Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Sermon (I never thought I'd) Preach

This is the text of the sermon I shared on Pastor Nar's "Losing My Religion" podcast. I welcome constructive criticism and dialogue.

Mark 1:40-45
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean."

Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Back in the mid-1980’s, I worked at a local television station as a studio manager and camera operator. One of the shows we did was a daily talk show, with tons of guests, comedians, musicians… I got to meet folks like Rita Mareno, Fannie Flagg, James Gregory, Sinbad, even Harlan Ellison – which for a science fiction nut is a really big deal.

One morning, though, we got news that one of the guests was a nurse who worked directly with AIDS patients.

Now, you may remember that back in the mid-‘80’s we didn’t have a lot of information about AIDS and HIV. I can’t speak for the scientific or medical communities, but we in the general public weren’t too sure of how easy it was, or how many ways there were, to “catch” AIDS. It sounds kind of stupid now, but we were afraid to one degree or another of salad bars, toilet seats, door handles… and when we found out this person was coming to the studio, some of us got nervous. One of our jobs, you see, was to put a lavaliere microphone on the guest, which meant, by design, close contact – touching. This person was surrounded by AIDS every day… what if we could “catch” AIDS by miking her?

You have no idea how much I wish I could stand here and say that I was the heroic one who stepped up and told the others how ridiculous they were… I mean, honestly. Touching someone gives you AIDS? Please. I wish I could tell you that I boldly went and miked the guest and got on with my day.

No… the heroic one was a tiny little blonde with big 80’s glasses and hair. She heard what we were talking about and just blew up! I don’t think I have been as effectively ripped to shreds before or since.
The nicest thing she said to us was, “You guys are idiots! Never mind – I’ll put the mike on her!” And as she walked off she was muttering, “Stupid, stupid, stupid…”

The guest got miked, the show went on, and of course no one got sick. I honestly hate to tell that story, because it does nothing to improve either my self-image or my dignity before others. It is not at all an example of being Christ-like, and what is worse; it isn’t even the worst example from my life of being un-Christ-like. But whenever the Gospel discussion of leprosy comes up, this is what comes to mind.

Our Gospel reading paints the picture of Jesus traveling all around Galilee, preaching and casting out demons. Somewhere on the road, or in some town, a bell dingles, and a voice cries out “unclean!”

The people surrounding Jesus recoil in horror at this stinking, walking pile of dirty rags and festering sores. You can almost hear the voices hissing in revulsion, “leper!”

This leper then did something that was strictly forbidden by the Law – he approached Jesus. He got close. He fell to his knees in the Galilean dirt and said something astounding: “If you choose to, you can make me clean.” What an interesting phrase – “you can make me clean,” not “you can heal me.”
What he was asking for was healing, yes, but in fact he was asking for so much more.

Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, still exists today. According to the World Health Organization, over 212,000 cases exist worldwide, though those numbers are dropping.
The disease is not very contagious, is quite curable with multiple-drug therapy, and while no one is sure what exactly causes Hansen’s, experts agree across the board that it is unnecessary to ostracize the infected person. Even so, leper colonies still exist in countries like India, Japan, Egypt, Nepal, Somalia, South Korea, Vietnam… and the United States.

Saying all of that gives us some modern perspective, it’s true, but it kind of talks around what was going on in the Gospel reading today. Isn’t it interesting that Mark doesn’t call him a man, or a person, or give him a name; he is identified only by his disease, a “leper.” This removal of humanity from a human being is, to say the least, instructive.

For the Jews in Jesus’ day, the discussion of leprosy began with the book of Leviticus, the thirteenth and fourteenth chapters. In the thirteenth chapter you’ll find a very detailed discussion about identifying leprosy. You’ll also see the words “clean” and “unclean” used a lot.

You see, the word that has been translated as “leprosy” is “Tzaraath,” and it’s a very generic term that is applied to humans, clothing, and houses. It got translated as “leprosy” about 250 years before Christ when the Hebrew Bible was translated from Hebrew to Greek.

