One came back - A sermon for Proper 23 C based on Luke 17: 11-19
Borders are dangerous places. They are the places where opposing powers come into conflict. Think of the artificial borders of World War 1 or that of Israel and Palestine. In times of animosity nowhere is more dangerous than a border. And then in some cities there are borders between areas of great wealth and those of great poverty.
Sometimes measure are taken to create security. In World War 1 trenches were dug. Out in Israel/Palestine a walll has been constructed to keep out those who might threaten harm to Israel. And gaited communities have increasingly emerged to protect the wealthy from the great unwashed.
In this morning's gospel reading Jesus is at a border or perhaps a sort on "no man's" land. On one side is Samaria. on the other side is Galilee. And here we meet two peoples who have little regard for each other.
The history of this particular conflict lay many centuries earlier. Samaria hasd been then home of ten of the twelve tribes of Israel. But in the eighth century BC the armies of Assyria had overrun them. Many Jewish people were taken into exile whilst many non Jewish people were planted into the land. The result was a people who were racially mixed and seen as religiously comprimised. Of particular significance was that these Samaritans looked to worship God at Mount Gerizim as opposed to the Jewish practice of worshipping God at the temple in Jerusalem.
By the time of Jesus the poison betwen two peoples had been running for several centuries and both peoples had their folklore of insults from the other people. And so at the time of Jesus it was normal for Jewish people to keep away from Samaritans even if it meant journeys being much longer as a result.
Luke has himself shown us something of the bad relationship between the two people. Samaritans have refused to receive Jesus and so James and John have responded with a desire to call down fire from heaven to consume them. Jesus has rebuled them and even later told a story in which a Samaritans has emerged as the epitome of good neigbourliness. In this we see the Jesus who refuses to be governed by the man made barriers that separate peoples and keep them apart.
In this narrative we find a group of lepers. Now it is probable that they were not suffering from Hansen's disease which we think of as leprosy today. It is probably some other skin disease. But just because it was not that which is so dreaded today doesn't mean that being a leper was anything other than an awful experience. Any skin disease is unpleasant as I know having a daughter who has had exzema. But the probablem in this culture was greater for there was a fear of such diseases being contagious. So lepers were forced out from their communities to fend for themselves. "Unclean! Unclean!" became the traditional cry of the leper. So it was that these lepers crying out to Jesus were a community of need. And in need perhaps it didn't quite matter who was a Jew and who was a Samaritan - perhaps it need never have been other for Galilean and Samaritan alike were looked down upon by the Jerusalm elite and so perhaps should have made common cause without needing to be cast out first!
We do not see Jesus actually work a healing. He simply tells the lepers to go and show themselves to the priests. After all it was the priests who could certify that they were clean and so enable them to return to normal society. And quite clearly at some point the lepers whilst on the road discover that indeed the leprosy has gone. Now nine of them carry on with their journey. And indeed they are doing exactly what Jesus has told them to do. We can imagine their excitement for Jesus has in a sense rehumanised them. They are fully human once more. They count again! Dignity is restored.
But one leper comes back. One wonders why he was even on the road. After all no priest would have much time for him. Oh his leprosy might be gone but no priest is going to certify that he is free from Samaritanism. The journey will only lead him towards rejection. Yet this despised Samaritan is to be the one blessed most of all. He wants to see Jesus. He wants to thank God for what has happened. And even if his theological understanding is back to front, he wants the world to know that God has been working in his life and that he fully recognises the fact. No wonder Jesus sees him as one who has attained a wholeness, a wellbeing that goes beyond mere cure.
I rather like this story. too often the church has dehumanised those who don't fit in with its thinking but Jesus rehumanises thosewho bore the scars and indeed the stigma of leprosy. Censorious people and the religiously orthodox would sense divine judgement in their sufferings but Jesus would see in their suffering merely an opportunity for divine grace. And that grace would be most remarkably displayed through the greatest outsider of them all.
Indeed here we see the inclusiveness of Jesus. His grace builds bridges where foolish men have erected walls and barriers. And too often the church has been part of the problem. Our history is littered with the anti semitism that made the Holocaust possible. Misfits were persecuted as witches and even killed by the Medieval Church. Africans were enslaved and elsewhere treated as lesser in part at least due to Christendom's perversion of scripture. And time and again every prophetic voice for justice and liberation has been confronted by other voices using scripture and church tradition to drown out the cries for freedom. And what of today? Sometimes within the church we can be dismissive of the faith journey of those of other faiths, nowadays especially Muslims. We can at times be cruel to those whose sexuality leads them to seek loving same sex relationships. We can at times treat with disdain those trapped in poverty or disability.
Yet this scripture challenges us to new ways of seeing God's world. For God values not just those who think and act as us. Far from it God is radically inclusive in love. And we can keep up with God or get left behind. But keeping up with God means rejoicing in those times when God's grace is revealed in surprising ways and to surprising people. Keeping up with God means identifying with God's work of giving value to all, of rehumanising the dehumanised. And then like a Samaritan whose religious understanding may have been all at sea, giving to God the thanks that are well and truly due to God.