God of the Borders
Good morning! What a grand weekend it has been! Anne and I rejoiced to join you in honoring our distinguished graduates, to hear the stories of your reunion classes, to cheer our Cobbers on the field, to listen once again to the harmonies of Concordia music, and—best of all—to welcome you home.
The Gospel this morning, as you heard, comes from Luke: Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem (and all that will mean), traveling at border between Samaria and Galilee, is confronted by ten lepers, who cry out for healing. Jesus directs them to the priests, and walking on their way, “they were made clean” (NRSV; Luke 17: 14). So there are already two kinds of borders here: the physical border between Galilee and Samaria, and the social/bodily border between the lepers and the clean. Even in their desperation, the lepers—as Luke writes—kept their distance from Jesus, knowing their outcast status.
But there is a third border as well: One of the ten who are healed is a Samaritan, belonging, as Meda Stamper writes, to “the unlovely outsiders of Jesus’ day.” Unexpectedly, of all those made clean, it is only this double outcast who comes back to offer thanks, throwing himself at Jesus’ feet.
Were not ten made clean? [Jesus asks.] But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?
Then he sends the man on, telling him that his faith has made him well.
In the world of Luke’s Gospel, this scene fits. From the start, the story of Jesus has been woven into the life of the lowly:
- When people tell John the Baptist they want to repent, he tells them to care for the poor.
- When Mary learns she will bear a child, she praises God for lifting up God’s lowly handmaiden and envisions a time when all the poor and hungry will be filled with good things.
- Three chapters before today’s story, Jesus is invited to a dinner by a prominent religious leader, and he tells his host that when he has such a meal, he should “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14: 13).
- And five chapters back, it is a Samaritan who aids the wounded man by the side of the road, when the respectable people have passed him by.
Leprosy makes a particularly appalling form of lowliness. Surely it would evoke both anxiety and an involuntary repulsion on the part of those who are not infected, and among those who are, a feeling not only of misery, but of loss and perhaps even of shame. The lepers who appeal to Jesus have in a most acute and dreadful way, nowhere to go. Social pariahs, yes, but even their own bodies offer no respite—only infection, injury, and alienation.
In his first public address in Luke, which takes place in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, Jesus receives the scroll of the book of Isaiah and reads that
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free. (4: 18-19)
Then he hands back the scroll and boldly declares his relationship with God: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4: 21). The hometown crowd is amazed, and asks, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” In response, Jesus says that no prophet is accepted at home, and he tells the story of “Naaman the Syrian,” who was cleansed of leprosy by the prophet Elisha—another outcast healed by a man of God. Jesus adds that “there were many lepers in Israel” in Elisha’s time, but only this foreigner was made clean (4: 27). The Nazarenes get the point, get very angry, and try to throw Jesus off a cliff.
So today’s gospel story takes us back to an Old Testament tale, told as you have heard in Second Kings. A foreign general, an enemy stricken with leprosy, comes to the king of Israel to seek out Elisha so that he might be healed. Naaman has heard of the prophet through a lowly maiden, a captive Israelite in the service of Naaman’s wife. Naaman arrives with treasure chests—“ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments” (5: 5)—to win the allegiance of the Israelite king. (As the president of Concordia, I am tempted here to say that this is a great idea—bring your treasure chests to your alma mater and all will be well! But that is a message for another day.) The Israelite ruler, for his part, receives an advance letter from Naaman’s king and panics because he fears a set up: If he cannot cure this general, his foes may invade and crush him. “Am I God,” he cries out, tearing his clothes, “to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” (5: 7).
Elisha, for his part, does not even bother to meet Naaman, but sends a messenger to tell the general to wash himself in the Jordan River, and he will be clean. Naaman, insulted not to see Elisha in person, and expecting a Hollywood kind of cure complete with special effects—he wants the prophet; he wants the Harry Potter wand—goes away angry (and still sick). It is only when his servants approach him and say, “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it” in order be healed? (5: 13). And so why not do the simple thing and wash yourself in the river? He does, and he becomes clean, “his flesh . . . restored like the flesh of a young boy” (5: 14).
What binds today’s Old and New Testament stories together? In each narrative, an alien comes unsought, uninvited—to Elisha, to Jesus. In each story, that foreigner is twice an outcast—by his alien status and by his repulsive disease. In each case, the healer makes a simple, un-spectacular declaration that leads to a cure. And in each case, the foreigner gives glory to God: Naaman declares, “Now I know there is no God in all the earth except in Israel” (5: 15), and the Samaritan leper in Luke comes back, falls at the feet of Christ, and gives thanks, using the same Greek verb there that Jesus uses when he gives thanks for the bread and wine at his last supper with the disciples, the word for which we have named the Great Thanksgiving: the Eucharist.
