I know what pain is. I have a bad back and it has gone into spasms once in awhile. It does that from time to time. It’s a drag having a bad back. Anybody can tell you that. So when I get up to go into the kitchen to get a soda or something, I may find myself walking like Groucho Marx ( I realize this reference is lost on younger folks—go watch A Night at the Opera—it’s really funny). . It happens. And then it gets better. Life goes back to normal. But when it’s bad, it’s bad. And when it hurts, I do a lot of praying.
There have been plenty of times in my life when I’ve been in trouble, broke, in danger, scared, sick, worried, and I’ve prayed, prayed like crazy. That’s when we all pray like crazy, right? What’s the saying? There are no atheists in foxholes. I can tell you that prayer works. It does. I have been on the receiving end of miracles. I won’t get into it here and now, but I can tell you that when I’ve been in a jam and my back’s been up against the wall, I’ve prayed, and help came down unexpected avenues.
The only explanation I can come up with is that they were miracles because there really is no other way to explain them other than being amazing coincidences that some kind of help would come out of the blue out of unexpected places just exactly when I need it.
So I have a reason to be grateful. I try to remember to be grateful. I try to remember where all the good things I have come from. But I know I don’t. I know I don’t on days like today when I realize that I totally take my back for granted when it’s working well. It’s only when it’s not, like when I’m stuck, glued to a heating pad, that I realize how wonderful it is to have a back that isn’t in pain. When I start running down an inventory of everything that works, I realize I have a lot to be thankful for.
I can see. My legs work. I can hear. I can breathe. And that’s just the physical stuff. If I start going down the list of stuff I have…well I’d be here all day just saying, “thanks”.
And sometimes I think back to those other times, those times I’ve received what I believe to be miracles, and I wonder why I’m not more thankful. I guess you just couldn’t go about your day to day life if you spent all your time being grateful. At some point you move on. Of course, a lot of people would try to explain away those miracles with rational explanations. I believe they were miracles, but there’s room for argument. No angels came down from heaven or anything. I suppose there is the possibility that help coming my way was just a coincidence.
That’s where faith lives. Faith lives in the place between the natural and the supernatural. Angels coming down from heaven requires no faith at all. Hey—you got angels there in front of you. What more do you need? Faith lives in that question. Was I just lucky, or was someone looking out for me? Faith lives in that question. In today’s story from Luke, Jesus was walking that borderline.
As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem,
he traveled through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
As he was entering a village, ten lepers met him.
They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!”
And when he saw them, he said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.”
As they were going they were cleansed.
And one of them, realizing he had been healed,
returned, glorifying God in a loud voice;
and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.
He was a Samaritan.
Jesus said in reply, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
Then he said to him, “Stand up and go;
your faith has saved you. (Luke, Chapter Seventeen)
Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem where he will find his destiny on a cross. He is walking in the region between Galilee and Samaria. Ever look at a map of the Holy Land? There is no region between Samaria and Galilee. They touch. It’s like saying the region between the United States and México. Jesus is walking between here and there.
The Judeans looked down on the Samarians, as you all probably know. This is because the Samarians would not accept the temple authority in Jerusalem. They didn’t accept the idea that God dwelt in the temple. They believed that God still lived on Mount Sinai where Moses met the deity. But both the Jews and the Samaritans believed in the same God, just as the Jews, Muslims, and Christians do today.
Over the centuries, their blood had mixed with conquerors. They were seen as heretics and half-breeds. Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid traveling through Samarian lands. And although the records clearly indicate a good deal of enmity held by Jews toward Samaritans, we don’t know much about how the Samaritans felt about the Jews. The only hint I see is the way the woman at the well in the other bible story reacts to Jesus. She says, “Hey, don’t you know you guys won’t have anything to do with us?”
The Samaritans were seen as second class citizens.
This worked out well for temple officials. The truth is that the common people among the Jews had a lot more in common with the Samaritans than they had with the wealthy gentiles and the temple officials.
Keeping the Samaritans second class citizens gave the average Jew someone to whom he or she could feel superior in much the same way as poor whites in the old south could feel superior to African-Americans.
Jesus, as told by the author of Luke, is trying to break down those social divisions. Imagine telling a group of whites in the South during reconstruction that the only person to do the right thing in a situation was a black person. That would have slapped them in the face.
And of course, as always, for those of you who don’t believe these stories are true, I say that it doesn’t matter if they are true or not. They contain the same spiritual truth. Each gospel was written with certain truths in mind to convey. To do that, I’m sure certain stories were created. That doesn’t change the truth. God exists in the boundaries between us. God exists in the boundary between what you know is real and what is beyond the real. God exists where faith lives, in the borderlines.
When Jesus sends the ten lepers away (that condition called leprosy, by the way, might have been any skin condition, from leprosy to a rash that wouldn’t go away), he does not pronounce a healing on them. Jesus merely sends them to the priests. He sends them, and they go. And they are healed. When the one Samaritan returns, Jesus tells him his faith has healed him. Jesus says these words a total of four times in Luke’s gospel. Four is the number of completion in the bible (40 days and 40 nights, 40 days in the wilderness, 40 years of exodus). Luke is making a point here.
You will notice, by the way, that Jesus doesn’t say that HE has healed the leper. He says it is faith that healed the leper. Moreover, we can assume that faith healed the other lepers too. After all, Jesus doesn’t say it was only the Samaritan leper’s faith that healed them all. But it IS the Samaritan leper’s faith that brings him back to show his gratitude.
All the lepers were healed, but only one leper saw that he was healed. I guess the others didn’t notice. The Samaritan leper got it. He saw that he was healed and he went back to say thanks. Jesus was all about giving sight to the blind. Am I guilty of being blind to all the good things God does for me each day, each minute of each day? I know I’ve had enough back trouble that I do thank God for every day my back is good, because I know what it is like to be laid low by back pain.
This morning, when I set about to do my morning kung fu exercise, I was tired, and I was thinking about how I didn’t really want to be exercising at 6.30 in the morning. When my back is giving me trouble, however, I would be very, very happy to be able to exercise.
So, there you go. Saint Theresa, the little flower, said we should praise God in every little thing we do. I think maybe I’m starting to get that. Every little thing. We can do these little things. We should be happy for that. Maybe I’m not as handsome as I was when I was younger, if I was handsome at all, but when I look in the mirror, do I ever thank God that my face is not disfigured?
And do I recognize God in the borderline? God is there in the space between me and my fellow travelers on this planet. Can we overcome all those petty prejudices and hatreds? Can we learn to look beyond Muslim and Jew and Christian and Hindu and Buddhist and Wiccan, and whatever else people choose to believe? Can we look beyond straight and gay, Republican and Democrat, look beyond colors, class, country? This is where God lives, in the space between all these, in the space between Samaria and Galilee. This is where faith lives. And your faith will make you whole.