Sermon from Sunday 13th October

Luke 17:11-19

Sermon

I don’t want to do anything fancy this morning: nothing too clever, nothing too demanding.  This morning I simply invite you to delve into the story which Luke’s gospel has brought us.  It is a story of healing and of gratitude, and also of a lack of gratitude.  Yet as always seems to be the case with these stories, the words are all carefully chosen to say a great deal in a short space.  So even if we might think we are familiar with this, I still invite you to pause, and to at least give it the opportunity to speak in some fresh way to you.

The story starts by telling us that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, but at that moment, he was travelling along the border between Samaria and Galilee.  That might look like a some general introduction, but words in the gospels are always there for a reason.  This is not just going to be a random story about the healing of some random people.  If that were the case then the opening sentence would be redundant, unnecessary, pointless.  This tale, like far more of the Jesus stories than we often realise, takes place at the border.

It is strange that in these days in which we live, borders have come to be such important issues.  We might have thought that the advent of technologies which allow us to communicate globally, irrespective of what part of the planet we happen to be on, would have made borders irrelevant.  Yet we seem to be going in the opposite direction.  So borders get emphasised as part of the way we define who we are: “we” being those who live on our side of the border, “them” being those who live on the other side.

In times of peace and harmony, it scarcely matters where the border is.  Where is the border of the Highland Region?  Where is the border of Kilmorack and Erchless Parish?  Very few could say and very few would care.  Yet national boundaries are increasingly in the news, because they are increasingly controversial; whether it is in Ireland, or between the United States and Mexico, or between Turkey and Syria, or between Israel and Palestine.  The sense that there is a difference, a distinction, between people who live on different sides of a border, is one which we humans don’t appear to have outgrown yet.

Why does Jesus seem to spend so much time at the border?  Perhaps it is to demonstrate how little such apparent differences really mean, how much we all have in common, how the message he proclaims is so much bigger than any line on a map.  So this story takes place, we are specifically told, as Jesus is travelling along the border between Samaria and Galilee; the border between two people who harboured deep and ancient resentments to one another.  There he goes into a village.  Which side of the border was the village on?  It doesn’t tell us, because it doesn’t matter.  He is about to encounter ten men, which race did they belong to?  Which side of the order do they come from?  It doesn’t tell us, because it doesn’t matter.  We get some information about one of them later, but nothing at all for now.

We are told only two things about the ten men: one is that they had leprosy, the other is that they stood at a distance from Jesus.  Leprosy is still a terrible and terrifying disease.  It can be cured very simply today, with a tablet, but the places where the disease is still terrible and terrifying are places where health care and education are hard to find.  Such is the fear of the disease that sufferers can still be excluded from families and put out of villages for fear that they may infect others, or that they must be bad people to be punished by God in that way.   So they will often hide the symptoms rather than seeking help, and the effect which the infection has on their tissues before it is treated is hard to repair, even after the disease itself has been cured.  Such are the ten men who approached Jesus and stood at a distance from him.  We can see why they would have stood at a distance: feeling dirty, feeling excluded, feeling unwanted, feeling bad about themselves.  Indeed the Jewish law stated that people with such skin diseases were not allowed to go close to healthy people.

The ten seem to have been convinced that Jesus could help them, though we are not told why, or what they thought of him, or who they believed that he was.  We are only told that they know his name, that they call him “master”, and that they plead with him to take pity on them.  Here again we see what is a common theme in the gospel stories about Jesus.  He gets involved with people who others would rather avoid, and people who have little to offer.  He gets involved with those who are far from the centres of religion, those who are more concerned about their need than their pride.  How many people, still today, who have been made to feel bad about themselves, might be said to stand at a distance from Jesus, or at least from those who claim his name as the church.  What does it say about how the church is being faithful to Jesus if we allow that to happen?

 

We are told that the ten men had leprosy, and we are told that they stood at a distance from Jesus and pleaded for mercy.  What happens next is surely not what we would expect.  A few questions would surely be in order.  Jesus could have known nothing about these characters.  He doesn’t know their names, or their background, or their lifestyle, or their beliefs.  A few hugs would surely be in order, what a powerful visual gesture that would have been.  But no, Jesus is rarely predictable.  Instead he tells them to go and show themselves to the priests.

Now that makes more sense than might first appear.  The Jewish law said that if someone claimed to be free of leprosy then they had to present themselves to the priest who would examine their skin for any signs of the disease, and would then have the power to declare them clean.  This would allow them back into community life, and allow them back into the temple where the worship took place.  Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priest, but that doesn’t make any sense, because they are not clean - they are diseased.  Yet, it seems that they go in any case, and it is on their way there, that the find, presumably to their great surprise and delight, that they have been made clean.

“as they went they were cleansed”.

Notice the detail.  It is not, they were cleansed and so they went, but “as they went, they were cleansed”.  The words in gospel stories are always carefully chosen.  If you want to do some bible study on your own, a good starting point is often to ask, why does it say that, and why does it not say something else.  What it says is that these ten men trusted Jesus enough to actually do what he said, even though what he said didn’t seem to make any sense at the time.  It was once they had started to do what he said that it started to make sense.

Perhaps that is how faith always works.  If we want to have everything sorted in our minds before we are willing to take the first step, we are never likely to get round to making the first step.  Perhaps it is only as we start to take those steps that faith can start to make sense.  Perhaps that is why Jesus asked people to follow his way, rather than asking them to understand his words.

That principle can be applied to all the things which Jesus taught.  The things about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and visiting those in prison, the things about loving our enemies and forgiving seventy times  seven, the things treating others as we would like them to treat us, the things about setting aside time to pray.  What evidence is there that any of these things are going to make life better for us?  Yet, “as they went they were cleansed”, and as we go along the way set out by Jesus, it can start to fall into place.

There is a whole other dimension to the story, as we are told that only one of the ten bothered to come back and find Jesus again to thank him, and that this one was a foreigner, one from the “wrong” side of the border, the one who was not of their faith.  Then we are told how Jesus told him that both his faith and his gratitude had made him well, before sending him on his way.  But I think we already have enough to consider for now.  I think we have enough to consider, as we let the story become God’s word to us to.  To consider the people in our time who feel that they can only stand at a distance, and how we might be Christ to them.  To consider what steps we might take to obey Jesus teaching, even if we don’t yet understand why we should.  To consider what it would look like for us to follow the way of Jesus, who crossed borders and cultural barriers to help people he didn’t even know, and to do it irrespective of whether they are likely to be appreciative or not.

What good could any of that do us?

Perhaps we will discover that once we are on our way.