sermon: life in the margins
If you’ve read the book or seen the movie “The Motorcycle Diaries” — the latter which became a hugely popular and important film after its release in 2004 — then you might know a different side of Ernesto Guevara. Known more commonly simply as Che, in his later life, he was an Argentine Marxist guerrilla who worked alongside of Fidel Castro to overthrow the U.S.-backed Cuban Dictator Fulgencio Batista. Before that, however, he worked with the U.S. to overthrow the Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz.
Che’s charisma, unbridled and fearless determination to help the world’s oppressed, and unwillingness to budge an inch on the fact that capitalism was tantamount to imperialism, in his eyes, created a legend and a spirit that continues to fuel idealists who look at the world’s most powerful nations and see that their agendas keep those who cannot defend themselves in a perpetual state of oppression.
This is the ignition for explosive revolutions, not much different from our own country’s revolution against England.
But if you’ve never seen or read “The Motorcycle Diaries” or don’t know about Che’s early life, then you’re missing a lot about how his ideals were formulated and became so critical to him.
It can be summed up this way: In 1952, Che — a young physician — and a friend set out from Buenos Aires on an 8,700-mile trip across South America on a Norton 500 motorcycle.
What they find in the seven months on the road is exactly what planted the seed of revolution in Che’s heart.
Che finds abject poverty. But the poverty is caused by those in the capitalist regimes who could, if they chose, help rather than oppress the people, the workers and their families.
Che saw this as injustice.
And there’s a great scene in the movie — Che finds himself volunteering at a medical mission in the San Pablo leper colony in Peru.
Che refuses to wear latex gloves when shaking the hands of the lepers.
On the night of his 24th birthday, and the staff throws a huge big party for him.
But the lepers aren't invited. In fact, for safety reasons, the lepers are quarantined to their homes — a little makeshift village of huts — across the Amazon River.
They can see the party lights, hear the music and make out the dancing.
And the pivotal scene is where Che begins to wade out into the night water and swim toward the leper colony. He has asthma, and the water is so vast, it seems impossible.
But then he does make it. And he brings the party to the lepers.
A question of extremes
Is it odd that I’m making a connection between Che and Jesus? Does it seem superficial because the fact that they both healed lepers?
Am I risking losing you over an anecdote that involves a known Marxist with extreme ties to Cuba and guerrilla warfare, and who was a long-time enemy of the CIA — enough so that they assassinated him in the jungles of Bolivia in 1967?
I hope not. But I also hope we can see the story for the illustration it presents — the extremes.
How do we define success? We live in a very capitalist society. Che did, too. The perceived way to help one’s self is to play the game.
For instance, as a young boy, Che had all the advantages of being able to go to school then college and to become a doctor.
But once his eyes were opened, Che didn’t play that game. He saw that in that game, these Third World Countries could have a seat at the game-board, at best, but they were never allowed to win.
Instead, they were told how they were going to play.
In a sense, we can see Jesus like this, too, can we not?
If not anything else, Jesus represents radical change.
Consider his world. The Greco-Roman world, with all the rules of the game it invented. It made Judea — and so many other countries in its imperialistic advances — come to the game table but assured them that there was no way to win.
You simply have to play by their rules. There was no choice.
Jesus, as we know, refused to play by those rules. But was it for himself? No. It was for us.
Jesus’s influence was so great that he was warned countless times, hated for his beliefs, hunted down and then systematically executed by the state. For us.
So was Che, if you think about it. Sure, his ways weren't what we would describe as healthy; however, he refused to play by the rules of a game that would ensure those who were oppressed would always lose and would always suffer.
Jesus crosses boundaries. In fact, he obliterates them. It’s as if he doesn’t even notice them.
Prostitutes become dear friends.
Tax collectors are dinner buddies.
Persecutors, like Paul, become his apostles.
A thief who hangs on the cross beside Jesus is invited to His Father’s home! Paradise today.
Outsiders, foreigners, what we call “others” are treated the same as the rest.
And from our reading today, in Luke 17, lepers are healed.
But let’s look at this passage a little closer. Because there’s so much more we can learn from Jesus’s kindness to them.
It is a story about healing and faith, yes. But it’s also so much more.
It’s a story of invitation, of acceptance, and of identity.
In Verse 11, right off the bat, we see that Jesus is traveling between Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem.
Remember, this is the Travel Narrative, Luke 9-19, in which Jesus is making his way to the Holy City for his ultimate crucifixion.
And he sees 10 lepers who call out to him, “Jesus, Master, Have mercy on us!”
“Jesus, Master, Have mercy on us!”
