Sunday, February 12, 2006

Epiphany 6 - Year B

(NB: William Willimon's Pulpit Resource was helpful in putting this sermon together)

“The hardest part has been the loneliness,” he told his pastor.

“You mean the loneliness of not going to work and seeing people?” his pastor asked.

“No, the loneliness of friends avoiding me, people not coming to see me any more,” he replied.

“Why would they do that?” asked his pastor.

“I’m not sure,” the man responded, “I think it’s because they think they’ll catch what I have.”

This is the way the man in today’s gospel had been treated. He is a leper, and as a leper he was a very sick man. Leprosy is one of the few diseases mentioned by name in the bible. Even before they had the concept of contagious diseases, leprosy was considered contagious.

When I was a boy and I came down with Chicken pox, my mom made sure that I stayed away from my friends. I could go outside and play, I could ride my bike on the street outside our house, but if any other kids came along I had to pretend there was a bubble around me, lest my friends caught what I had.

According to biblical law, this man was unclean. He lived with an even bigger bubble than I had. He could have no contact with so-called “clean” people.

But he pushed himself to the front of the line and threw himself at Jesus’ feet begging, “If you chose, you can make me clean.”

The story says that Jesus was “moved with pity.” But the original Greek word says something entirely different. The Greek says that Jesus was filled with anger. Deep anger. That when Jesus looked down at this unclean man crying at his feet, his heart filled with rage.


That doesn’t sound like Jesus, does it? That’s probably why the translators chose the word “pity” instead of “anger.” Pity we understand. It makes sense. We like to think of a Jesus who feels our pain, whose heart breaks over the sorrow of the world.

But rage?

Was Jesus angry because this guy broke the ancient biblical laws? Was he angry because he crossed a line that had been clearly drawn, and might have taken others with him? Or was he upset because this guy tried to manipulate Jesus, buttering him up, painting him into a corner for his own purposes, “Jesus, if you are really all that great, that, if you REALLY wanted to, you could make me clean. That is, of course, if you are who everyone says you are?”

I think Jesus was angry, not because he broke the ancient laws or because he crossed the line, but because of the man’s sickness and what it was doing to his body – ravaging it and pulling him away from those people whom he needed the most.

I think he was angry at the evil of it all. This is not the way God wants us to live. This is not the way God wants the world to be.

When the leper cried out “Make me clean!” the man was asking for more than healing, more than for his body to be washed and made new again. The man crying out to be loved. To be a person and not a disease. To receive, once again, the tenderness of human touch, and not the angry sores that ate away at his skin.

He wanted to feel like a human being again.

And so, Jesus moved by piteous anger, reaches out his hand and, to the horror of everyone around him, touches this unclean man, and he is healed.

Now it wasn’t just the man with leprosy that broke the ancient law of Moses, Jesus now joined those ranks. I’m sure a group of people started gathering rocks.

On the one hand, I can understand the horror of the crowd. The one piece of advice I received from a pastor supervisor in seminary was: always wash your hands after shaking peoples’ hands following worship.

Granted, this pastor was a little more uptight than most people. He was probably one bar of soap away from full blown OCD. But, I still follow his advice. After all, I don’t know where you folks have been and I don’t want to bring home any of your germs.

But on the other hand, Jesus was showing them where rules and regulations end and God’s compassion begins.

This past week I had the opportunity to hear Gen. Romeo Dallaire speak. He told a story about where 23 out of 26 nations, upon entering a Rwandan village during that country’s civil war, a village where people had been slaughtered, tortured, and sexually abused, would not help or comfort whatever survivors there might still be left. 23 out of 26 armies said the risk was too great to go into these villages. HIV/AIDS was still rampant. There might still be soldiers waiting in the village ready to attack. Plus, they said, these people are going to die anyway.

But the three armies who said they would enter the village to help find and comfort the survivors were the Dutch, the Ghanaian, and the Canadian. But the thing was, the Canadian soldiers, upon seeing what had happened to these people rushed into the village without waiting for an order. Their piteous anger and human compassion overwhelmed them before they could calculate the risk.

It’s a rare act of goodness that comes without a cost. It is rare that some deed of compassion does not cause some pain to the doer or the giver.

It was certainly that way with Jesus. When he came face to face with the consequences of evil in the world he was filled with righteous anger. He didn’t sit back and speculate about the philosophical problem of evil. Instead, he pronounced, “I will!” I will reach and comfort the broken hearted. I will stretch out my hand and bring healing to suffering people. I will extend my hand of forgiveness to all who are guilty.

As a result, he caught what we had. He - for our sakes - became infected with sinfulness, bore the brunt of our brokenness, and endured the limitations of our frail humanness.

Christ could not remain in majestic isolation from us. Instead, God came to us in Jesus, and shared with is what it means to be human, touched us in our uncleanness, and paid for it with his life.

Does Jesus expect anything less from his followers? To understand the world as being more than dividing the clean from the unclean? To draw out peoples’ humanity when they have been stripped of it? To treat suffering people with a dignity the world denies them?

The world likes the lines it draws, but God doesn’t. God sees us all as beloved children in need of healing, in need of forgiveness, in need of compassion.

