It is so good to be here, to pray and to worship together, this morning. There is so much to be thankful for in this season of endings and beginnings, not least of which is time together to worship, to pray, to hear the Word of God, and to share in the beautiful mystery of the Eucharistic feast. I am so grateful for this day.
The gospel passage this morning places us with Christ, in an unnamed village between Samaria and Galilee, confronted with a decade of lepers, keeping their distance. The leper’s distance is something that, I suspect, resonates with all of us today. In the first century—and still today, for that matter—lepers kept, or were kept, a great distance from healthy people. Leprosy is a highly contagious disease, most commonly transmitted through the particles emitted when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Once infected, the disease progresses in a number of ways, crippling the infected person. Today, treatments are available for it, but not so in the first century. For Jews of Jesus’s day there was concern, not only of being infected, but also of becoming ritually polluted through contact with a diseased person and, as a result, being unable to worship until one could be purified and known as clean.
This distance lepers kept was important. As is the distance we are all keeping for one another today, in this very building. We believe that each of us here is healthy, but we also each know what it is to feel removed from the people around us. The past six months have taught us a great deal about feeling undesirable, untouchable, about being under suspicion of being a carrier of disease. Anyone who has had a tickle in their throat and coughed in public knows the sorts of looks it draws. For a moment, everyone in earshot looks to see if the cough is something more. We live in a strange, separated, no one’s land. We do it for ourselves and for all of our neighbours; the health and well-being of everyone must be our first case, but the protocols and practices wear on us over time. We live in a space that, at any moment, may change from being safe and routine to being dangerous and suspicious. Not unlike the territory between Samaria and Galilee.
This territory Jesus and the disciples are passing through is not the safety of home in Galilee. It is also not the risky and suspicious unfriendliness of Samaria. This is the sort of confusing, hazy, not-in-not-out space that we all inhabit right now and it is in this space that Christ is approached by lepers, people not wanted by either Galilee or Samaria or anywhere else. Here, they approach Christ, keeping the leper’s distance, and hoping they might be healed.
After a startlingly brief exchange, Christ heals them. Miraculously, as they go to see the priests to be judged either clean or infected, their leprosy disappears. In the world of the first century Jew or Samaritan, a healing of leprosy is not unknown, but it is a significant event. The disciples and lepers and the priests would have known the story we read in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Numbers. Aaron and his sister Miriam are covetous of Moses’s leadership and privilege among the Israelites, of his close relationship with God, and they act out against him. The Lord comes down in a pillar of cloud and rebukes their actions and Miriam is punished. When the cloud leaves, her skin has become leprous, covered in white infection.
Moses prays fervently for her healing and God consents to do this, but only after seven days. By contrast, in today’s gospel, Christ heals not one but ten lepers and does so both completely and almost instantly. Christ’s miracle is the direct work of the healing hand of God, rather than the powerful prayer of Moses. A difference that would not have been lost on anyone who witnessed the miracle take place. This man, this Jesus, is more than a prophet. Nature, even leprosy, seems to obey him.
All ten of the lepers are healed, but only one returns to express gratitude. The most grateful is the one Samaritan of the bunch. A man who, by their cultural custom, Jesus should not even speak to, much less should heal in so stunning and miraculous a fashion. And here we begin to see the connection to the passage from Deuteronomy and something of ourselves in the story.
So often when there is abundant blessing in a place, those who benefit from it slip into the dangerous habit of thinking that they deserve this blessing, that they have it because they have merited it above other people, or perhaps that they have produced the blessing themselves. As though the bounty of food on their table is there because they, themselves, made the rain fall, the sun shine, and the crops to grow.
We are, of course, invited by God to participate in this work of Creation, in the rhythm of the seasons. But it is in cooperation with God and with the rest of Creation, not something that we do alone, of our own merit and power. Many Christian traditions remind themselves of this with the quiet prayers of the deacon as the bread and wine are received from the congregation and set on the altar:
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you: fruit of the vine and work of human hands, it will become our spiritual drink.
We acknowledge that all things come of God and, while we may have a hand in shaping them, it is through God’s consistent, persistent goodness toward us that we receive all that we have and it is appropriate, then, for us to be grateful for what we have been given.
With these gifts comes not only our enjoyment and the satisfaction of our needs, but also a responsibility for using them justly. This is the thrust of the portion of St Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth today. The verses we didn’t read at the beginning of this ninth chapter of the letter are an important bit of context. In this part of the letter, Paul is reminding the Corinthians about his great collection for the poor. He has made the point, quite bluntly, that the church in Achaia has had their donation ready for a year and the Corinthians are dragging their feet on their contribution.
Paul reminds the Corinthians—and each of us—that blessing comes with responsibility. In verse 8, he writes “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” Of course, the good work immediately on Paul’s mind is his collection for the poor, but the point stands. Those with more than they need are expected by God to provide for those whose needs are not met.
This theme of sowing and reaping and God’s justice in the sharing of the harvest comes back over and over in scripture. Most people of the first century lived in agrarian settings and so this stands to reason. If one plants wheat, one harvests wheat. If one is responsible only for one’s own, a bad year might see the family starve over the winter, but if the community care for one another, all but the worst disasters can be survived. Paul is reminding the Corinthians, and us, that if we have been blessed beyond our needs, we have also been blessed with the power to share for the sake of others. This is God’s justice and it is to be carefully considered. After all, Proverbs 22.8 reminds us “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.”
Those with much have been given much because God trusts them to put the bounty to good use. To share it justly and responsibly. To be grateful for their blessings and, in turn, to be a blessing to others. Indeed, all that we have from the clothes we wear to the food we eat to the buildings we shelter in all began as gifts to us. Even in the midst of a global pandemic and all of its strange rules, most of us can count many blessings for which we can be grateful. Not least of which is the opportunity to once again meet and share bread and wine in the Great Thanksgiving here.
Thinking back to the setting of the altar for Eucharist and the gratitude shown for God’s provision of the bread and wine, even before they are made the Lamb’s wedding banquet, I am reminded of another practice in some traditions. When the prayers are said which speak of God meeting the people in the breaking of bread, the congregation’s response is to say “Show us! Show us! Show us!” Not only show us the bread, of course, but praying that God will come again and show them—remind them—of what it means to be present with one another as intimately as in the sharing of food.
When we give thanks for all that we have been given, we give God due praise and worship along with all of the rest of Creation, we acknowledge our blessing. We name God as the provider of all things, the one who has blessed us so richly that even the only begotten Son of God could be given for our sake and we stand here, today, as evidence of God’s promises of salvation and blessing fulfilled. And, when we do, we hear the voices of our neighbours who have not been so richly blessed in this season. We hear them calling out, like the faithful gathered around the heavenly banquet, “Show us! Show us! Show us!”
We have all set this time aside to display our gratitude and I am so pleased and thankful to be here with you for this day. Together, we recall the God from whom all blessings flow and to count the moments and days of blessing in our lives.
As Christ blessed the lepers, as God has blessed us, we are called to bless the world; to show our neighbours whom we love the glory of God in word and action. Show them! Show them! Show them!
This sermon was originally preached at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Winnipeg.