When I was a kid, I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction. I still do, and for better or worse, I’ll warn you that science fiction in particular tends to find its way into my sermons from time to time. Now, my lifelong love of reading started with a couple of the usual suspects—Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. I loved losing myself in these several hundreds of pages-long epics of other worlds, and their wizards and magic rings and dragons. I especially loved stories where the main character crosses from this world into an alternate world, places with names like Narnia and Graymare. These crossing-over stories are still popular, with Harry Potter traveling to Hogwarts through a hidden train platform, or the kids from Stranger Things crossing into a dimension called Upside Down through an intergalactic gate.
As a kid, I was especially fascinated by whatever it was that lay in-between the different dimensions in these stories. Sometimes a character would get stuck between the two worlds and have to fight their way through to the other side. Occasionally, a character—usually a minor character, or some fantastic creature–would get trapped there forever. To a little kid, that idea was pretty scary.
Then, when I was about ten or so, I came across a series of books called Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen Donaldson. The main character in the series, Thomas Covenant, was unlike the protagonists of the other books I’ve mentioned. When he was in our world, Thomas visibly suffered from leprosy and was missing two fingers of his right hand. But when he traveled to another dimension called the Land his leprosy faded away, and he was made whole. In the Land, his missing fingers made the people of the Land believe he was the reincarnation of an ancient hero called Berek Halfhand who must save the Land from the evil Lord Foul. Which was . . . awesome.
Another thing that was different from some of the other tales of traveling to other dimensions was that Thomas never knew when, or where, the traveling would take place. It was totally random. One second, he was Thomas Covenant, the next he was Berek Halfhand, and vice versa. The switch would sometimes happen when a tragedy was about to befall him, other times when he was about to achieve some great victory. It didn’t happen through a magic wardrobe or invisible train platform; it was unpredictable and often exactly when he didn’t want to go back. I was too young to understand this when I first read those books, but it was pretty similar to our adult experience moving through this world.
I think about Thomas Covenant whenever people with leprosy appear in the Gospels. Now, first, quickly, I want to get out of the way that there’s something deeply problematic about identifying anyone—either in the Bible or our own time—primarily with their physical disability, chronic illness, or place in a social caste. Of course, these people in Jesus’s time who had leprosy had to announce themselves, according to Levitical law, as unclean. At the same time, we can’t ignore the fact that, just like those among us now dealing with discrimination of all kinds, these ten people who came to Jesus had real difficulties to overcome. They were in need of healing.
Anyway, at the beginning of our Gospel reading this morning, things are starting to get moving again. During the last several chapters, Jesus has been telling lots of parables, going head-to-head with the Pharisees, and very clearly instructing his disciples how to become apostles. We talked some about this last week, how he reminded them that all they need is the faith of a mustard seed to learn to live together a life of forgiveness that will be a model for the whole world. And now they’re going to start moving through the that world, toward Jerusalem, where, as we know—and Jesus knows—Jesus will be crucified.
And in the very first line of today’s Gospel, we’re told specifically that they are traveling through the region between Samaria and Galilee. It’s an in-between space, the space between two very different worlds, where they will not necessarily always find friends along the way. Somewhere between now and the next few chapters, Jesus will cross over from being a beloved teacher to condemned criminal, Judas from being a friend to a betrayer, and the followers of Jesus from being disciples to being apostles.
And it’s in this in-between space, this transitional space between the way things were and the way things are going to be, that the ten lepers approach Jesus. We aren’t told which direction they’re coming from—they could be coming from either the North or the South, but we do know that one of them is a Samaritan. Now, over this past year that we’ve been reading Luke in the Lectionary, you may have noticed that the Samaritans get a fair amount of air-time. Remember, these are the actual enemies of the Jews, who not only held different religious beliefs, but had a long history of being played against the Jews by the Assyrian empire. It’s a long and complicated history, and it’s hard to tell where the differences between the two turned into hate, but that’s what it was: hate.
And yet, time and time again, it is the Samaritans, these hated people, whom Jesus often uses as an example of not just receiving his grace and healing but being the ones who deliver his grace and healing to a world that needs it.
