Jeremiah 31:27-34Luke 17:12-19
Five miles away from the West Bank city of Jenin sits the Palestinian village of Burqin. A town of 10,000, there’s not much to distinguish Burqin from a multitude of other Palestinian villages in the northern West Bank. It’s poor and its streets are a series of narrow alleyways. Most of the people scrape out their living from farming. And, as in most villages, local pride runs deep: the people of Burqin will tell you that the olive oil that comes from their trees is better than anywhere else in the region.
There is one characteristic that sets Burqin apart from so many other towns and villages nearby. Burqin contains the fourth oldest site of Christian veneration in the world. Known locally as the “Church of the Lepers,” the village’s ancient Greek Orthodox Church is the setting for today’s gospel lesson.
The church is locked most days: Saturday is the day of worship, since their priest is busy serving other parishes on Friday and Sunday. Ask around town, and you’ll eventually be led to the home of an older couple just around the corner from the church. The first thing you notice is the cross on their front metal doors; Burqin is also home to a small Christian population of several households, totaling some 100 people altogether. When John answers the door, he insists that you come in and have coffee first before visiting the church; old customs of hospitality persist in this part of the world.
When you get to the church, hugging desperately onto the hillside overlooking the valley below, John pulls out a huge metal key – you didn’t think they made keys like that anymore – and creaks the door open. The “new” church dates from the time of Constantine, some time in the fourth century. It’s been renovated and maintained since then, but still maintains a primordial aura. No matter, though, since John moves quickly through this part of the building to a musty little corner, where a metal cross leans up against a wall. This, he tells you, is the original church. The Arabic Bible practically opens itself up as he reads the story from Luke 17 for the umpteenth time for curious visitors like yourself.
The ten lepers, he tells you, were quarantined in this cave. You can still see the hole in the ceiling through which people would pass food and water to them. Jesus was passing by the town through the valley just outside the church’s doors. When the lepers heard he was passing by, they called out to him, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” It was then that the side of the cave opened up, Jesus met them and healed them, and sent them on their way. And on they went; only one turned back to say “thank you,” the lone despised Samaritan among the ten.
John will be happy to tell you other stories about the church, about miracles of healing and people hearing liturgy sung in the middle of the night; about how the community used the church as a place of refuge during the wars of 1948 and 1967, trusting that the one who brought healing to ten lowly lepers would surely protect the faithful at such a fearful time of trouble. And just for a moment, you are so caught up in the place, the walls which seem to exude history and holiness, that you might even be willing to drop your Westernized Presbyterian skepticism and believe that it is all true: the wartime protection, the modern-day miracles, the splitting cave, the healing of ten lepers, the Samaritan who defies all expectations and sets the new standard for faithfulness.
You’re tempted to spend as much time as possible in this place, soaking up its aura, hoping that you might take in enough that this moment where faith transcends reason will last you for a while, almost like a doubt vaccination. So you take your time, touch the walls, pray quietly to yourself, read and re-read the story that John swears, and you have no reason to doubt him, took place here. You sit on the steps outside the church and look down into the valley where tractors make their way on dirt roads, kicking up dust as they go. You try to picture Jesus walking that same road, a crowd following him as he makes his way South from the Galilee toward ancient Samaria. You strain to hear the voice of the lepers calling from that cave behind you, “Lord, have mercy on us.” And sitting there, this simple thought occurs to you: it might just be that the gospel is most richly lived in the places you would least expect it.
Here in Burqin, a community of a mere one hundred Christians like John has persisted in its faith in this place where it could have been so much easier to lay it down by the side of the road. And yet, week in and week out, here they come to worship God, to give praise to Christ, to be filled with the Holy Spirit. They consider themselves privileged to have this precious jewel of a place that can bring the gospel to life; it is theirs to nurture and share with the world. Even the church itself, which in your memory seems to be forever clinging for its life to the side of the mountain, defying gravity in its very existence, shares what happened on this spot nearly two thousand years ago with whomever will stop by and listen.
