Monday, March 02, 2009

a faith that stretches us (mark 1. 40-45)

From the beginning, stories circulated about Jesus, healing stories, stories about how lives were changed, even transformed. This morning we will look at one of these Jesus stories, a very brief story, it is only a few sentences. A leper comes to Jesus. Leprosy was a physical condition having to do with the breakdown of a person’s skin. Lepers were profoundly sick people and were required to be quarantined. But the isolation went deeper than simply keeping distance from others. Listen to these words from the book of Leviticus:

"The person who has a leprous disease shall wear torn clothes. And let the hair of his head be disheveled. He shall cover his upper lip and call out “unclean, unclean”. He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is the unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp." (13. 45-46)

Lepers were outcasts. Think for a moment about the outcasts who live just beyond our range of vision, who dwell, as the Old Testament says it, “outside the camp”. Who are they? Well, a leper comes to Jesus. The leper kneels, a gesture of humility. Already, the outcast sees something in Jesus. Through the language of his body he is acknowledging the Lordship of Christ. Through his words we sense this as well, there is a trust and a confidence: “If you will, you can make me clean”.

We can pause for a moment and consider those who are outsiders, and recognize that something spiritually is going on in their lives. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, called this “prevenient grace”, the grace that is present before we respond, prior to our acceptance of it, a grace that is present, to some degree, in every person. The writer of Leviticus could only see the outsider as unclean. In the Jesus story, something else is emerging.

Instinctively, we know this to be true. Our lives often intersect with outsiders: that family member who never attends church, except perhaps on Christmas Eve and at Easter; those who are in prison; the homeless; those with a mental illness, like depression, or those who struggle with addictions. We could name others who challenge our conventions, who in some way choose to live as outside the mainstream. And here the scripture is in conflict with itself and there is a tension. It is a tension in which we all live. We call them unclean, they sometimes claim themselves to be unclean, and yet, they know somehow that to be in the presence of Jesus is all about change, even transformation. “If you will, you can make me clean.”

Now read the scripture closely. The leper comes into his presence, and “Jesus is moved with pity”. The original greek language of the New Testament is better expressed as “compassion”, and some versions even say that “Jesus is moved with anger”, and each translation is correct.

The King James Version of the Bible says of Jesus, that “his bowels were moved with compassion”. In the Western World we sometimes imagine that we think with our heads and feel with our hearts, but in the Jewish worldview we respond, intellectually and emotionally, in a wholistic way, and it comes from deep within the gut. Have you ever been affected by something that literally tied your stomach up in knots, or maybe you literally, and I don’t want to get too gross here, you literally had to expel what was inside you, you were compelled to “throw up”? This is the mixture of compassion, a deep identification with the one who suffers, and anger, a strong reaction to the injustice of the situation. Call it a kind of holy discontent.

I once lived in a rural community that did not have the kind of services that a community like Charlotte has, services for us and services for those who live on the margins. These services simply did not exist. One day an elderly grandmother was keeping her grandchildren and a couple of other children---there was no childcare in this community. In the afternoon she feel asleep, and one of the small boys walked down to the pond and drowned. The trauma of this loss and the guilt felt by the grandmother led to an outpouring of compassion for them, and then anger about the situation, and a holy discontent surfaced about the absence of a safe place for children. All of this subsequently led to several of the churches getting together with the county and beginning a child development center.

A holy discontent can stretch us beyond the status quo, from what is to what might be. Jesus felt pity, compassion, anger for this obviously sick person. He was once asked why he spent so much time with the outcasts and his response was simple: The physician goes to the sick, and not to those who are already well. I must say, as an aside, that Providence is filled with very gifted medical professionals, and I never read a passage in the gospels about healing with thinking of them, physicians, nurses, therapists, and other professionals who are daily in the presence of pain, suffering and trauma, and who are healers.

Well, Jesus is deeply moved to be in the presence of the leper, the leper who is moving toward him. Watch his response: He stretches out his hand, and touches him. When the first stories were being passed around about Jesus, one of the most striking recurrences was this simple fact: He touched those who were untouchable. He loved those who were unlovable. He made insiders of those who were outsiders. He healed those who were sick. He washed those who were unclean. He saved those who were thought to be unworthy. He stretches out his hand. Now I want you to think about that physical action of stretching for a moment. To stretch is to reach for something that is almost outside our grasp, but not quite. To stretch is to do something that is a bit out of the ordinary. But stretching is also good for us. When we stretch, we become more flexible. When we stretch, we lengthen our muscles.

