The account is short and it brings us a reminder of life in the pre-scientific world. "As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, 'Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!'"
For centuries there were people who were afflicted with all sorts of diseases and conditions that today, with gratitude to the scientific and medical community, no one ever need fear again. The drama that unfolds today is confirmation of the strength of fear. Here are ten souls, walking at a distance away from the main road as they were bound to do by law because of their condition. These were people who were born with real hopes and dreams-they once walked with purpose and meaning with their peers, and now-due to the accident of being in some place or other where they contracted this disease, their lives were as good as over.
Leprosy was the most feared disease, as it removed one from living one's life in community, while it tore at the body, causing infection and mutilation. These were people, real people whose health and hopes made them beg on the fringes. No cure awaited them, and fear of contagion preceded them on their death-march around civilization.
Jewish law was very precise-lepers could not come within a proscribed distance of someone who was "clean." Well into the Middle Ages, people with leprosy even had to wear special clothing, shake bells or shout the word, "unclean" ahead of them as they walked a distance away from the main road so that they would not come into contact with the un-afflicted.
And here we are today, with ten people with leprosy calling out to Jesus. Ten people, isolated from the families they once knew. Ten who lived with the pain of both their physical condition and the pain of ostracism from the world. Exhausted and friendless, they call out to Jesus.
Now, one thing that makes this story unusual is that these lepers are traveling with a Samaritan. Not only is this man a leper, but he is outside of the circle of acceptability, because of who he was born to be-someone considered not fully human, other, and therefore ineligible to be at the same table with the rest of society.
His religious practice is different.
His race sets him apart.
He is a foreigner--an immigrant in this country.
His orientation is that of someone who was born with different characteristics that make him impure even if he did not have leprosy.
Maybe you can remember what it was like to discover that you did not have the same access to a rightful place at the table. Maybe it is because of your gender and the remaining glass, or even stained glass ceilings that need to come down. Perhaps it is about race, or status or sexual orientation. Perhaps you can remember how it felt to begin to discover that at a very early age-to see others who walked about with a sense of entitlement, and your first inkling that yours was an uphill, or unequal, or even a dangerous walk amongst the status quo and the privileged.
In some sense, this would be a walk not unlike this Samaritan's, and we have to add to this that as he moved about, the word "Unclean!" filled his ears because of a disease that was most debilitating to live with and terrible to see.
Well, on this particular day, these ten people with leprosy came before Jesus from their respectable distance, walking the extremely long march on the main road between Galilee and Jerusalem. When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests."
And as they walked, they could not help but see that they were made clean. Healed. If you can imagine-no further need to be relegated to the outside. There is nothing keeping them from taking up their lives again. Perhaps these former lepers got themselves back into a respectable looking order and from where Jesus stood, they set out for Jerusalem to be made ritually clean, to be accepted back into their communities. All they had to do was to go back and present themselves to the priests.
Except for one. One leper who was healed on the road, who could not turn to the accepted religious institution to present himself. Because whoever he was, and wherever he was on his journey, he was not welcome here. The priests to whom the nine other lepers went, represented, after all, the religious institution that condemned the Samaritan-preached against him, reviled him, allowed him no grace, no love, and no acceptance for him whatsoever. The people were taught from childhood to demean and feel superior to the Samaritan.
He was on his own, healed from leprosy but not from the effects of prejudice. Where would he go and without the other nine, to whom could he turn? And of course the story tells us:
"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."
Have you ever looked at someone, heard them speak or perhaps seen them involved selflessly in some community or even family-healing situation, and recognized that you were in the presence of someone who was truly, "authentic"?
And in those thin places when we stand on the threshold between the commonplace and the genuine, can you feel what it is like to truly recognize the presence of the authentic voice that rises above the chatter?
Some voice, some instinct caused this man to turn back, because he knew that there at the feet of this man, this Jesus, he was in the presence of the "authentic."
And Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was there no-one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?"
Well, the others were on their way back at home as they should have been. Imagine the joy of being suddenly made whole again, of being able to go to a place called, "home" again. They were becoming re-enmeshed with community, family, with friends and the center of society-their faith tradition. Perhaps they thought they had found what was authentic there-you really can't blame them. Why didn't they return and give thanks? Well, probably for the same reasons we give for not taking the time to give thanks where it is due.
It was this one outsider who, perhaps because circumstances forced him to question more, to be more discerning...turned back and found himself in the only authentic presence he could know.
It was there that Jesus said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you whole."
Aesop once said, "Gratitude is the sign of noble souls." All this noble soul really has is the authentic Jesus. He doesn't have priests there to present offerings to and be declared clean. He would not be welcome in Jerusalem. He has no reason to turn anywhere but towards the presence of Jesus and the healing words that made him whole.
All he has is Jesus. He doesn't have a hometown or a supportive community-he is on the outside.
Theologian Karl Barth said that the basic human response to God is gratitude, not fear and trembling, not guilt and dread, but thanksgiving-gratefulness. To have faith is to live faith, and to live faith is to give thanks. Living into a real life of gratitude is to live a life of faith
This was the leper made whole who returned in gratitude, even when in so many settings he is made, "other."
