In the Region Between. Jay’s sermon on a grateful former leper and dying to whiteness.

Luke 17:11-19

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

It’s probably because I just did went on a trip of my own that I have found myself drawn to the traveling that Jesus does in this passage today. We’re told that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and he passed through the region between Galilee and Samaria. I’m not sure exactly what that means: “the region between.” I’ve looked at a map of first century Israel, and the two regions butt up against each other with nothing but a thin black line between them. Are we to suppose that there was a kind of no-man’s land between the two territories that was neither Galilee nor Samaria but something different? What is the “region between?” Was it a place only for lepers and others cast out of their own communities, a place without national identity for people without national citizenship? What was that place like? How big was it, exactly?

On my vacation to Norway last week, I visited the Russian border where there stood two posts, one with the Russian flag’s colors painted on it and one with the Norwegian colors. There was less than 12 inches separating them, so there was not much of a “region between” the two nations. One nation was divided from the other very clearly with a distinct foot-wide border line. It was set up intentionally like that—you could be in one country or another; there’s no in-between. That’s usually how we divide people from one another, isn’t it? There are clear lines of separation.

Then again, I got to thinking that when we first boarded our ferry boat on this particular journey, we quickly noticed how many countries were represented there. Each announcement over the loudspeaker was given in three or four languages. When we sat down for meals we were likely to be joined by someone whose first language was Norwegian or German or French or Japanese. That could make conversation awkward. There was a moment when I was trying to converse in German that I thought my table mates were talking about their doctor when they were really talking about their daughter. Then there was the time my friend used his very best Norwegian to order his meal and the waiter responded in perfect English, “I’m sorry. I’m from Spain, and I don’t speak Norwegian.” It was a little awkward at times, but it was also a wonderful opportunity. Though we were traveling through Norway, there was a sense of being “in-between” nations.

So maybe it’s with this kind of metaphorical understanding that we should understand where Jesus was when he encountered the ten lepers. They were in-between. While Galileans and Samaritans generally would have had nothing to with one another, in a time when old differences and animosities had been cemented into enmity, this was a unique circumstance to find some of them together. They were Galileans and Samaritans officially, but those labels no longer meant what they once did not that they found themselves in a leper’s colony. These individuals were ostracized from their communities because with oozing sores, their skin no longer functioned as the distinct boundary that was expected of it, keeping the outside out and the inside in. They were therefore people to be feared and cast out. Regardless of the physical space in which they stood, they were people without a clear identity, living permanently in an in-between space.

A place like that might be a place that many of us would tend to avoid. It lacks clarity and familiar categories. It’s uncomfortable. In fact, I’d even say that the whole reason we typically construct such distinct boundaries in our world is because we have this assumption that in-between places are not only awkward but dangerous.

It sure can be true. There’s another place in Norway we visited last week called Salstraumen that has one of the strongest tidal currents in the world with water speeds reaching 25 miles per hour. It’s the boundary area in between the North Sea and small fjord, and when the tide changes every six hours, it causes powerful whirlpools, or maelstroms, as they’re called. The turbulent water of that in-between place presents a serious danger to sailors who would try to cross it. Turbulence happens at such boundaries.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus regularly chose to walk directly into turbulent, dangerous in-between places. In today’s reading it was not only the possibility of contracting chronic and painful illness but also the lack of clear national identity in that place that could be perceived as a threat. What would people say when they found out that he treated Samaritans just like Galileans? Luke tips us off to the danger by saying that he’s on his way to Jerusalem, and any of us who have heard about Jesus knows what awaits him there. But those of us who know the Christian story also know that the reign of God is revealed especially in the in-between places of change and danger and uncertainty. Sharing a table with unlikely guests, giving up one’s wealth for the sake of the poor, forgiving debts and asking for forgiveness, taking time to understand the experience of an outcast leper—these are the places where God is present with healing and new life.

