February 12, 2012, 6th Sunday after the Epiphany

Year B, Epiphany 6
February 12, 2012
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

“If you choose, you can make me clean.”

So a man goes into the butchers shop and looks at the big case. Inside he sees a couple of cow tongues. “Yuck,” he thought, “that has been inside a cows mouth.” And to the butcher, he says, “Just give me a dozen eggs.”

What is clean? What is pure? What does God have to do with it?

As mentioned two weeks ago, leprosy included any ailment involving skin lesions. If you were afflicted, you were banned from the temple, so in effect you were unable to be in a proper relationship with God. Further, you were banned from any contact with society. You were put out of your home and family. The Levitical code indicated that you had to wear torn clothing and disheveled hair, and that as you moved around you had to shout “unclean, unclean,” giving proper warning to others that they may give a wide berth. In many ways, being unclean made you dead to society. This healing miracle in Mark has been called a little resurrection, resurrection from a form of living death. Of course it was a lot more than just leprosy that would get you demoted to this untouchable social status.

But there is Jesus, touching him. It was forbidden to do this, touch the unclean. You’ve got to love the audacity of Jesus. When a rule needs breaking, he breaks it. Eating on the Sabbath, dining with tax collectors and prostitutes, taking water from Samaritans, evicting money changers. And, on the other hand, when a rule needs enforcing, when something is in fact important, there he is. “Present yourself to the priest…” Our history and traditions are important. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Caesar is actually not that important, so don’t fuss. “Pray this way.” It works. “Follow me.” You have to. “Stay awake.” I need you.

So what do you think… clean, unclean… where is this in our society? Who is treated as “unclean”? ______. The homeless. The mentally ill. Folks with HIV/AIDS. Folks with cancer – lots of folks working through cancer describe themselves as feeling like lepers. What about convicted felons? You cannot get a job in that condition. Gay folks. Transgendered folks, for sure. Few things attract more morbid curiosity than uncertainty of gender; it throws people off and inspires violence. People suffering from addiction. The burned, the disfigured. Teen moms are shunned, shamed away. Survivors of domestic violence, rape, sexual abuse. If that is part of your life story, that part is not welcome in polite company. What about the poor? It is exceptionally unpleasant to be conspicuously poor in our society. You will be treated badly. Really, being a minority of any kind, being different in any given setting equates with being treated as unclean in our world.

I sat for a while thinking about all these folks that are socially unacceptable, who are in some fashion “unclean.” Please, let me be clear, I am talking about people who are treated as “unclean,” because of course they are not actually unclean, not ritually, not spiritually. It can be challenging encountering folks in these categories, folks society casts aside. Feelings like “thank God their story is not my story” are very common, are very human. It is feeling of sadness mixed in with some form of relief. Is that the definition of pity? It feels terrible inside. You know the feeling, right? Let’s be honest, priests, nurses and doctors, social workers, therapists, lawyers, everyone who works with suffering people have the same kind of thoughts that everyone else does. Lousy thoughts, some times. They feel shameful. But beware projecting perfection on professions. We will fail you. Guaranteed. And the pain of that failure gets worse the higher the expectations. I will fail you. I am guaranteed to disappoint you sometimes. Do not forget that.

So there is Jesus encountering this leper and Mark tells us that Jesus was “moved with pity…” The translations that we have before us are not very clear. They are hazy. The problem is in what was moved in Jesus. It can be translated as “moved with anger,” maybe at the leper for disturbing him, maybe at the disease, which at the time would have had a demonic association – as if he were angry with the demon, or he could have been angry with the system that excluded this sick man. Angry. But the word used for movement also implies a movement of feeling, of deep feelings, and in that time and place, thinking did not happen in the head, it was here, in the heart, and feeling, emotions, happened in the gut. According to some scholars the original connotation was that seeing the leper, Jesus’ guts were moved, there was a deep reaction. He had a very human reaction to an encounter with a devastating malady; with something socially unacceptable; with something, someone who was considered “unclean.”

Now I with trepidation mentioned that we, priests, and others in the helping professions have human reactions to difficult, to challenging encounters. I am sure to get a note from the priestly guild reminding me “thou shall not lift the veil and reveal thy (our) humanity.” But even Jesus Christ, in the more forgiving translation, feels pity. No one welcomes pity. No one wants pity. Most importantly, no one needs pity. And, and, even in that pity, or in that anger or in that gut twisting that Jesus experienced, whatever was going on in him, he put that aside, “he stretched out his hand and touched him. ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’”

Helping professionals move through those feelings, those angers and wrenchings, too. There is a lot of training to do this, of course, but mostly, mostly it is more of a lifting of ignorance than a learning to do anything. In seminary we don’t learn that much about disease or mental illness, about the inner workings of domestic violence or the actual challenges presented by poverty. We get introductions to these things but we are not clinicians by any stretch of the imagination. What we do learn is that whatever ailment you have, whatever situations you have found yourself in, whatever you have done or have had done to you, that is not “You.” You are you in that you are a manifestation of the Spirit. You are you in that Jesus loves you. That is definitional love. You are you in that you are a child of God. And even if your brothers and sisters don’t want you, God wants you. Even if we, your neighbors cannot understand you, God understands you. Even if we turn our backs on you, if we leave you behind; God never leaves you. And those hard parts, the broken parts, the parts that others recoil from, yes, they may define your experience of the world, but they do not define you.

That is a very short course in pastoral theology. And I lift the veil of professional secrets this morning because I am not the healer here. I am not the caregiver here. I am not the leader here. I am a healer, here. And gladly. I am a caregiver here. I am a leader here. One of many. Who does the heavy lifting in ministry around here? You all. Who is most responsible for being emissaries of this church in this community? You all. Who are the missionaries of Christ in our little plot of the world? You all. And your work is harder than mine. I go out in this collar and people are put off if I do not act really nice, really welcoming, really religious. It is easier to be good when it is expected of you. You all can choose to be incognito Christians. Please don’t.

So what are you to do? Remember, Jesus healed that man primarily in offering him a hand. The hand of welcome. Yes, it was a radical welcome. In stretching out his hand Christ broke the standing orders; He violated conventional wisdom, but always, always, always remember conventional wisdom gave the world atomic weapons and thalidomide and Round Up and Goldman-Sachs.

What are you to do? Reach out your hand to others. Widely. Reach our far to people you are uncomfortable with. That is the Jesus way. We all have the mantle of Christ upon you when you reach out the world, when we offer radical hospitality. We can move through the discomfort, the not knowing exactly what to say, the feelings of pity, of “thank God that did not happen to me” and the following shame. Challenge yourself, this week, engage with someone you would rather not. The really grumpy guy at the office who you know just needs a friend. The person asking for money at the stop light. Give them a dollar and wish them a good day, or the blessing of God. Call your mother-in-law. The more we engage across categories; the more we relate with folks that society has discounted, that we feel complicated feelings about; the more we, you reach out that hand, the closer, truly, to God in Christ you, they, we all become. AMEN