Taking a Sacred Pause
Good morning! It’s good to be with you today.
A week or so ago, I took a break from study and sermon-writing to catch up with an old friend. As we always do, we shared what was going on in our lives. She was especially interested in how things were going with me, since I had just started school. I told her a bit about my courses and shared that I was in the process of writing my very first sermon as a seminarian.
“Great!” she said. “What’s it about?”
“Leprosy,” I answered. I can’t quite describe the look on her face. Fascinated horror, mixed with pity comes closely.
But I realized, even now, that word evokes so much. Words such as: unclean. Unwanted. Shunned. Exiled. Diseased. To name only a few.
I wanted to find out why that was.
So, like any good seminarian, I hit the books.
I’m still recovering from the blizzard of information I found, but one thing I realized was that this has been an issue for humanity for a very long time. For those of us in our faith tradition, it goes all of the way back to the book of Leviticus.
Leviticus, the third book of the Bible, is a complicated collection of rules and precepts about how to organize society. Everything is in there – from sacrifices to ordinations to relationships with neighbors, to the criminal code. It is quite an intense read.
It also contains two full chapters on how to deal with skin diseases. As an interesting side note, what we now call leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, was not present in Biblical times.
Degenerative skin rashes and diseases certainly were and those are the focus of those two chapters, in a series of writings called the Purity Code.
The leaders of the community at that time – the priests – had to make an extremely difficult decision if someone came down with one of those conditions.
They could allow the person to stay in community and risk an epidemic.
Or, they could put them out.
The writers of the Purity Code decided on the second option.
Once a person was identified as having leprosy they had to leave their families. Their friends. Their professions. Their communities.
The life they had lived to this point was over.
As lepers, they were instructed to tear their garments in a certain way and to shout, “Unclean, unclean!” when they went anywhere, so that healthy people could both see and hear them coming and know to stay away.
Anyone who touched a leper was labeled ritually and ceremonially unclean.
What a painful, isolating way to live.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us experienced a limited version of this. Cut off from friends and family, wondering when we would be able to see them again, to do ordinary things again, things we had taken for granted, like going to the gym or to the library. Or worshipping in community.
For us, though, this lasted for a relatively short time.
For them, it was forever. Unless they somehow got well on their own.
The laws set forth in the Purity Code remained in effect for thousands of years, including during Jesus’ time. This makes his interactions with lepers even more remarkable.
The story we just heard isn’t Jesus’ first encounter with a leper in the Gospel of Luke. In Chapter Five, right after he calls his disciples, Jesus encounters a leper in one of the villages. What’s interesting is that both he and the leper flout the Purity Code. The man suffering from leprosy approaches Jesus, and begs to made clean. Jesus not only heals him, he touches him.
What an amazing gift that must have been.
Again, it reminds me the joy and tears that so many of us felt after Covid, when it was safe to be together again.
At the end of this first story in Luke, Jesus orders the man he healed to say nothing, but Luke says that, “… now more than ever, the word about Jesus spread abroad.”
Even if the newly-healed person did manage to keep it to himself – and could he even contain his joy? – surely, his restoration back to his family and friends was noticed and commented upon. The wonderful news have spread like wildfire. I wonder if that group of ten lepers didn’t hear about this, and plan to seek out Jesus, to see if he could heal them, too?
Their story, the one we just heard, has some interesting contrasts with the first one. Unlike the leper in the first story, this group of ten doesn’t approach Jesus. They keep a respectful distance. Clearly, they know their Purity Code. They call him, “Master,” and ask him, not for cleansing, not for healing, but for mercy. Whatever he chooses to give them will be enough.
And, as we know, he does choose to heal them, telling them to go show themselves to the priests, and, as they turn to go, the Bible tells us, they are “made clean.”
This is when things get interesting.
All ten of them turn to go. All ten of are healed. Nine obediently continue, as Jesus ordered. Only one – an outsider, a Samaritan – turns back to thank Jesus and to praise God.
Often, this story is used to illustrate the importance of gratitude, which certainly makes sense. But as I sat with this story these last few weeks, especially in contrast to the first one, with the Purity Code as a backdrop, I wondered if something else might be going on here.
Perhaps the nine lepers weren’t ungrateful so much as that they were careful. Unlike the first leper, they didn’t dare approach Jesus. They didn’t ask for what they truly yearned for – healing. And when he told them to go, they went. They were so focused on getting it exactly right, they didn’t pause to consider what had just happened. Or, perhaps, they were afraid that if they did, Jesus might change his mind. They didn’t quite dare to believe it.
So, sadly, in that moment, they missed the opportunity, to give thanks and to hear that their faith had made them well, too.
When I consider the story this way, it reminds me my Clinical Pastoral Education program two years ago, when I was serving as a hospital chaplain. After our first classroom session, a tour, and the opportunity to observe exactly one visit, I was told to start rounding on my assigned wards and visit with some patients.
At the time, I really wondered about those people. Were they really going to turn me loose on innocent patients, just like that? My mind whirled with far too much information: what to mention, what to avoid, where to sit, how to record the visit. I wasn’t sure if I could even remember how to sanitize my hands properly.
Fortunately, it all came together. Eventually. As I settled in, I found myself adopting a new spiritual practice.
I called it “the sacred pause.”
As I reached a patient’s door, after I sanitized my hands – correctly – I took a moment for a deep breath, the briefest of prayers, and a few seconds of quiet time. Then, I knocked and greeted them.
This practice changed the whole tenor of my visits.
I wonder, if the difference between the tenth leper and the others was that he allowed himself to pause, to realize what had just happened, and gave himself permission to rejoice and give thanks?
I wonder if his faith wasn’t just the tiniest bit greater, if he wasn’t just the smallest bit more trusting, that he believed the Jesus wouldn’t take his great gift away, even if he didn’t do exactly what he was told? If he allowed himself that moment to praise God and to give thanks?
Over the past few weeks, as I have started to learn more about this community, it strikes me that here at Saint Luke’s, you are – we are – in the middle of our own sacred pause.
The pandemic is gradually receding.
The Edible Hope fund-raiser is just around the corner, with the Fall Giving Campaign soon to follow.
Looking further ahead, this community is embarking on an exciting new journey, one that will allow us to continue to be faithful stewards of our buildings and grounds. One that will allow us to continue working with those who are most vulnerable and to preserve our legacy for future generations.
Perhaps during this time, we can take a minute catch our collective breath and to consider how we will respond to God’s love and healing grace in our own lives and reflect on the invitation to be co-creators of this Beloved Community.
And as that pause concludes and we move forward together, we can know that we are enfolded in the love of Jesus Christ, who knows our needs, heals our wounds, and gives us more than we could ever possibly ask or imagine.
And for that, may God’s holy name be praised. Amen.