Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” It is with these words that our Gospel lesson begins today. “Through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” The region between. This is our story for today, this 21st Sunday after Pentecost. It is a story of that place between. It is a border story.
I think it’s different for you all here in Texas, with so much of your southern border a national border between the U.S. and Mexico. It’s different at this border.
I grew up on a ranch in north central South Dakota. And, even though we were only about 300 miles away from the border between the U.S. and Canada, it wasn’t until I moved to Southern California that I really began to be aware of the U.S.-Mexican border and all of the politics surrounding our southern border.
You see, traveling over the border into Canada was never a big deal. Maybe it's because not many people drive through the Dakotas to get to Canada, so lines were never an issue. And security never seemed to be much of an issue either.
It was different at the border between El Cajon and Tijuana. There, even years ago, security seemed tighter and the lines at the border waiting to go through the INS station--which is what ICE was called back then--well, waiting at that southern border, the security lines seemed to be endless.
I remember my first visit to Mexico one Memorial Day weekend. It took us 6 hours of waiting at the border checkpoint to finally cross back into California. And yet, even though waiting 6 hours could have been horrible, well, instead, it kind of became a party. People parked their cars and were mingling about. Local people from Tijuana were trying to sell pottery, blankets, candy and other goods. Waiting that 6 hours was, believe it or not, kind of fun.
And then, 9/11 happened. And things at the border were much, much different, weren't they? After 9/11, boundaries tightened up dramatically. And, then, cartel violence, which had always been there to some degree, got so much worse and became headline news.
I remember a few years ago doing work in several cities along the Rio Grande, thinking how much I wanted to drive into Mexico to explore this northeastern part of the country, yet being strongly advised by the people I worked with that it was not safe. Not at all. That, because of the violence, they, themselves, who had so often travelled back and forth across the border, were no longer traveling to Mexico.
No more sense of community. No more party atmosphere. Only separation.
Like our southern border today, there was no party atmosphere at the border that separated the Samaritans and the Jews. In fact, there was a history of hostility between these people.
At one time, they had been one nation. Yet the Babylonian exile and the return of the Jews from captivity had brought about changes and tension. The Samaritans and Jews were at odds about many things--beliefs about scripture, their worship, what it meant to be holy, and on and on. So, one has to wonder why, as our story tells us--why would Jesus be traveling in and among these border villages? On his way to Jerusalem, where he knew he would die, why seemingly tempt fate and put himself at risk, there, along the border?
Well, it’s because for God, there are no borders. The human borders we surround ourselves with, whether they be borders between nations or between people of different ethnic backgrounds or race or color or, even, religion; or borders between genders or generations;, or any other visible or invisible borders we place between ourselves and others--well, for God, they just don’t matter. God’s mercy is offered freely to all people. No borders. No divisions. No human convention about who is inside or outside, even when the outsider is an enemy, real or perceived. There is nothing that limits God’s mercy.
And this was the case in today’s story. As Jesus was entering into one of those small towns along the border, he was approached by ten lepers. Ten men who, by virtue of their disease, were considered contagious. Unclean. Who were banished to the border--a nowhere place where neither Samaritans nor Jews would choose to live, yet the place where these ten lepers, outcast from their communities, could keep their distance according to the law, according to the norms of society.
It was here, in the midst of this nowhere place with this nobody people, that Jesus was at work. Here in this barren borderland, in response to their pleas for mercy, Jesus sends these ten, diseased men on their way to their priest. And, on the way, our text tells us, they were healed. Along the way. Healed of this disease that had been a barrier for them. That had kept them apart from those they loved. That had kept them apart from their community.
And, then, one of them, realizing he has been healed, recognizes the presence of God. And what is his response? Well, he turns back and he offers praise and thanksgiving to the One who has healed him. And, this man, well, our text notes, he was a Samaritan. A foreigner. An outsider. An enemy.
As he offers thanksgiving to Jesus for his healing, well, the other nine Jews, the ones who should have known better. Who should have gotten who Jesus was. Who should have turned back to offer their own thanks and praise. Whose people, because of their own lack of sight and lack of understanding, ultimately rejected Jesus…. While the other nine Jews continue on, it is the foreigner, the outsider, the enemy, the Samaritan, who is the one who turns back in gratitude. And, it is the Samaritan to whom Jesus says, "Get up and go! Your faith has saved you." Not that his faith has made him well, but that, more accurately, his faith has saved him. Salvation.
This is what God's salvation in Christ Jesus looks like. It is a salvation that restores us and reconciles us back into community, that turns us to see God in our midst, that returns us to worshiping God. It is a return that is focused on God, that recognizes that our God is a God who works in unexpected ways through unexpected people, bringing life where there seems to be no hope. Who turns human expectations and worldly systems upside down and, as is the case in our Gospel story and also in Naaman’s story this morning from 2nd Kings, it is a return that recognizes that God works through the lowly, the least, and the last of us to bring about healing and salvation, restoration and reconciliation. With God and with all people.
So, who are you in today’s story? Are you one of the nine? The entitled? Unable to see God at work around you among the least and lowly?
Or are you the tenth? The foreigner? The outsider? Even, perhaps, the enemy?
Regardless of who you are, God offers healing and mercy, life and salvation to all people. No borders. No divisions. No insiders. No outsiders. Life and salvation, offered to all people.
May our response then be that of the tenth--to turn back and give God thanks and praise. And to hear the promise in Jesus’ command to “get up and go,” that it is God-given faith in a resurrected Jesus that has saved us and that empowers us to step across boundaries and borders, to share mercy with outsiders, to pay attention to things that are worthy of praise, and to move forward into the future with the assurance that God is with us and that there is more to God’s story than meets the eye.
Get up and go, then. Go and witness to the saving love of God in Jesus Christ.
Preached October 9, 2016, at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Bastrop, TX.
21st Sunday after Pentecost
Lessons: 2 Kings 5:1-15c, Psalm 111, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19.