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Leprosy

  • Posted on Oct 17, 2019

18 Pentecost                                                                        October 13, 2019

RCL, Year C                                                                          Emmanuel Parish

 

Then one of the lepers, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.  He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.  And he was a Samaritan.  Luke 17:16-17

 

In the name of God, to whom we give thanks with our whole heart.  AMEN.

 

Many years ago and long before I went to seminary, I received a call from a friend.

When I picked up the phone, she didn’t even say hello….but instead burst out with the news:  “Martha, I have breast cancer.”

I fumbled for a response until she said, “Help me know what to do…I can’t tell my mother.  It would worry her too much.  How can I have the surgery without her knowing?”

 

We had a long conversation going over her the possible ways to approach telling my friend’s elderly mother the news.  My friend was an only child—beloved and precious to her mother.  I tried to convince my friend to tell her mother.

 

But her mother had a lifelong trip to Hawaii planned and my friend knew her mother would cancel the trip which was to take place during the time of the surgery.  I still argued that her mother would want to know.

 

Nevertheless, my friend had the surgery without telling her mother who was in Hawaii.  In fact, they talked on the phone the night of the surgery—as they did every night—as if nothing had happened.  My friend promised that she would tell her mother about her surgery when she returned from Hawaii.

 

A few months later, I asked my friend if she had ever talked with her mother.  She told me that she had taken her mother out for ice cream and said to her that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, had had a lumpectomy, and that was that.

 

When her mother began to ask her a question, she told her mother:  “It’s over and done with.  I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

 

My friend told me that she had put the discharge instructions with all the informational pamphlets about follow-up in her desk drawer and shut it tight. 

 

I totally understand my friend’s predicament.

And with certain diagnoses, conditions and emotional and relational issues in life, we can hide them fairly well.  We can put them in a desk drawer and lock the drawer shut and try to throw away the key.

 

For people with leprosy, it was not that easy.

Leprosy, now called Hansen’s Disease, is an infection caused by bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae.  This bacteria grows very slowly and may take up to 20 years to develop signs of infection.  The disease affects the nerves, the eyes, the skin, the lining of the nose.  If left untreated, the disease will paralyze the hands and feet due to nerve damage.  In fact, the body absorbs our fingers and toes as part of an advanced case of the disease.

In the time of Jesus, leprosy was feared as a highly contagious devastating disease.  Leper colonies were created to keep those with the disease separate from the healthy.  One look at a leper and you would know.  Entire chapters of the Book of Leviticus, the Jewish Purity Codes, deal with separation from those render ‘unclear” from disease.

 

We now know that Hansen’s Disease spreads between human only with prolonged, close contact.  It is a water born bacteria.  But the risk is very low.  You cannot get leprosy from shaking hands or hugging.  You cannot get leprosy from sitting next to an infected person on a bus or plane or from sitting together at a meal.  It is not passed on from a mother to child or through sexual contact.

 

Moreover, the risk is very low because 95% of all people have natural immunity to the disease.

 

Only 150 people in the US have leprosy which is now treated with antibiotics.

Only 250,000 around the world have it.     

                       (Statistics and Information on Leprosy from the CDC website)

 

In the not too distant past, cancer was spoken of in the quiet, hushed tones that were probably reserved for diseases like leprosy in Jesus’ time.

 

We so often fear what we don’t understand.

 

In medieval times, at the edge of a map, there would be a drawing of a sea monsters with the words “Here be dragons.”

Often our first response to anyone calling us to the truth of our challenging reality is increased anxiety.  We recoil in terror and say, “I don’t know if I want to go there.”  We might say “They are wrong.  That’s not true.” 

 

How do we get to a place of inquiry, curiosity and compassion?  A place of openness to the reality in front of us? Particularly when that reality is an unknown future of potential suffering.

 

How do we sail to the very edge of our lives where our dragons lie?

 

How do we move towards the fear—and see what it has to teach us?

