of the colony, the government provided virtually no medical care, a bare subsistence of food, and only crude shelter. The patients were judged to be civilly dead, their spouses granted summary divorces, and their wills executed as if they were already in the grave. Soon thousands were in exile, and life within this lawless penitentiary came to resemble that aboard a crowded raft in the aftermath of a shipwreck, with epic battles erupting over food, water, blankets, and women. As news of the abject misery spread, others with the disease hid in terror from the government's bounty hunters, or violently resisted exile, murdering doctors, sheriffs, and soldiers who conspired to send them away. A Belgian priest, Daimien de Veuster, in 1879 volunteered to provided pastoral ministry to the exiled. Mother Marrianne Cope followed. Damien would later contract and die from the disease. Damien was made a Saint in 2009 and Marianne became a saint in 2012.
Even after the disease was curable with modern antibiotics in the 20th century, a few still live in there in the only home they know, and now help to tell the story of their lives as a people who made their own community after having felt alone, misunderstood, helpless.
While the scene recounted in the Bible stories today may be unfamiliar, there are plenty of modern equivalents and experiences.
The conditions of the 10 lepers may well be translated into OUR feeling alone, misunderstood, helpless, and perhaps actively shunned. Feelings of being alone and helpless surely attack most of us at one time or another. Feeling misunderstood often happens in the classroom or the office at church meetings and of course even in families!
Struck with leprosy, General Naaman’s problem was that he thought his condition and status required a dramatic response, a unique form of treatment, not merely a dip in a foreign river on the orders of a prophet who hasn’t even the courtesy to come out to meet this important dignitary. The lepers whom Jesus heals have a different problem. They take a miracle for granted, and all but one shrugs and gets on with life. Only one is thankful.
In the cases of both Naaman and the 10 lepers, we see that what gets in the way of grace, what gets in the way of receiving a gift, is pride in one form or another. We think we are the only person with our problem. No one has had this problem before or like we have it. To suggest that God has a universal answer, something as simple as merely doing as one is told and accepting a simple gift in a simple manner - is that just too much of a stretch ? Merely accepting, as Timothy is told to do, that Jesus is sufficient- he says:
“If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful--
for he cannot deny himself.”
Merely accepting God’s grace is the clue to wholeness and a life lived within God’s gifts.
In a few minutes perhaps we share in the Communion of Christ’s body and blood. You will leave your seat and come to God’s table to receive promised gifts, the grace that goes before us and behind us, guiding and keeping us in the midst of everything. How on earth can a crumb of bread and a sip of wine address my extraordinary needs and problems? Or perhaps I will reach, take, and get on with life without a thought of “thanksgiving,” the word from which “Eucharist” derives.
In place of the word “well,” some translations use “made whole” or “saved.” There is ambiguity about the Greek meaning, but its use by Jesus surely implies more than simply being cured from a disease. “Your faith has made you whole,” seems closer to the way Jesus used this episode to provide a new teaching. The Samaritan was not simply cured like the others, but experienced something more important something more than just being physically cured.
So healing is not the result of being “zapped” by God, but the result of being given an opportunity to anchor oneself in the gift of grace that is given, and an opportunity to live life with a new and different perspective.
We in our own way cry out, Lord, have mercy on us. We yearn for healing. That is, we seek to be made whole. We come with all our faults and failings, our sins and offenses. Christ does not shun us. We present ourselves that -as God transforms bread and wine, we too might be transformed. In this celebration and receiving of communion, we participate in a divine moment of grace.
Sacraments are powerful stuff and if we think about it, like the Samaritan, we cannot leave here the same than when we came in. The word Eucharist means, “thanksgiving”. We call the liturgy we have at the table, the Great Thanksgiving. At its conclusion we are grateful.
I have no doubt that the other nine were grateful to Jesus for their miraculous healing. However the Samaritan shows us a faith that speaks to the deeper truths of God. To be touched by God is to be transformed. And transformed in our faith we respond to the very love, grace and forgiveness that that heals us and makes us whole.
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is priest in charge of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.