And here we have yet another Samaritan, traveling with nine Jews to be healed by Jesus. They do not share religious traditions, or political affiliations, only the desire to be healed by Jesus. And when these ten lepers approach, Jesus does not privilege the Jews over the Samaritan, but heals them all before telling them to go to the priest. Just a quick word here, in case this seems like a strange moment. One of the functions of these priests was to act as sort of a CDC of the time—they certified whether someone was “unclean,” and they were the ones that would have instructed the lepers to keep themselves apart from the rest of the people. So, Jesus is sending them back to the priests so that they can certify that they are no longer unclean.
And all of this is amazing, and miraculous, and . . . not exactly new. At this point, Jesus has healed a lot of people, including lepers. He has more than established himself to his followers— and to us readers—as a miracle worker, a great rabbi, even the Son of God.
What is new, though, is what happens next. One of those lepers, the Samaritan in fact, comes back to Jesus and thanks him. And when he does, Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.” Now, wait, we’re thinking, I thought he was already healed. What’s this second healing? Is he somehow more healed than his nine companions? It’s clear that something has happened here, and it is clear that it has something to do with the Samaritan giving thanks.
I think one of the reasons we get stuck here is we have the feeling—especially if were were raised in a particular religious tradition—that once you’re healed, you’re always healed. In the tradition I was raised in, we said, “Once saved, always saved.” Our own experience shows us, however, that this just isn’t true. Sometimes healing doesn’t look like we think it should. We don’t always throw down our cane, or put down our bottle, or even get out of bed in the morning. Some hurts took a lifetime to accumulate and some hurts take a lifetime to heal.
So, one thing the healed Samaritan shows us today is that our healing is ongoing, it is never complete. We are always in need of God’s healing, and God is always ready to heal us, even if that healing doesn’t look the way we think it should. And Grace—and here’s the tricky part, and the hard but beautiful Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are on our way towards that healing right alongside people that our culture, our tribes, and our Facebook feeds, are telling us we should hate. Somewhere along the line—and some of us are fond of quoting specific dates over the last several years—our differences turned into hate. But I don’t care how you identify religiously or politically, there is someone who is your Samaritan walking through the same in-between spaces as you are, looking for Jesus to heal them. And that person, that Samaritan, is a beloved child of God. Jesus treats all of us the same—he doesn’t ask for our religious identification or our political affiliation. His healing is available to all, no matter what in-between spaces we find ourselves in.
Grace family, we find ourselves in several in-between spaces. Covid is mostly behind us, but not completely. A past version of the Episcopal Church—and even Grace Church—is mostly behind us, but not completely. We are followed by ghosts of the past and inspired by hopes for the future. And, as we travel through this in-between place, between a pre-Covid world and a post-Covid world, between an old idea of church, and a new idea of being church, we, like Thomas Covenant, can’t be sure when we’ll need healing again. Maybe it will be random, unpredictable, maybe we’ll return to some addiction, or despair, or hate for our enemies right at the moment we don’t want to go back. Maybe for a while, we’ll need healing every day. Sometime in these next several weeks, we’ll gather together as a parish for a healing service where we can lift up our tired and weary hearts to God. We will also gather as followers of Jesus to give thanks, as many times as we are healed, which is to say, for the rest of our lives.
One last thing about those stories I read as a child, of crossing through the in-between place from one world to another. In almost all of those stories, what made them true fantasies wasn’t just the fact that one could travel to fantastical places, but that those new places, those places on the other side, were in countless ways better than the ones the main characters left behind. Whether it was the Kingdom of Narnia, where the children became kings and queens, or the Kingdom of the Land, where Thomas Covenant did battle with Lord Foul, these stories promised kingdoms that could only be reached through our imagination. Many of us were taught to imagine that we live our whole lives in this one in-between place, a place from which we will only reach the Kingdom of God in the afterlife. Some of us were taught that only there will we find our last, ultimate healing, that only there we will finally rest in peace.
Remember last Sunday, how I said it’s important to read the verses that come before a selected reading? It’s also just as important to read what comes after. Just after the story of the ten lepers, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answers, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Grace Church, as we cross through the in-between places, learning new ways to be church, we pass through regions of a Kingdom of God that is already here. Traveling on a road where anything could happen, we walk alongside those with whom we may not share religious traditions, or political affiliations, but only the desire to be healed by Jesus. We are not waiting for some fantastical land. In the Kingdom of God that is already among us, we walk from grace to grace, from healing to healing, giving thanks and learning to love our neighbors—and our enemies—as Jesus loves us.