One Courageous Step to Home (Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

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On its face, our Gospel story this week is about thankfulness.  As Jesus journeys to Jerusalem, he heals ten lepers and sends them on their way. Only one returns to Jesus to express his gratitude. And in doing so, the man experiences unmatched joy and deep wholeness.

I believe prayers of thanks are part of the soul’s healing and deliverance.

However, this story also presents us with a conundrum. We are left wondering why didn’t the other nine return to express their thanks? And so is Jesus. Why didn’t they return? Why didn’t they fall at his feet is thanksgiving? Why didn’t they devote their lives to following him? 

I also wonder what tone of voice Jesus used when he questions the whereabouts of the other nine. Is he angry? Frustrated? Irritated? Flabbergasted? Sad? Unsurprsied?

I think I’ve often assumed that Jesus was irritated. I mean, I would be if I had performed a miracle ten times over and only one person even seemed to care or say thanks. So, I’ve always assigned selfishness to the other nine. They are so caught up in their new life that they don’t even take notice of Jesus.

But, today I believe that Jesus was sad. Deeply, deeply sad.
Not sad because they didn’t say thanks. No, not at all. That would make Jesus as self-absorbed as I am. But rather, I believe he’s heartbroken because they didn’t realize that they already belonged. Even before the miraculous healing; they belonged to him.

See, these ten, they subsist in no-man’s-land. According to the customs of the day, they had to live in seclusion, keep their distance from anyone who might pass by, sport torn clothes and disheveled hair, and announce their own contamination in loud, humiliating cries: “Unclean!  Unclean!”

They live in the shadows. Their aloneness almost otherworldly. An invisible barrier, solid as granite, separated them from the rest of humanity. They are wholly untouchable. As I think about this reality, what frightens me the most is not their leprosy or disease, but rather their utter and complete lack of belonging somewhere or to someone.

Anywhere. Anyone.

When Jesus heals their leprosy, he doesn’t merely cure their bodies; he enables their safe return to all that makes us fully human — family, community, companionship, and intimacy. In other words, Jesus enters a no-man’s-land — a land of no belonging — and hands out ten unblemished passports. He invites ten exiles home.

Home to him.
But the only one who truly realized this was the one – the one who returned to him. Because, let’s face it, just because they are physically clean, there’s no guarantee that they’re going to be let in. In everyone else’s minds their passports still list their home country as no-mans land. 

The ‘one’ sees that his identity — his truest place of belonging — lies at Jesus’s feet. He sees that Jesus’s arms alone are wide enough to embrace all of who he is — leper, foreigner, exile, an other. 
But, mostly, Jesus’ embrace tells him that he’s a beloved child of God.

The other nine don’t realize that their own families and friends will reject them.
And, the others don’t realize that the world still thinks they are worthless based on their skin.
And, the others don’t realize that Jesus alone will welcome them.

And why should they? Why should they believe that the world can be such a harsh and unwelcoming place? Shouldn’t they believe that if they’ve done all the right things, gone through the proper channels, presented themselves to the officials, and have a clean passport they should be let in?
In some ways the nine have a faith in humanity that I do not.

So, Jesus is sad. Heartbroken. Anguished. Not because they don’t give thanks, but because they still won’t know belonging, even after their physical healing. He knows that the world will reject them, just as the world rejects him.

Can we read this passage and allow ourselves to “see” what hurts lie deep in people causing them to be the way they are? And do the things they do? The challenge for us is to really see beyond the skin’s surface.

These days, brown-skinned children languish in cages, politicians weaponize borders, and racial and religious minorities fear mistreatment in their own neighborhoods, schools, and worship spaces. Just this past week, our Jewish siblings in Germany were terrorized in their own temple on the holiest day in Judaism, as a gunman fired upon them.

How is it that hearts have become infected by fear, hatred, and exclusion?

Ultimately, this is a story about faith as a form of courage. The ‘one’ takes a courageous step towards Jesus. And it changes everything. A step that wells up in him from the deepest caverns of yearning and sorrow and compels him to risk everything, just to finally belong. And he finds his home in Jesus arms.

After falling at Jesus’ feet, the ‘one’ is told to, “Get up and go on your way.”
I honestly wonder what the ‘one’ did in response to Jesus’ declaration.

Did his courage give him the strength to return to a place that didn’t want him and demand justice?
Did his courage compel him to stay at Jesus’ side and make Jesus’ home his home?
Did his courage help him wonder why he’s always felt alone?
Did his courage inspire him to stay in no-man’s land, caring for the others who were left behind? Because let’s face it, there were more than ten lepers languishing on the border.

I don’t have the exact answer, but I feel confident that in having been welcomed, loved, cleansed, and forgiven by Jesus he couldn’t help but encounter the world with mercy, kindness, and justice.

I feel confident that Jesus calls us to take courageous steps in faith too.

It is our tendency to see the world as populated by ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Somehow, any one of ‘them’ or the ‘other’ is dangerous to ‘us.’ Perhaps it’s not surprising that this issue of belonging is as timely today as it was in Jesus’ time. Jesus does not ration his healing, because there’s not enough to go around or so it only benefits certain people. Jesus knows that we belong to them, and they belong to us. We are stuck with each other.

Jesus imagines a world where you really can go home; a world where your flaws are not used against you, but rather help others become more whole; a world of stunning welcome; a world guided by gorgeous grace and unflinching mercy.
A world built on courageous faith. 

When I am frankly honest with myself, one thing that’s apparent is how desperately I need Jesus to welcome my tired and broken soul and body to himself.

I think everyone does. Without his life I am nothing.
And I think that’s what this bible story is about today.
That every soul needs a home. And sometimes it begins with a single step.