Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lent: Humble Beginnings

Inspiration for this sermon comes from The Rev. Susan Gamelin. The story behind "Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation" figures prominently in it as well, and I am glad I stumbled upon their story.

Here's the audio recording of this sermon:

Check this out on Chirbit

Genesis 9:8-17
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

1 Peter 3:18-22
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

This is the first Sunday in Lent, when we begin the humble journey to the Cross with Jesus, and beyond the Cross to the Resurrection.

And make no mistake, this is a humble journey. Sure, Jesus gains amazing amounts of popularity, his fame grows exponentially when he casts out the demon and heals Peter’s mother-in-law in Capernaum, and when he touches and cleanses the leper in Galilee, but where he starts out could hardly have been more humble.

It hasn’t been all that long ago, just the second Sunday in January, when we talked about the baptism of Jesus. We imagined a pastoral scene like in the movies, with Jeffery Hunter playing Jesus and a nice amber backlight to add a holy glow when the dove descended and the violins swelled behind a deep booming voice-of-God with a Shakespearian accent…

But let’s be honest. The Jordan was little more than a creek at this point, hardly deep enough for a good dunking, all brown and muddy. And when Jesus stood up out of that water, gasping for air, looking up to see the heavens ripped asunder and the Holy Spirit flying down on him… well… he’s the only one who saw it.

Everyone else, all those people on the banks waiting their turn with John the Baptist? Lost in their own conversations, perhaps. Updating their FaceBook statuses. Whatever the case, no one else noticed Jesus, or participated in the theophany with him.

And this same Spirit that fell on Jesus like a dove then drove Jesus from the water, drove him! “Hurry, go! Get a move on, dude, hurry! Time’s a wastin’, GO!” But the Spirit did not drive Jesus to address the Great Sanhedrin, or demand an audience with Herod Antipas or Caesar Tiberius, not even compel him to begin preaching the Good News! The Spirit drove Jesus out into the middle of nowhere, and didn’t even give him time to pack a lunch.

Forty days later, after being tempted by Satan, living with wild animals, and being taken care of by angels, finally Jesus began his ministry.

But he doesn’t go to downtown Jerusalem, stand on the top step at the entrance of the Temple, and start shouting. He still doesn’t address the Sanhedrin or demand an audience with Antipas or Tiberius. He goes instead to Galilee. He continues what is still a humble journey.

That’s like a Presidential candidate having the full backing of whichever of the two major parties you want to pick, hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign funds, and deciding to begin his campaign my announcing his candidacy on a 100-watt AM radio station in Waynesboro, Mississippi.

I can imagine Jesus preaching his message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” all the while his voice is drowned out by the cries of the buyers and sellers in the marketplace, by the stomping of the boots of the Roman occupiers, by the raging of other self-styled prophets, calling for the overthrow of those occupiers. Yet speak Jesus does, and slowly people begin to listen. A few fishermen leave their nets. Perhaps he catches an ear here and there in the synagogues. He starts, ever so gradually, to catch on.

It’s almost a disadvantage, our ability to look at these humble beginnings from the doorway of the empty tomb. Knowing how it all ends up, being able to proclaim Christ risen and triumphant, it makes it easy to miss the crunching dirt under Jesus’ sandals as he and his ragtag band of disciples trudge from town to town, crisscrossing Galilee, sweating in the sun’s glare and shivering through the night, day after day just proclaiming “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

From one point of view, it really doesn’t make sense. If Jesus had come to declare the Jubilee – to set the captives free, to proclaim the good news to the poor, to announce the year of the Lord’s favor, why didn’t he blow the ram’s horn? Why didn’t he shout it from the top of the Temple? Why not confront the Sanhedrin with the news, or challenge Herod or Caesar with the facts? If you’re going to upset the status quo, wipe the slate clean, and set everything right, why not just start with the obvious oppressors?

