Acknowledging the presence of God: a sermon on Luke 17

14188523_1260289087335740_7885670721171133113_oBy the Rev. Anna Doherty

This gospel reading may sound familiar to you, because this particular gospel is often assigned to the service for Thanksgiving Day.

In other words, our immediate reaction to today’s gospel is that it is about giving thanks to God.

It is always an important part of our lives of faith to give thanks to God,

but I actually think the point of today’s gospel goes a little deeper, than how we give thanks to God.

I think today’s gospel is more about what it means to have been made whole, to have been saved by God.

In order to get there, we have to spend a little time talking about the context of today’s gospel.

The geographical context of the story and the cultural context in which it was written.

The reason that Samaria, Samaritans, and their strained relationship with the Jews comes up so often in the gospels…

…is because the relationship between the two groups was really, really bad in Jesus’ day.

Almost like an undercurrent of guerrilla warfare, to be perfectly honest.

The Jews and the Samaritans worshiped the same God, but they disagreed profoundly on the true location of God’s Temple.

The Samaritans believed God’s Temple was located on Mount Gerazim, and to this day, modern day Samaritans worship on the mountain.

The Jews believed that God’s Temple was located in Jerusalem, and they were so offended by the Samaritans worship of God in another location…

that, by the time today’s gospel story would have taken place, the Jews had actually literally destroyed the Samaritan temple structure on Mount Gerazim.

And the Samaritans had been retaliating with attacks on Jewish villages and travelers.

So that, when today’s gospel reading opens with Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, in the region between Samaria and Galilee…

This geographical context is meant to evoke a dangerous kind of boundary crossing.

It’s a dangerous boundary crossing literally in terms of the geopolitical situation …Jesus is traveling in the lawless, wilderness, borderless region between two warring peoples.

In fact, it is quite likely that Jesus runs into a pack of lepers in this region, precisely because it is so wild, and perilous…

…that it is the only place where lepers, and other peoples deemed unclean, are allowed to live.

But the region between Samaria and Jerusalem in Galilee is also a dangerous boundary crossing in terms of the symbolic representation;

Jesus is traveling in the space between religious belief, between people’s deeply held beliefs about what is wrong and what is right.

Jews saw Samaritans as godless pagans, and vice versa.

The region between the two people was seen by many as a space between what was good and what was evil.

And it is in this morally ambiguous space that Jesus encounters ten lepers.

Now, in Jesus’ day, leprosy meant any visible skin condition, whether contagious or not.

Basically, if you could see on your skin anything that might potentially have grossed other people out, you were deemed a leper.

Really serious eczema falls into this category, as does bad acne, and other ordinary skin conditions.

But regardless of the nature of your complaint, the moment your skin started to bother others, you were deemed, according to religious law, as unclean.

And you were literally cast out of society, as having somehow been punished, rendered less than pure, by God.

And so, there was a built in power differential, an in or out status, based entirely on the visible nature of your skin.

And anyone, rich or poor, was vulnerable to it.

In our first reading for today, for example, Naaman, who is rich and powerful and a leader of his people, still suffers because of his leprosy.

It isn’t surprising that in an ambiguous wilderness, in the midst of a risky boundary crossing,

Jesus runs into vulnerable people whose very bodies and whose place in society is also ambiguous.

The context of Jesus ministry in today’s gospel is risky ambiguity, and crossing boundaries: geographical, moral, religious

and even, when he encounters the lepers, physical boundaries, between who those society calls clean and unclean, broken and whole, sick and well.

Jesus meets the lepers in a complicated context, a space that lacks safety, structures, and the normal kind of barriers between people.

And all ten lepers, simply by asking Jesus, are made clean.

All ten of them are cured.

Jesus has mercy on them all, no questions asked, no litmus test required.

No matter the complicating context in which the lepers encounter Jesus, despite the dangers, the moral and religious differences,

the outsider nature of their status, the condition of their skin…

Jesus has mercy on all them, they are cured, able to return to wholeness.

It would seem, based on today’s gospel, that simply acknowledging our brokenness, our need to be restored to wholeness…

…and having the faith to seek restoration, is all it takes for God to work on our behalf in this world.

Boundaries, context, and human structures don’t seem to play into it at all.

God restores all God’s people to wholeness, when they call upon God’s mercy.

There isn’t, in other words, a moral, physical, geographical, or even religious key to receiving God’s blessing…

And this is an important realization.

The Samaritan that returns to give thanks to Jesus, isn’t lifted up because he is the only one who is cured, who is blessed by God

All ten are cured, whether they quote “deserve” it or not.

And the Samaritan isn’t lifted up because he’s the only one who says thank you.

God still blesses the other 9 lepers, even though they aren’t aware enough to offer reciprocal thanksgivings to God.

No, the Samaritan is lifted up because he sees in Jesus what Jesus has seen in him…

…the presence of God.

Jesus words to the Samaritan at the close of today’s gospel, “Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.”

Is often interpreted as Jesus simply affirming the Samaritan’s cure.

He’s well, he’s not sick, he’s not unclean, he’s not an outcast anymore.

But the Greek word that Jesus uses for “made you well”, literally means “to save or to make whole.”

So that Jesus actually says to the Samaritan, “Get up and go, your faith has saved you.”

Your faith has made you whole.

And knowing the kind of complicated contextual boundaries that Jesus has crossed over in curing the Samaritan,

knowing the many, many ways in which the Samaritan man was displaced, categorized, and outcast…

in geographical, moral, religious, and physical ways…

…the fact that the Samaritan man’s faith has saved him, made him whole…

…changes what we think of when we reflect on what it means to have been saved by God.

When we talk about our being saved, God’s salvation, we aren’t talking about some new kind of status we’ve achieved.

We’re not suddenly better moral people, nor have we even made the quote unquote, “correct” religious choice.

We’re not suddenly more deserving of our blessings, somehow more worthy of having our prayers answered, our needs met.

After all, all ten lepers were blessed and cured, but only one was saved.

The difference it seems, in being saved, is acknowledging the presence of God.

The Samaritan sees God in Jesus, because Jesus has seen God in him.

Jesus has seen that God loves and values the Samaritan, no matter the Samaritan’s outcast, vulnerable status.

And so maybe, for our own lives of faith, when we talk about being saved, being made whole by God, both for ourselves and others…

…we’re talking about something more profound than simply acknowledging Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

Maybe, when we’ve been saved, we are also not only reconciled with God but we are also reconciled to one another, all God’s people, regardless of who they are.

Maybe, when our faith has saved us, we see ourselves for who we are, as holy people, blessed by God, and we see others in the same way.

Maybe when our faith has saved us, we are not just reconciled, but also restored to wholeness.

Maybe when we are saved, we are no longer isolated individuals, wandering in the wilderness, but instead…

we become part of a loving community of God’s people, a community that transcends human boundaries and limitations.

Maybe when we are saved, we see God more closely, more nearly in ourselves and in each other, such that we are drawn into a closer proximity to God and God’s holiness.

Maybe God’s salvation isn’t just one thing, but all these things, working in our lives and in the world all at the same time.

And so, when we get up and go out into the world, as people of God, who have been saved, who have been made whole, whose faith has made us well…

We go as people who are completely transformed, in every aspect of our lives.