Sermon for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany
It was a surefire thing: somebody was going to hit us up for money.
I’m not talking about the fall stewardship campaign. I’m talking about my recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
I’m willing to bet that 2,000 years ago, Jerusalem wasn’t much different. It was a pilgrimage site back then, too, and whenever pilgrims come to town, the shopkeepers will be there to aggressively hawk their wares.
Jesus would have encountered the same kinds of sales pitches we did. But Jesus also had something else to deal with, something that started at the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. The first chapter of the gospel according to Mark is filled with stories of Jesus’ power to heal sickness and exorcise demons. And it didn’t take long for the word to spread. Throngs of people keep showing up, crowding Jesus and touching Jesus and grabbing Jesus, begging him to help them. The demands are so endless that, at one point, Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples didn’t even have time to eat (cf. Mk 3:20). But in spite of the overwhelming demands on his time and energy, Jesus consistently responds with compassion.
Today’s gospel reading offers a particularly striking example. A leper comes to Jesus begging and kneeling at his feet, saying, “If you choose, you can make me clean” (Mk 1:40). Mark’s account of Jesus’ response is all the more powerful for being so brief: “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’” (Mk 1:41).
Martin Luther once called John 3:16 the Gospel in a nutshell. I think that’s right. But I’ve come to believe that the encounter between Jesus and this leper also offers the Gospel in a nutshell. Let’s explore what it has to say to us.
A few words about the social context set the stage. This encounter between Jesus and the leper takes place in a world in which the concern to maintain ritual and moral purity is paramount. As God’s chosen people, the law commanded the Jews to be holy as God is holy (cf. Leviticus 19:12). And the dominant view was that holiness meant separation from people, places, and things considered dirty or unclean. Jewish society was organized around the opposition between pure and impure, clean and unclean. The two were never supposed to come together. So Jewish law established purity boundaries to sustain and give legitimacy to an entire social hierarchy. At the top of the pyramid were the priests and the Levites. In descending order of purity, they were followed by common Israelites, converts to Judaism, persons of illegitimate birth, and, at the bottom of the heap, the maimed, the sick, and the disfigured.
Behavior also played an important role in the purity system. There was a close correlation between following the purity rules and being considered a good person. Jews who meticulously observed the purity laws were considered “righteous.” Those who weren’t so meticulous, or who bucked the system, were “sinners.”
But there was more. Accidents of fate and fortune also defined one’s purity status. Things like good physical health, masculinity, wealth, and Jewishness were all considered signs of purity and therefore signs of righteousness. Conversely, things like chronic or progressive illness, femininity, poverty, and being a Gentile were understood as unclean and therefore sinful.
This is where the leper in today’s gospel reading comes in. Leprosy is a chronic illness, so he was unclean. That’s why Jewish law mandates that folks like him live alone, isolated from other persons. Contact with a leprous person would contaminate the community, passing the leper’s impurity over to otherwise clean persons. And so lepers were supposed to yell out, “Unclean, unclean!” to warn others to stay away from them and thus minimize the possibility of unwanted contamination.
But notice what our leper does. He completely blows off this biblical rule. Instead of staying away from Jesus, he walks right up to him and kneels at his feet. Instead of shouting out “Unclean!” he says to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Talk about chutzpah!
What made it possible for this man to do this? Everything in his world – his society and culture, his family, his religion – they all communicated the same messages: “You are unclean.” "You're a sinner." “You are contaminated.” “You don’t belong.” “Nobody wants you.” “You are doomed to suffer and die in seclusion.” The full weight of the purity system’s social hierarchy bears down upon this man to keep him in his place. But somehow, in spite of all the messages of condemnation and rejection, in spite of the clearly-defined boundaries to keep him isolated, this man finds the courage to do the one thing that changes everything: he goes to Jesus.
Jesus’ response to this leper cuts straight to the heart of Mark’s vision of what the Gospel is all about. Instead of reinforcing the messages of condemnation and rejection, Jesus says to the leper, “I do choose to heal you.” And in saying that, Jesus also says: “You are worthy of healing.”
But Jesus doesn’t just talk to the leper. Jesus does something absolutely unthinkable for his day: “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him” (Mk 1:41).
My friends, Jesus the Christ embodies the compassion of God. In Jesus, we see God reaching out to touch those places in our lives and in our hearts that are wounded, that are sick, that need healing. In Jesus, we see God suffering with us and for us, taking upon Himself all of the anguish, all of the fear, all of the loneliness and desperation that keep us locked up in our own private hells. In Jesus, we see God meeting us right where we are and as we are – with all of our conflicted motives, our successes and our failures, our virtues and our vices, our strengths and our weaknesses. In Jesus, we see God’s defiance of unjust social and religious systems that classify some people as worthless in order to restore their dignity. In Jesus, we see God’s will to free us from all that binds us so that we may live lives of freedom and joy and service to others.
Jesus is willing and able to touch us and to heal us and to set us free. It might not always be the kind of healing that we want. Healing doesn’t always mean “cure.” Indeed, sometimes the healing we receive is the serenity to accept the things we cannot change.
But the bottom lines is this: all of us have things in our lives that need healing, that cause us pain, that keep us from living the abundant life that God wills for us in Jesus Christ. Will we suffer in silence? Will we try and do it all on our own? Will we kowtow to messages that tell us we are worthless, that we have to be “perfect” before God will accept us, and that we don’t belong? Or will we follow the example of the leper who defies all the odds to kneel at the feet of Jesus? Will we let Jesus touch us and love us into wholeness?
I believe that Jesus can do that right here, in this place and among these people of St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Whether this is your first or your thousandth time attending this church, there is a place here where you belong, a place where you will be accepted and nurtured in your spiritual growth, a place where you can experience God’s healing and empowering presence.
So let Jesus touch you. Let Jesus touch you in the liturgy and the music of our worship. Let Jesus touch you in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Let him touch you in our Christian formation offerings. Let him touch you in the fellowship we share with one another. Let him touch you in our many outreach ministries to the poor, the hungry, and the needy.
If you do, He will change your life.
 For the social context, I’m drawing on Marcus J. Borg’s discussion of the purity system in the social world of first century Judaism in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (HarperCollins, 1994), pp. 50-53.