A sermon preached by Canon Jane Charman, Director of Ministry, Diocese of Salisbury, on the 17th Sunday after Trinity, 13th October 2019
In our parish church of St Laurence’s Downton we have a hagioscope. In such a congregation there is sure to be at least one church architecture nerd who knows what a hagioscope is. If not, please don’t be embarrassed, neither did I until I was enlightened by my daughters who apparently learned about them as children on a primary school visit to the church. Hagioscopes, or squints as they are also called, are slanted openings in the masonry of a church building which allow people on one side to see what is happening on the other side. You will often find them located on an external wall where their purpose was to enable social undesirables who were not allowed into the church to see and to some extent take part in worship. Another name for them is ‘leper squints’ or ‘leper windows’.
Hagioscopes are a perfect symbol of what it meant to suffer from leprosy in biblical times. To be a leper was to be on the edge of the human community, not entirely cast out, not completely invisible, but not included either. Leprosy was incurable. To discover on one’s body the early signs of leprosy was to receive a life sentence. A leper would be forced to leave his home, he would be forbidden to touch his loved ones, he could enter no public space, join in no community activity, hold down no job or occupation. To be a leper was to be entirely dependent on the charity of others who mostly regarded you with fear and loathing, who probably believed that your condition was a punishment for your own sinfulness. These days we understand what leprosy is and we can cure it but it remains a scourge in parts of the world where people are unable to access timely medical care. The disfigurements and impairments of leprosy once suffered cannot be reversed.
The story of the ten lepers, or the grateful leper, or the nine ungrateful lepers, depending on how you want to think about it, appears only in St Luke’s gospel. St Luke, as we know, pondered more deeply on the experience of those on the edges of society than his fellow gospellers. Jesus is travelling through an interesting stretch of countryside which St Luke describes as ‘the region between Samaria and Galilee’. It’s a liminal place, a contested space where two cultures meet, sometimes co existing uneasily, sometimes clashing. And this of course explains why the ten lepers, some Jews and at least one Samaritan, are to be found hanging out there, in this region that is on the edge of both their natural communities. Jews have no dealings with Samaritans – read all about it in 2 Kings chapter 17. But when you’re a leper those distinctions become meaningless. When you’re a leper you see things on a different slant, through a leper squint. The lepers now have more in common with each other than with their fellow countrymen, a pop-up community of misfortune, looking out for one another as best they can.
So the ten lepers see Jesus coming and they obviously recognize him and know something of his reputation. This is the miracle maker, the one who heals. Keeping their distance, because they don’t want him to run away, they call out, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us’. ‘Called out’, I have to say, is a pretty feeble translation of the Greek at this point. ‘They lifted up their voices’, is what St Luke actually wrote. The lepers are screaming and yelling to God out of the depths of their suffering and despair. Have mercy on us! Have you ever prayed a prayer like that? Many in our world are lifting up their voices in prayers like that at the moment.
At this point the story becomes a little more puzzling. St Luke doesn’t say, as he does on some other occasions, that Jesus felt compassion for the lepers, or that he spoke any words of comfort to them. Instead, he gives them a command. ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests’. Show yourselves to the priests? What good will that do? They already know that they are ritually unclean. But they set off anyway and, says St Luke, ‘as they went, they were made clean’. And this is really the key to what is happening here. It is in going that the lepers are healed, in obeying that they are saved, in behaving as though what is promised is already real that they are blessed. All ten of the lepers have faith, or they would not have followed Jesus’s instruction in the way that they did. As for the one who returned to give thanks and the nine who didn’t, well, their situations were no longer the same. The Jewish members of the group can expect to receive a priestly welcome back in their own community of faith. The Samaritan? Not so much. No longer bound together by their common misfortune, the group parts company. Only one feels the need to express his thankfulness to Jesus in person.
There are two messages that we might want to take away from today’s gospel. The first, the simpler one, is about gratitude. Counting our blessings and remembering to give thanks to God who is the author of them is an important thing to do. Jesus clearly thought so. In even better news, gratitude is objectively good for us. Research has demonstrated that grateful people are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships. While many emotions and personality traits are important to well-being and mental health, there is evidence that gratitude may be uniquely important. So let us cultivate an attitude of gratitude. If you use a daily examen, make gratitude a regular part of that. If you say the Night Office of Compline, use the period of silence for reflection on the past day to give thanks for your good things. Let your last thoughts as you drift off to sleep at night be grateful ones.
The second and more complex message of this morning’s gospel has to do with our own need for cleansing and healing. The Franciscan mystic Richard Rohr in his book of daily meditations teasingly titled ‘Yes, And ..’ has this to say:
Isn’t it wonderful news, brothers and sisters, that we come to God not by our perfection but by our imperfection? That gives all of us an equal chance, and utterly levels the human playing field. No pretending or denying is helpful any longer. Deep within each of us lives both a leper and a wolf, both of which we are ashamed and afraid of. In Franciscan lore, they are our inner imperfections.
Francis embraced the leper below Assisi and called it his conversion; later Francis tamed the wolf that was ravaging the countryside of Gubbio. The stories did happen historically, but first of all they must have happened in his soul. Our inner life, our emotional life, our prayer life, is where we first do our battles, and then we are prepared for our outer life conflicts.
It is on the inside of us that lepers and wolves first live. If we haven’t been able to kiss many lepers, if we haven’t been able to tame many wolves in the outer world, it’s probably because we haven’t first of all made friends with our own leprosy and the ferocious wolf within each of us. They are always there in some form, waiting to be tamed and needing to be forgiven.
Where are the hagioscopes, the barriers of separation between our outer and inner lives, the tiny apertures through which we occasionally glimpse the more troubling and puzzling aspects of our own identity? What things or what people are we putting away from ourselves so that we don’t have to contemplate them or be disturbed by them? Do we have, or can we find, the courage to peer into those spaces, to see what lies beyond, hoping to be invited in? At least some of the mercies that we have often longed for may be waiting for us there, and with them a greater understanding, a wider gratitude, and a deeper healing.