Encounters in the border land

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Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

This sermon was originally delivered at Evening Prayer, at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Enid, Okla., on Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

In today’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus traveling through a border region – one of those in-between, desolate places, where one can easily become lost.

I can’t read the opening of this passage without remembering a day I became lost in a similar place. It’s a bit embarrassing – which is likely why my family likes this story – but I inadvertently ended up on the wrong side of Texas.

This unfortunate slip-up started with an eye exam. I was stationed with the Navy in Kingsville, Texas, which is on the south Gulf coast – so, on the east side of the Rio Grande Valley. This medical exam required me to drive roughly three hours to San Antonio, where my eyes were dilated.

I was assured there would be no problems driving a car for the return trip to Kingsville, but when I got in the car I found all of the road signs were blurred beyond recognition. But, I knew where I was headed. No problem.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a story if there weren’t a problem. And that came at a split in the highway between I-37, which heads to Kingsville, and I-35, which terminates at the U.S. border with Mexico in Laredo, Texas – 120 miles west of Kingsville. As I am sure you have guessed, I missed that split in the highway and proceeded blissfully down I-35, happily, blindly, headed toward Laredo. My first indication I was lost came when I found myself standing on the side of the highway, squinting in the afternoon sun at a sign that said “US-Mexico Border 5 miles.”

In my little navigation error, I ended up in the wrong place, because I was blind to the signs I needed to follow. I couldn’t see clearly the world around me, and my proper place in it.

When we find ourselves in that place, spiritually or physically – lost, blind to our path, feeling hopeless – Christ is there to lead us. And that’s where we find the 10 lepers and Jesus in our Gospel reading. As lepers they have been pushed out of society. They have been shunned. They are reviled. They’re left to wander – unseen, forgotten – in this border land.

Jesus found them there, lost to themselves, lost to the world around them, and they cried out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” He came to them. He made them clean. He sent them on their way. And only one returned to give thanks.

There’s an obvious, and important, message on the surface of this passage. We are the lepers. We are sinful. We are spiritually unclean. We are lost without Jesus. But, humanity cries out to him, “Have mercy on us!,” and in his atoning sacrifice he washes us clean. In his resurrection he removes from us the mark of death. And he sends us into the world: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And we should be grateful.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of that message. We are clean. We are saved. We should be grateful. And, we could probably stop there, cut this sermon short, and be the first ones to lunch. But, there is more going on in this passage. And it says a lot about how we’re meant to live in the world.

The setting of this passage is important, and not just because it gave me an opportunity to embarrass myself with that story about getting lost in Texas. Jesus is in the border land between Galilee and Samaria. To his Jewish audience, they would have recognized that as the boundary between the accepted and desirable on one side – Galilee – and the reviled, unclean and undesirable on the other – Samaria.

In Jesus’ day, to call someone a Samaritan was an insult. To associate with them was socially unthinkable. There was a Jewish saying of the day that “a piece of bread given by a Samaritan is more unclean than swine’s flesh.” And in John 8, when the Pharisees want to discredit Jesus, they accuse him: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and are possessed?” They wanted to assassinate Jesus’ character by tying him to Samaria and to Samaritans.

And yet, in today’s passage, Jesus puts Samaria right there in the middle of the story. Just as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus uses this separation between the desired and undesirable to teach us about how we see with the eyes of this world, and how we’re meant to see with the eyes of the Holy Spirit.

With the eyes of the Holy Spirit, we step into that border land between the desirable and undesirable, and we no longer see desirable and undesirable. We no longer see “us” and “them.” We only see children of God, crying out in a dark, lost world, “Have mercy on us!”

There are lots of examples of this border land in our lives today – the places where we make distinctions between who we accept and who we reject; who is acceptable and who is not; who we exalt and who we revile. The obvious example – and I’m not going to dwell on it, but I am not going to skip over it either – is our nation’s southern border, where I got lost that day, and where our nation seems to be lost today – our eyes unable or unwilling to see the teaching and the example of Christ.

But, there are lots of other border lands in our lives – the places where we draw the line between the desired “us” and the undesirable “them.” We have plenty of borders, right here in our community, and in our hearts, between the haves and have-nots – between those who are acceptable in our society, and those we’d rather not see.

Our society, when we allow it to see with the eyes of this world, doesn’t want to see the homeless man sleeping in the shadow of our church, suffering from drug addiction and mental illness. Our society, in the eyes of this world, doesn’t like to think about the forgotten in our nursing homes – our elders – who may not receive any visitors until hospice comes to call. We don’t like to see the broken family – a single parent working two part-time jobs, who can’t afford child care or to feed the kids when school’s not in session. We don’t like to think about that family when the parent gets sick, and even with two jobs, can’t afford to see the doctor. We don’t like to see the 16-year-old girl, who’s been told by our society a thousand times a day she’s only worth as much as she can be appealing to the eyes of a man, who becomes pregnant chasing that affirmation.

We create borders of comfort between ourselves and these lepers in our society, and in our lives. But, Jesus tramples on those borders. He tears them down. He walks right up to the lepers, he walks right up to us, and says “I see you. I love you. You are clean.”

But, only one returns. Only one shows gratitude. And who is this one? Who is the one who returns? It is the Samaritan. It is the reviled one. Who is exalted in this Gospel passage? Who is exalted in our story? The ones we exclude. The ones we shun. The ones we push into the margins, and into the border lands of our society. The ones we banish to the dark corners of our hearts. These are the ones Christ walks to. And, just as important, these are the ones Christ calls us to walk to, to walk beside, to listen for their cry of “Have mercy,” and answer in love, in charity, compassion and grace, with the eyes of the Holy Spirit.

And, finally, we have to ask ourselves: Where did Jesus send those who were healed? Where does he send us? He told them “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” In a literal sense, he was telling them to go and show the temple authorities you’re clean enough to re-enter society. But, I believe he’s telling them – and us – something greater. He was telling them – and us – to go and show the priests, show the temple leaders, show the Church, what Christ can do in the world. He calls to us today to go and show our priests, our pastors, the leaders of contemporary Christianity, what it looks like when we carry the crucified and risen Lord beyond the walls of our sanctuaries, beyond the time and space confines of Church on Sunday.

He calls us to get outside our comfort zones. To get outside the walls of the temple, and to follow him into the border lands of our nation, of our community and of our hearts. He calls us to see and serve him in the lepers we find there, crying out in the darkness we’ve made of God’s creation, “Have mercy on me!”

This is a hard walk, to take up our cross and follow Christ – to be the hands and feet of Christ – in these border lands. To serve those who are reviled, marginalized, forgotten, shunned and looked down on by the eyes of this world — that is a hard path.

But, St. Paul reminds us in our reading today from Second Timothy: “If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us.” To follow Christ, we must take up our cross, and die to this world — die to the borders we’ve created between “us” and “them,” and rise to live in Christ’s Kingdom, where he is reflected and loved in all God’s children. We must endure in the border lands with him, kneeling before those this society rejects, to answer fear and hardness of heart with courage and compassion.

Christ is calling to us from these border lands. He has healed us. And he is waiting for us to return, to throw ourselves down in praise and thanks, and then rise. Rise to serve. To love. To heal a broken world with the grace of God.

Let us pray.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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