“Tzaraath” comes from the Hebrew word for “smiting,” because – and this is important – in the Jewish understanding of the day, the skin diseases and, well, mildew described in Leviticus were thought to be punishment for sin.

Thus a person was not “diseased” or “healthy,” they were either “clean” – meaning acceptable to take part in the community and its worship activities – or “unclean” – meaning unacceptable to the community, untouchable, dirty, sinful, and ostracized from that community and prohibited from worship. These people were required by the Law to mess up their hair, wear rags, and live away from friends, family, and prohibited from taking part in the worship of God. As the children of Israel inhabited the Promised Land, and city populations grew, these people were required to ring bells and cry out “unclean, unclean” wherever they went. They could not be touched, could not come into close contact of any kind with any other – “clean” – human being, until they died, or until they were somehow cured.

I have to confess to you that I really, really have a problem with this. I know, yes, it’s in Leviticus, for the most part, and yes, Leviticus is part of the Scriptures, and yes, the Scriptures are the written word of God.

And I guess I should understand, because I remember full well the terror over the AIDS epidemic, and not knowing if you could catch the disease from mosquito bites or being sneezed on.

Yet it still turns my stomach to think of someone being denied their family, their life, their livelihood, and their hope because of something that might well have been a nasty case of psoriasis, we don’t know, and in any case it wasn’t at all about the lepers being sick – it was about the lepers being the walking, talking, embodiment of sin. Keep them away lest their sin infect you through their speech or through their actions or through the very air. Don’t touch them lest the sin rub off on you. They are no longer humans, they are lepers, and their very existence is an abomination!

“If you choose to, you can remove this sin from me. You can let me go home to my family. You can let me work for a living again. You can let me go to the Temple and sing Psalms again.”

There’s something fascinating about what happens next. You see, many ancient manuscripts say what our reading this morning says, that Jesus was “moved with pity.” However, there are a lot of ancient manuscripts that use a very different word, a much more uncomfortable, challenging word: they say that Jesus was not moved to pity, but moved to anger.

Jesus saw this disheveled man, reduced to wearing rags and bells, utterly cut off from all human contact, hated, loathed, and feared by everyone, robbed of his humanity, reduced to groveling in the dirt, and begging not for healing but for forgiveness… and it made Jesus mad!

I wonder – why anger? Of all the emotions one might feel when confronted by this stinking, diseased mass of humanity, groveling in the dirt – revulsion, disdain, compassion, horror, perhaps love – anger? Why was Jesus angry… and with whom was Jesus angry?

The possibilities are intriguing. Could Jesus have been angry at the way a simple set of instructions, meant to keep a nomadic people safe from disease on a long sojourn, had been corrupted and maligned in order to make scapegoats of people who may well have suffered from Hansen's or any variety of skin conditions? Power loves to scapegoat, after all, even when that power is a king of Israel or Judah, or a group of powerful priests. Even a cursory glance at history will prove that when a regime wants to bolster its power, it finds someone to focus their people's hatred upon – Jews or the Irish or African-Americans or Asian-Americans or Muslims or gay and trangendered people...

I wonder if Jesus was angry about how things were about to change for him? After all, up to this point he had enjoyed a moderate fame, enough to garner a group of listeners whenever he came into town and spoke, but not so many as to impede his progress or put him in danger of being pulled off-message. Could it be that the leper presented Jesus with a choice – respect the status quo, keep the oppressed in their place, stay in a comfort zone and do just enough to get by with fulfilling his calling, or break through the barriers, rip wide the curtain, and open the floodgates of healing and hope for all humankind. Respond to the leper's plea, and nothing will ever be the same.

The narrow streets of the towns and cities won't hold the crowds straining to see, hear, and touch this healer-prophet, he'll have to spend all his time out in the countryside; people will be more and more interested in seeing a miracle than in hearing the healing words of the Kingdom of God; those in power will become more and more interested in, and threatened by, this itinerant Rabbi from Judean flyover country, and events will be set in motion which will culminate with a cross.

I don't know why Jesus got angry, but I know that his anger produced an astonishing response.