 

Writer Anne Lamott’s two favorite prayers are (1). Help me! Help me! Help me!”

And (2). Thank you! Thank you!  Thank you!”

 

We so often turn to the first—Help Me! Help me! Help Me!— in times of fear.

We so often forget the second prayer—-Thank you! Thank You. Thank You!

 

Particularly saying thank you to those teachers in our lives who see our reality for what it is and call us to live.

 

The parable of the ten lepers shows that most people—when the crisis has passes—want to shut those memories in the drawer and lock it tight.

But every part of life is an opportunity for learning if we can be open,

In fact, there is something life-giving about recognizing that opportunity with gratitude.

 

Last week’s service was an uplifting service—a feel good service—not just because of the scrumptious lunch, but because it was all about saying thank you! 

 

Sometimes we need to say thank you to those messengers in our lives—our angels from God—for showing us how to live.  Just as the leper turned around to find Jesus—to revisit the place of suffering and healing and say thank you for showing him the way to new life through the valley of the shadow of death.

 

As a survivor of a virulent form of cancer in his 30s, writer Mark Nepo writes about the journey from suffering to wholeness.

He often uses the image from a 19th century woodblock by Japanese Master Hokusai called the Suspension Bridge Between Hida and Etchu. 

The woodblock shows two travelers, carrying their belongings, carefully balancing their way across a thin, ropelike bridge.

The bridge crosses a small ravine, so high that it sways among the clouds. 

It’s unclear where these travelers are going or coming from.

The entire focus of the woodblock is where each traveler steps.

 

I think that the tenth leper knew that in order to take his next step into wholeness, he had to not only say help me, but thank you.

And say it to SOMEBODY.

Another human being.

 

Nepo writes: “We have to go from here to there, but life is always in the tenderness of each step.”

The leper had to turn around and GO BACK and say thank you in order to move forward.

 

Nepo says:  “It seems that difficulty is woven into the design of life, so that we need the presence of others to help us through and bring each other alive.  The bridge of our well-being is often made visible when the stranger, the friend—jars us to inhabit life.  I have been jarred alive by the silence of a friend as we hiked up a mountain at sunrise with her dogs.  And I was yoked into the unnamed center of my souls when holding my father’s hand, as he slept in a wheelchair months before his death.”

 

If we shut our lives as they are in a drawer and not face the reality in the presence of another saying help me and thank you all the while, Jesus knows that we will not live, truly live.

 

At the beginning of his road to healing, Nepo had a dream—and the figure in this dream became his angelic messenger through his long road to healing.

 

The messenger was an ancient Chinese poet named Tu Fu.  In his dream, Nepo asked Tufu:  “How is God everywhere and nowhere?”  He said:  “Because humans refuse to live their lives.”  Nepo was confused.  Tu Fu continued:  “You hover rather than enter.”  Nepo was still confused.  Tu Fu then came close to Nepo and whispered in his ear:  “God is only visible within your moment entered like a burning lake.”  Nepo grew frightened.  Tu Fu laughed. He said:  “Even now you peer at me as if what you see and hear are not part of you.”  Nepo grew angry.  Tu Fu ignored him.  He said:  “You peer at the edge of life, so frantic to know, so unwilling to believe.”  Indeed, Nepo realize he was frantic.  He wanted to slam his diagnosis in a drawer and lock it away with a key.  Tu Fu was now in his face and said:  “And now that you have cancer, you ask to be spared.”  He placed his hands on Nepo’s shoulders and looked him in the eye:  “For God’s sake!  Enter your own life!  Enter!
                                      (from Inside the Miracle by Mark Nepo, p. xi, p. 215 ff)

 

Where have you been at the valley of the shadow of death and been jarred into your reality by another—-that other who walked with you step by step over the bridge to new life?

 

The healing is not complete until we add to the prayer of help me, the prayer of thank you—

 

Who do you need to say thank you today?

 

For jarring you back into life?   AMEN.

  

(c)2019 The Rev. Martha N. Macgill