When Jesus stretches out his hand, he is expanding the reach of the love of God and the love of neighbor. The early Methodists grew, as a movement, because they were moved with compassion for outcasts, and they saw them, all people, within the reach of God’s outstretched hand. Listen to these words of Charles Wesley:

"O that the world might taste and see/ The riches of his grace
The arms of love that compass me/ Would all the world embrace
." (193, Hymnal)

“If you can”, the Leper says, “you can make me clean”.
Jesus stretches out his hand and says, “I will; be clean”.

Immediately the leprosy leaves him, and he is made clean. The holy discontent leads to action, the compassion leads to healing. But the story does not end there. Jesus says, to the man who is healed, go and show yourself to the priest, and make the offering. This was about the simple reality that the man needed to be restored to the community, and the community needed to be restored to the man.

Why would Jesus have injected this request to go and see the priest? This seems quaint to us, something that would never happen in our culture, “you’ve been separated or sick or in a bad place and there is a transformation and someone says to you, go see Bill or Tara or Ken or Teresa, and get them to give you a piece of paper that certifies that you’re kosher now?”

It would not quite happen that way, now. We have now a great understanding of the concept of the priesthood of all believers. And so when a person has been an outcast, when that person meets Jesus, and there is a change, a couple of things need to happen. The person who meets Jesus needs to become a part of his body, the church. There is no personal salvation outside of the church. And the church needs to welcome the outsider just as Jesus did, seeing not the differences, not the uncleanness, not the sin, but seeing the grace that is somehow mysteriously at work in this person’s life. This is radical hospitality.

And so, we have this brief two thousand year old story about Jesus healing a leper. What can it possibly mean for us? It might move us to the awareness that we are all outsiders to the grace of God, that we all come to Jesus as the leper comes, we kneel in humility, we have trust and confidence in his power to change us, even to transform us, and we put ourselves in a place to be healed. This is as basic as it gets, and the more sophisticated we become, the more clearly we need to remember this.

The story might also help us to recognize that we are, somehow mysteriously, the body of Christ. And this has a practical meaning for us. We are being called to stretch. At the conclusion of services when we have Holy Communion, we do something that is very important. We touch each other. And I will say something like,”Holy Communion brings us closer to God and closer to each other.” Some people did not like doing this, at first. We all have our personal preferences, I know that. But for me it has a very profound meaning. Holy Communion is not just about who we are in relation to Jesus. Holy Communion is about who we are in relation to Jesus and to his body, the church, and to the outsider. Jesus fed not only the disciples, but the multitudes.

We are touched by the grace of God, and we touch each other. Jesus stretches out his hand, to touch us, and we stretch out our hands, the body of Christ stretches out its hands to touch the world: and when we do this, there is transformation. Think of the Joy Class or Disciple in prison. Think of the Emergency Winter Shelter or the Haiti Mission. Think of the Hope Center in Latvia or a visit to a member of our church with Alzheimers or a couple with a brand new baby. A healthy body stretches. And when the church is the body of Christ it stretches, and is always being stretched!

Jesus lived a long time ago, but Jesus is not dead. He is alive today, he is stretching out his hand, to you and to me. And if he has gotten inside of us, into our not only our minds and our hearts but also into our guts, if the result is some mixture of compassion and anger, holy discontent with the world as it is and hope for the world as it might be, then his hand continues to stretch out. And how can that be? How are you going to stretch this week? I think you can figure that out. If you read this story, and think about your world, the world that you live in every day, it will become clear. You are the best person to figure out how you are being stretched. This is your spiritual exercise for the week. I want you to stretch. You can do it!

St. Teresa of Avila was a mystic who lived in the 16th century. She wrote a few words that are wonderful, and if we take them seriously, a little scary. But they are truthful. “Christ has no body on earth but yours.No hands but yours, no feet but yours.Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion looks out into the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.”

Let us pray: "Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us, in your spirit, that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you. Amen." (Book of Common Prayer)


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