Now, we could talk today about how any number of people might relate to this Samaritan, this person outside the lines. In this never ending political season, the shunned Samaritan shows up over and over again. We might be able to find this foreigner characterized as the Syrian refugee of whom we should be wary. He could be a young African-American man who simply went out to the store and got shot and killed-whose parents would never hold him close again, because racism still lies restlessly unexamined beneath covers of privilege.
He might be the one outside of an "acceptable faith" and he might be hearing of a "ban," temporary or otherwise, on people like him.
She could be a woman whose access to women's healthcare needs might be abridged.
He or she might be threatened with a prejudice masked as "religious freedom" that makes it OK to bully a small percentage of our people.
She might be the Samaritan who is forced to carry a birth-certificate in order to use a rest room that matches her birth gender.
He could be one of the 4,000 LGBT youth who live on the streets of Los Angeles because they have fled or have been kicked out of their homes. And many turn to suicide.
Oh, there are Samaritans of many kinds in our midst indeed, this year. Will we go on treating them the same way, or will this be the year we change?
A preaching colleague, Dan Furmansky, writes, "While schoolyard bullies should be held accountable for their actions, we need to look at the root, not the bloom of the problem.
"We cannot stand on the side of love if we relegate ourselves to the sidelines, afraid to 'insult' people of faith who are enablers of the abuse that far too many lgbt people endure. Religious leaders must be challenged to agree that publicly breaking down the spirit of vulnerable young people-- setting the table for their despair, isolation, and demise--is a perversion of God's love."
Like the people struck with leprosy in this encounter with Jesus, no-one should have to dwell in fear on the outskirts of society. How do we turn our feelings of anger and sadness into concrete practices for faith and justice? Where is that which feels, "authentic" for us? Someone once said that whenever we draw a line in the sand to exclude others, we find that Jesus is always standing with those on the other side of the line.
There was once a certain leper who was sent ahead with the others to show himself to the priests, but this one Samaritan turned back. Well, I think the reason he turned back was simple because he had to. Human societies have had a poor track record of showing kindness to those on the margins. It was true in Jesus' time and it is certainly true of us, just listening to the rhetoric of this present campaign season here at home. Maybe something told that Samaritan to go back to the source-the real healer, historic foundation, teacher, leader and guide. All that man had was Jesus.
And that's all we have today in order to be followers. Many people feel, and rightly so, that they're on the other side looking in through stained-glass windows that only cut and hide the light.
If you show yourself to the priest and he tells you that women can't be equal leaders with men, you have to turn away, go back down the road to find the source of what is authentic and real. All you have is Jesus-the teaching, healing presence who spoke with women, and who loved inclusively.
Like the Samaritan, if we find ourselves visiting, or perhaps growing up in congregations that don't welcome us because of who we are, then we have to shake the dust from our feet, walk back on down the road to find that source of that which is truly authentic.
This is the voice of justice and peace, it is the presence of love and acceptance, it is the spirit of hospitality and welcome given to the Samaritan, or whoever the undocumented visitor might be, and where this is not found, that's when we know that Jesus has left the building.
We don't have to go back to such places to be made ritually clean, or sanctified, or born again. All the Samaritan had was Jesus, and Jesus tells the Samaritan that his own faith has made him whole.
Our own faith...as we understand it. How it proves itself in its own authenticity, how it enriches our lives and makes us more open and loving people. Authentic. Simple. Unadorned. Free.
Gratitude. Whoever we are...wherever we are...imperfect, often broken and hurting, caught up in a net of our own dishonesties and resentments, yet still somehow capable of showing ourselves in soaring moments of authenticity; desiring to be loving and strong exactly as who we were born be in order to live our lives. Here is our own faith as we understand it, as we walk to the places in our hearts where we find the authentic shining before us. Yes, our own faith makes us whole in spite of who we are, still creatures of liminality, standing on dissolving boundaries and ready to move across the limits of what we were into what we are to be. Grace is the gift. Like the Samaritan, let's remember to return and give thanks.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Giving Thanks Before Thanksgiving Proper 23C, "In the presence of someone who was truly authentic."
CDC-Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Hansen's Disease
Richard A Jensen (Preaching Luke's Gospel p. 186)--A reminder of the different types of people who are on a quest for inclusion then and today, with gratitude.
Samuel Chu, Executive Director, California Faith for Equality
Dan Furmansky, Standing on the Side of Love
Finally, I once read a sermon years ago that has changed how I hear this passage. The preacher pointed out that, "All this man had...was Jesus." While the other nine may have had a welcome place to return to, this Samaritan returned to give thanks to Jesus because Jesus was the only one who would embrace him. It reminds me of the poor job we do, even sometimes in our churches, of welcoming people who are different in any number of ways. I can no longer find that sermon or the author to give him proper credit, but I wish to acknowledge how that statement influenced this piece.