I am never comfortable when preachers ask, “Whom do you identify with in this biblical story?” In the Old Testament story, I don’t much see myself as either the leprous general or the Israelite king; I sure am not Elisha. Likewise in Luke’s story, I sure am not Jesus, and I don’t want to be the Samaritan leper. And in the background, earlier in Luke’s Gospel, I hope I’m not part of that Nazareth hometown mob insulted by a story of foreigners healed and ready to hurl Jesus off a cliff—or of the mob that awaits Jesus in Jerusalem. But I like to imagine that I would at least approve of the miracles that make these foreigners whole—wouldn’t you?
In Robert Frost’s narrative poem, The Death of the Hired Man, a farm hand named Silas arrives in winter, unexpected, uninvited, at Mary and Warren’s farm. He’s old, unwell, asleep by the stove as the farm wife and husband speak of him. Warren wants nothing of Silas, reminding Mary that the man had walked away at haying time when they needed him the most, and besides, he’s not family—he has a rich brother only thirteen miles down the road. “What good is he?” demands Warren. “What help he is there’s no depending on.”
In the silence of the winter night, in their moonlit room, Mary turns to her husband and reveals what she knows to be true:
"Warren," she said, "he has come home to die:
You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time."
“Home," he mocked gently.
"Yes, what else but home? [she replies.]
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he’s nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail."
"Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in” [he says.]
"I should have called it [Mary answers]
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve."
Anne and I went home this August, and sat late into the evening with my mother and father. They had been reading a book together before we came and wanted to tell us about it. When my dad was in college, the first in his family ever to go, he got his draft notice just about this time of year, in 1942 when he turned 18, and wanting to pick his service, he joined the Army Air Corps. By the time he was 20, he’d navigated 35 missions over France and Germany in a B-24 bomber. Friends—no older than college students—had died around him, and now, just weeks before his 90th birthday, he is the last man standing from that crew.
The book they were reading tells the story of another bomber crew, a B-17 that had been reduced to ribbons over Bremen, its pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Brown, shot and hazy, one crewman dead and others also wounded, and the plane now lost to its squadron, having plummeted to only 1000 feet above the ground before Brown somehow got it moving higher—only to have a Luftwaffe fighter spot them again. The fighter pilot, Lieutenant Franz Stigler, gave chase, intending to bring the bomber down for good.
But when he pulled alongside the B-17 and saw its wrecked condition—the nose cone had been blown away and the sides gaped open—and its wounded crew, Stigler couldn’t fire. Instead—the story is longer than I have time for now—Stigler escorted them to the North Sea, keeping them from attack by other German fighters, and (as you might guess) risking the danger of a reprimand or worse when he himself returned to base. He could have killed them; by the expectations of war he should have killed them, his enemies. He didn’t; he led them home.
Where would we draw lines for the mercy of God? At what borders would we say it shall not cross? Would it be at the border of our enemies? Would it be at the border of the old or the sick or the religiously different? I trust not, but should we try, the Old and New Testament stories today say that our God is the God of borders, and will tolerate no limits to God’s healing mercy. And thank God for that, for the sake of our neighbor, however alien she or he may seem to us, and for our own sake, for we know that there also are borders within in us, places where we ourselves may fear to go, but God comes even there, and we are restored.
And so we say with the healed general of Second Kings and the Samaritan leper of Luke, thanks be to God, not in deserving but in gratitude for the border crossing love of our maker and redeemer. There are in truth three miracles in the stories for today: the healing from leprosy (from its disfigurement and from its lonely sorrow); the healing from the alienation of enemy and outcast; and also—so quiet and so plain that we could miss it—the healing through ordinary things: Elisha tells Naaman simply to wash in the river; Jesus tells the lepers to go to the priest, and walking there, they are made clean.
So with them we say thanks, and here, now, at Concordia’s homecoming we come home, to the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving, to the bread and the cup, to the mercy of Christ that makes us whole. Amen.
Stamper, Working Preacher, commentary on Luke 17:11-19 at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1786&show_mobile=true.
 See Stamper.
 Frost, The Death of the Hired Man, in Selected Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1963), p. 25.
 Frost, pp. 28-29.
 Adam Makos, A Higher Call: An Incredible Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II, (New York: Berkeley, 2013).