Well, “astonishing” is probably the wrong word. More like “shocking.” He did something which was horrifying, unthinkable, repulsive to everyone around him.

This kneeling leper said, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”

And Jesus did the one thing that a person in first-century Palestine must never, ever do, no ifs, ands, or buts, no discussion groups about the pros and cons, no opposing views on a split-screen on CNN, no questions, just do not do this ever: Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him!

“I do choose. Be made clean!”

He knew what would happen to his ministry, he knew that this one touch would end with the scourge and the cross, he knew this!

He touched anyway.

I wonder if we who are in the institutional Church have ever really read this passage of Scripture?

Now, please understand that I am a card-carrying member of the mainline Protestant Church, the fully organized and institutionalized and westernized and homogenized and sanitized-for-your-protection middle-class North American Church.

I have been a member of evangelical, Fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and mainline churches, and have taken part in worship with Catholics and Episcopalians of both traditional and charismatic stripes. I have been to faith healings, baptisms of varying degrees of wetness, tent revivals, prayer vigils, and meetings too numerous to count. I am in the club. I know the password and the secret handshake.

And I am here to tell you that somewhere along the way, while we were debating theology and doctrine, arguing and fighting and suing and splitting up over the nature of Christ and the meaning of the Eucharist and the importance of baptism and the rightness of slavery and of segregation and of excluding women from ordination, while we were whoring ourselves out to this political cause or that candidate, we lost our way. We forgot who we are and Whose we are, and it may well be too late to fix it, I don't know.

I know, I know, I'm coming in too hot on this, but hear me out. I am an utter and unrepentant theology and church history geek. Ask me about Reformed Theology or about the Council of Nicea and I can bore you to death for hours talking about it with gusto and passion. Historically speaking, the institutional church is the best possible vehicle to determine orthodoxy, direct orthopraxy, provide structure and accountability and offer support for local church bodies.

Yet when theology and doctrine becomes not a stepping-stone to a closer relationship with out Savior, but a checklist to determine who is in and who is out, when theology and doctrine becomes not a beacon of hope to the lost and marginalized but a bludgeon to all who dare disagree with our obviously perfected understanding of all things God, when we have divorced our first love in favor of a nice, safe, predictable set of mental assertions and codes of conduct, we have become little more than one of the hundreds of pagan temples dotting the first-century Roman empire, where one's outer performance was everything and one's inner spiritual state was irrelevant.

We no longer reach out to touch, because we know who is clean and unclean. Touch this one and you might get AIDS, or that one and you might catch the gay. Our youth groups are more concerned with making sure the students we have are well-behaved and properly entertained than in reaching out to the freaks and geeks and the malcontents and ne'er-do-wells. Our pastors are more concerned with making sure the stewardship campaign and the building program is healthy and the PowerPoint is working and the Praise Team is on cue than in shining the light of Christ into the city's darkest corners. As long as our numbers are good, as long as our Christian Clubs on the high school campus are well-attended, as long as the paychecks cash and our people say all the right things and vote the right way and write their congressman when we tell them to, we are all good. No reason to reach out to the leper. We don't need the leper.

Oh, we talk a good game, we do. Every now and again, one of us preacher types will pop up and wish aloud that we could be like the first-century Church. I admit that I always laugh at that, because when we say that we generally want to pick and choose the ways in which our modern, westernized church should imitate the earliest believers. Do you really, really want to be like the first-century church? Do you, pastor, want to give up your salary and your staff and your buildings and your support structure? Do you want to meet in secret in people's homes, do you want to have to sneak around and be in constant fear of getting caught? Do you really want to be in danger of being imprisoned, of being tortured in ever-more-imaginative and horrifying ways, of seeing your family slowly and carefully killed before your eyes?

Well, of course not, but I must admit that there are elements of the first-century church that we could very well embrace, which very well might save the institutional church from obsolescence, if there is still time.

See, the thing about the first-century church is, once the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples, all bets were off. People were coming to faith in Christ all over the place, in greater and greater numbers, and for these disciples, born and raised in Judaism, they were struggling to deal with the fact that many of those receiving the Holy Spirit were people who had always been excluded – sometimes with solid Scriptural backing – from worshiping Jaweh. There were Samaritans and Gentiles, women, even a eunuch!

