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Leprosy of the Soul, October 13, 2013, Immanuel Lutheran Church in Alameda, CA

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Immanuel Lutheran Church in Alameda, CA

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, October 13, 2013,   2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c Psalm 111 2 Tim 2:8-15 Luke 17:11-19

Leprosy of the Soul

Why were Jesus and his disciples walking between Samaria and Galilee? The online commentary wanted to know and others have asked that question. When two groups of people are hostile to one another, the area between them is dangerous and few people want to take the risk of getting caught in there. Before 1492, when Native American tribes had dense populations in North America, and where Indian tribes were hostile and fought each other, it was too dangerous for the Indians of either side to hunt there, so that is where the big game and other wild animals could find safety and refuge. Perhaps that is why these ten lepers found refuge there between Samaria and Galilee, and most likely why the Master, as Jesus is called here, and his twelve disciples were also there.

Ordinarily Lepers were out-castes, who lived outside the city walls and had to yell, “Unclean, unclean” so that people would not come close to them. People ostracized them, much the way we recently did with those suffering from HIV and Aids. That was cruel and insensitive today, as much as the people were cruel and insensitive to the lepers of that day. It’s one thing to have physical leprosy; it’s quite another to have leprosy of the soul. Lepers died alone and rejected. Now we call it the Hansen’s Disease and we know that a leprosy bacillus spreading little tubercles is the culprit. But they did not know that at the time.

What that disease does is kill off the nerve endings so that victims cannot feel anything or even feel pain. A Doctor Brand was in India trying to study the disease and on one occasion he was trying to turn the key to a rusty old lock and couldn’t do it. (There in India one hears stories of the incredible strength of lepers.) Dr. Brand asked for help. The little leper boy accompanying him said, “Let me help.” To the doctor’s surprise, he turned the key and opened the lock. When Dr. Brand examined the boy’s hand to see how he could have all that strength, to his dismay he discovered that the boy had mangled three of his fingers, but had not felt it. His nerve ending did not feel the pain and stop him from hurting himself and losing his fingers.

This story comes from Norman Cousin’s book, The Anatomy of an Illness.[1] Let me jump to another one of his points:

What is not generally understood is that many of the vaunted pain-killing drugs conceal the pain without correcting the underlying condition. They deaden the mechanism in the body that alerts the brain to the fact that something is wrong. The body can pay a high price for the suppression of pain without regard to its basic cause.[2]

(As an aside: I just went to a doctor about my arthritis and what did he do but prescribe Aleve and Ibuprofen, the pain-killers.)

It is easy to see how much not feeling the pain cost the little leper boy, who was completely unaware what was happening to his fingers when he turned the key in that rusty lock. But something that we need to grapple with is the social meaning of a disease. Often we do not want to correct what is wrong and needs changing, we merely take pain pills or perhaps let others feel the pain, while protecting ourselves from it. I have often felt that middle class White people have used the poor and the Black people for a cushion between us and the pain cause by the inhuman conditions of our society. They are often the last hired and the first fired. And then the very poor are also used as our scapegoats. We can’t get at the big shots, who have gotten us into the Great Recession, so we blame it on the immigrants, the most vulnerable people in our society.

Thus we may not have physical leprosy, but we may well have spiritual leprosy. We may be insensitive and hurt the people who are experiencing the most pain, because we don’t know how to correct what is wrong with our economy and society, and we cannot get at the powerful, because they can use the police to inflict a great deal of pain on us, should we want to change and correct the injustices in our society, which is doing quite well for the rich at the expense of the poor.

When in the minister’s Bible study, we discussed this social leprosy, and one of the pastors of the struggling mission congregations said that we have to preach about the leprosy of the church. Many congregations do not feel the pain other congregations are experiencing. Rather than have empathy with them, we reject them or because they are Asian, Latino, African American, and Native American, we refer to them as “them” and not as “us.” We are content to stay in our comfort zones and leave them in pain that is often way too difficult to bear.

You can see where Jesus and his disciples were – in that no-man’s land. They were among those who were suffering the rejection of that society and the ten lepers call to them, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When we are suffering in those kinds of straits, then we have to beg for help. And Jesus helps them. Somehow Jesus can turn on a divine power of healing. Like Norman Cousins whole book is about “reflections on healing and regeneration” and an honest doctor won’t immediately prescribe pain-killers, but will confess that healing is in God’s hands. They may be able to remove obstacles in the way, but the healing comes from God and God’s ability to make us whole again when we are sick. It is not either the doctor or spiritual healing, but the doctor is God’s instrument for healing, knowing that the process of healing is in God’s hands. So it takes some humility and then it takes gratitude and loud and vehement thanksgiving for our healing. When the one leper saw that he was healed, he turned back, praising God in a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus feet and thanked him. I don’t know about the others, but he was also cured of the leprosy of the soul.

Look at Naaman. He was a warrior and hero. But they listened to a little slave girl. Not the wise and powerful King that Naaman served, but the little slave girl showed the powerful the way. How often would we listen like that? We would usually just say, “Be quiet. What do you know?” Note that they had the sense to listen to a slave girl.

Now look at the powerlessness of the powerful. Naaman’s king writes to the king of Israel. His reaction would be humorous if it wasn’t so pathetic. He rants and raves. “Look how this Aramean king is trying to pick a fight with me? Am I a God to be able to cure leprosy, to give death and life?” But mind you those kings wanted to be considered gods in those days and even in Reformation times kings were considered “gods.” Here suddenly his majesty is tearing up his clothes, which makes the king be without any clothes: “Look the king is not wearing any clothes!” if you remember the voice of the child in the fable. The king is as human as everybody else and with humility he could have been helpful.