They know Jesus as a healer, but also more — Master. When a word that’s not a proper noun, like master, is capitalized in the Bible, we know that they mean more than just the traditional word “master” conveys.
He he has mercy on them, tells them to go to the priests, Verse 14.
But don’t read that too quickly. It says just that, “Go to the priests.” But the next verse is “And as they went, they were made clean.”
The priests didn’t make them clean. See that? As they went to the priests, they became clean.
JESUS made them clean. And Jesus wants them to display themselves to the priests to show what Jesus has done for them.
One of the lepers — a Samaritan, we see — notices that he’s cured and turns around and praises God.
He runs to Jesus, drops at his feet and thanks him.
Now, in this culture, Jesus is a Jew. The Samaritan is not. Samaritans and Jews don’t associate with one another.
Samaritans are considered “unclean.” You don’t go near them, you don’t talk to them, and you certainly don’t touch them.
It was against the Jewish Law…
Jesus doesn’t see any of that. He transcends Law and sees only a person. Not a leper. Not a Samaritan. A person.
A child of God.
You see, as a Samaritan, you have no identity in the Jewish world. That game is not available to you to play. You cannot come to that table.
And as a leper, well, you were unclean.
As both? You not only had no place in the Jewish world, you had no place in the Samaritan world either.
You were an outcast. Exiled. Everything you knew, everyone you love, you had to leave and probably would never see them again.
Your support was found in other lepers, if at all.
Jesus acknowledges this: “Where are the other nine?,” he asks. “None of them will acknowledge God except the Samaritan?”
Interesting… Seems as if the other nine go back to their old ways, their old divisions.
More than physical healing
You see, there’s physical healing for all 10 lepers; but there is more for the Samaritan.
The lone Samaritan is also spiritually healed.
What does that mean?
You see, all of the lepers were isolated and abandoned.
None of them had any identity at all.
Again, what they knew, who they were, where they came from — that was stripped from them with their physical disease.
But identity means so much, doesn’t it?
The nine presumably Jewish lepers were healed of their physical illness and were again simply Jewish people. That was their identity that they could go back to — nothing more, nothing less.
But the Samaritan, although now made healthy, was still considered unclean in a Jewish world. Still isolated — but not because of something physical.
It’s here, when the Samaritan turns around and praises God and thanks Jesus that he is given a new identity — not simply cured and not accepted into the Jewish world, but accepted into the Kingdom of God.
Without identity, we are nothing. We are outcast. We are invisible. But with identity in God, we are transformed, accepted, loved — healed.
In other words, we are saved.
In contrast, the nine Jews who walk away are still sick, still suffering. Still in need of healing.
At Jesus’s feet
So this becomes a story not simply about physical healing, but spiritual healing, amen?
We are these lepers, too. We need more healing than what’s simply physically available to us; we need spiritual healing that we are accepted into the body of Christ.
This becomes our identity. Our true place of belonging — where we are always accepted — is right there at Jesus’s feet. This is our permanent citizenship. This is where we always belong.
God made us for this very reason.
You see, Che maybe couldn’t cure the lepers of their disease.
But he could invite them into a bigger circle.
He took off the gloves and masks all the other doctors and staff wore, and he touched the lepers.
He formed relationships of trust and kindness and love between them and him, making them not feel like lepers, like the “other”, but like everyone else.
They were accepted.
He restored their dignity. He played soccer matches with them.
And on the night of his birthday, he risked his own life for them, as he swam the dark river.
Then he invited them to celebrate in their unity, in their togetherness.
In their identity.
No matter what you think of Che Guevera — whether he’ll always be an enemy of the state or an iconic legend to you — that doesn’t matter.
I’m not trying to convert anyone here.
He is a man, a sinner, broken and flawed and in need of Jesus Christ, just like you and I.
But, we can see a very clear picture of the kind of fearless acceptance we should emulate, we should strive for, in this example.
So let’s ask ourselves:
How are we oppressing others by the actions we do or the actions we refuse to do?
Does our privilege in where and how we live cause under-privilege for others?
What part of the world — or even our own backyard — are we apathetic toward? What places do we need to force ourselves to discover so that we can take our own blinders off and learn to help?
And how can we learn and have the courage to accept those who, in their “otherness”, suffer by being kept oppressed outcasts in our culture, in our world, and in our church? BELIEVE IT! IT HAPPENS HERE!
Who do we not accept?
How can we break down barriers — and laws, rules, obstructions, traditions and regulations — whatever it takes! — to invite ALL people into God’s family?
We have to ask ourselves: What dark, wide, scary rivers is Jesus asking us to cross?
Lord, have mercy.
“Jesus, Master, Have mercy on us.”