So when we are feeling unclean or unworthy, when we are at the end of our rope, we cry out to Jesus, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

It’s then that Jesus reaches out and touches us with his hand of mercy and forgiveness and says, “I am willing.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Epiphany 5 - Year B

“Do you reject sin, the devil, and all the forces of evil that defy God?” That’s the question we ask each baptismal candidate, parent, sponsor, and confirmand. Every time I ask the question my mind wanders the cousin who just arrived in town to watch the baptism but hasn’t had much experience of church. I wander what that person thinks when she hears that question.

Does she hear it as further confirmation that Christians are stuck in a medieval mindset? A throwback to the superstitions of centuries past. Quaint, but entirely irrelevant to our well-educated, scientific society.

Because, if you haven’t hung around the church, that language could sound downright strange or weird, or even scary. Where else do you hear people talk about the Devil, evil, or even “sin?” Maybe in movies like “Stigmata” or “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” Enticing diversions perhaps, but not to be taken seriously.

The fact is, demons are still possessing people. And, they are still being cast out by those who invoke the name of Jesus. You don’t need to flip through the 300 channel universe or cruise the internet to hear about demonic possession. You simply need to open your eyes and ears to see and hear people who surround you.

A woman with a marriage and family counseling practice once said that she received tones of folks who were in helplessly confused states. She could, as she put it, discern that there was a deep spiritual dimension to their problems. In some cases, without any other training than that she received from reading the gospel stories, she invoked Jesus’ name and demanded that the demons depart. And, to her eyes, the demons fled. Her patients’ eyes cleared. Their minds became lucid again. (Willimon, Pulipit Resource)

People who hear her story either roll their eyes or shudder with chills running down their spines. Often, at the same time.

Foreign missionaries often tell similar stories; harrowing tales of extraordinary encounters with evil. And the responses to their stories are often filled with revulsion, tinged with fascination, with a smattering of skepticism thrown in for good measure.

I know when I was in seminary I certainly didn’t learn how to cast out a demon. It wasn’t part of the curriculum. We had classes in pastoral care and counseling. But exorcism? Not so much. For most pastors, the specter of demon-possessed people is enough to get us running back into the safety and security of our offices or studies. Or we refer them to the nearest mental health professional.

But still, there is evil in the world and the devil can be too easy a target, a simple explanation for evil, letting us off the hook. The Devil, that wonderful catch-all for all the pain and hardship in the world.

Yet, there IS evil in the world. And the name of Jesus still has authority over it.

And what about healing? Today’s gospel reading says that people brought all sorts of sick folks to Jesus to be cured. And the story says he did what was asked from him. The blind saw. The deaf heard. The lame walked. Good news for anyone struggling with disease.

Maybe I have a more skeptical nature than others, but since I was a little boy I’ve wondered: what about those who were not healed? What about those who, after mountains of prayers said through torrents of tears, their loved ones still died? We certainly saw that happen this past week when we lost Merley Emerson. Did we miss an important piece, a vital ingredient to our prayers that would have made God’s power “work” in her?

Some TV preachers make it look so easy. A quick prayer, a slap on the forehead, and Grandma Nellie’s rheumatism goes the way of the Doe-Doe Bird. When I watch those TV preachers, I wonder How do they do that? Is it real? What do they have that I don’t have?

Over-confident TV preachers aside, we do and will always pray for our friends and loved ones. We pray for healing. Some times it works. Spots disappear from x-rays. Arthritic knee joints move like well-oiled hinges. Closed ears open and flood with sound. And we offer to God praise and thanksgiving.

But other times, we pray and pray and pray. And instead of dancing at a wedding, we find ourselves across the desk from a funeral director wondering what went wrong.

I don’t why this happens, but it does. All the time. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe the point is that God’s power cannot be controlled, bottled. That God is not at our beck and call. As much as we would love to be able to produce a vial of God’s healing power and inject it whenever a friend or loved one gets sick, we learn that God doesn’t always work that way.

Sometimes healing comes in other ways, like in the sisters who finally start talking to each other after so many years, even if it is while planning their dad’s funeral. At least it’s a start. Maybe healing comes from the hope we receive from the witness of a peaceful death. Maybe healing comes from the support of God’s people as we grief together.

Or maybe healing comes when eyes close in death and open again in resurrection and we see Jesus face to face.

Some may dismiss that as escapist; a little lie we tell ourselves to get through tough times because the alternative is too unbearable even to think about.

But for those of us who trust God’s promise of the resurrection to eternal life; that is a hope we cling to, because sometimes, that is all we have left.

Yet, the truth is, we still live in a fallen world. Evil still triumphs. Relationships still break down. Loved ones still die.

But the prophet Isaiah says, “those who wait on the Lord, those who trust that God is the God of history, those people shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

As God made that promise to Israel while they were slaves in Babylon, that promise is for us as well: that we don’t walk this journey alone. God is with us. God is with us in the loving church family that surrounds us, God is with us when healing does come, God is with is when our eyelids close in death and we see Jesus face to face.

May this be so among us. Amen.