Here is this morning’s sermon from First Presbyterian Church of Boonville, NY.
The text is Luke 17:11-19.
When I was a college student, some friends and I got to spend one spring break assisting with a church mission project in Romania. We deplaned in the city Bucharest with no small amount of trepidation. Border crossing in eastern Europe can be a tricky process. Americans are often detained for little or no reason. Customs agents assume that any American traveling abroad must be filthy rich, so they will sometimes hold people until they are offered a bribe in American dollars.
We held our breath and said a prayer as we approached the gate. To our surprise, the gate was completely empty. Not wanting to create an incident, we set our packs down and waited. After an hour or more, no officers had come to the kiosk. The front door to the airport was only a few meters away and our transportation was waiting on the other side. We looked around, looked back at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and went for it. Even though friends of ours had been detained and arrested in years past, we went through without any hassle. Nobody even stopped or questioned us. To be honest, I was a little disappointed because it was my first time out of the U.S. and I was looking forward to getting my passport stamped!
Crossing borders of any kind is a risky business. When you leave familiar territory behind, you become vulnerable. You force yourself to open up to new people and new experiences. You depend on the kindness of strangers in order to survive.
Jesus and his disciples are crossing a border in today’s gospel reading. The text tells us that they are “going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” They are walking through an “in-between space” that is neither here nor there. Like me when I was entering Romania, they probably don’t know what to expect. They are in an uncomfortable situation where anything can happen.
As they travel through this “in-between space”, they encounter the kinds of people one would expect to be living on the outskirts of civilization. The particular outcasts they meet on this day are people who have been quarantined due to infectious skin diseases. The word “leprosy” is somewhat misleading because it can refer to any of a number of medical conditions. Modern leprosy is a particular condition (also known as Hansen’s disease) that attacks the skin and peripheral nervous system, causing lesions and numbness.
People living in quarantine (sometimes called “leper colonies”) were excluded from mainstream society. They were cut off from friends and family. They could no longer pursue their livelihood in a meaningful way. Jewish law required them to wear torn clothing, let their hair grow long, and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” any time another person came near.
Leprosy was, of course, a public health issue in the ancient Middle East. However, it was also understood to be a moral and spiritual issue as well. The Hebrew word, tzaarath, literally means “smiting”. The ancient Israelites believed that God would smite people with leprosy as punishment for their sins. So, people in that society believed that victims of leprosy had somehow brought it upon themselves. This made the attack personal as lepers were exiled from social, economic, and religious life.
This is why the text tells us that the ten lepers were “keeping their distance” from Jesus as they called out for mercy. They were not only physically distant for medical reasons. They were spiritually distant for what they believed to be moral reasons. The members of this group no doubt consider themselves to be among the “damned” in their society.
Later in the passage, we learn that one of the lepers is a Samaritan. Samaritans and Jews shared a common heritage, but there was a great deal of animosity between them. Part of this tension was ethnic in origin. The Jews claimed that the people of Samaria had inter-married with neighboring ethnic groups, thus polluting the pure Jewish bloodline. However, like leprosy, the presence of a Samaritan also had moral significance. Jews accused Samaritans of mixing the worship of the one true God with polytheistic beliefs and practices. Thus, the Jewish people believed they had solid biblical and theological basis for their outright rejection of Samaritans.
Knowing this background about leprosy and Samaritans makes Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan leper all the more shocking. This person would have been seen as the “lowest of the low” from a Jewish perspective. Yet, after the miraculous healing, Jesus (the Jewish Messiah!) praises this Samaritan for his faith. How shocking is that?!
In order to drive this point home, let me retell this story with a contemporary twist. I warn you: this may sound controversial to some, but I think it highlights the dramatic significance of Jesus’ words and actions in this story from Luke’s gospel.
Like Jesus and the disciples, our churches and our society have been “crossing borders” for many decades. We are asking hard questions that may bring us to re-examine old beliefs. Many of us feel vulnerable and uncomfortable in these uncertain times. Like the characters in this gospel story, our society has been facing an extended public health crisis that is believed to have not only medical, but also moral significance. Those who live with HIV/AIDS are still stigmatized by society-at-large and sometimes blamed for their condition. Like the conflict between Jews and Samaritans, many Christians today are struggling to come to terms with people who are different from ourselves, especially when we believe that difference to have moral and spiritual significance. I can think of no one more like Samaritans in our contemporary society than gay men and lesbian women.
I am not here to offend you. Nor am I here to espouse any kind of political agenda from the pulpit. I’m here today to talk about Jesus and the kind of person he is. Many faithful and learned Christians currently disagree with one another on the proper interpretation of the Scriptures when it comes to homosexuality. I’m asking you this morning to put aside that argument for just a moment, so that we can look past the issues themselves and maybe learn something about who Jesus is.
Let’s hear this story again:
It happened that as Jesus made his way toward Jerusalem, he crossed over the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten men, all HIV-positive, met him. They kept their distance but raised their voices, calling out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Taking a good look at them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”
They went, and while still on their way, became clean. One of them, when he realized that he was healed, turned around and came back, shouting his gratitude, glorifying God. He kneeled at Jesus’ feet, so grateful. He couldn’t thank him enough—and he was gay.
Jesus said, “Were not ten healed? Where are the nine? Can none be found to come back and give glory to God except this gay man?” Then he said to him, “Get up. On your way. Your faith has healed and saved you.”
What kind of person is this Jesus? Jesus is the kind of person who crosses dangerous borders with boldness! Jesus is the kind of person who welcomes hurting strangers with words of healing and reconciliation! Jesus is the kind of person who celebrates the faith of people who feel excluded from traditional houses of worship!
This truth has dramatic implications for us as recipients of this amazing love. First of all, it means that whenever we feel the need to “keep our distance” from God or others, Jesus comes to meet us with his good news of healing and wholeness. Some of us might feel like we are closest to God when we are outside church. We might sense God’s presence most when we are walking in the woods, listening to music, or playing with a child. If that’s you, then I have good news for you. Jesus comes to you with these words: “Your faith has made you well.”
This truth also has dramatic implications for us as followers of Jesus. People’s lives are hanging in the balance as they experience isolation and exclusion. For example, many of us have heard about the suicide of college student Tyler Clementi, who jumped off a bridge a few weeks ago after being humiliated by his peers because he was gay. However we interpret our Scriptures, I think we can all agree that no one should be driven to the point of suicide by a tasteless prank. Jesus loves Tyler Clementi. Whatever else we may think, our first calling, as Christians, is to love others as Jesus loves them. When we feel uncomfortable or vulnerable while crossing borders (as a church and a society), we are called to go out with words of healing, not judgment or exclusion. Furthermore, we are called to celebrate the faith we find in the people we meet in those “in-between spaces”. It may not look like ours, it may come from the person we least expect, but it is real. And Jesus celebrates it, just as Jesus celebrates each one of us.