This weekend Holy Trinity hosted a powerful conference on privilege and race in the church, with representatives of dozens of churches attending. Many of you volunteered a great deal of time to make it happen, and you did such an incredible job. Thank you. The work was well worth it because it is such a crucial conversation to be having. There were many important learnings for me, but among the most important was the reminder that the journey toward racial justice requires that we embrace such things as vulnerability, awkwardness, tension, and discomfort. This is a difficult thing for a lot of us. Who wants to be uncomfortable? None of us does. But that’s especially true if we have benefited from systems of privilege our whole lives and have become accustomed to being comfortable. We’ve grown to expect it. That’s really a big part of what whiteness is all about. Whiteness is a social construct that defines everything within the boundaries of what’s thought of as “normal” in our society. It’s the people in mind when systems of law, politics, education, and economics were established. It’s the reality of who we can expect to see in the movies or TV shows we watch, in the books we read, or even when we come to church. It’s about the language we expect others will understand. It’s the assumption, with a long and complex history in our country, that so-called white people should enjoy benefits and privileges that people with brown and black skin do not. It’s often unconscious and insidious. As our keynote speakers said this weekend, it’s in the air we breathe. Many of us who think of ourselves as white have become very comfortable with whiteness and the privileges we receive.

But justice requires stepping into tension and even dying to whiteness, that is, putting to death the expectation of comfort and that the world will be set up for our benefit and not for others. It’s not comfortable. But it is the place where healing and new life are found. White privilege and racism affect all of us of every race, keeping us from God and God’s intentions for the world. We all therefore stand in need of healing.

Again, I take it that it’s not just about geography when Luke tells us that Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, walked through a region between Galilee and Samaria. He was challenging the assumptions of who deserved certain benefits and privileges as full members of a society. Through his bold journeying, Jesus encountered the individuals living with leprosy, and he healed them. And then he asked them to go show themselves to the priests because he knew there was another kind of healing needed. They would need official reentry into the community, the authorization to be treated as full members and human beings once again, not people to be feared or avoided. It reminds me of the Ebola virus outbreak a couple of years ago, and how doctors, nurses, community leaders—including President Obama—were seen publically embracing people who had been healed of the virus. Their hugs were a way of healing the stigma that so often accompanies having had such a disease. Likewise, Jesus was not only interested in healing the physical ailment but the social disease as well. He freed them to really live again, to embrace and to be embraced, to worship in community, to be at home without fear.

So off they went, reuniting with family and friends, celebrating with their community a new life, doing exactly what Jesus had set them free for. And this could be the end of the story. But then there was one who turned back. Why, exactly, we don’t know. Is it that as a Samaritan, doubly ostracized, he didn’t have a way of returning to his community? Was it that he had more to be thankful for or just no place to go? It doesn’t matter, really; the point is that showing gratitude was another opportunity for healing and new life. For whatever the reason, he understood that his healing, his life, his identity was all connected to the power of God revealed in Jesus. Whether he was a Samaritan, leper, former leper, former Samaritan, or anything else, all of who he was was embraced by God.

This is where I find inspiration to continue on the journey of dying to whiteness and working for racial justice. It’s because I have a deeper identity in God that I can rethink all other identities. Oh, it’s a journey, to be sure, one bound to be filled with failures and awkward messiness. But Jesus invites us all to turn back again and again along this journey to give thanks, to praise, and to remember who we are in God. This is what we need most of all. This is our inspiration for the journey.

It’s a paradox, really. The more we recognize our need for change in this world and repentance in ourselves, the more we need to praise and give thanks. Well, today is certainly a day for gratitude. I am grateful for a community of faith that takes seriously a call to live with justice and peace. I am grateful for the 450 people who made commitments here yesterday to work with their congregations in examining their privilege and seeking racial justice. Above all, I am grateful for the God who promises to meet us here today, and in any in-between place of danger or fear, to embrace us and welcome us home.

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