Back to Index

Listen to sermon by clicking here:

There'll Be a Leper on Every Road
April 4, 1976

St. Paul's United Methodist Church


Some time ago, I shared an incident with you from the life of St. Francis of Assisi. I’d like to repeat that story and then go into the next phase. St. Francis of Assisi known throughout all history as a saint for his doing, for his actions. Rather than making any contribution to our understanding of God, he set an example to us of finding and doing God's will. One day he said to his companion Brother Leo, “Joy, real joy in living is finding and doing God's will. For the will of God is really what we want to do deep down within ourselves. And to discover that and to do it is joy.” Brother Leo asked, “But Francis, how do you know what is the will of God? When you have conflicting desires, when you have all kinds of things coming in on you, how do you know what God really wants you to do?” And Francis replied, “Whichever is the most difficult is the will of God.” 

He then went on to say something that I'm sure we can all identify with. He said, “Sometimes I really don't know what I want to do. But many times I know what I do not want to do. What really upsets me, what really bothers me, what really frightens me, what really scares me, I know I don't want to do.”  And Brother Leo asked, “What is that? What is that, Francis, which you most fear? What is that which you most despise?” Francis thought a bit and answered, “Lepers, lepers.” 

We don't know much about leprosy in this day and age. Leprosy is a disease of the ancient world. It begins with a skin rash and then spreads until it disintegrates the skin, disintegrates bone, muscle, and causes all kinds of ugliness. It is a contagious disease. The lepers in Jesus’ day were banished outside the villages. 

In the Middle Ages, when St. Francis lived, they were shunned. They were ignored and when they went anywhere, when they walked anywhere, they were required to to ring a bell so the people could hear the bell, know that a leper was coming, and could get out of the way. Francis said, “I just can't help myself. There's something about a leper that disgusts me, repels me, horrifies me. And I hope God never asks me to minister to lepers.” Sometime later, as they were traveling along a road, Francis stopped and said, “Did you hear it?” Leo said, “Hear what?” “Do you hear the ringing of the bell?” And around the corner far in the distance, they could see a leper walking slowly, stumbling with his cane, his staff, with a bell attached. Brother Leo looked at Francis. Francis' lower jaw was shivering, his whole body was quaking. Leo said, “Let's get out of here. Let's go another way. Come on.” But Francis said, “No, we won't run. There'll be a leper on every road.” 

Into each of our lives comes things, problems, crises, obstacles in the road. As we walk along our journey to life, as we walk along our journey to the glory and kingdom of God, facing us, confronting us from time to time will be those things that we hate, that we despise, that repel us, that cause us to want to go and put our head under a pillow, that we just don't want to face. I spent last evening with a family whose 16 year old son was just killed in an accident. They've got to face something no one wants to face: the death of a loved one. A crisis of death bombards and pressures itself into our existence and stands in the road. 

What do you do with it? Many people are facing cancer, surgery, or illnesses like alcoholism, drug addiction, emotional illness. There it is in the road. Or interpersonal relationships, areas of difficulty with one’s spouse, one's mate, one's children, areas that are causing problems and ripping the marriage apart. There it is, what are you going to do with it? Or with friends, especially teenagers, the most important thing is to make friends. There's so much trouble in trying to keep friends—arguments, hurting each other, breaking up. When it happens, and when it stands there in the road, what do you do with it? Or how about the the leper that gets inside us when we feel insecure, when we doubt whether we can make it, when we doubt our own ability, when we doubt our own capability of making it. And we have the anxiety of self doubt that stands in the road. What do we do with what is blocking our way on the journey to life? 

There are many options open to us, many alternatives. One very popular alternative to handle the leper is to shut your eyes and plug your ears because if you plug your ears, then you can’t hear the bell ringing. If I shut my eyes, then it isn't there. It isn't really happening if I can just keep my eyes shut. Or some people live in some dream world, some fantasy and try to go through life with their eyes closed, trying to pretend as if the obstacle, the problem really isn't there. Now that approach may work for a while but when you walk around with your eyes shut, you're liable to run into things. You're liable to run into that very leper out there, that very problem and endure the possibility of getting more hurt because you're unprepared. 

