Sunday, 9 October 2016

A Safe Distance (Luke 17:11-19)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Sunday Worship on October 9, 2016, Proper 23)



It was such a relief for Mary to get home. At home, nobody knew anything about her dreaded condition. Her parents hugged her. Her brother ruffled her hair. Her cats rubbed up against her leg. At home, she felt well again. There was talking and joking and laughing together, there was dinner together, there was sitting around a board game together.

Back at school, there had been nothing together.

It had all started when Erik teased her about her freckles. “What’s wrong with your face and all those little brown spots, Mary? When’s the last time you washed yourself?” Erik’s friend, Adam, peered closely at Mary’s face and then began to back gravely away: “Be careful, man. She may have cooties.”

And that was the word that did it. “Cooties.” All of the sudden, the boys around her started squealing, “Eww, cooties! Get away from her!”

Second grade can be rough. To this day, physicians have been unable to determine the precise origin or cure of cooties.

As the day wore on and the gossip chain made its round, more and more classmates kept their distance from Mary. Even the girls. Even her friends. Everything that Mary did that day, she did alone.


Like Mary, the ten lepers of today’s scripture had “cooties”—or at least, that would be my diagnosis. In the Bible, leprosy refers not to Hansen’s disease but rather to the skin condition of having suspicious spots. Leprosy, in other words, was not a disease but a difference that people feared. (No one knows for sure exactly what would have qualified as leprosy, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Mary herself would have been considered leprous because of the freckled spots on her face.)

The ten lepers in today’s scripture shared Mary’s experience: they lived a life of isolation because they looked different. In the same way that the boys cried, “Cooties,” and everyone scattered from Mary, the leper in ancient Israel was supposed to cry, “Unclean! Unclean!” as he walked around, so that others could keep a safe distance. Just like Mary who did everything alone that day, the leper was supposed to live alone outside the town. Away from family and friends and anyone else in the community.

Healing Beyond the Skin

This is exactly what we see at the beginning of today’s scripture. Jesus is on the outskirts of a village, and it’s here that he encounters ten men with cooties. They all keep a safe distance so that Jesus won’t catch their cooties, but they raise their voices, crying for help. In response, Jesus tells them to show themselves to the priests, the men with the authority to declare them free of cooties.

The common interpretation of Jesus’ instruction here is that he was promising that their leprosy would soon disappear. But if we think of cooties as a manmade idea, as an imaginary disease, then an alternative interpretation presents itself. Perhaps Jesus was really saying, “Look, I’m telling you right now that you don’t have cooties. Go ahead and show yourselves to the priests. They’ll make it official. They’ll pronounce you cootie-free.”

So the ten men with cooties set off to see the priests. Luke tells us that on their way to the priests, they were “made clean.” Which is a way of saying either that they lost their cooties or that the imaginary cooties lost their power over the ten men and the other villagers. Luke tells us that, in either case, one of the ten men noticed a difference. Listen closely to what Luke says here: the man noticed not merely that he had been “made clean,” but that he had been “healed.” In other words, he notices something deeper than the surface of his skin.

Here’s how I imagine the scene. When this one man notices that he has been “healed,” he is not looking at his skin like the other nine are doing. He’s not observing spots magically disappearing from his skin. Rather, he’s observing a remarkable change in his surroundings. No longer are the villagers keeping a safe distance. Their shadows are crossing his. Their voices are close enough to hear. For the first time since he can remember, he is not alone. He is together with the community.

“You Who Were Dead in Cooties and in Safe Distances” 

And when he realizes this, he cannot help but cry out, “Thank you!” It erupts from him, the same way we might involuntarily cry “Yes!” when we receive spectacularly good news or when for an instant our heart touches its desire. In other words, he says this “thank you” to no one in particular. Only after he cries it, does he realize he’s addressing God.

