6th Sunday after Epiphany 6th Ordinary Time, year B
We just read two stories of lepers who were healed. We only have time to talk about one, but I want you to notice one interesting moment from the story of Naaman in the Old Testament; the reaction of the king of Israel. When the king learned that this highly placed official from Israel’s enemy was coming expecting a cure for his leprosy, the king tore his clothes – a sign of deep distress and anguish – saying,
7“Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?
Healing leprosy was something that only God could do. It was the equivalent of bringing back someone from the dead.
Now, we are not talking about Hansens’ disease – what we today call leprosy – but never mind. Whatever the illness was, it was a skin disease that was highly feared in that time and place, and was highly regulated by the Law of Moses (Lev. 13-14). In other words the disease had grave implications. Whoever had it was ostracized from the community – they had to avoid contact with other people, live alone and call out “unclean, unclean.” (Lev. 13:45-46). A priest and only a priest could declare a person clean so that they could re-integrate into the community.
So this strange story begins with a leper doing the wrong thing, not calling out “unclean” but coming to Jesus, begging and kneeling, and assuming he has the power of God to make a leper clean.
He tells Jesus, “If you will, you can make me clean.” The word “make clean” also means “declare clean” – which is what only a priest can do.
Then this story gets strange. My bible says (v. 41) that Jesus was “moved with pity”. But it is very likely that the word should be translated “became angry”. What sense does that make? Angry at whom? Clearly not angry at the leper, because Jesus says next, “I do will. Be made clean.” And it worked, he was made clean.
So what is the anger about. Well, watch this: it continues. After Jesus touches and heals the man, it says Jesus “sternly warned him” and “sent him away.” The word “sternly warned” literally means he silenced him – it can mean to snort like upset horses do – quite an emotionally charged warning. And the next word, “sent him away” literally means “cast out” like you do a demon. In fact, both of those words, “silenced him” and “cast him out” sound like words you would expect in an exorcism story (as he has recently done – Mark 1:25) tell the demon to be quiet and leave.
And in the context of all of this strong emotion, Jesus reaches out his hand and does the unthinkable; he touches the leper.
All of the strange language and emotion which is completely out of proportion to the situation should alert us that once again, Mark is telling a story whose significance lies below the surface.
Let’s keep looking at the story for clues that Mark gives us. When Jesus sent this newly-clean former-leper away with that strong word, where did he tell him to go? To the priest at the temple – the one who alone was supposed to have the authority that Jesus just assumed for himself. We are picturing one priest because Jesus says, “go show yourself to the priest”.
But instantly the picture changes. Jesus says, “show yourself to the priest…as a witness against them.” Suddenly the witness is not just to one priest, it is to “them”. But it is not a witness to them, it is a witness against them.” Showing himself is going to send a message not just to one priest, but to the whole institution of the priesthood. The message is a criticism; a witness against them all.
Now we are getting closer to understanding the emotion that Jesus is expressing. That system in those days was in the business of making lepers. Not literally, of course, but the whole system was designed to make people feel unclean, unworthy, indebted.
Instead of leading the people to be a community of healing and mutuality, the priests in those days had everyone convinced that God’s primary objective was excluding people for being unclean and demanding that good people exclude them too.. That concept of God and his will was indeed demonic, and Jesus was intent on casting it out.
There are two demonic ideas that this text is attacking. One is in the heart of the leper himself, and the other in in the priests he is sent to.
Let’s take the leper first. Did you notice his question to Jesus? “If you choose, you can make me clean.” This has got to be the saddest question in the bible. There he is, groveling in humiliation, which he has been long taught is his due, and he does not even know of it is Jesus’ will to do anything about his condition.
He feels totally unclean, unworthy, and doesn’t even know whether or not God cares. I’m wondering if you have ever been there; if you have ever wondered whether God can see past your track record, your history, and still want to reach out and touch you.
Whomever gave you that idea that he would hesitate makes Jesus really mad. Jesus blew right past the whole system of taboo, reached out his hand and touched him – and that is exactly what he is still doing today. If you are there, feeling estranged from God, wondering, hear this: his hand is already reaching out to touch you, to heal you, to restore you.
The idea that he might not is demonic. The other demonic idea is the one the priests bought into; that God is all about establishing good-guy bad-guy boundaries, and our job is to maintain them.
This is a deeply human problem. We do the same thing as those priests.
We used to do it with divorcees in the church, until too many of us experienced the trauma of a broken marriage ourselves. We used to make lepers out of unwed mothers – they would disappear for a while, go to live with an aunt somewhere.
But now we make lepers out of people with HIV/AIDS. They are the ultimate “unclean” to us.
We make lepers out of the mentally ill – we want them kept out of sight. We feel uncomfortable around them.
We make lepers out of homeless people, addicted people, convicted people, people who don’t speak English, or speak it with thick accents, Muslims and immigrants.
We make lepers out of welfare recipients and gay people.
We have to stop that. It is the opposite of what we are on this earth to do.
God has a purpose for everyone of us. For each of us that purpose is as unique as our genetic code – but for all of us, we share a common purpose: to continue the ministry that Jesus started. We are to be, as the apostle Paul says, imitators of Christ. What does this mean? It means that we were put here to reach out and touch lepers.
God has put us here to be his arms that reach out and to be his hands that make contact, that touch, and to be his voice saying, “by this touch, be made clean.” Become fully human again; re-enter the community as one of us because you are one of us.
Truth be told, we are all broken people anyway, so when we reach out and touch identifiable lepers we are only doing the same thing for them that God has done for us. None of us has grounds to be pretentious and superior as if we are clean inside and out.
Let’s review the basics: do any of us love the Lord with our whole heart and mind and strength? Who would make such a claim? Do any of us love our neighbors as ourselves – especially given Jesus’ wide definition of “neighbor?” Not even close.
In fact, the very process of making other people into lepers is itself a sign of a weak, unhealthy person. It is, of course, fear-based. To need to make someone else feel inferior is not there in healthy people.
No; we are here, alive in Gulf Shores today to be healers. We are here to touch lepers with love.
This is not just a personal, private task – it is way too big for that. There are leper communities, let’s say, that need us to join forces together, to organize ourselves so that we can touch not just one or two, but substantial numbers.
So we come together as a church, we experience God’s touch, God’s healing, and we join forces to be his army of healers. We organize for mission. We organize our Christian education so that we can all learn more of what it means to follow Jesus, and we teach our children.
We organize our worship and our times of encouragement and fellowship to keep us going, we organize ourselves into shepherd groups so that no one is left out who needs help. We organize ourselves to take care of the building we meet in, to pay our bills, and to find mission projects to assist. And we rely on God’s spirit to identify leaders for our congregation as we engage all these ministries.
Today we will ordain and install a new class of elders for our church. These men and women will be charged with the responsibility of helping us to fulfill our purpose. Each of them has been given gifts by God’s Holy Spirit to use in ministry.
They will lead us to follow Christ; and one of the measures of success will be the answer to the questions: Are we becoming better disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ? Are we touching lepers?