I want to suggest that part of the good news for you and me today is the fact that Jesus started small. In fact, throughout the Gospels, we see time and again that Jesus never sought out the great big things. Rather, his earthly ministry was a collection of great little things. Jesus never started a megachurch or sent out a press release or held a prayer rally or tacked up flyers. He did what needed to be done, all the while remaining constant to his primary message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Jesus started small.

Alexandra Scott was diagnosed with cancer when she was less than a year old. When Alex turned four, she told her parents that she wanted to start a lemonade stand, to raise money to fund cancer research. A small thing, yes, but the very first day, with the help of her big brother Patrick, that little lemonade stand raised over two thousand dollars. Others heard about what she was doing, and they opened up their own lemonade stands, and donated the proceeds to her cause.

Year after year, while carrying on her own fight, Alex opened that lemonade stand. When she died in 2004 at the age of eight, Alex and her friends had raised over a million dollars for cancer research. Today “Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation” carries on her legacy, and has raised more than $50 million, funding more than 200 cutting-edge research projects, providing a travel program to help support families of children receiving treatment, and developing resources to help people everywhere affected by childhood cancer. And all of it was started by a four-year-old girl and a lemonade stand.

Lent is out opportunity to lay aside the noise that surrounds us – marketers shouting at us to buy bigger and better things, politicians screaming that this or that policy is destroying the country, and on and on – and listen for the crunch of Jesus’ sandals in the dirt of that Galilean road, listen for his voice as he speaks the truths of the Kingdom with his travel-worn companions, listen to his words as he stands in the synagogue, as he casts out the demon, as he heals and restores and sets free, as he proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor…

Lent is our opportunity to refocus our priorities, to reset our compass, to redirect our passion and our energies into great small things. We may not be the next Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa or Billy Graham, but that’s OK. I feel confident in declaring that the world does not need another Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa or Billy Graham. The world needs you, and the world needs me, doing the great little things to make the Kingdom of God a reality in the lives of the people we touch.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Lent reminds us to never doubt that humble beginnings and small starts are the bricks and mortar of the Kingdom of God. Sometimes the Kingdom of God looks feels a cup of coffee or a warm coat. Sometimes it sounds like a word of encouragement or a thank-you note.

Sometimes the Kingdom of God even looks like a lemonade stand.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


"If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”
-William Blake
 Audio of the sermon:

Check this out on Chirbit

I am indebted to the writing of Bruce Epperly, Kathryn Matthews Huey, and Sarah Henrick for guidance in writing this sermon.

Some theologians and scholars suggest that the Transfiguration is a later addition to the Gospels, that the event didn't really happen, or didn't happen in the way it is related, in any case. I have no problem respectfully disagreeing with that viewpoint.

Because I think that, for a moment on a mountaintop, Peter and James and John experienced William Blake's "doors of perception" cleansed and wide open.

2 Kings 2:1-12
Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”
Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”
Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, ”As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

2 Corinthians 4:3-6
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Mark 9:2-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

This is the Word of the Lord.

I wonder if they remembered? James and Peter, I mean, as they stared across from their hiding place at the cross on the hill, where Jesus hung dying – John, too, from his place with the women at the foot of that cross – did they remember the mountaintop, the glory, how Jesus was transfigured before them, shining with the glory of God?

You would think such a thing would be unforgettable, of course. It isn’t every day that you get to see Moses and Elijah carrying on a conversation with anyone, let alone the man you’d left everything to follow. And it confirmed what they had all been hoping for, what they all believed, that Jesus really was the son of God, really was the Messiah!

In Jewish thought, since Moses had been buried by God when he died, and since Elijah had been taken bodily to heaven, this meant that they were both available to come back and announce to all of humanity that God’s reign was at hand. And here they were, talking to Jesus!

I wonder if they remembered? Peter, burning with shame at his betrayal of Jesus, John trying to be strong for Jesus’ mother as they watched him, beaten beyond recognition, struggling for breath. None of the disciples could put it together in their head, all those times Jesus talked about having to suffer, all those times he predicted his death, and especially all those times when he spoke of rising from the dead on the third day. Kings didn’t suffer. Gods didn’t die.