In our house, Craig and I are great sleepwalkers. We walk all over the house all hours of the night. When I get up in the night intentionally with my eyes open and my senses alert, I can maneuver my way all over the house without running into things. But when I'm sleepwalking, when my eyes are shut, I run into walls that just do not fit my dream. I run into chairs or I open the door and go outside. There are all kinds of experiences trying to manage life with your eyes shut but you're liable to get hurt because you're unprepared for the lepers. 

Another option of handling the situation when you run up against something there in the road is to turn around and go the other way, to retreat, to go backwards, back to Mother, back to some time when it was safe, warm, cozy and comfortable, back to childhood, like the nostalgia we're going through now on Mickey Mouse clubs and Howdy Doody and all that stuff, all those songs and dress styles in the past as if the adult world is just too much. Wouldn't it be nice to go back to when I was a child! Funny how we forget all the pains of childhood. We just remember that it was warm, cozy and comfortable. But the trouble with going backward to life is that the best days have already happened, and your back is to the future. You're a misfit. 

Another option, another alternative is to take a detour. There's something in my road, there’s a problem, a crisis, a confrontation I would really not rather meet, I'll take a detour. I'll go off this way. I'll go through the meadow and over the hill. It may work for a while. But Francis had the insight. There will be a leper on every road. No matter what road you take, there will be a leper. Even if you've taken the wrong road, the road that leads to nothing, rather than the road that leads to life, you still have to handle that obstacle, that leper. 

I believe you were placed on this earth not for you to be comfortable, not for you to find an easy existence. You and I were not put here to find pleasure. We were not put here to find happiness and when we pursue happiness, when we pursue pleasure, we're off on the wrong road. Happiness is a byproduct. Praise God if you've discovered happiness, but it's a byproduct, it's a gift. It's not a goal. You and I were not placed here for ease, comfort, pleasure or happiness. You were placed on this earth to grow, to discover who you are as a person, to discover all the potential and ability in you, and to train it, to unleash it, to free yourself to become the best possible person you can be, to learn and grow in following God and serving him in this world. 

That's why we are here. And growth involves pain. Learning involves pain for we only change when the pain of not changing is too great to bear. You and I are put here to grow. And the problems, the crises, the slaps, the hurt and the suffering that come to us help us grow, learn,  find strength, stamina and endurance, as we accept what God gives us, as we accept the leper. Therefore, meet the leper. Face it directly, face it openly. 

When St. Francis and Brother Leo saw the leper approaching, St. Francis put himself back together, decided to go forward, and put himself completely into it. He ran to the leper with his arms outstretched to embrace the leper. Brother Leo wrote that it was a revolting sight. Half of the leper’s nose was gone. He only had stumps for hands, all his fingers were gone. On his lips was an oozing wound. He was not beautiful to look at. Besides that, leprosy is a contagious disease. But Francis ran, embraced the leper and kissed him on those lips. Francis lifted him up, covered him with his robe and carried him off to the city. Francis embraced his problem, he embraced his difficulty. God's will for you and for me often is to do what we hate to do, what we don't want to do, but to do what we must do. 

Francis embraced the leper. He carried him to the city and along the way, he lifted the robe, and the leper was gone, disappeared. Francis realized that the leper had been Jesus Christ. Christ had come to him in the person of the leper. Christ had come to him in the person of that which he did not want to face. Francis had embraced him. And in joy, his face was resplendent in the glory of God. He fell on the ground with tears flowing in joy. He could not contain the joy that comes in doing the will of God: facing, embracing, meeting openly, confronting that which God gives him—not running, not pretending it's not there. When facing difficulties in relationships, in marriage or in the family, open them up and deal with them. Deal directly with death, the grief process, illness, inner doubts and insecurities. Face them. Deal with them. Meet them.

And in the meeting. God will be there. God is in the facing. God is in the confronting. When lepers come on your road, don't run. Don't shut your eyes. Don't pretend they're not there. Embrace them. Embrace them in thanksgiving and in gratitude that God has given you another opportunity to grow. Embrace them and Christ will meet you there.

© 1976 Douglas I. Norris