This Gospel lesson makes me wonder. Who is worthy of healing? Is it the people who suffer the most pain, or whose suffering is most intense? Is it the ones who have suffered the longest amount of time? Does a person have to understand the healing in order to receive it? Does healing come only for those who trust in God, or for those who have the most faith? Or is sufficient gratitude the measure of healing?
Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, and because we know the rest of the story, we know what this means: Jesus is journeying to Jerusalem for the last time, because it’s there he will be crucified. On some level, he must have known this, but that foreboding doesn’t get in the way of his mission of healing.
Jesus is also in a borderland area, between Samaria and Galilee. Borderlands are more than geographic boundaries—Chicana activist Gloria Anzaldua has lived and studied the border between Mexico and the United States and in her estimation, borderlands are “a psychic, social, and cultural terrain that we inhabit, and that inhabits all of us.” Borders can form your identity—which side are you on? How do you identify?
This isn’t always a choice. For the ten lepers living outside a village, they didn’t choose to be where they were; their skin condition frightened people who feared contracting disease. When these ten call out to Jesus from a distance, we recognize the distance as a sign of respect—haven’t we just been through a pandemic and learned to keep six feet of physical distance?
They call out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” This is unusual because we’re not sure how they know who Jesus is, why they get to address him by his proper name, Jesus, or why they call him “Master,” when that title is usually what his disciples would call him. But from a distance, Jesus calls out, go and show yourselves to the priests. The strength of his healing power apparently doesn’t require physical touch.
But in this case, the healing does require a response—as the ten are going, their skin condition vanishes. They are participants in their own healing, and they do exactly what Jesus asks them to do. That could be the end of the story, but one man sees that he is healed and instead of following Jesus’s words to the very letter, he turns around and makes it all the way back to Jesus’s feet to thank him.
This story is not a morality play about why you should always say thank you or “just be grateful.” I see this story illuminating that healing is not just about “fixing a problem”—God is not in a transactional relationship with humanity, where God says, “Now, you do this thing to make me happy, and then I’ll give you the reward.”
Healing is about restoring relationship. The one guy who returned to Jesus to give thanks, he recognized the open door to mercy, the open door to connection with God. Being healed of a skin condition—that’s great, that’s life-changing. But there’s more: there’s abundant life and joy in the presence of God. He was just curious enough to trust and to explore.
Healing is not truly complete until the relationships are restored. And that’s complicated because humans are complicated, because we draw borders and build walls to separate ourselves. We tend to evaluate power dynamics in terms of firepower and ability to inflict harm, all based in fear.
Humans are no different now than they ever were; we just have more machines now than when Jesus was walking around. But what’s fascinating is that none of that typical power analysis seems to rattle Jesus. Jesus isn’t sitting with his disciples and strategizing about the best way to do mission, the best words to use to craft a message, or evaluating how to win friends and influence people. Jesus is utterly free of all of that nonsense, which leaves him free to act, to do God’s will. Jesus knows who he is: fully human and fully God—the border runs through him, yet he is fully integrated within himself. He knows well who he is, where he came from, and where he’s going.
It makes me wonder: do we know who we are? Do we know where we come from, or even who we want to be? For all of our brokenness, I don’t wonder if humans are worthy of being healed of their pain—we are absolutely not worthy. I trust in God who has power and ability and willingness to heal our pain, and I trust in God’s mercy to heal us.
What I wonder is whether we’re even interested in being healed. How many of us would call out to Jesus as a master? How many of us would ask for God’s mercy on us? How many of us would put ourselves at Jesus’s feet in gratitude? That’s vulnerable stuff.
One of the messier spaces of human existence is our understanding of racial categories and how those have been historically enforced and contributed to inequality over many generations. There are a lot of ways to look at this, but one thing that has become clear to our church is that ignoring race won’t help us or heal our brokenness at all.
So in 2019, the ELCA Church Council passed a “Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent.” It’s an apology on behalf of the church, of which the ELCA is one part, for being complicit in the institution of slavery in the United States and for remaining largely silent when it came time to dismantle segregation and racial inequities.
This apology was made in response to a request by the African Descent Lutheran Association—did you know that’s a group which exists? It does. And there’s also a European Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice, to make clear that their work isn’t for white people to strengthen their whiteness but to work toward racial justice.
Anyway, you can go read this Declaration to People of African Descent—it’s on the ELCA website—and you can learn a thing or two. But if simply learning isn’t enough for you, you can take the next step into building relationship. Some gracious leaders in our area are convening a series of discussions on Thursday nights for the next couple of weeks to take time to read this declaration slowly and carefully, acknowledging along the way our feelings and reflecting on our origin stories, how where we come from and what we’ve learned have shaped our thinking. We discuss openly and in safe spaces, and we’re getting to know each other. It isn’t an easy conversation, but it is essential.
Sometimes I wish that Jesus could heal our racial brokenness by calling out to us: your faith has made you well! And then we could just shed our harmful attitudes like sloughed-off dead skin cells and run gleefully into the new future that awaits us. But that isn’t how this kind of healing is going to happen.
We’re healing by listening to one another and really hearing each other, by asking questions and sitting with those questions, by reviewing our understanding of history and looking at it from different perspectives. In a profound statement during last week’s discussion, one person mentioned that in their family’s background, they know of a distant family member of African descent who was enslaved here in the United States and who told stories of seeing whippings and lynchings and whose daughter was taken from her and sold as property, and another part of their family who was white and wealthy and who owned over a hundred slaves. And this person for whom these different and disparate identities are true, said, “I can’t hate either part of my family.”
And that statement really made me wonder if we as faithful followers of Jesus can truly integrate our own understanding of who we are and where we’ve come from. We belong to a religion that has done some terrible things, and we belong to a religion which has done some wonderful and beautiful and healing things.
As one of our discussion leaders pointed out, “It’s almost as if we’re saints and sinners at the same time.” One identity doesn’t eclipse the other—we are always in need of God’s grace, and we never deserve it; and we are always within reach of God’s mercy, and we can never earn it.
The writer to Timothy says even if we are faithless, Christ Jesus remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself. Healing is a sign of the reign of God—may God’s mercy and healing power be evident among us, too.
 Referenced from https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-3/commentary-on-luke-1711-19-5 Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Book Company, 1987), 3. https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Slavery_Apology_Explanation.pdf?_ga=2.163647039.1663860712.1665089349-568035500.1662490875