“10 Lepers Redux” on Luke 17:11-19 by Joe Ellis — October 8. 2023
God has ministered to me wonderfully through this Scripture passage. It has forever changed the way that I encounter Jesus in this story. I find here a picture of the life of faith — the way that God can answer our prayers imperceptibly, sometimes beyond our awareness.
The last time I reflected on this passage with this congregation was in 2017. It was after my Mom and I had an operation where I got to keep part of my liver, and Mom got to use the other part of my liver. Leading up to the transplant was such a scary time for me. I was told very clearly how unlikely the operation was to work, and what my own risks were — but I woke up from the operation and found out that the transplant went wonderfully. One week later, Jesus would use the story of the Ten Lepers to show me that the success of the transplant was His gift to me, to my Mom — to all of us. He used this story to invite Mom and me to come alongside that one leper and offer our thanks.
New stories have happened since. Over these past years, we’ve all had times where we’ve been invited to come alongside that one leper and give thanks for God’s mercy. I’d like to share one of my stories, placing it alongside this story of the ten lepers. — My hope is that in sharing my story, it will help you see where you fit into this story of the ten lepers. The story that I want to tell is another story about my Mom — it's hard for me to hear this story about the 10 Lepers without thinking about my Mom.
So — there were ten people with leprosy in this story. Leprosy was a catch-all term that covered a wide range of skin diseases. Maybe some had it worse, maybe some not so bad. Regardless, these men were set apart. They were quarantined so that they wouldn’t infect the rest of their town.
The leprosy that our family was fighting with my Mom was cancer. Leprosy set those men apart, and for us it was cancer. I don’t know if you can relate, but I’ve found that when people I love are battling a major illness, the whole family feels set apart. It’s as though the volume on the normal things of life gets turned way down — the presence of the illness gets louder and louder. It becomes hard to participate in life the same way you did before — time with friends, work, hobbies. You feel separated. As many of you know, cancer took my Mom’s life a year and a half ago. Death is another form of leprosy. My Mom joined the company of those who have been separated from us forever. Like the 10 lepers who couldn’t go back home, for a time death separates us from the ones we so dearly want to have back home.
Let me tell you something I miss about Mom. To prepare for this sermon, I reread my old sermon that talked about the transplant. I mentioned something in that sermon that I had forgotten. After the surgery they wheeled my bed to my Mom’s room so I could say ‘hello’. We reached out and gasped each other’s hand. We fell asleep that way, holding onto each other’s hand. The memory invites me back to the deep, sweet tenderness that my Mom so often carried with her. I wonder that I could forget a detail like that, falling asleep holding my Mom’s hand.
Notice in the story of the lepers, that there is a while when they are just lepers. They’re not hoping for a miracle, they are just doing what lepers do, walking around with their various skin diseases. And we do that. We do what a cancer patient needs to do. We do what a grieving person needs to do. We do what a person who is seriously in debt needs to do. We do what someone who just lost their job needs to do. We do what someone who has just broken up needs to do. We do what a family in crisis needs to do. We do what a person who’s feeling lonely at school needs to do. We cope. We make the best of it. We try and carry on as best our strength allows. Until we can’t. Our strength carries us, and sometimes our strength gives out.
Did you notice that these 10 men with leprosy don’t start crying out for mercy until Jesus draws near? Sometimes we immediately feel our need for mercy, for help, for God’s saving kindness. But sometimes we don’t notice. Sometimes we limp along, doing the best we can, doing what the circumstances require of us. And that can be healthy — it shows resilience, determination, perseverance. But then Jesus draws near, and the lepers feel their need for his help so strongly. They begin crying out to Him.
I wonder if sometimes he draws near to us, and it is His nearness that draws us into crying out to Him. It is His nearness that draws us into crying to Him for mercy, for help. It’s almost like when you feel sad or hurt but don’t start crying until somebody compassionately touches you on the shoulder. Maybe our crying out to Him is what our heart can’t help when He draws near. Maybe our desire for His mercy is a sign that He’s really very close. He comes near and we feel our need for Him so strongly, and we pray the words of the lepers: “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.” Those words can feel so desperate, so vulnerable, so thirsty for God.
When have you been crying those words lately? Was it on the way to work? Was it when you were home alone with your own thoughts? When you received more news that you were hoping would go in a different way? Jesus, Master, have mercy on us. It was His nearness that drew you to such a prayer.
Lately, the leprosy that my family has been walking with is my Mom’s death — my Dad feels this separation more than any of us. There are days that I walk with this leprosy and just make the best of it. I call my Dad more often. I talk to people about my Mom, I look at pictures of her. I even talk to her from time to time. But there are times when I really ache with how much I miss her — there are times when I miss having someone to call who loves me so completely and fiercely and devotedly. I was in that place a number of months ago. I found myself crying out to God for mercy — He must have been very near. I didn’t know it at the time. So I called out to Him, but I didn’t call out to Him the straightforward way the lepers did. I didn’t pray with words.
