Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sermon for February 15, 2009

Be Clean!
Mark 1:40-45
A man with leprosy came and knelt in front of Jesus, begging to be healed. “If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean,” he said. Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be healed!” Instantly the leprosy disappeared, and the man was healed. Then Jesus sent him on his way with a stern warning: “Don’t tell anyone about this. Instead, go to the priest and let him examine you. Take along the offering required in the law of Moses for those who have been healed of leprosy. This will be a public testimony that you have been cleansed.” But the man went and spread the word, proclaiming to everyone what had happened. As a result, large crowds soon surrounded Jesus, and he couldn’t publicly enter a town anywhere. He had to stay out in the secluded places, but people from everywhere kept coming to him.
When I was growing up, in the high school cafeteria the kids you sat down with to eat your lunch were always the same people. Woe unto you if you dared to sit at the table of the popular kids, or the geeks, or the jocks! You had to be with your group. How many of you went back to your 20th reunion, years later, to find that the same old factions were still there? People still sat at tables with the same old groups, and there was no attempt to cross those old invisible boundaries that divided us all.

We learned at an early age to make snap judgments about people. We divide people into groups all the time: Those we like and those we don't; those who are “my kind of people,” and those who aren't. In the process, we shut out many people who we could come to have close friendships with. If only we'd get beyond those mental boundaries that have shut them out.

Too often we're like the children of The Secret Society of 9. Harpers magazine once published the rules of their club:
  1. Do not tell a white lie, unless necessary.
  2. Do not hurt anyone in any way.
  3. Do not hit anyone-- except Ronny.
  4. Do not use words worse than "brat"
  5. Do not curse at all.
  6. Do not make faces, except at Ronny.
  7. Do not be selfish.
  8. Do not make a hog or a pig of yourself.
  9. Do not tattle, except on Ronny.
  10. Do not steal, except from Ronny.
  11. Do not destroy other people's property, except Ronny's.
  12. Do not be a sneak.
  13. Do not be grumpy, except to Ronny
  14. Do not answer back, except to Ronny
Poor Ronny! We can be like the children in that club. We can be so selective in who we relate to in God’s world. Around how many places in your life, have fences been put up to keep others out who we don't like, or aren't our kind, or just aren't in our group. We even become selective in the sharing of God's love--sharing it with everyone, except the Ronnies of the world. Who are the people in your world whom you've failed to reach out to and love?

We put fences up all around us. They give us some comfort. Fences keep danger out. Fences protect those who dwell within them. In her book Odd Girl Out, Rachel Simmons researched incidences of girls who exclude one another in school and social circles. She found that the practice of exclusion among young girls was extremely common. Simmons tells the story of Jenny. Jenny moved from San Diego to Wyoming during her seventh grade year. Two popular girls, who felt threatened by her arrival, made a point to force all the other girls in that grade sign a pledge to call Jenny a secret nasty code name, to exclude her from all activities and to torment her in ways that would not be recognized by the teachers. Jenny spent an entire school year afraid to walk in the halls of her new school. On the outside of the circle looking in, she was the leper of her seventh grade Wyoming class. Many women remember similar incidents, from their childhoods. They have experienced the feeling of being excluded from human society. Many men also remember being the victim of the class bully. For some reason the bully picks them out as the victim, and through verbal and physical abuse isolates them from the social structure.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus obliterates fences that have put up to contain and exclude God’s people. When approached by a man with leprosy, Jesus touches the man and says “Be Clean.” The leper is instantly cured. I don’t know if we really understand how bold Jesus was. We can’t fathom the risks he took in order to break down the fences that keep people from entering fully into relationship with God and one another.

In Jesus’ day, the term leprosy embraced a wide range of disorders including rashes, acne, eczema and other forms of dermatitis. There was no treatment. Because of the fear of infection, lepers were banned from all contact with other people. They lived in isolated bands, begging at a distance for food. It is hard to imagine a more miserable and hopeless group of outcasts. To make matters worse, it was commonly believed that lepers were suffering for their sins. Lepers were seen as sinners who were abandoned by God to the powers of evil. Leprosy caused fear and repulsion. It marks its victim as morally repugnant. When the leper approaches Jesus, he probably shouts “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn the crowds away from danger. Nobody wanted to be polluted by his presence, either physically or spiritually. In a sense, lepers had to carry their fences around with them. The only hope for a cure was from a holy person.

Jesus does not run away. He responds to the person who has been pushed to the margins of society. According to one set of ancient manuscripts, when the leper approaches Jesus and begs for healing, Jesus is moved with pity. Out of compassion, Jesus touches him and proclaims him clean. That is what we heard in today’s reading.

Another translation follows a different reading found in a second set of ancient manuscripts. According to this set, when the leper approaches Jesus and begs for healing, Jesus is moved by anger. With a snort of rage, Jesus touches him and proclaims him clean.

So, which set of manuscripts reflects Mark’s original intent? Was Mark depicting a sympathetic, compassionate Jesus moved by the leper’s suffering to heal him? Or was Mark depicting an angry Jesus with a bad temper?

I can see where both emotions, compassion and anger, would have been appropriate. Jesus shows compassion to a person forced to live on the edges or boundaries of society. Jesus shows a grunt of anger at the wickedness of a system that labels a person as a sinner because of a skin rash. Jesus decided to do something about it. He healed this leper by touching him directly. By doing so, Jesus made a clear statement that this man was not impure -- that he could be touched without fear of infection -- that he ought not to have been cast out. In one bold action, Jesus restores this man. His health returns. More than that, he is allowed to reenter society. With a touch, with a word, Jesus knocks over the fence. The limits are gone.

People of God, be careful where you draw lines. Whenever you draw a line that marks who is in and who is outside of the fence, remember -- Jesus is always on the other side of the line!

One of the great stories of compassion that has the mark of Jesus all over it involves an elderly crippled lady who lived in Missouri during World War II. She spent most days lying on a day bed, knitting socks and other garments for her church’s thrift shop. Her husband was a small-town newspaper publisher. He came home one day and told her that the son of a friend of theirs had been killed on the battlefields of Europe. She asked him, “What can I do for his mother? I pray for the soldiers, but I want to do more.” His response was, “You have a compassionate spirit. Write his mother a note and let her know how much you love her and that her son is in the arms of Jesus.” She did just that. In fact, for the next three years she wrote more than 300 notes to mothers who had sons killed in the war. She showed her compassion by touching the lives of hurting people. She was a servant of the grace of Jesus.

That woman reminds me of Jesus’ vision of the Realm of God. God’s world is one of inclusive wholeness. Jesus restores people’s humanity and life. He invites people to grasp new opportunities to rejoin the community. We miss the point if we insist this story is about a supernatural curing that depends on the intervention of God. We can be the hands that touch a wounded soul. We can express the words that soothe a wounded spirit. We can be the arms that hold and hug a person who may be dying. We can be the friends who sit and listen and love another because we see a child of God in need. We reach out in prayer, with a touch, with a word.

The God of Jesus, is a God of graciousness and goodness who accepts everyone and brings about justice and well-being for everyone . . .without exception. That’s worth celebrating.
And where it is denied, that’s worth getting angry about!

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