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A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
21st Sunday After Pentecost/C • October 9, 2016
The border between the United States and Canada runs for 3,900 miles, not counting Alaska. Some runs through small towns like Standstead, Quebec; some through desolate, unpopulated country. Where it runs through towns, neighbors sometimes have to stay in their own yards to avoid breaking the law by not going through a border crossing station. But even there, in places almost never visited by human beings, a wide area has been cut back to mark the border, an area known as “the trace”. There hasn’t been a war between the two countries in over 200 years. But we mark the border. We are always conscious of boundaries. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that today’s scripture reading is all about boundaries—and crossing them.
“On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” [Luke 17:11] How packed with meaning is that simple statement. Jerusalem is the capital of Judah, the center of Jewish history and hope, the city of faith and the site of the temple where God is present. Galilee is a rural area up in the north, home to Jesus and his disciples, and an area where many gentiles have settled, soldiers retired from the Roman arm, others who liked it’s hills and valleys. Samaria sticks out between the two. Almost 800 years before, the Assyrians conquered the area and deported thousands, bringing in other people they had conquered. Already separated from Judah by politics, the area had a different history and developed a different pattern of worship, including a competing sanctuary. Samaritans and Jews developed a bitter rivalry.
A journey from Galilee through Samaria to Jerusalem is a journey across some of the most difficult borders the people around Jesus could imagine. Yet there are tantalizing clues through the gospels that Jesus had an impact in Samaria. Luke tells a story about the conversion of Samaritans in chapter eight of the Book of Acts. Jesus crosses the boundary: so does the gospel, so does the love of God.
Crossing Boundaries at Church
This is a significant point because one of our great problems in church life is the ability to cross boundaries, to lower the threshold that guard our doors, so people can get in. Of course, our boundaries are not always national: there are cultural boundaries as well, our way of doing things, our shared history which we imagine will become the future.
Congregational meeting houses built in the 1600’s and 1700’s often had seating that included walls with gates; perhaps you’ve visited a church like that. The reason was simple: they were cold; there was no heat and the buildings were drafty. The end of the 1700’s brought the Franklin stove, and some churches began to install them. So of course there were church fights about this: whether you could be holy if you had heat. Bitter words were said, but the heat came on and today, if the church is cold, we hear about it.
There are so many things like this, things we take for granted but which are just how we do them. These mark a set of boundaries and sometimes the boundaries can be tough to cross. Most of us here, for example, know how to use a church bulletin. No one has to tell us to find the songs in the hymnal, to read the parts in bold print, and follow along. But what if you didn’t grow up in a church? What if you came from a church where they don’t have hymnals, where the words of songs are projected on a screen? You won’t know what to do; it’s a boundary and if the boundary is high enough to embarrass you, you won’t come back there. The boundary will be marked and keep you out.
Healing On the Boundary
Jesus is crossing boundaries and helping others across. Along his journey, he comes near a village and like many villages, there are lepers on the outskirts. Once again, he’s on a boundary, between the countryside and the village. Out there in the wild are a group of people who have been cast out. Although they’re called lepers, their disease is most likely not what we know as leprosy today but instead some sort of skin infection. Torah provides for the separation of people with this and that’s what we have here: ten who have been pushed across a boundary, who are living with a boundary around them that says “do not approach.”
The lepers are careful about the boundary: “Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’” [Luke 17:13] Isn’t this the sum of all prayers to Jesus? Doesn’t this sum up what we all hope, that the love of God, expressed in Jesus, will result in a mercy that accepts us beyond anything we deserve?
So they cry out, there on the boundary, and Jesus, crossing the boundary, speaks to them, comes to them and tells them to do exactly what Torah says: go show yourself to a priest. Leviticus 13 makes the priest the one who diagnoses a leper and also can certify that he has recovered and can return to the community.
What happens next is a miracle. But the miracle isn’t the healing; it is that these lepers believe Jesus. What faith, what conviction, makes them go on their way to the priest? The story doesn’t say they are healed immediately; they don’t suddenly get better standing there. No, the text says they were healed on the way. It’s when they start to make their own journey that they find healing; it’s when they cross the boundary back to their community that they get better.
This is what Jesus does: he heals people and sends them out, crossing boundaries on their own. When you make a cake, it takes a long time. You have to get the ingredients, mix them up, pour them into pans, turn on the oven, bake the batter, perhaps take it out, let it cool, frost it. Now you have a chocolate cake. But isn’t the real experience sharing the cake? Isn’t a cake made to celebrate with someone, to lift others, to share?
The lepers are healed on the way: isn’t that our story as well? I spent some time studying this scripture, drawing together information and reflections from others, thinking about it. But its effect won’t be immediate; it depends on whether we together lower the thresholds, as Jesus does, cross boundaries, like Jesus does. It depends on what happens on our journey. Maya Angelou said,
“As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal someone else.” That’s what Jesus hopes; that’s what Jesus expects, that having healed and forgiven us, we will in turn cross the boundaries and heal others.
Coming to Jesus
Now the end of the story brings a final set of boundary crossings. One of the healed lepers is not a Jew; he can’t go to the Jewish priest. He can’t complete his healing. He has nowhere to go so he goes to Jesus. Now often when this text is preached, the emphasis is on his gratitude, his act of devotion: “He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him” [Luke 17:16] Certainly there is gratitude here but there is something else. This Samaritan goes to Jesus because he has nowhere else to go. He can’t go to a Jewish priest, he can’t go to a Samaritan priest and say a Jew healed him. He has nowhere to go so he goes to Jesus.
Nowhere Else to Go
This is my image of our church: we are a place where people often come because they need healing and have nowhere else to go. They can’t go to churches that won’t accept their lifestyle or sexuality or clothing or that they can’t sit for ten minutes in a row. The thing I love about this church is that we take them in and often take them to heart. It’s one reason I am so proud to be a member here, to be a part of this congregation. It genuinely is a place where “everyone is welcome”. That’s what we say; that’s what we believe.
Yet even here there are boundaries; even here there are borders. This story should remind us that Jesus means to cross all the boundaries, ignore all the borders. This story should remind us that the embrace of Jesus will never stop at some invisible line and ours shouldn’t either. This story should remind us that in the heart of Jesus, there are no boundaries, there are no borders, there is only compassion for all the children of God.
This story should call us to go out on our journey like Jesus intent on breaking down the boundaries that separate and the borders that confine. It starts with simple acts. Find someone at the end of worship who is visiting some Sunday, go up to them and say, “Hi, I’m so glad you’re here today.” That’s a step over a boundary. Sit with someone you don’t know at coffee hour; that’s a step over a boundary. Invite someone to church with you. That’s a step over a tough boundary for many. There are so many acts, so many things we can do to walk with Jesus. It just takes the faith to follow and the courage to act.
Decision and Discipleship
It takes decision to be a disciple. We all are good at waiting, at finding reasons to delay. But sometimes the chance to cross a boundary only comes once. A friend posted something online that made me laugh this week. It was a picture of a cake, and it said, “How to keep a chocolate cake from drying out—eat it!” How do you fulfill Jesus mission of a wider embrace? Welcome someone.
I called this sermon “heaven’s door” today because I think we all stand at the door of heaven though we don’t always know it. I mean by heaven that place where we know ourselves loved by God, forgiven, embraced. We stand at the border, at heaven’s door. And Jesus says, “Knock and the door will open.”. Knock: come across the boundary. Bring someone along.