When we went to Iowa to bury my Mom, the pastor had given each of my siblings, my Dad and me a cross that fits nicely in your hand. Someone in the congregation had carved it from some local wood. That night, when I was missing my Mom so much, I went to bed and held onto the cross so tightly. It was a prayer and a longing, a cry to God and an attempt to touch my Mom. I was both saying, “Jesus have mercy on me,” and “Mom, I miss you so much and I wish I could hold your hand right now.” And, like after the surgery, I fell asleep with the cross in my hand.
Here is my favourite part of the story of the 10 Lepers. Jesus instructs the 10 lepers to go show themselves to the priest. Somewhere along the way they were made clean. The leprosy disappeared. This is a different sort of healing than you see most everywhere else where Jesus touches someone and immediately they are healed. This healing just sort of dawns on the lepers as the go on their way.
We’ve all heard beautiful stories of God immediately answering prayer, and some of us have experienced those beautiful stories. Sometimes we pray and it is immediately answered — you can’t miss it. Yet often it happens more slowly. Sometimes you can even miss the answer to your prayer. Sometimes, if Jesus doesn’t actually give us a firm poke in the ribs, we can just go along our merry way and say, “Well, I’m sure glad my chronic headaches are resolved.” “I’m sure glad that I ran into my old friend who connected me with my new job.” “I’m sure glad that the addiction in my family member has resolved.” If God doesn’t tip his hand, we are so likely to miss the gift He has given us.
That’s what happened when I first heard the 10 Lepers story after the transplant — through it God tipped his hand, poked me in the ribs and said, “Your Mom receiving her liver so well is my gift to you”. Maybe the other 9 Lepers in this story just chalked it up to coincidence like we so often do. Maybe too much time had passed and they just felt lucky and walked home. Maybe they missed the gift.
I nearly missed the gift God gave me that night I fell asleep with that cross in my hand. The next day I woke up, was going about my morning routine, when Michelle pulled me aside and said, “Joe, I just had a dream about your Mom last night.” She started telling me about how Mom had visited her in her dream. My Mom took Michelle shopping. Mom was really wonderful to go shopping with because she always insisted on buying stuff for you. In the dream, she was really treating Michelle the way she used to and when they were done, I joined them in the car ride home — probably my dad was driving. There, sitting in the back with Mom, she began holding my hand. She reached so tenderly for my hand and began holding it, rubbing my hand with so much affection. Michelle said Mom kept commenting on how similar hands we have — which is totally not true, Mom’s got big knobby hands, I don’t! But Michelle just shared what a beautifully tender moment Mom and I shared as we held hands and dad drove us home.
I missed the miracle that morning. That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate hearing about the dream, but I missed how that dream was a gift that came from my prayer as I fell asleep holding onto that cross, longing to hold my Mom’s hand. I went on with my day, not thinking too much about it.
The story of the lepers isn’t over yet. The cycle of faith is not complete until we recognize the Giver. Notice that for the nine who didn’t come back to say ‘thank you,’ their story is incomplete. “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?” Jesus asks. The nine didn’t finish their story. They did not recognize the gift of the Giver. There faith was not made complete.
I wonder how many times this story plays itself out in our life — how many times it simply does not dawn on us that God has answered our prayer, and our story remains incomplete. We don’t know that the appropriate thing to do is to fall on our knees and offer thanks to the Giver. We probably have any number of reasons, “I just didn’t realize it!” “I thought I just got lucky!” “Bodies heal themselves, right?” “Traffic was just exceptionally good that day!” The real knack is to get into the habit of recognizing every good thing as a gift from God, and to develop a habit of giving thanks for His many good gifts throughout our days.
But sometimes we need a good poke in the ribs — and sometime He gives us a good poke. Sometimes the Giver gives a second gift on top of the first. He shows us His hand at work. That’s when I realized how He had answered my prayer that night. That afternoon I was scheduled to have a zoom conversation with all the Northern Pastors in the CRC, just to check in with how we are doing. When it was my turn, I started telling the story of how much I missed my Mom the night before, and how I was holding onto that cross so tightly, and how I fell asleep holding onto that cross. Then I just went into telling the story of Michelle’s dream of Mom holding my hand. When I told the two stories together, I finally connected the dots! This is how dense I can be. It took me almost all day to realize God’s kindness. As soon as I connected the dots, I just started weeping, I was so overcome with the kindness of God. My pastor friends were caught a bit off guard. In that moment when I was missing Mom so deeply, when I was holding onto the cross as a way of finding some imperfect contact with her — God sent Mom into Michelle’s dream, just to hold my hand. I felt so deeply cared for by Jesus. And for a moment, it felt as though Jesus had healed us from the leprosy of death.
For a moment, in that gift of Michelle’s dream, I was brought into the future that we all look forward to — when God’s Kingdom comes and we will all be cleansed from the leprosy of death, and we get to hold onto the hand of the ones we’ve miss for so long. We might even fall asleep, our hand in theirs. For a moment, death was gone, and I felt a healing at work in my heart and hope renewed. That’s the moment when we experience the truth in Jesus’ words — when we thank Him for the gift and He says, “Rise and Go: your faith has made you well.”