Thankfulness and praise in the in-between places
Proper 23, Revised Common Lectionary Year C Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7; Psalm 66: 1-11;
2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17: 11-19
October 13, 2019; St. Andrew’s, Shippensburg;
Dina Carter Ishler
Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
May we worship as we baptize- in the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Today we meet Jesus doing some of the things Jesus does best, especially in Luke’s Gospel- crossing borders, going places everyone else is afraid to go. We already know from earlier in Luke that Jesus has “set his face” to go to Jerusalem, faithful to the journey that will lead him to the Cross, and on the way is traveling through many different locations, encountering a complex variety of situations and people. In this story, Jesus is described as going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. This is a real in-between place, a no man’s land in the truest sense of the term. It is a place where it is impossible to forget that two regions had once been one, but there is no oneness here- the aftereffects of exile have left too deep a mark. It is a place where it’s easy to be uncertain or distrustful, not knowing what the “local rules” actually are. We are in the badlands here and it’s a place where we’re not completely sure who really belongs and who does not. We’ll get some much-needed help with this last concept though, because Luke tells us. As Jesus enters a village, ten lepers approach him, being careful to keep the prescribed distance between themselves and anyone considered a “clean” member of society. Calling Jesus “Master”, they ask for mercy. Jesus sees them and tells them to go and show themselves to the priests, and as they go, they realize they are already cured. Of the ten, only one- a Samaritan, described by Jesus as a foreigner, throws himself at Jesus’ feet and loudly thanks and praises him for his healing. He then receives something more- he is told that his faith has made him well.
Before we go any further, I want to justify my use of the word “foreigner”- it’s certainly not a term I’d casually use in a cocktail party or coffee hour conversation, but it is the term we hear in today’s Gospel. And it’s done for important reasons, ones that are crucial to this story. So, I ask that you suspend any previous conceptions around this word so we can explore its meaning here and through that, ways this story has meaning for us as well.
To be a foreigner- a stranger in a strange land- is an unenviable position. It is lonely and hard- so little is familiar, and one’s new home never quite feels like home. Many people desperately long for the place of their birth with an ache that never quite leaves them, especially if it is a place to which they will never return. Willa Cather, who wrote extensively of life on the American prairie, describes in great detail the Bohemian people who brought their families to a new land so vastly different than “the old country.” In Cather’s masterpiece My Antonia, Antonia tells her best friend: “Jim, if I was put down there in the middle of the night, I could find my way all over that little town; and along the river to the next town, where my grandmother lived. My feet remember all the little paths through the woods and where the big roots stick out to trip you. I ain’t never forgot my own country.” Even in situations when returning to one’s homeland would mean persecution and death, it remains lovingly and permanently etched in the memory.
Our Old Testament reading from Jeremiah speaks so poignantly of this, as Jeremiah passes on the message from God intended for all the people living in exile in Babylon. Build houses and live in them, the message says, plant gardens and eat well of their produce, marry and raise families. Seek the welfare of the city of your exile, and link its fate with your own- “for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Thrive in your new place, this message seems to say, embrace your life even if you are foreigners here and long for a return to Israel that you may not see in this earthly life. This passage embodies all the peculiar tension of living in a strange land- any hope that is clung to, no matter how small or unrealistic, of going back is overshadowed by the reality that this, now, is home.
Before all this begins to feel like someone else’s story, we need to remember our own histories of exile. To be having this conversation here, in the United States of America, almost certainly means we can claim a family history of exile, whether it was chosen or imposed against our will. Our stories may include experiences of immigrants seeking a better life, native Americans displaced from their land, or individuals who were (or are) enslaved. All people and communities of exile face the same challenge- to be a people without a true homeland, separated from the place with which they most deeply connect their identity. As we locate ourselves in today’s story, we discover the relationship between our personal narratives and those of our salvation history- the overarching theme of exile and homecoming that characterizes the people of Israel, that extends to the long-promised Messiah who would be born in a stable and spend his ministry crossing borders to bring salvation to all peoples yet find no lasting earthly home. The story of all salvation history, including our own stories, is the journey towards the eternal homeland that can only be found in God’s grace, personified in Jesus’ gift of wholeness, in knowing with certainty that “your faith has made you well.”
Borders can be places of danger and it is no surprise we want to avoid them- we feel vulnerable there, uncertain and exposed. Sometimes, our journeys into unknown regions can lead us across borders that are not physical. We may be afraid of the shifting borders in our families or our communities, may feel lost in regions of economic, social or political disruption. We may feel the pain of past exiles that have marked us individually or as communities, where the borders of race or gender or country of origin have marked us as “the foreigner.” And when we are defensive or afraid, our human tendency is to exclude-to mark people as “others” so that we ourselves feel safer, to put up barriers against people we want to keep out. The lepers in our story call out for mercy across not just the physical boundary of their uncleanness but across emotional and spiritual borders as well, separated from all community, even those from whom they beg for their very survival. When the border shifts just for a moment through nothing less than utter grace, they are freed to be on their way, to re-enter society and take up their interrupted lives. When they see they are healed, only one turns back to offer his thanks and praise- the Samaritan, the foreigner and outsider- the only one who would not be welcomed by the temple priests to receive the official proof of healing, institutional religion itself a boundary. Where once they were united in the shared misery of their disease, he is no longer one of the group- there is no “cure” for being a Samaritan in the eyes of the Jewish community.
Yet, it is at this point that we encounter the most wonderful moment of all in this story- through his offering of praise to God for his healing, the Samaritan receives an even greater gift through Jesus’ final words to him: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Various biblical translations give us different versions of this statement, including “your faith has healed you”, “made you whole”, and even “saved you.” To be cleansed and cured of the disease of the leprosy is not the same as this- through the sincerity of his praise, our Samaritan, the foreigner, is the only one to have his life transformed by the fullness of salvation. The borders have shifted once more- he who was the outsider is now the most intimate of insiders. He is the reminder that God’s grace knows no borders, that mercy and grace will not abide by the arbitrary lines we draw between each other and that God always frees the most unlikely messengers to announce God’s will and promote God’s mission.
Commentaries on this Gospel frequently caution that it is not just a tale about thank-you notes, that being grateful for God’s gifts is not our only takeaway here when in reality there is so much more. I believe the setting of the story itself is such a tremendous influence. In-between places are such hard places to be, in large part because we are not certain of what and where the borders are. We are not sure of who we are in there, much less who anyone else is or our relationship to them, so our vulnerability leads us to easily feel threatened. This may lead us to act in ways that are far from our best selves, instead of receiving the strangers among us as unforeseen gifts of God’s grace and allowing ourselves to be blessed by their stories and their offerings. Exploring gratitude in the in-between place needs a deep look at how richly it blooms there, that sometimes when everything else is in upheaval and we are foreigners to ourselves and others praise and thankfulness are more easily found and cherished, treasures of our lives that need no homeland but an everlasting one.
Our ten lepers were cut off from all they knew and loved and took for granted- they had become strangers in a painful and isolated in-between land. We can find ourselves in these regions as well- places where the borders shift between fear and acceptance, forgetfulness and thankfulness, sickness and healing, desperation and hope. These are places where we often find ourselves seeking Jesus’ healing mercy and for a good reason- they are places where the gift of grace shines brightly against a background of longing and uncertainty to bless not only ourselves but all others with whom we share them. We should not be surprised to meet Jesus there, doing what Jesus does best- smashing boundaries, crossing borders, freely sharing God’s grace with all, teaching us to do the same. Amen.