A sermon preached
Readings: 1 Cor 12:12-27, Luke 17:11-19
Jesus’ words to the ten lepers:
“He said, ‘Go show yourselves to the Priests’.
And as they went they were cleansed”
The early Israelites were scared of the
contagion of leprosy.
They dealt with it in a brutal but from their point of view effective way –
they excluded the leper totally from society –
a quarantine by banishment.
Leviticus 13:45-46 states:
"The leprous person who has
the disease shall wear torn clothes
and let the hair of his head hang loose,
and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, 'Unclean, unclean.'
He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease.
He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
Sadly that approach to the leper
continued over the centuries –
doubtless encouraged by the Biblical warnings.
So in mediaeval
the leper would still be forced to wear a bell to warn others
and would be forced to live “outside the camp”.
Indeed the mediaeval leper when diagnosed
would have the funeral service read over him
by the priest before being banished –
as far as healthy society was concerned,
the leper might as well be dead –
indeed had become the living dead.
Indeed until quite recent times,
European lepers were routinely
banished to the edges of society –
quite literally marginalised and excluded by so called civilised society.
When I was in Crete
Liz and I visited the Island of Spinalonga.
Spinalonga is only a few hundred metres across,
and is almost entirely composed of a great walled Venetian fortress.
From1903 to 1957, Spinalonga was turned into a Leper Colony.
Lepers on Crete – and later across the whole of Crete -
were rounded up and sent to the Island.
When you disembark
from the boat onto the island,
the path from the jetty almost immediately
reaches a opening in the old fortress wall,
which leads into a long low tunnel, known as Dante’s Gate.
The name comes from Dante’s Inferno,
and his description of the gate to hell -
inscribed with the words “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”.
And so – as you disembark and almost immediately
plunge into this small low stone tunnel,
you sense the fear and trepidation of those
arriving as lepers to be locked away on the island.
As the first inhabitants of the leper colony
leprosy did not simply destroy the physical health of the individual –
its removed that person form all the joys of wider society.
Sadly such is still the case in significant parts of the world today.
In the words of Dr S G Browne, formerly of the Leprosy Mission, leprosy
“takes a man from his family, a bright young child from school,
a student from college, a workman from his job, a farmer from his land.
It slams the door of hope. It shatters life’s dreams.
It is a full stop, where it should only be a comma.
It is a twilight and darkness, where it should be but a passing cloud.”
There is an irony and an
tragedy in the way
lepers have been treated down through the ages.
· The irony is simply that leprosy is not a very contagious disease –
and the excuse that societies needed such drastic action
to protect themselves is simply not born out by medical evidence.
· The tragedy is that people were not merely
isolated from the rest of society (bad enough though that was)
they were degraded and indeed dehumanised in the process.
In our modern British society
we do not brand and exclude lepers as of old.
Though of course we do still often
brand and exclude other members of our society,
those who for one reason or another we find threatening.
· Take for example the attitude
of our government and much of our press
to foreign nationals seeking entry
and particularly those seeking asylum in this country.
A number of us in this Church have struggled
with the Home Office over political asylum cases –
and we have learnt how easily
apparently noble ideals about upholding British values and society
can turn into a frankly selfish unwillingness to share
the good things we have in this land,
and an all too easy willingness to demonize and exclude
those in need whose only crime is
to have been born in less favoured circumstances than we are.
· Or take our attitude to differences of sexual orientation.
As Christians, thankfully we no longer
quote the Book of Leviticus to justify
throwing out those with skin diseases
and condemning them as unclean and unable to live amongst us.
But sadly some Christians still seem willing
to quote the same Book of Leviticus in order to justify
discrimination against, or even exclusion of,
those of differing sexual orientation.
How easily we forget the Lord Jesus
who saw ten lepers and said –
Go and show yourself to the Priest – you are healed –
your place is to be accepted as a full and loved part of human society
not excluded from it.
And note that one man in the story is not only a leper, he is a Samaritan –
doubly outcast – not only unclean but also a foreigner.
And this is the man to whom Jesus says –
“Your faith has made you whole”!
St Paul in our epistle today reminds us
that the Church is called to be the body of Christ –
we are all different, but we all have our place within the body.
If as a Church we exclude certain people, then we are the poorer –
indeed the Body of the Church itself becomes like someone
suffering from advanced and untreated leprosy –
when whole limbs may cease to function or be lost.
I spoke of Spinalonga and Dante’s Gate – the Gate of hell.
When the Leper
Colony opened in 1903,
the island was undoubtedly a harsh and soul destroying place.
But gradually things
A Hospital was built and a Priest, Doctors and nurses
worked with the people.
If you’ve read Victoria Hislop’s novel “The Island”
you will know how the island community eventually
blossomed as a place of hope and joy.
Finally the leper Colony on the island was closed in 1957.
The last inhabitant, a priest, left in 1962.
He remained to maintain the religious tradition
of the Greek Orthodox Church,
in which a buried person is to be commemorated
40 days, 6 months, 1, 3 and 5 years after their death.
So let me try to
draw these reflections together with 4 final comments:
age and place is in danger of scapegoating and
those with whom we feel ill at ease –
we need to remember how Christ ate and drank
with all members of society and loved them all
If you refuse to alienate and
but rather insist on loving and accepting,
then the love of God will overcome the evil of fearful humanity.
As the inhabitants of Spinalonga discovered behind Dante’s Gate –
even the gates of hell cannot stand
against the battering ram of God’s love
brought and shared by his people.
We have much to confess in the history
of our society –
racism, anti-semitism, the exclusion or demonisation of others
on the grounds of race, gender or sexuality –
like the priest of Spinalonga
let us pray for those our world has so mistreated,
and also beg forgiveness for our sins.
And finally, remember that penitence
should go hand in hand with a new way of living –
so, when we have confessed our past sins as a race,
let us commit ourselves afresh to
· breaking down the walls of hatred,
· smashing the gates of hell,
· and bringing the love of
to all our sisters and brothers
wherever and whoever they may be.
ORDER OF SERVICE
6.30 pm Holy Communion led by Rev Andrew Sails
Hymn 257 “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds”
Prayers (MWB p.185)
Readings: 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 (p.1153)
Luke 17:11-19 (p.1051)
Hymn 142 “At even, e’er the sun was set”
Prayers and Lord’s Prayer (MWB p.188)
Hymn NHWS 281 “Put peace into each other’s hands”
Holy Communion (MWB p. 191)
Hymn 646 “Sun of my soul”