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.


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