10 October, 2004
St. Bede’s Episcopal Church, Menlo Park
2 Timothy 2:3-15
This week we find Jesus and his followers walking along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As is true in most border areas, there is a lot of mixing of people in this region. On the outskirts of a village there is a group of lepers – outcasts, the unclean, the contaminated, the contagious, the dangerous, the stigmatized. And, as we find out later in the story, this is a mixed group of both Jewish and Samarian lepers. Their common plight as outcasts creates a bond stronger than the enmity between their peoples. They are treated as outlaws. They must stay separate from everyone else. They cannot have contact with “normal” society. In fact, they yell to Jesus, “Have mercy on us” from a distance.
How does Jesus respond to them? He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. He was asking them to have faith, to believe in their healing even before it had been accomplished. Jewish law required that after a healing the healed person had to go and present himself or herself to the priest to receive a blessing back into the society. So Jesus was asking them to start the journey to the priest before their healing had taken place. And we know that they were people who had faith, because they did actually begin that journey. And as they walked, they believed, and they were made clean, they were healed.
But one of them, rather than just keep going on to the priests, to the chance to be accepted back into society, to regain his old life, one of them turns around and praises God and goes back and thanks Jesus. He could not just go on his way without expressing his gratitude for what he thought Jesus had done to him. Of course, Jesus’ message to him is that it was his faith that made him well. And this Samaritan leper more than the other nine – the message is that physical healing is only a partial healing. When we give thanks, when we are grateful, our healing is more full, more complete, more whole. You can almost hear the disappointment in Jesus’ voice as he says, “but the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Our healing is incomplete until we come back to serve in gratitude. Faith without gratitude is incomplete faith. Spiritual wholeness depends not on birthright, but on our response to God’s grace.
What about us? Do we turn around, praising God and give thanks? Or do we just breathe an enormous sigh of relief that we are healed and keep moving?
We often think of faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But I would like us to look at things seen. I think we often have our minds on everything we want to change, the things that need to be fixed, where we have been or where we are going—rather than where we are.
As some of you know, my partner, Anita, died of lung cancer in January. One of the things I have struggled with in my grief is everything that feels unfinished in our relationship—things I regret, things that upset me, things not said or done. And I’ve felt bad about having so much attention on the negative things. But a couple of weeks ago something shifted deep within me. I realized that the best way to honor her, the life she lived, and our life together, was to be grateful—to be grateful for all we had together, to be grateful for the privilege of loving and being loved so deeply, to be grateful for all she gave me. And I understood that gratitude was a choice. In any moment I can choose either to be grateful or to be dissatisfied. I can choose to praise God and give thanks for this life or to pray for the fulfillment of some need.
I read this great story about the Salvadoran refugee camps in Honduras. As soon as the refugees began to make a new camp, they set up three committees. There was the committee of education and the committee of construction. And there was the comité de alegría, the “committee of joy.” Celebration was as basic to the life of the refugees as teaching their children to read or building a latrine. One refugee woman once asked an American church worker there why she was so serious all the time, why she walked around looking so burdened down. The woman talked—as I am sure any of us would have—about the tremendous suffering of the people, the grief that she felt every day, and her commitment to give all of herself to the struggle of the refugees. And this woman looked at her and just said, “You’re not serious about our struggle. Only people who expect to go back to North America in a year work the way you do. You cannot be serious about the struggle unless you play and celebrate and do those things that make it possible to give a lifetime to it.”
The gospel tells us that faith and praise are intimately linked. And indeed the leper’s healing wasn’t complete until he returned to give thanks. Faith is not simply endurance with the hope that things will get better, but a celebration, as well, of what is. So let us praise God and give thanks.
I spent the month of July in Uganda to get experience in chaplaincy work in a clinical setting. I found a place for myself at the AIDS Support Organization in Jinja, known by the acronym, TASO. TASO is the largest HIV/AIDS organization in Uganda and its primary goal and motto is to teach people to “live positively.” They teach them to live, that they will live, that they can live. And they teach them to live positively, that is, with a positive attitude and taking care of themselves appropriately because they are HIV+.
