a sermon based upon Luke 17:11-14
We’ve spent quite a bit of time and attention this morning on the African American celebration called “Kwanzaa”. Those seven basic principles are firmly in mind, thanks to Rev. Ginny Titus’ script, as well as in your hand in the worship bulletin. We were going to adjourn to Fellowship Hall for a Kwanzaa meal, cooked for us by Ginny Titus, but we decided to wait on that until the Martin Luther King, Jr, holiday weekend in January. On Jan. 19, there will be further explanations -- and biographies of significant African Americans -- on each table. For today (instead), we will take Lynne Borke’s invitation to heart and we’ll head on down the road for a Holiday Party extravaganza! (Thanks!)
Because of all that time and attention having already been spent before my sermon… and a party at the Borke’s to look forward to… my remarks this morning will be brief – an interlude, so to speak: an “intermission” between Acts One and Two.
It seems to be the right thing to do on this “odd” Sunday… five days after Christmas, and three days before the New Year – in fact, since 2020 will start a new decade… may I be the first to wish you a “Happy New Decade!”
This is a kind-of “in between” Sunday… with the sanctuary still decorated for Christmas… as we await the arrival of the three “wise-men” next Sunday (Epiphany) which will formally end the “12 Days of Christmas”. We sang “We need a little Christmas”… but we also sang African songs in honor of “Kwanzaa”. We’re kind’a in between!
In the stores, the Christmas sales are over, and the New Year’s “Inventory Clearance” is just getting started. We’re between seasons. And we’re hanging up new calendars.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I put up a fresh, new calendar, I look back at the old one – so full of appointments and activities, travels and memories of one kind or another… And the new one, so empty -- so many dates still uncommitted, ready to plan. We are at an in-between time, about to cross a “boundary” of sorts.
So, too, in today’s text… As we accompany Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, Luke tells us that “he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee.” (Luke 17:11) He’s on a boundary… literally!
Jesus was “passing along between Samaria and Galilee.” Since I have twice led former church members on Holy Land tours in Israel/Palestine, I realize there is a problem here. You see, there isn’t anything between Samaria and Galilee. It’s a border. To say that Jesus is passing along “between Samaria and Galilee” would be like saying someone in Sturgis is “between” Michigan and Indiana. To be “between” Samaria and Galilee is like being “between” Michigan and Ohio. You’re either in the one or in the other. Jesus is on the border, at the state-line.
And here, on this margin, Jesus is “in between” two cultures: Samaritans to the South and the Jews of Galilee to the North – an ethnic divide as toxic in his day as are the conflicts between Palestinian Arabs & Israeli nationalists today!
As you know, Israel has built a huge “separation barrier” to enclose the Palestinian territories and isolate Jewish settlers from their Arab and Christian neighbors. (!) I’m sure you’re also aware that even in America there are people who want to put up walls on our borders. Here at First Church, on every communion Sunday, we sing: “Walls Mark Our Bound’ries… and keep us apart. Walls make us sure of who’s “in” and who’s “out”… literal walls & figurative ones.
Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, was passing thru a borderland.
Jesus enters a village. Maybe it’s on the Galilean side; maybe it’s in Samaria. We don’t know because Luke doesn’t tell us. (The Israeli Wall had not yet been built!) Jesus is crossing a boundary. He is “in between”!
As he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers. (Luke 17:12)
This, too, would be a problem for most folks. (!) Lepers were considered “unclean” … because their dreaded skin disease was highly contagious. Jesus is on the boundary between health & disease.
All the way back in Numbers, chapter 5, Moses says: “Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp every leper, and everyone having a discharge, and everyone that is unclean through contact with the dead. You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.” (unquote) (Num. 5:2-3)
This is very harsh treatment of one who is grieving the death of someone close to them, or who has a bodily “discharge”. (!) But it is particularly harsh for the diseased leper. Leviticus 13:45-46 says:
The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothing, and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, “Unclean! Unclean!” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. (!) He shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp. (unquote)
William Barclay (who was a Pastor in Glasgow, Scotland, and Professor of New Testament at New College in Edinburgh) writes in his commentary (“The Daily Study Bible: the Gospel of Luke” © 1953, revised 1975, The Westminster Press: Philadelphia, PA, page 218):
“The lepers stood far off. There was no specified distance at which they should stand, but we know that at least one authority laid it down that, when he was to windward of a healthy person, the leper should stand at least fifty yards away. [That’s one half of a football field distant!] Nothing could better show the utter isolation in which lepers lived.” (unquote)
Jesus was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance, and lifted up their voices and said: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” (Luke 17:12-13) They were supposed to shout “Unclean! Unclean!”, but these men and women broke the Law and asked for mercy instead.
When Jesus saw them, he said to them: “Go and show your-selves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. (Luke 17:14) The story has a happy ending. Jesus’ health (apparently) was a stronger power than their ten-fold disease. As they went away to show themselves to the priests – a process which was also provided for in Torah Law, by which a person could be certified as “healed” and thus able to be re-integrated into their family and community – the ten discovered that they were cleansed. Hallelujah! Good news!
These ten lepers were as “marginal” a group as could ever be imagined in Jesus’ day – a community of homeless outcasts – sick physically and isolated socially! When they asked for mercy, they were approaching the border between “sickness” and “health… between “unclean” and “clean”, between “excluded” and “included”. They are tired of being separated from their families and friends. They want – no, they need! – to be healed; to be made whole, made right again. For Jesus to show mercy, for them, meant crossing those boundaries and being restored. Being “saved!” Hallelujah!
For those ten lepers to head off toward the priests -- to get their certificates of good health -- must have taken faith on their part! They were still wearing torn clothes, and their hair was still hanging loose, when Jesus sent them on their way. They had to believe that things would change!
But that’s the thing about Jesus: he’s in the “change” business!
Jesus shows up at the “border”. And it seems to me that he is most powerful at those “in between” times… in those in-between places… on the margins. Where people need to change, he comes to them. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels seems to enjoy “crossing boundaries” of what everybody else thinks, and what he knows is possible… for the one who believes, the ones who have faith, who have hope, and who are willing to show mercy.
In our private lives, we may not be facing any literal borders, physical boundaries, but our body politic has sure put up some walls! We’ve got all kinds of ways to determine “who’s in” and “who’s out” … who’s on the “right” side and who isn’t…. Try being “black” in white America! (I doubt very many “white” Christian churches are celebrating “Kwanzaa” this week! We’re crossing a boundary, folks, thanks to Rev. Ginny Titus.) Try being a woman in a “man’s world”.
People have become polarized in politics. (!) Those folks who watch FOX News don’t want to “mix it up” with MS-NBC or CNN-viewers; & vice versa! We want “Americans” here and “immigrants” there! “Impeachment supporters” here and folks who “brush it off” there. Democrats here and Republicans there… each holding their own rallies for their own followers, with no efforts toward bi-partisan-ship… no compromise allowed! We don’t want to “mix things up.” We want things in their “proper” places: black & white, rich & poor; “us” and “them”. You know the drill! We want people either in Samaria or in Galilee, not “passing along between” things! Many people are uncomfortable with thinking “both/and” (they prefer “either/or”); they don’t like the “margins”, the “in-between” places.
I get that. But if Jesus is our role model, we’ve got to get used to it! Jesus has come to save us… all of us… and the frontier is right here, in this “in between” time, in this “changing” season. Have faith!