“Unclean! Unclean!” That was a leper’s cry of warning as it was prescribed in the book of Leviticus. The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp (Leviticus 13:45-46).
Outcasts. Forced to live on the outskirts of town. Cut off from their family, their friends, and most significantly, they were cut off from the worshiping community. Forced to live in exile. There was too much risk that they might infect others. They might make others ceremonially unclean. So, no one wanted to be near them. And if anyone did get too close, this was the warning cry they would hear: “Unclean! Unclean!”
This should have been the cry that Jesus heard as He made His way to Jerusalem. But it wasn’t. As Jesus passed along, ten lepers let it be known that this was no ordinary passerby.
On the way to Jerusalem he [Jesus] was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Luke 17:11-13).
It is the cry of a beggar. That is what these lepers had been reduced to in their unclean, disease-ridden bodies. Perhaps they had been successful business people before, living the so-called, good life. But now, all of that had been stripped away by the affliction of leprosy.
Leprosy is a disease that starts as spots on the skin leading to numbness in the hands and feet. Muscles start to become paralyzed causing the fingers to curl. The blinking reflex of the eye deteriorates leading to potential blindness. What is most horrific though is that the bacteria attacks nerve endings and destroys the body’s ability to feel pain.
Without feeling pain, people injure themselves and the injuries can become infected, resulting in tissue loss. Fingers and toes become shortened and deformed as the cartilage is absorbed into the body. Repeated injury and infection of numb areas in the fingers or toes can cause the bones to shorten. The tissues around them shrink, making them short. (www.leprosy.org). All because the victim of this disease cannot feel pain.
The inability to feel pain reminds me of something that Tony Dungy, former NFL player, coach, and analyst once wrote in one of his books: His son Jordan has a very rare neurological condition (2-3 cases in the U.S.) called congenital insensitivity to pain. Jordan is missing the conductors that allow the nerve signals to go from his body to his brain. This is absolutely necessary, especially for kids to find out the difference between what's good and what's harmful. For example, Jordan loves cookies. But because he doesn’t know the difference, when his mom is not looking, he will go right into the oven, reach in, take the rack out, take the pan out, burn his hands, eat the cookie that's too hot, burn his tongue and never feel it. And he doesn't know that that's bad for him. When they go to the park, he likes the slide. But to him, it's just as much fun jumping off from the top as it is sliding down it, leading to more injury and pain.
What the Dungys’ have learned from doctors is that pain actually helps the body heal. When someone gets an injury, their brain senses there is pain there, and it sends the right healing agents naturally to that spot because it senses something is wrong. Without that sensation of feeling something is wrong, their son Jordan’s body doesn't send those healing agents and, consequently, he's got cuts from months ago that haven't healed yet.
What the Dungys’ experienced with their son’s inability to feel pain in many ways carries a similarity to the lepers whose nerve endings were failing, robbing them of the ability to feel pain.
So, if they couldn’t feel pain, then why did the lepers cry out? Why cry out if there is no physical pain to tell you to do so? It’s because so many pains in life go beyond skin-deep. Though their skin was infected and their body was deformed, the pain that caused them to cry out for mercy ran much deeper than a fleshly disease. It was a pain that strikes us all at one time or another. The pain of exclusion.
Families exclude, co-workers exclude, kids on the play-ground exclude. We exclude others. And every single form of exclusion hurts. It is painful. From the inside, out. It starts as a pit in the stomach, wells up into a tightness in the chest, and with every ounce of effort trying to push it back down, eventually it is just too much, and all there is left to do is cry out. Sometimes it is accompanied by tears. Other times, it is in fits of rage and anger. But no matter the form, it is indeed a cry. A cry that begs to belong once again.
Ever been there? The popular group avoids you. Co-workers whisper in their corners. So called friends fail to invite you. Family keeps you out of the loop, avoids spending time with you, or maybe doesn’t include you at all. No matter the form, it hurts. Exclusion cuts deep to the heart. Which also begs the question: Who do we exclude in life?
