Sixth Sunday In Ordinary Time – Year B
Fr. David Reitzel
Preached: Feb 11, 2018
In 1865, the king of Hawaii, King Kamehameha IV, declared that he would start a new colony on one of the nearby islands called Molokai. This colony would be like all the others, with schools, and hospitals, houses and farms, except for one notable difference. Only a certain type of person would be chosen to build and populate this colony. These special people would not be selected based on strength or intelligence, family backgrounds or royal status. No, the people to inhabit this new colony would be selected for one reason, they were lepers.
You see, about twenty years earlier the disease of leprosy had been brought to the Hawaiian Islands. It spread among the inhabitants and since they had no way of curing it, the best solution they could come up with was to simply isolate the infected. This new colony on the island of Molokai would be the place to send anyone who was diagnosed with leprosy. The lepers would live there and die there, and their isolation would keep the rest of the Hawaiian people safe.
You can imagine the conditions on the Island were pretty dismal. The lepers were given resources to build houses and farms. But since they were all lepers and were weakened by the disease, they built no more than small shacks and small gardens. Also, without government and law the social and moral life of the lepers deteriorated quickly. There were constant quarrels. They gave free reign to their lower desires, of lust and sloth and gluttony to alcohol. In short, the leper colony of Molokai was hell for those who lived in it.
But really what else could be done? There was this disease that was spreading, and there was no cure. They had to cut the lepers off, they had to send them away right?
In to the midst of this, came a young 33 year old priest from Belgium named Fr. Damian. While having no idea what the kingdom should do about the disease, Fr. Damien knew what he should do about the people suffering from it. In 1873, eight years after the colony was founded. Fr. Damian, entered a boat bound for the island of Malakai. He was going to join the lepers in their suffering. He would build their homes, and develop their farms. He would bandage their wounds and help them in their illness. He would say Mass, and offer them the sacraments, especially the sacraments that prepared them for death. Fr. Damian wanted to show them that while everyone else may have abandoned them, God had not.
As Fr. Damian stepped onto the shore of the island of Molokai, he had to have known that this would be a one way trip. While the superiors in his religious order told him that he would be relieved by another priest soon, Fr. Damian knew that he would serve here for the rest of his life.
Fr. Damian would serve the lepers of Molokai for 16 years. He would completely change the island from being a lawless prison to a place where people saw the presence of God. He established local government, regular worship, a school and a hospital. He assisted in organising the lepers who were still well to help those who were not. Though he could not bring them healing, he brought them something even more needed the love of God. And after 16 years of showing them this love, he made the ultimate sacrifice when he contracted leprosy himself and died with the people he served.
Today Fr. Damian is a saint, he was canonized by Pope Benedict the XVI in 2009, and was hailed as a Martyr for charity. He had done something heroic. But if you asked him, I think he would say he was just imitating his Lord.
Today we heard in the first reading about what happened to lepers in the Old Testament: “Such a one shall live alone outside of the camp.” “[they] shall wear torn clothes and let their hair of their head be disheveled . . . and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean’”. The solution to leprosy in the time of the bible was the same as it was in the time of Fr. Damian, to cut the infected off, throw them out of the city, keep them away.
Into this situation came Jesus who showed another path. When Jesus encountered the leper and reached out to touch him, he showed us that these people, no matter how cut off they are, still have a right to experience the love of God. The touch of Jesus ended up healing the leper. But as significant as that is, Jesus gave something greater: an experience of the love of God. Fr. Damian’s touch did not heal, but it showed love. A touch form you and I cannot heal, but it can show love. And that is what people need.
Who are the lepers today then? Who has our society cut off, forgotten about, and yet crave to experience the love of God. While there are many, I’d like to talk about one: the terminally ill. This week and last week our diocese has encouraged parishes to address the growing issue of treatment of the terminally ill in Canada. Traditionally those where nearing the end of their life were offered medicine, pain management, and a loving environment with family and friends from which to pass form this life into the next. This care was best given in hospices, and anyone who has had a relative or friend in a hospice can attest to the great work, of the volunteers and nurses who serve there. They are places of great love.
But in 2016, our government made it legal to offer one other option which they defined as “medical assistance”: Euthanasia. Today, when a person faces a diagnoses of a terminal illness, they are presented with the possibility of “solving the problem” by ending their life, by cutting themselves off.
There is nothing more opposed to love of God or neighbor than to look at someone who is sick, in need, and suffering, and to offer them death. And this is growing, there is already a push to extend euthanasia to the mentally ill, those suffering from dementia, and even miners. These people are afraid, these people are suffering, these people are alone, they don’t need death, they need love. The lepers in Galilee needed love. The lepers on the island of Molokai needed love. And so too the dying in our community need love.
We can show the love of God and our love to the terminally ill, in two ways: First, directly, we can visit them. If you know someone in the hospital, visit them. A family member or a friend. Think of how much it would mean to them to spend some time with them, to hug them, to pray with them in their illness.
The second way to show love is indirectly by providing better care. For this we need to turn to those who make decisions about health care, our provincial MPs. Right now only one third of terminally ill patients have access to hospice care. Without adequate care patients can feel pressured to choose euthanasia. We can petition our MPs to dedicate more resources to hospice care in Ontario to help with this.
We can also, help by supporting doctors and institutions who do not wish to offer euthanasia. Currently, Ontario law is trying to force doctors to be involved in euthanasia against their conscience. If we are to build a system that cares for the dying, then we need to support these doctors.
At the back of the church there is a pamphlet by the coalition for Healthcare and Conscience. It explains the situation in Canada and leads you to their website with sample letters to write to our MP. Please read this pamphlet and help out.
The societies of Hawaii and Israel chose to cut off their lepers from society, Jesus and St. Damian, chose to show them love. In some ways our society is not all that different from theirs, while some want to cut people off, we need to choose to show them love.