No one was left out, no limits were placed on how and when and where and to what degree God's Spirit could move. The Apostles may well have looked at one another and said the same thing that Adam said to Eve: “Stand back, honey, I don't know how big this thing's gonna get!”

All of this was happening not because their doctrine was precise or their theology flawless – quite the opposite, in fact. As the letters and Gospel accounts were being written – the books that would, several hundred years later, be canonized as New Testament Scripture – what you believed about atonement and the nature of Christ and his deity depended not on your denomination but on which letters and Gospels your section of the world had access to. The test of faith was not mental assent to a set of core beliefs, but a dangerous declaration which, when uttered, placed you in direct opposition to the mores of the society you inhabited, and in immediate conflict with the governmental authorities. That declaration was simply “Jesus is Lord.”

Yet even not knowing where the road was leading, except to certain persecution and conflict and torture and death, the church reached out, grew, thrived. Despite the dangers, they touched anyway.

Look, I know that we in twenty-first century Western Christianity have our lepers, our groups and people and thought patterns and belief systems which are repugnant, frightening, off limits, despicable – things that strike us with the same level of revulsion as the thought of drinking raw sewage. The tendency has always been, when threatened by danger, to circle the wagons, strengthen the things which make us unique, find safety in people who are like us. Yet this has never been what the description of “church” should be. We are the Body of Christ, and as such, we are called, commissioned, depended upon to be like Jesus, our Head. We are called to break through the personal and societal barriers and mores and limitations and expectations and to reach out to the very people and institutions and places and belief systems which threaten us.

We are called to touch anyway.

Reverend Carlton Pearson was a well-known pastor, a protege of Oral Roberts, whose church boasted attendance of over 5,000 people every Sunday.

He had everything a minister could hope for, all the fame and adulation and power and creature comforts, until one day he lost it all. He didn't embezzle money or have an affair, no. But one evening he stopped believing in Hell, which, for an Evangelical, is tantamount to praying to Satan. He lost his church, and his denomination ousted him and labeled him a heretic. No one reached out to him, no one tried to listen or to just be his friend through this journey.

He became a Universalist, which is another matter altogether – one wonders if a more gentle approach from his denomination would have influenced him differently – but he was utterly alone. He took whatever speaking engagements he could, and tried to find his way.

One of the speaking engagements was with a group he would not have been caught dead with before – a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Christians. After he spoke, the woman who had asked him to the conference invited him to go down into the audience, the congregation, and let them minister to him. There were touches, warm embraces, healing words... and then, from the stage, the woman reappeared with a bowl of water. Right there, in that auditorium, she washed Carlton's feet.

The lesson of the story, for me, at least, is this: If we, the Church, are counting on the lepers to touch the lepers, it is already too late. We should stop right now, take the cutesy sayings off the marquee out front, nail the doors shut and paint “Ichabod” across the threshold. We're done.

Or, we can resolve that, whatever the cost to us in membership and prestige and political clout, even if we lose the high-five- and low-six-figure salary, even if the denomination disowns us and people talk bad about us on the radio, we will touch anyway.

Yeah, it'll be dangerous. It'll be dirty. And we don't know how big this thing is gonna get. But if the institutional Church is going to put truth to their claims of caring about the lost and the hungry and the homeless and the naked and the imprisoned and the fatherless and the marginalized and the misunderstood, there is only one choice.

Be like Jesus.

Touch anyway.


  1. I am not sure if you'll see my tweet (I am @SeekGodsTruth), but I listened to this sermon and was overwhelmed with emotion. You are absolutely right about everything you said. My prayer is that we, the church, will have the courage to "touch anyway." It's time. God bless you.

  2. Reaching out to the freaks & geeks. The strange and deranged. What a marvelous, grace filled concept! Now, if only we could inject more Christians with this Spirit-life we would see something radical for the kingdom.

    God bless and thanks for this sermon.