It’s no wonder the lepers who stood at a distance lifted up their voices. They wanted more than just a healing. They wanted to be included again…in their families, in their neighborhoods, in their congregation. From that and so much more, they had been cut off. But then along comes a passerby who could help.
Though He was on His way to Jerusalem, He was not too busy to stop to help these people out in their time of need. How often are we simply too busy to help out those in need? How often do we think that the problems of others are just ‘not my problem.’ Not so with Jesus. Not only does He answer their cry by showing them mercy, but Jesus also is mercy, in the flesh.
He is the walking, talking, breathing, Son of God who came to this earth for the sole reason of making sure that we didn’t get what we deserved. Every last one of us deserves to die. We deserve to be excluded as outcasts, thrown out of heaven into the fires of hell for all eternity. That is what the wage demanded for our sins.
But Jesus came to pay that wage with His innocent suffering and death, with His own precious blood shed on the outskirts of the city of Jerusalem. That’s why Jesus was headed to Jerusalem. To be cast out of the city to Golgotha to die your death and mine. Yet, along the way, He didn’t steer clear of these lepers, no He had mercy upon them.
He sent them to follow the law established in Leviticus to go and show themselves to the priest, to offer sacrifice for their healing. And that is just what happened along the way…they were healed. But the remarkable thing is that only one of them returned to give thanks to the One who is the once for all sacrifice.
In fact, its’ more than remarkable. It’s ironic. Because the one who ‘didn’t’ belong is the only one who turned back, praising God, and fell on his face at Jesus feet. He was a Samaritan. A foreigner. An outcast. Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate. They were enemies. Yet, here was this Samaritan who had at one point stood at a distance was now at the very feet of the Son of God praising Him with a loud voice. His cry of mercy had been traded in for cries of praise.
That’s why we are here today, isn’t it? We are here to offer our shouts of praise and ‘thanksgiving’ to God for healing us, for relieving our pain, for including us back into His family.
We come here contaminated from the inside out, filled with the sins that we have committed and those committed against us. And there is nothing we can do about it. And we have no doubt tried. We have tried to cover up our sins. We have tried to push them down inside hoping they will not well up again. But it’s no use. We are helpless. No matter how hard we try, we are stand condemned, excluded, outcasts forced to cry out from a distance to the almighty God.
It is the cry of a beggar. The cry of a sinner. The cry of one who pleads that they don’t get what they do deserve. It is the cry for mercy. We know it well. It is the Kyrie. “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.”
My fellow leper-laden sinners, I have good news for you. Our Savior has heard our cry. We are excluded no longer. We may have to endure exclusion in this world, but this is a place that God Himself welcomes us with open arms. This is where our leprous sins are healed. This is where our uncleanness is made clean.
It is here in His house that He heals us from the inside out. In the Eucharist, the meal which means to ‘give thanks’, He responds to our cries for mercy and restores us back into His family. By His body and blood given and shed for us, we are cleansed…washed in the blood of Jesus.
If ever there was a man who knew the pain of exclusion, it was Jesus. Rejected by family, friends, the church, the government…He was even rejected by God Himself as He hung on the cross and cried out to His Father, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
But as He received no reply to His cry, that will never happen to any of us. The separation has been ended. For now when we cry to Him for mercy, He hears us. He answers us. He feed us, sends us, and He keeps welcoming us back for more. May we share His mercy by welcoming others that we may have excluded that they too may be comforted by the love of Jesus.
So as we depart back to our homes to continue our Thanksgiving celebrations, let us return thanks for all of the blessings He has given to us. For here today, we have been reminded that our God feels our pain and has given us mercy, cleansing, a healing touch , a place in His family, and the faith that recognizes that He is the giver of all those gifts. What a great day that was back then for the lepers, and what a great day it is for us here today to be cleansed by our God and to return thanks! “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, and His mercy endures forever.” Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding guard and keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.