Typically in Africa, when someone finds out that they are HIV+, everyone considers it a death sentence. This belief is so prevalent that most people do not get tested until they are symptomatic because finding out that you are HIV+ can have devastating effects on your life and family. The organizations that do HIV testing have a policy that they will not test children. Why is that? Because in most poor families, when they find out a child is HIV+, they simply stop feeding the child – why waste precious food on someone who is going to die?
So on the days that TASO had open clinic, Loy, the woman I worked with, and I would start the day by going to each of the three different waiting areas and preaching to people and letting them know that if they wanted to talk or pray, they should come visit us. Since the chaplaincy work was not an official part of TASO’s program, we had to do our own promotion, and it actually worked pretty well. During the month of July, we counseled and prayed with over 120 people.
Day after day I heard the same basic story. Ninety percent of the people that came for spiritual counseling were women. They married young, had several children, then either they or their husband or one of their children started to show symptoms. She got tested – either because she was sick or because her child was – and found out she was HIV+. In the worst case, her husband (who, by the way, is the one who infected her, since he was sleeping around) kicks her out, or he dies and his family comes and kicks her out. She comes to town in the hopes of finding. . . what? Opportunity? Assistance? But there is not much to be found. So now she has no house of her own and no garden where she can grow food. She has no money to pay for school fees or supplies for her children. And she has an immune deficiency that makes her susceptible to all the illnesses and diseases running rampant in her environment.
Yet, the faith of some of these people was humbling to behold.
There was Alice and her son Kayenga. Alice had tuberculosis and she was distraught because the doctor told her she had fluid in her lungs and she needed to go into the hospital so they could drain it. But her son had seizures (the source of which had not yet been identified) and she was afraid to leave him alone for a couple of days. Loy and I could think of nothing to say except that if she died now her son would be much worse off than if they were apart for a couple of days. But it seemed like an impossible situation and I was sure we had not really helped her much. We prayed. Alice wanted to put her trust in God. Two weeks later I saw Alice and Kayenga walking by TASO and she came inside to talk with us. She had just come from the hospital. She had decided to go to the hospital and just risk leaving Kayenga with her neighbor. But when she got to the hospital, they could find nothing wrong with her and they released her. “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’”
The most amazing story is that of Josephine. Josephine was living in Tanzania with her husband and children. He died and she and the children returned to Uganda, to Jinja, which was her home. She became sick and they all ended up living at her mother’s, who took care of Josephine. Over time her condition deteriorated until she was on her deathbed. She weighed practically nothing. She eventually stopped eating and then could no longer even take liquid. Everyone was preparing for her funeral. They bought her coffin. They made arrangements with the church. It was clear that she was going to die any day. They even began to divide up her clothes and few other belongings. An American missionary visited her. I’m not sure how he knew her, but he had visited her a year or two before also. She was barely conscious by this point. He prayed for her. Somewhere in his praying, she heard him. She came back to at least semi-consciousness. In the couple of days following this prayer, she took some water and a little food. Then, somehow she found a small reserve of strength and managed to get herself to the hospital. When she got there, they told her that she was first on the list to receive free anti-retroviral drugs, they admitted her, starting giving her the drugs (and IVs and all sorts of other things). Today she is a walking, talking example of God’s miraculous work in the world (and the power of anti-retroviral drugs). And how does she respond? She walks around town praising God and giving her testimony everywhere she goes. When I met her, not only did she spend many days helping Loy and I counsel and translating for me, but she was involved in no less than 5 or 6 different HIV/AIDS and widows support groups. She understands that our healing is incomplete until we come back to serve in gratitude.
In every moment we have a choice. Let us say as the psalmist does, “Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD; praise the name of the LORD.” AMEN.