Gospel reading: Luke 17: 11-19
Theologian Karl Barth encouraged people to have a copy of the daily newspaper at their side as they read their Bibles. I suspect he would be pleased that many of us are following his advice these days -- our Bibles, or our prayers in one hand, seeking strength and solace and struggling to comprehend how and why we are a nation at war, and in the other hand our remote controls switching from station to station as we watch the latest from ground zero, hear the predictions about future terrorist acts and receive the basic information we need about Anthrax.
Oh how our lives have changed! Every morning since September 11 we awake wondering what the day will bring. We are still grieving, we are still stunned and we still struggle to believe that what has happened is truly real… even though it has so personally impacted our lives. And we wish that life would return to the way it was, even though we know that can’t happen; any more than life remains unchanged after the death of someone we love or a battle with a life threatening illness. So what are we to do? It is time for us to begin to journey towards wholeness, to seek healing for our souls, to live our lives.
The other morning, in what now seems a humorous incident, I came as close to letting fear cripple me as I hope to come. Nursing this cold, I pulled some tissues out of a brand new box the housekeeping staff had left in my room. When I pulled the tissues out, this powdery substance flew all over the metal container housing them. I stood holding the tissues for a few moments - you can imagine what thoughts were running through my mind - and then put them, unused, in the trashcan. I called a friend a few minutes later about another matter and then shared what had happened. A resident in the same hotel, she had experienced the same thing. After commiserating with each other for a few moments, we broke out laughing and decided what we really had experienced was not terrorism but just a couple of boxes of cheap tissues.
Perhaps you have experienced the like, or find yourself jumping at unexpected noises -- or have now mastered the roar of planes, versus jets, versus helicopters and know quite clearly when any of then is flying too low. This is not the way any of us want to live our lives. So, how do we begin to move on? What can we do?
I believe the story of the 10 men with leprosy gives us hope for the unknown journey that’s ahead of us. An important part of the story for us is that the 10 men with leprosy only found healing and blessings ‘as they went on their way.’ Their leprosy was not healed before they began their journey but only as they trusted and lived into Jesus’ words.
Jesus, we are told, barely engaged with them, spoke no words of healing, didn’t touch them, just gave them a directive to go and show themselves to the priest. Without a word, without any change in the condition of their dis-ease, they began their journey.
Our dis-ease is different and while it may not have the power to eat our flesh like leprosy, the dis-ease of terrorism does have the power to devour our spirits and destroy our confidence in what it means to live as a free people within a democracy and within the kingdom of God. If we decide to give fear full reign and over-curtail our activities, it can isolate us from one another, tearing apart the very fabric of our community. Like the men with leprosy we too must begin our journey to wholeness, trusting that all will be well.
Our government and medical leaders encourage us not to succumb to fear and anxiety but to courageously live our lives as normally as we can. It is good advice, practical and life-giving, and we will get better at it as a society as we journey into our new reality. And there is no doubt that we should faithfully try to do that.
In our Gospel reading, that’s what the 10 men did -- and I really don’t find it surprising that nine of them did not return to give thanks. They were, after all, doing what Jesus had told them to do; they were following his directive and as people of the Law, people of the Torah, that was what was expected of them. The purity code required they show themselves to a priest who would pronounce their flesh clean, and allow them to return to their families, their communities. Their faith in Jesus was expressed by beginning their journey as lepers, trusting that as they went on their way they would be healed.
They were following the wisdom, the law of the Jewish culture, much as we are being asked to follow the wisdom of our culture, the law of experience, that encourages us to try and live our lives without fear. It is good, solid advice as far as it goes, but it still is a faith that points mainly to ourselves.
So where is the Good News in this story? Where is the key to living our new lives in the kingdom of God? Where is the redeeming word of God that invites us to new life, despite whatever enemy threatens to attack us? That Good News is lived out in the actions of the tenth leper. He too begins his journey as instructed but when he sees he is healed he returns, praising God with a loud voice and prostrating himself before Jesus, in an act of thanksgiving.
For us, as for that man, the act of giving thanks is the response of a faithful heart. It acknowledges who is God and who is not. It honors the creative power of God who brings order out of chaos. It remembers all that God has done for us -- especially in Christ Jesus -- and treasures his incarnate presence with us, no matter what good or evil befalls us. The faithful heart believes God’s promise to walk with us and never leave us alone.
We see glimpses of his love in the goodness of others as they respond in gratitude and selfless service to others. We see God’s caring in the weary faces of our fire and police personnel; the steel and construction workers; the National Guard and all the volunteers who have gathered to serve them and provide some comfort as they do their work. Look at St. Paul’s and the ministry that has developed there! How God’s strength, and God’s Spirit, has enabled thankful human beings to bring order to chaos and hope to those in the midst of the ruins. What a privilege it is to serve at ground zero.
Archbishop Christopher Munzihirwa, who was killed during the civil war in Rwanda said, “There are things that can only be seen by eyes that have cried.” And we have cried. We mourn our loss of innocence, but a gift of this attack is a new kinship with God’s people around the world, people who also live with the horror of terrorism as part of their everyday lives.
Life has changed, but as God’s faithful people, we will move on. Will we forget to give thanks to God for our blessings? Will we slip into moments of fear and terror? Maybe! Probably! But Jesus will always be there to pick us up and in our weakness provide his strength to go on. By God’s amazing grace and the loving support of community we too can live into the words Jesus spoke to the grateful man cured of his dis-ease: ‘Get up and go on your way, your faith will make you whole.’ Amen.
There is a strong biblical and traditional heritage for people of God to lay hands on one another and pray for healing. We invite you to this ministry this morning. The clergy will position themselves throughout the nave and if you desire prayers for healing find your way to one of us. If you do not wish to do that, please pray where you are.
This sermon was delivered during a Parish Eucharist held in the Trinity congregation’s temporary place of worship at the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Seton, State Street, Manhattan, October 14, 2001.