St Andrew, Catford
Sunday 11 October 2001
Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you
Many people today still believe that the disease which used to be called Leprosy which we read about so often in the Bible is both incurable and life-threatening.
Both these beliefs are wrong; so letís begin this morning by getting our facts right about leprosy.
Hansenís Disease, as it is properly called, is a chronic infectious disease, affecting the nerves and the skin and occasionally the eyes. If untreated it can cause permanent and progressive physical disability, but if diagnosed early enough and treated with the appropriate antibiotics the chances of a complete cure are remarkably good. The biggest problem nowadays is still the social stigma which the disease in certain parts of the world. This scares people away from getting a proper diagnosis and the appropriate treatment. Itís not even a particularly difficult or painful diagnosis, consisting as it does initially of the doctor gently touching the blindfolded patient several times at the suspected site of the leprous infection with the tip of a ball-point pen and asking him or her to say how many times they have been touched. If there is a big discrepancy between the two then itís a positive sign that leprosy is present. If the number of actual and perceived touches are more or less the same, then whatever may be wrong, itís almost certainly not leprosy.
Once Hansenís Disease has been diagnosed, then treatment can begin immediately with a fair-to-good chance of success. These facts about leprosy have been well known for many years Ė so the big problem today is not the disease itself but ignorance about it. In other words, leprosy is one of the success-stories of medical science.
Of course what we know today wouldnít have meant much to those Ten Lepers, but it will help us to learn some important lessons from them, armed as we are with the twin facts that the disease is, in fact, often curable, and that more often still, what is believed to be leprosy is nothing of the sort. In other words we have strong grounds for hope.
Even people in our Lordís day knew that there were some grounds for hope leprosy-sufferers. Not very good grounds but they existed even them. Reported cures were few and far between, but there was the example of Naaman, for instance. Besides, even in those days people realised that not everything that was called leprosy was indeed that. The biggest problem was that once one had been labelled a leper the description tended to stick. So much of the difficulty lay, not with the patient himself but with other peopleís attitudes towards him. "Heís a leper, so heís a hopeless case", they said to each other Once the leper himself became infected with their despair then his situation became really bad. As any doctor or nurse will tell you, as long as a patient continues to entertain the hope that "something can be done for me", then the chances of that patientís condition significantly improving increase by leaps and bounds.
Now think of those men suffering from leprosy that we heard about in the Gospel this morning. Some of them, no doubt, daydreamt how nice it would be if they could be cured. They may even have heard tell of the miraculous cures that this man Jesus Christ was reputed to perform, but somehow they never imagined that such a cure could happen to them. For daydreaming is very different from hope: in fact thereís a whole world of difference between the two.
Real hope, the genuine article, is the gift of God himself. Itís altogether more durable stuff than daydreams. God works not our dreams but on our imagination in order to get the virtue of hope stirred up and working inside us.
At least one of the ten lepers Ė perhaps the selfsame one whose response to being cured was so very different from the others Ė used his imagination. He too may have heard about the wonderful cures worked by Jesus but realised at the same time that unless he approached Jesus personally and asked for his help, nothing at all would happen. So he talked to his colleagues about this idea and persuaded them that it was worth a try. No doubt they gave him a hard time persuading them, sunk as they were in their state of unimaginative despair.. "It wonít work"; "whoís Jesus anyway?"; "if the doctors canít help then nobody can", they said to him.
But in the end they listened to him; and the result far exceeded their expectations They were cured!
But that wasnít quite the end of the story. St Luke tells us that one of them, perhaps the very one who had the idea in the first place "finding himself cured, turned back praising God at the top of this voice and threw himself at the feet of Jesus and thanked him". And Jesus said to him "Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you"
Hope on its own isnít enough. Itís only a beginning. Hope consists in using oneís imagination to envisage what might be possible. Hope is the springboard for action, if you like; despair is the classic recipe for getting nowhere at all.
Hope has to be put to the test Ė thatís what we call praying. So in prayer we ask God to give us what we have imagined. That prayer should be made in the faith that, whatever is best for us, God will supply. So hope leads naturally on to faith, of which asking is the outward and visible sign. Finally hope and faith, whatever the outcome of our prayer, should lead to love in the form of thanksgiving. In the case of the ten lepers it only did so for one of them Ė a ninety percent failure rate. It doesnít sound very much does it, but just imagine what it would be like if ten percent of the people living in this parish actually came to give thanks to God in church every Sunday for their "creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life". We should be overwhelmed by them.
But thatís where imagination comes in again. "Just imagineÖ", I said, only a moment or two ago. So many of the problems of contemporary life come about because people have never learnt to use their imaginations, but rely on the second-hand products of other peopleís imaginations which they see on television. Thatís really no use to anyone. Imagine, Hope, Believe Give Thanks. These are the four elementary steps which will turn us from what we are into what God designed us to be.
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