Sunday, October 10, 2010

Trinity XIX - Fr Damian Feeney

Homily given by Fr Damian Feeney, vice principal of St Stephen's House, on Trinity XIX, 10th October 2010.

Readings; 2 Kings v.1-3, 7-15b; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy ii: 8-15 Luke 17.11-19 (NRSV)


Lepers have become the symbol, par excellence, of those who must to be avoided. Over the summer I reached something of a milestone, watching as I did, late into the night, Ben Hur for the one thousandth time. If you don’t know it (where have you been?) part of the story concerns Judah Ben Hur’s mother and sister, who contract leprosy and are banished to the Valley of the Lepers, where they are kept apart from the rest of the community; even their food is lowered down on pallets. This doesn’t necessarily betoken or imply a lack of compassion so much as fear – fear of contagion, for to touch one who is so afflicted is a risky, even dangerous business. More than that, to touch a leper meant that you were ritually unclean. The conclusion of the tale is one of transformation – the most cursory of encounters with the crucified Christ, and his blood outpoured, cures the women of the dread and highly contagious ailment, but not before Judah himself had led them out of the imposed captivity of the Valley to which they had been condemned.

So it has been for lepers through the ages. Famously Francis of Assisi embraced a leper – a signal moment in his own understanding of what Christ-like love meant. Blessed Damien the Leper, in serving the colony at Molokai in Hawaii, where he arrived in 1873 (carrying little more than his Breviary) contracted leprosy himself some twelve years later. He wasn’t alone in this sacrifice – he was the third missionary of the Sacred Heart to contract the disease – but fear of infection led to him being ostracized by members of his own religious community, including his superior and his bishop.

It’s interesting to speculate the response of the priest to the presence of ten healed lepers, requesting a re-admittance to mainstream society as required in Leviticus 14. Only the priest could declare the leper clean, and therefore fit to belong within the mainstream of society. He would have to examine the lepers, find two living birds, some cedarwood and some crimson yarn. He would slaughter one of the birds…..actually, I’ll leave it to you to look up, but I have an image of the priest frantically looking over his shoulder at the Levitical Code to make sure he got it right, and that’s before we approach the vexed question of what he should be wearing. (It’s all a long way from First Year Formation and Ministry, where slaughter is kept to the minimum prescribed by Ministry Division.)

The priest wouldn’t be sure, because he wouldn’t have dealt with the situation that often. There was no cure for leprosy. A healed leper meant a miracle, and a miracle is something for those in authority to mistrust. Rather than focusing on the miracle, the priest might possibly have reflected on what happens when the rules in which you have come to trust have been broken by the very God who gave them. The law prescribes a course of action, a ritual, if you will – but in fact what matters is God’s action in healing through Jesus – something of itself which was profoundly threatening to the priest, and indeed to any who would think of themselves as the stewards of the tradition. When God works outside the tradition, we are challenged to think again.

Any society of humans creates lepers. That is, we create underclasses of people, people who we deem to be ‘unclean’ beyond the pail’ untouchable. There are any number of reasons, from poverty to lifestyle to crime and disorder. Migrant workers, living in a black economy in the Fens, or drowning in the waters of Morecambe Bay: Christian people whose tradition and practice is different from our own. Not for nothing did a former colleague of mine once say that the acid test of the church’s mission and ministry at this time would be its treatment and care of paedophiles. Of course we hate the sin, we hate it bitterly, but to Christ, no soul is not worth dying for.

So, who are your lepers? What are the prejudices to which we dare not admit, but which all of us carry and can affect our conduct and our treatment of people? We seem to live in a world where most, prejudices against others are roundly condemned – I say ‘most’ because it still seems acceptable to hold Stephen Fry as a national treasure, despite his prejudicial treatment of Christians, Christianity and people of faith generally. But let’s not be distracted. Who do we subconsciously condemn to a valley of lepers our own design? There are always those who we prefer, and therefore those we do not. Part of our formation as followers of Christ is about humble self-awareness, and a razor-sharp honesty before our loving, merciful and compassionate God, who knows us better than we know ourselves. to recognize such things within ourselves, and to release such people from the places of confinement which exist in our own minds. The challenge is that our preparations here are to fit us, however imperfectly, for a share and participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ – one who was asked for mercy, and whose response betokened not merely mercy, but healing, acceptance and liberation.

Vice Principal, St. Stephen’s House