Living in Liminality, Pastor Fred
“And as they went, they were made clean.” That’s what Luke tells us about the 10 lepers that came to Jesus. When Jesus saw them, he told them simply to go and show themselves to the priests. This was what the Leviticus law prescribed, that if you were lucky enough to be healed from leprosy, you must first present yourself to a priest in the Temple to be certified that you were no longer ‘unclean.’
Another law was that, those with leprosy must keep their distance from the rest of the population. Not just live in a special leper’s colony, which they did, but if traveling, you must make sure to keep your distance from others by shouting out, “unclean, unclean,” to warn them, as a kind of courtesy, because of how contagious leprosy was. Of course, this made for a stigma, that kept those with leprosy separated from the rest of society, like wearing a Scarlet Letter!
Luke doesn’t tell us, if that’s what the 10 lepers say when they approach Jesus – if they shout out “unclean.” But they did call out together, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” The reputation of Jesus as a healer, preceded him! They are not supposed to approach him, and Luke is also careful to say that they kept their distance, but they definitely aren’t going to squander their opportunity, to ask the Master for mercy!
It is the disciples who call Jesus ‘Master’ throughout the gospel of Luke. But this is the only time in the whole of Luke’s narrative that Jesus is called Master by someone who is not a Disciple! And perhaps this is what convinces Jesus of their faith! Their chorus of “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” is proof that they have no doubt Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, the long awaited messianic king. And so before he even declares that they are healed, Jesus simply responds, “go and show yourselves to the priests!” And, “as they went, they were made clean!”
It’s the sending, by Jesus, that heals them – the recognition of their faith, and the blessing into action – a sending – that is, in effect, the same as healing, and making them whole again.
On the journey, the journey of following Jesus – a journey with Jesus – is where we find wholeness and salvation. And this is a journey that enters – if we can call it this – the liminal space where Jesus lives. The liminal, is a threshold, an in between place – a transition from one condition, to a new condition. Like unclean to clean; like outcast, to welcomed in; like death to life!
Jesus himself was on this liminal journey. Jesus, having finished his ministry in Galilee – the region he grew up in and first gathered his Disciples, where he preached the good news and taught in parables – had set his face to go to Jerusalem, back in Chapter 9. And Luke reminds us of that, the very first thing, in this reading.
“On the way to Jerusalem,” Luke says of Jesus. And then he adds, “he was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. This is where the journey is now at. Except that, no one can point to “the region between Samaria and Galilee,” on a map! There is no geographical region in between! Galilee was the northern most territory of Israel, and Judea was southernmost, where Jerusalem is. Samaria was in-between the two. So, it would have made sense that Jesus was either passing through Samaria on his way from Galilee down to Jerusalem, or, was perhaps skirting its boundary, if he took the main route to the east, following the Jordan River. But there is no region between Galilee and Samaria – they are right next to each other. Unless of course, Luke wants to underscore the place of liminality, the threshold space, that Jesus seemed to live in, and a wonderful description of what took place in this healing and bridge building story.
It was also appropriate to say, ‘Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee,’ because of the deep division and distrust between the Samaritans and the Jews which had grown up over the centuries after the Exile to Babylon.
The Samaritans, for the most part, were never made to participate in the exile. They were more isolated by the hill country they lived in, than the Galileans or Judeans, and so were able to avoid being carted away. But in the meantime, since the Jerusalem Temple had been destroyed, they developed Mt Gerizim as their center of worship, and to this day, claim it as their holy place – which was unacceptable to those who came home and rebuilt the Jerusalem temple. And the Samaritans were forever shunned, and the two became, as enemies.
Recall that at the beginning of this journey, Jesus and the Disciples are taking, they sent out scouts, like Secret Service Agents, to find cities for Jesus to visit along the way. And when a Samaritan village refused to receive Jesus, the Disciples casually asked Jesus if he wanted them to bring down fire on them?! That’s the level of enmity and division that existed between them.
Jesus of course, nixed that idea, in the strongest of terms. And now, once again, Jesus makes sure to lift up what happens after the ten lepers are healed, and only one of the 10 comes back to worship and thank Jesus. He points it out in front of all to see, that the only one who came to say thank you and give praise to God, was a foreigner and so-called enemy, a Samaritan.
The enemy-Samaritan, healed of leprosy, is a double outcast. And because of his social and religious stigmas, he too has lived in the liminal spaces, places that are in between, not quite belonging, but on the threshold of something new, the place where God is calling us – calling us out from what has been holding us down – holding us back from being healed and made whole!
The liminal space is where the kingdom and realm of God breaks in. Jesus lives there, and invites us follow him. Yet we are creatures who tend to live more comfortably within defined boundaries, on one side or the other, where we can identify with our family, clan and people, where we feel more complete knowing who the opposition or enemy is. Because it can be hard, very hard, to live in the in-between region – in the place where there is no clearly defined border – in liminality.
It reminds me of El Paso, where people of more than one ethnic or national identity flow freely from one side of the US/Mexican border to the other, a border that has worked for a long time, that way. But then there was the mass shooting at a Walmart in August, and the alleged perpetrator left a hate-filled White Nationalist manifesto, replacing liminality with terror, in a matter of a few minutes. The call to live in the in-between spaces, in liminal living, can be heard as ‘bad news’ to a mind stuck in a world of black and white thinking.
?Is it harder to build a life on a border with no wall, a boundary that is in-between and porous? Certainly the tension is greater. But the rules are less rigid, more inclusive, open, and welcoming. The hard part, is putting God at the center of our lives, and listening for the answers that are yet to be spoken. To live in that liminal space will not be possible without deep trust, and a certain amount of risk, on our part. Like the cross, liminality is full of vulnerability. But also full of reward! Its power is in our ability to reach out to our neighbor, indeed, even our enemy, in love.
The “Master” knows the way to Jerusalem! His cross is there, but also his resurrection. The journey Jesus took was completely open and honest, in a way humanity has rarely seen. He confronted the corruption of this world under the banner of God’s truth. And at the same time, he came to heal the whole world and unite us as one, through deep compassion.
And now the journey is ours to take. We are his followers, walking in the liminality of open borders. It reminds me of our Psalm today which says, “Our God has kept us among the living, and has not allowed our feet to slip. … we went through fire and water, but you brought us out into a place of refreshment.” Every step of our journey, through the desert or the hill country, is guided and protected by God.
We are on our way to show ourselves to the priest… “And as we go, as we journey with Jesus, we are made clean,” and whole once again.