The prophet Elisha knows where healing comes from. “Why have you torn up your clothes? Let Naaman come to me that they may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” So with all his horsemen and chariots Naaman comes to the humble door of the prophet, who sends his messenger out to him. Elisha is consciously humiliating this great man and Naaman knows it and flies into a rage. But again his servants talk sense into him. The powerless are the powerful once again. He cools off and listens to them and finally gets healed. Then like the Samaritan, he comes back to the door of the Man of God and says, “Now I know there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”

God gives grace to the humble, but he can tell if you’re arrogant from afar off. So look how Jesus humbles the so-called “chosen people.” The only one of the ten healed lepers who comes back praising God in a loud voice and who falls down in gratitude at Jesus feet is a Samaritan. Where are the other nine? Where are the chosen people? Only this foreigner knows that one has to respond to God’s saving and healing grace with a heart-full of gratitude! Today Jesus would say, “Where are the nine Americans? Won’t any be found to come back and give praise to God but this immigrant?” “Where are the nine Lutherans? Will only a Mormon be found to come back praising God in a loud voice and have a heart over-flowing with gratitude?”

We have to identify with the lowly, those we discriminate against, if we want God to see us and turn on his amazing grace. We have to identify with the homeless, because we didn’t, and 10 million people have lost their homes by foreclosures to the banks. When we do not feel the pain of others in society, then we do not realize how much we ourselves will be getting hurt. Recently a Mexican mother, who was here illegally, drove her children to school. She was pulled over and because she didn’t have a license, meanwhile she was ineligible to get one, she was deported back to Mexico. They deported her separating her from her six children and husband. That is leprosy of the soul. Imagine not being able to feel the pain and suffering of all those children and that mother? That is cruel and unusual punishment to the extreme. Now hundreds of immigrants are dying in the desert trying to get around the fence we put up in the Southwest. Can you see a mother trying to get back to her children and dying there at the doorstep of a heartless and powerful and uncaring people? Remember, before God the powerful are powerless and God acts through the powerless.

Recently we heard of several prisoners, probably because they were Black Panthers, who were kept in solitary confinement for over 40 years. Solitary confinement is a form of torture. We don’t seem to feel the pain of others. Better yet, I accuse myself and I have to ask God for forgiveness. I need to have empathy and the ability to care in this respect too. But in the words of the post-World War II Stuttgart German Declaration of Guilt, let us say, “We accuse ourselves that we don’t witness more courageously, pray more faithfully, believe more joyously, and love more ardently.”[3] I invite you all to say this confession of guilt with me. “” Yes, for our lack of empathy and compassion, we humbly ask God’s forgiveness, and pray for a heart that feels the pain and suffering of others, so that you and I too can get a heart like that of Jesus, throbbing with love and compassion for those who are suffering.

In a somewhat different vein, thinking about the sensitivity of appreciating the creation, Luther would say that we are surrounded by God’s miracles but because they are so common and so many, we take them all for granted, wanting to be entitled to them without thanking and praising God for them. Luther wrote, “How little we understand the way a seed becomes a plant, or how a human body grows, or … how the human tongue produces so many different sounds that can be heard and understood by so many people.”[4] How does my voice from my mouth, for example, be able to get into all your ears and how do my words become understood? These are all miracles, but we take them for granted. Just now some physicists from the University of California in Berkeley, Stanford, and Yale received the Nobel Prize. Just imagine, the tiny cell, which is way too small to see without powerful microscopes, is like a whole city. These scientists discovered that a transit system for molecules even exists inside the cell that moves around and distributes hormones, antibodies, and enzymes inside and from one cell to another. The tiny cell like a whole city has an inner transit system that delivers its cargo to the right place at just the right time or otherwise a whole slew of diseases are the result. That is taking place in all the cells of our bodies all the time until we die and meanwhile we just take all that for granted. If we consider that God is taking care of all these life processes all the time for us,[5] like that Samaritan we would be shouting out our praise to God with a loud voice and fall at Jesus’ feet and give our thanksgiving. Nothing we could do in our grateful response could possibly achieve the thankfulness we felt for what God has done for us in this life, let alone in the promise of the resurrection given us in Jesus Christ.

To get back to Norman Cousins: He was traveling and walking in front of a jet that just turned on its engine. The force of the air sucked into the jet engine went right through him and he became deathly sick. Doctors did all kinds of experiments on him with nothing helping. He asked one doctor if they knew how to help him. He was honest enough to say that they did not have the slightest idea what he had or how to help him. He checked himself out of the hospital and with a friend checked into a hotel room. There they rented one comedy after another and laughed and laughed. Laughing tends to exercise the internal organs and he got better. Perhaps that blast of air that went through him knocked that transit system inside all his cells off kilter and made him that sick. God really cured him, while his faith shown through all that laughter would have made Jesus say, “Go your way. Your faith has made you well.”

So let’s let this creation fill us with awe, with praise and thanksgiving. And let’s get down there with the lowly and share their suffering and pain where Jesus sees, encounters, and heals us and turns on his amazing grace for us and we participate in the healing processes of faith that make ourselves and our society whole once more. Amen.


[1] Norman Cousins, Anatomy of an Illness, (New York: Bantam Books, 1979), pages 98-99.

[2] Ibid., p. 92.

[3] Clyde L. Manschreck, A History of Christianity: Readings in the History of the Church from the Reformation to the Present, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964), p. 533. I put the words into the present tense.

[4] Miikka Anttila, Luther’s Theology of Music, (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), p. 91.

[5] That just refers to the microcosm. Meanwhile in the macrocosm we are a planet in a solar system in a galaxy swirling around a Black hole! We are surrounded by miracles!

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Written by peterkrey

October 13, 2013 at 4:05 pm

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