"Something there is that doesn’t love a wall," Robert Frost begins his poem, "That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, And spills the upper boulders in the sun, And makes gaps even two can pass abreast." Frost paints a picture of a walk he takes each spring with his neighbor. They meet in the morning and walk the line between their properties. As they walk, they repair the stone wall, picking up pieces, nudging stones back into place. As they perform this ritual Frost begins to wonder why they need this wall. Sure, for the cattle here, but, he says, there are places we don’t. Our orchards are far enough apart here; maybe we won’t worry about it over here. The neighbor only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
But, Frost begins to wonder: ‘Why do they make good neighbors?’ "Before I built a wall," he writes, "I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down." You feel the emotion rise, wondering why it is we need these boundaries between us, wondering what purpose these walls serve. But, again, unprompted, the neighbor sighs. "Good fences make good neighbors."
Luke is concerned about boundaries and geography, about us finding our place. At the heart of Luke’s gospel, after the disciples are called, after miraculous healings and feedings, after the transfiguration on the top of the mountain, the turn comes in 9:51, when Luke tells us that ‘when the days drew near… [Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem.’ Luke’s first readers knew what we know, that Jesus goes to Jerusalem to suffer and to die. We should keep our eye that direction. Then the travel narrative begins, as Jesus moves from Mt Tabor – where the transfiguration is thought to have happened – slowly, towards the city. He eats with all sorts of people, he tells stories of sheep and coins, of prodigal sons returning home. But here in 17:11 Luke reminds us where Jesus is going – Jerusalem – and then, for the first time since 9:51, tells us where they are. They were going through the region between Samaria and Galilee, Luke says.
But, as you see on the map on your insert, there is no region between Samaria and Galilee. There is a border, but no self-respecting Jew would go out of her way to go through Samaria on the way to Jerusalem – they are bearers of a centuries-old conflict. John Carroll makes a case I find persuasive for this geographical note’s importance: "The vagueness and ambiguity of the geographical reference in 17:11, therefore, is suggestive. Jesus is walking through a liminal zone, a place of transition, a place "between," where neither Galilean nor Samaritan is at "home."1
That made sense to me. I know what it’s like to be unsure of where I fit, to not quite know where I belong. David Lose writes about God’s work being made manifest in this "region between."2 The world is set up for things to fit into categories bounded by walls, neatly-defined boundaries. But what if your career path doesn’t quite line out? What if being a stay-at-home parent works sometimes and drives you crazy other times? What if your marriage doesn’t feel like it should or you are stuck in the sandwich generation caring for both your parents and your children or grandchildren, too? It happens with our friends at school, in our social circles, as we struggle with who we think other people expect us to be. A man walked into my office on Tuesday and sat down with his head in his massive hands. His aunt had kicked him out, his only family, and he had spent the weekend in the woods. I’m stuck in-between, he said. When our identity isn’t quite clear, there we live, in that region between Galilee and Samaria, in the space in-between.
But that in-between space is also a place thick with the possibilities of God. As Jesus enters a village, ten lepers approach. Lepers were ostracized from community, but also, to make it more painful, the lepers themselves were made responsible for the enforcement of such ostracism, announcing their condition to any who might approach them.3 Leviticus tells them to cry out, whenever people are near, Unclean, unclean.4 These 10 have gathered together, their only choice for community. They cry out not, unclean, unclean, but Jesus, Master, have mercy on us! I wonder how that cry felt, their desperation. Without batting an eye Jesus tells them to go and show yourselves to the priests. They turn and then, Luke tells us, on the way, in this in-between space, they were made clean.
Part of me doesn’t fault the other 9 for not coming back. I don’t know if I blame them for being excited and heading off into whatever adventures they felt called into. The 9 disappear. But, one of them turned back, praising God with a loud voice, Luke says. He comes up to Jesus….I can’t imagine the look on his face, the joy and relief and tears when he and Jesus lock eyes, the weight, all that weight finally lifted. There will be much work ahead, a life to build. But, for a moment, Jesus had made him whole. He had hope. He laid himself at Jesus’ feet and offered thanks. And, Luke goes out of his way to tell us, he was a Samaritan, one of those outsiders, unexpected. All of this happens and a Samaritan leper is the one who offers praise. Jesus asks him, rhetorically, for the reader, were there not another 9? Did none of them – no one expected this outsider – decide to come back and praise God? Jesus helps him up, and offers his blessing.
I do believe that there is something within us that makes us inclined towards walls. We do it all the time, sorting – sometimes unconsciously, sometimes quite consciously. Who is like us, who went to school with us, or at places like ours. We sort by education and job, status and access. We sort by where our kids go to school, we sort by the way people look, how they speak, how they handle themselves in social situations. Kids do it, teenagers, adults. We categorize. We bully. We look down our nose. Or, on the other side, we think too little, think that we don’t, can’t contribute, can’t belong. I bet we’ve all gotten a glimpse of those lepers sometimes, feeling left behind. I bet, for folks like us, more often we have been the community around, deciding whether to include or not, too often saying, ‘no.’
But I wonder if Jesus might meet us in the in-between places in our lives? I wonder if He might meet us where we are confused and unsure. I wonder if He might meet us in those places we aren’t even willing to admit exist, those places that we work really hard not to let others see, those places in the middle of the night where we are just a little bit afraid? I wonder where that place is for you?
Because, whenever and wherever that place is, Christ comes. He looks us in the eye and pronounces healing. Maybe not from the cancer or the pain in your back, but maybe so, as well. Healing comes. To the bully and the bullied, to the included and the excluded, to folks on either side of the wall. And then He looks at us, wondering what we will do. I must say, the world assumes we will be the nine. We’ve got things to do, after all. Super, we feel better, let’s get on with it. We’ll treat the church just like we treat public radio and keep listening and never join up, never give, never find a place to offer our gratitude back to God here in God’s own house, the church. Last year I stood up here and told you that there were 127 families that were members of this church that didn’t make a pledge. We worked hard and brought that number down to 84, 84 out of 394 households here. Those are numbers many churches would envy. But, it still means there are folks who aren’t pitching in, folks that are coming to receive when God needs not only their gifts but their LIFE. Folks who are giving more to some company for their phone and internet packages than to God’s work here and beyond as we feed the hungry, as we study the bible, as welcome amazing dancers from an orphanage for desperately poor children from Haiti next Sunday night which you won’t want to miss. As we gathered in the sanctuary as Wednesday ROCK began, more than 30 kids and 20 adults in here celebrating. As a number of us were at a moving breakfast for Urban Ministries of Durham this week, serving those with no place else. This church matters so much, and everyone must be a part. We need everyone.
That is the question Luke leaves to us, those who seek to be followers of Jesus. The world expects us to be the nine, who go on about our business, who look out for #1. But what kind of community could we be if we – if YOU decided you were going to be that 1 – no matter where you have come from or where you are going – who comes back to Jesus, to love embodied, looks him in the eye, and offers your life?
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. John T. Carroll, "Between text and Sermon: Luke 17: 11-19" Interpretation 1 Oct 1999, 405. I am grateful to the Rev. Ellen Crawford True for her great paper on this text at the 2013 gathering of The Well, Baltimore.
2. David Lose, "Commentary on the Gospel," 10 Oct 2010. (Also from Crawford True)
3. Justo L. Gonzalez, Luke, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: WJK, 2010) 204-205. (From Crawford True)
4. Leviticus 13:45-46.