In any case, he turns around and rushes to Jesus. And it is here in the story that we witness the fullness of his healing. Remember how earlier he and the other nine men with cooties had kept a safe distance from Jesus? Here we see a complete transformation. The man falls right at Jesus’ feet. And we can imagine that now his loud cry of gratitude has softened to an intimate whisper: “Thank you. Thank you.”

As if this picture weren’t moving enough, Luke proceeds to inform us that this man is actually a Samaritan. To the ordinary Israelite, the Samaritans had cooties just by virtue of being Samaritans: they had married outside the people and they worshiped on the wrong mountain, which is to say, they were foreigners and heretics.

But Jesus has no more regard for the cooties of religion and ethnicity than he does for the cooties of spotted skin. In fact, he almost seems to take a secret delight in the reversal of expectations: “Has no one returned and given praise to God,” he says, “but this foreigner?” (cf. 17:17-18). To cap off the wonder of this spectacular scene, he tells the man, “Get up,” using the same word that is used for resurrection. In other words, Jesus tells him, “You who were dead in cooties and in safe distances, are now raised to new life. You are now a part of the community.” And then he adds, “Your faith has saved you,” which I think is Jesus’ way of saying, “Salvation comes when your faith brings you into community.”

From a Safe Distance to a Saving Communion 

This story brings to mind a recent conversation I had with Leslie, who has been worshiping with us for the last several months. With her approval, I share with you what she shared with me:

Leslie had been attending a bigger church before. Because of several medical conditions, Leslie must take extra care in moving about and exerting her energies. She told me that at the previous church, she never felt a part of the community; she felt anonymous there, and sometimes she felt like a burden. It felt like people were keeping a safe distance from her.

One day, she decided to come to this little church that she had kept passing by. Upon stepping through our doors, she felt completely different. No longer was there a safe distance between her and others, but a saving communion. Here people hugged her, made her feel a part of the church. Here folks raised her up to new life. Whereas before she felt alone among a crowd of people, here she feels the life of togetherness.

The Blessing of Small Churches 

Mary at school, the Samaritan leper in the Bible, and Leslie, each in their own way show us the funny thing about cooties, which is that they’re ultimately not real. The myth of cooties tries to persuade us that because someone is different, they are dangerous. But the gospel proclaims otherwise. The good news proclaims that all people are beloved by God and worthy of embrace. There is no infection not worth risking for the love of another person. Jesus’ entire ministry was essentially one of saying, “Cooties don’t exist! This safe distance you’re keeping from one another is in fact death-dealing. It’s unsafe. What will save you is not safe distances but a saving communion with one another.”

It’s difficult for me not to be reminded here of the blessing of small churches.

We live in “a world that worships bigness,” a world that discriminates on size and strength. When Paul talks about the invisible powers and principalities that rule this present age, he wasn’t just talking about racism and sexism and ageism. He was also, I believe, talking about “sizeism.” Sizeism tells us the story that what is bigger is better. Unfortunately, many churches believe this story, and consequently they are burdened with unspoken shame. They say, “Because we are small, we must be doing something wrong. If we were doing things right, we would be bigger and better.”[1]

But I think today’s gospel challenges the myth of sizeism. The gospel of today declares that the salvation of new life is found not in size but in community. The danger of bigger things is that they lend themselves to a more impersonal way of life. In a bigger group, people often feel less together; they often feel like faceless cogs in a wheel or like an anonymous audience. In this world of bigger and better, the small church carries an immeasurable blessing, because in a small church there is no such thing as a safe distance. In a small church, there is community: there is intimacy, immediacy, involvement. There are people caring for each other, hugging each other, praying for each other, asking about each other, welcoming new faces with real attention and concern. Instead of safe distances, there is saving communion.

May it be so!


God of healing, 
Who saves us
Through the risky closeness of community:
Free us from our fear of cooties,
Bless our differences,
And lead us to find life
In each other.
In the name of him
Who draws near to us, Jesus Christ.


[1] David R. Ray, Wonderful Worship in Smaller Churches (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 2000), 14.

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