And even those lepers, holed up in a cave, beyond the reach of ancient cures, marginalized and feared by the rest of the world, it would be difficult to imagine that there would have been much need for them to play by society’s rules. There in their midst sat a lone Samaritan. Even without being a leper he would have already been an outcast, beneath others, a traitor to his people, a heretic to his faith. But in the lesson from Luke, it is not until later that this detail emerges. At first, he is simply one of ten lepers, all of whom appeal to Jesus for mercy and healing with one voice, regardless of whether they are Jew or Samaritan. So perhaps it is that we can see the gospel most fully awake in places like these, among the people at margins: the church that works among the poor and disenfranchised; the church in places like Burqin and Tehran; the church that meets in caves and with lepers and Samaritans.
The story already holds a twist for us here, showing us that life lived at the poorest margins can be the richest places of gospel faithfulness. And if that were not enough, then there’s this turn in this morning’s story. As soon as the ten are healed, Jesus sends them on their way to show themselves to the priests; in other words, these folks who have been barred from religious observance are now cleaned and should be cleared to participate. Jesus’ act of healing has brought them back into the mainstream of the community. It is then that we learn the identity of the Samaritan, since he is the only one to stop and say “thank you”, the one who prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet. This outcast among outcasts, the Samaritan former leper, is the one who ends up being the model of faithfulness in the story.
Seeing this seems to underscore what you’ve already come to see in this almost otherworldly visit with John halfway around the world. This Jesus whom John worships and serves is a Jesus who surprises. This Jesus is one that can be stopped on his way not by the voice of the powerful, but by the voice of lepers crying out from their quarantine. This Jesus is one who offers a word of healing and mercy to those whom the rest of the world has forsaken. And this Jesus recognizes in the least of all likely characters, this “foreigner”, this Samaritan, the best example of what it means to live a life in gratitude to God.
And seeing this, you can’t help but wonder: where is it that you might have had your eyes closed to this Jesus? Where have you missed the surprising mercy and healing that God has held before you? Who are the models of faith, these foreigners and Samaritans, that you might have dismissed out of hand before, because no one else was holding them up as worthwhile characters in the great gospel drama?
And as if one twist wasn’t enough in the story, there comes this little nugget: the other nine are still healed. Jesus doesn’t revoke their status and banish them back to their caves because they didn’t show the proper gratitude. Maybe he knows something about them that the story doesn’t reveal, that they were too embarrassed to say “thank you,” or that they were deeply grateful in their hearts and simply eager to return to worship alongside the community. Or maybe Jesus recognizes that they did exactly as he told them, to go and show themselves to the priests; the Samaritan’s doing was “above and beyond” what was expected, but what the other nine did was just fine.
Then again, since the story doesn’t say much, you can’t help but wonder if the nine give a window on a particularly human trait of taking things for granted. They were eager and shouting when trapped in a cave and bound by their leprosy. Once this is in the past, could it be that they’ve already forgotten this incredible gift? So what will happen when you leave this place, this little Burqin, far behind? Will you forget the power of this place once you hop in the taxi and kick up your own dust along that valley floor? What about when you’re back home, in a place of comfort, where you’re not among a religious minority, where wearing a cross is often seen more as a fashion statement, and not as a bold statement of faith?
And as these questions filter through your mind, perhaps it is then that it hits you: maybe this experience hasn’t been about you anyway. You don’t mean that in a self-denigrating way; it has been about you in so many ways. It is you who has sat in this place, touched its walls, listened to John as he shared this treasure, his treasure, with you. But perhaps the real lesson is in knowing something more fully about the character of this Jesus, and through him knowing something about the character of God’s very self.
Maybe it’s that God isn’t tied to rules in the way you might have expected. Perhaps it is that God’s grace isn’t bound by the limitations you might assume. This poor little Burqin church probably won’t be making headlines or holding renewal conferences. Its weekly offerings look a lot more like the widow’s mite than the kind of thing that could support a building campaign. And yet, it is here that the gospel persists, through the quiet, patience persistent of John, through the echoes of an ancient story in an ancient church. It is here that this Jesus heard the cries of ten lepers and stopped his journeys long enough to offer a tangible moment of miracle and hope and new possibilities. It is here that a despised Samaritan found himself the new mark of gratitude and faithfulness. And it is here in these humble surroundings that you have found your own faith strengthened and renewed, challenged and encouraged. And so your prayer is simply this: may it last.