“10 Lepers walk into a bar…..”: an issue of Healing vs. Wellness

My sermon from this past Sunday…one I’m particularly proud of. It’s on Luke 17:5-10.

Every time I hear this story from our gospel this morning, this thought pops in my head: “10 lepers walk into a bar, and only one comes out. Why?” Sounds like the opening line of a riddle that’s about to be either really really bad or really really inappropriate, right?
Anyway, I still find myself asking: “Why?” Why did the one leper go back, and why do the other 9 return to the priest? Why does Jesus commend the one who came back to him, and honestly, why is he any better off than the other 9 for doing so?
This week, another question came up for me: “Is there a difference between being healed and being made well?”

I’m not sure how many of you can recall the letter I sent to you a couple weeks ago before my arrival. To recap: I mentioned a former wrestler of mine, a 3x National Finalist, a 3x All-American at Augsburg College, a small liberal arts college in Minneapolis where I coached wrestling the past 3 years. I was serving communion to the bishop, the senior pastor & the pastor who preached at my ordination service while the rest of the congregation waited. And my wrestler came up, unprompted, and stood right next to them to take communion.
Now, along with all the confused looks, my wrestler got the hint that he was doing things out of turn , and started to apologize. I told him no need, and what was going on, he said, “Sorry coach, it’s just you said that everyone was welcome to come to the Table, and I thought, ‘What’s everyone waiting for?’ So I just came up.”
That moment was the highlight of my ordination, and it was awesome because my wrestler just a few months ago, “converted” to the faith, as he puts it. But I wonder if it wasn’t so much a “conversion,” so much as he himself being transformed, being made well.
You see, my wrestler grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood in Florida, where there was drugs, gangs, and violence that usually put you in prison or you ended up dead. And so, the rules were pretty simple: you had to survive. That meant keeping your distance, being tough & strong, and fighting off anything that threatened to weaken that survival mechanism.
Because of that attitude and his environment, my wrestler was by no means a saint. He did and said things that wouldn’t be considered good by many on the outside. But the thing is, he knew it too. And when it came to religious folks, to that community, he knew the rules: he wasn’t “clean enough.” He wasn’t “healed.” He wasn’t good enough, he didn’t do the right things to be part of that community.
That has been how my wrestler has lived, at least until his “conversion.” Now he comes up for communion unprompted. He is posting all over Facebook how much he loves God and Jesus. He sends me text messages saying “good morning and God bless.” He spends his time coaching and working with young kids and wants to be a mentor for them. Now he lives at peace with himself and others, without limits or barriers.
And that question comes up for me, for others, “WHY?” WHY THE CHANGE?

I think about this gospel story today, and I can’t help but think that there is a difference between healing and wellness. Because while all 10 lepers are healed, only one turns back. And that tells me two things:
One, healing is something that Jesus does for all of us, it’s not something that’s withheld, or is a divine reward for good behavior. And that is good news, that in Jesus’ love and mercy, God can and will heal us in all our cries for mercy.
But I wonder, how often do we make healing to be some sort of “rule” or “barrier” in order to be part of the community? You have to be healed, and you have to show yourself to the priest and prove you’re healed, in order re-enter the community.
And I wonder, how often do we make our faith communities like that? You have to believe and behave the “right way,” you have to follow a certain set of rules in worship, or in a meeting. You have to prove you are “clean,” that you’re “healed,” that you’re “Christian.”
And I wonder, if the one leper doesn’t turn back because he realizes that a community built on a system where one has to be healed and clean enough to be part of the community, isn’t really community at all.
Because in such a life, he’d always be striving to maintain that level of healing and cleanliness, of righteousness. He’d always live in the anxiety he could end up and outsider again, and perhaps, no matter how hard he tried to follow the rules, that’s something he couldn’t prevent from happening.
And honestly, is that any way to live?

So, this one Samaritan leper turns back to Jesus. And Jesus proclaims to him to “get up and go, your faith has made you well.”
And right there, perhaps that’s the difference between simply being healed and being made well: FAITH.
It is faith, trust in Jesus’ love and mercy that is offered to us freely, unconditionally; with no rules or barriers, and no strings attached. It’s a love and mercy that draws us into God’s community – a much more inclusive and wider one, where all that’s required is YOU – you with all your flaws and gifts, your ills and healing. YOU – as both saint and sinner…is all that’s required to live in community with God, and in the community of all God’s people.

And so, “that’s why.” That’s why the Samaritan leper turns back, why my wrestler’s had his conversion to faith, and perhaps why you’re here today. Perhaps you feel like outsider in need of mercy; the old way is no longer an option. And rather than needing to be fixed – to be healed – what you really need is to hear your are loved, forgiven, and you, both the saint and the sinner, JUST YOU, is enough.

In short, you need to be made well.

And for those of us who have experienced God’s wellness in the love and mercy and grace of Jesus Christ, I wonder if God is also inviting us to consider if this church, this community, is a place of healing or of wellness.
Is the church a place of therapy, where the goal is to perhaps “fix” people, make them Christian, or make them morally better or righteous? Is it a place of rules and barriers that determine that your standing in the community, if you’re in or you’re out, diseased or healed.
Or, is the church a place where people experience God’s inclusive love and grace and mercy. Is it a place where people simply come, because they are welcome in the first place – damaged goods and all. And so they come because in this place, this community, they trust they will experience God’s love and grace that heals all people…..they come in faith – to be made well.

And so today, as Jesus certainly commands that Samaritan leper to “get up and go on you way,” and so commands us in the same way, let us first and always rejoice in the blessing that in Christ, we are already healed by God’s inclusive love and grace and mercy. And it is our faith and trust in that, that truly transforms us each day, making us new. Making us well. Amen.


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