Sunday, February 15, 2009

Jesus the Compassion of God

Sermon for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany

RCL, Year B: 2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45

Listen here.

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.

In the midst of so many sights and sounds and experiences, the one constant was the drive to make a buck. It was bad enough in Galilee, but it was particularly intense in Jerusalem. Walking down the narrow, uneven streets of the Old City, we Americans might as well have had neon flashing signs above our heads saying, “American! Sell me something!” I learned quickly to not make eye contact with the shopkeepers. As soon as you did that, they’d immediately start in on you, “Come into my shop. I have very nice things for you. Here, I give this to you for $5.” Even without making eye contact, some of them were aggressive enough to walk out into the street and start touching and prodding us, saying, “Here! Here! Come into my shop!” An orthodox Jew even hit me up for money just feet away from the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism.

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.[1] 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).

Moved with pity, filled with compassion, Jesus touched the untouchable. He could have kept a safe distance, said, “Be clean!” and been done with it. But moved with pity, Jesus touched him and restored him to wholeness. Touching the leper, Jesus breaks the law and takes upon himself all of the leper’s stigma and contamination. Touching the leper, Jesus becomes impure, dirty, and – in the eyes of the purity system – sinful and unholy. And he does it willingly and knowingly and lovingly.

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.

[1] 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.


Perpetua said...

Your welcoming message is lovely.

I didn't get how the first part about the aggressive merchants fits in to your sermon.

I also missed your point a little, because leprosy is not just a "chronic illness" but a deadly communicable disease. So, keeping leprosy victims away from the community was hardly just a matter of "purity", but an important public safely issue.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks, Perpetua.

The intro was the only way I could think of to begin getting into the somewhat chaotic and crowded scenes of the first chapter of Mark's gospel. I thought it might be helpful to offer a bit of my own personal experience of actually being in that part of the world to give listeners a sense of the sorts of things that Jesus might have had to deal with. It also sets the stage for making a move in the direction of Jesus' response to the sick in general, and this leper in particular.

Plus, I'm doing a 6 week Sunday school series using my pictures from my Holy Land pilgrimage, so it's on my mind anyway.

Your point about leprosy is well taken, although I'm not sure that it undermines my point about Jesus' willingness to reach out and touch. Indeed, it only underscores the depths of our Lord's compassion that he would be willing to put himself at such additional risk. If my sermon had moved in the direction of exploring our call as Christians to do the same, I might have noted the example of the Martyrs of Memphis.

Having said all of that, it's also worth noting that in the Bible the word "leprosy" is often used as a covering term for a variety of skin ailments. Not all of them would necessarily have been what we think of when we use the word "leprosy," but having any of those ailments would still make one unclean and thus put one at the bottom of the social hiearchy's heap as far as purity status is concerned.

John Bassett said...

Great sermon, Canon Owen. Touching the leper is absolutely the key part of the story, the one that the first century listeners would have understood and the part that we miss today. And it captures in one brief moment the whole point of the incarnation - God assuming our brokenness in order to make us whole.

It is unfortunate that we continue to use the word leprosy here. The Hebrew "tzaraath" refers to impurities not only of the skin but also of clothing and even buildings. The discussions of tzaraath in the Mishnah do not suggest anything remotely like Hansen's Disease, and no skeletal remains have been found from that period which suggest that presence of Hansen's Disease in Palestine in the Biblical period.

I find Perpetua's comment particularly troubling because she seems to actively embrace a policy which Jesus himself clearly repudiated.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for your comments, John. I'm reminded of St. Gregory of Nazianzus' observation that "the unassumed is unhealed."

Commenting on this saying in his book The Orthodox Way, Bishop Kallistos Ware notes that it underscores the principle that "divine salvation must reach the point of human need." He continues:

"Christ ... saves us by becoming what we are; he heals us by taking our broken humanity into himself, by 'assuming' it as his own, by entering into our human experience and knowing it from the inside. But had his sharing of our humanity been in some way incomplete, then man's salvation would be likewise incomplete. If we believe that Christ has brought us a total salvation, then it follows that he has assumed everything."

BillyD said...

I believe that traditional Jewish commentators make a point that tzaarat is not what we call leprosy today, but an entirely different disease that no longer exists (since the means of declaring a person who has had it "clean" no longer exists, God has presumably taken it off the market). I do not recall reading that "lepers" were separated from the community from fear that the disease itself would spread, but rather because of the ritual impurity they supposedly spread.

It's said that tzaarat especially afflicted those who sinned against the community by gossiping.

Perpetua said...

Hi John Bassett, Bryan+ and BillyD,

I think it is really important to know if the bible story is talking about a deadly communicable disease like leprosy (Hansen's Disease) or merely some social stigma without underlying public health merit.

Of course I agree we want to "embrace the leper" metaphorically. Certainly I believe that Jesus could embrace an actual (Hanson's Disease) leper and heal the person and not become infected by the disease.

The danger in this story is that goodhearted and naive people will try to be "Christ-like" by "embracing the leper" and in the process contact an incurable deadly disease. It is very hard for me to imagine that is the meaning of the story.

BillyD said "It's said that tzaarat especially afflicted those who sinned against the community by gossiping." Just like leprosy, we may not be sure what that word meant. This could imply that the "leper" was a social outcast because of spreading negative information about others. However, the process of gossiping was going from house to house to talk. So if there was a communicable disease in one house, the gossip would be most likely to get it because of having visited so many houses. Also the gossip would be a prime spreader or disease as the gossip goes from house to house spreading gossip.

John Bassett writes "I find Perpetua's comment particularly troubling because she seems to actively embrace a policy which Jesus himself clearly repudiated." Are you saying, john, that it is clear that Jesus repudiated a public health policy of quarantining those with infectious, deadly diseases? Wouldn't that contradict your claim that leprosy did not mean Hansen's Disease in this story?