No, but that one time, when ‘way up on the mountaintop, the barrier between heaven and earth was stretched thin and drawn close, and where Jesus spoke with the prophets of old, and where God spoke aloud to Peter and James and John, that made a whole lot more sense, when you think about it. Jesus was a King in his glory, and the Kingdom was present and tangible.

That’s why Peter had said that thing about the booths. He wasn’t babbling just to hear himself talk, he actually had a point. The thought at the time was that the reign of God was to take place during the Feast of Booths, where the Jewish people remembered the Exodus by living in booths for seven days. These booths were likely a lot of work; you had to gather branches to make the frame, then gather palm leaves and such to make the sides and top, after all. These booths were supposed to be a reminder of the fragile structures the children of Israel lived in during their years in the wilderness. If they were going to bring in the Kingdom of God, why should Moses and Elijah and Jesus have to build their own booth?

I wonder if they remembered. I wonder if Peter thought back to that day, how excited he’d been that Moses and Elijah had come to put an end to all that silly suffering-and-dying talk Jesus had been making. Awesome, Moses and Elijah could get Jesus to go ahead and bring on the Kingdom right then and there! I wonder if James, probably cowering in the shadows right next to Simon Peter, remembered what God’s voice sounded like from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And I wonder if, as James stared across at that bloody, naked, dying man on the cross, he thought, “if this is what God does to the beloved…”

And John, did he remember? Sitting there, did he remember how the clothing that those bored Roman soldiers were dividing up between them had shone bright-white with the glory of God?

How would it have felt, I wonder, to remember? Bitter and hateful, like a lie told by someone you trusted, like a broken promise? Or would it have been more like a diamond in the dust, a glimmer of hope, a promise that this was not the end?

The Pew Center reports that something like fifty percent of mainstream Christians – that’s folks like you and me, in mainstream denominations like Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans – have had mystical spiritual experiences: everything from a lingering whisper, a feeling of Christ’s nearness, or a call in the night, reminiscent of young Samuel’s, near death experiences, miraculous recoveries from illness or amazing, couldn’t-be-a-coincidence deliverances from accident and death. Perhaps there was a moment in prayer, or at a youth event, or even in church, or at a weekend retreat, where the barrier between heaven and earth was stretched thin and drawn close, and maybe, for an instant, we caught the aroma of glory, of the Kingdom of God not merely now-and-coming, but here-and-now.

So we have a glimpse of what Peter and James and John experienced there on the mountain. And perhaps we also have an all-too-personal understanding of the need to remember that touch from God, when grief or fear or pain or uncertainty comes, when we know all too well what it feels like to look across and see hope hanging naked and bleeding and dying.

Perhaps it helps to know something that Peter and James and John did not know that day, as they watched the man they knew, knew was the hope of Israel, push up against the nails in his feet and catch one last breath. We know that, before the sun rises on Sunday, some women will brave the darkness and go to the tomb and find that it is abandoned, no longer needed. We know that what Peter and James and John experienced that day on the mountaintop, when heaven drew close and God spoke aloud, was a promise.

I wonder, as Peter and John run to the cemetery, and the sun breaks over the eastern horizon, do they remember? All the miracles they had witnessed, all the truths they had heard from the lips of the Messiah, will it take Christ appearing to them behind locked doors, later that afternoon, for the truth to take hold, for them to remember the glory that shone around Christ, not mere special effects, not a chance hallucination, but a promise that God has not left us alone, God is with us?

And will we remember? Because when the storms come, when the doctor calls with bad news, when the casket closes for the last time, in the risen Christ, in the empty tomb, we have a touchstone, a diamond in the dust, a point of hope: the tomb is empty. Christ transfigured is now Christ triumphant.

And what would it mean if we remembered those touches from God – what if we could hold on to our own mountaintop experiences, and gain strength from the experiences of others, as we go though our day-to-day lives? What if we treated every moment, every person, every interaction with one another, as a holy thing? Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, “Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes. The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

Will we remember?

May it never be that we walk right by the brightest lights and sweetest sounds and miss the most important moments of our journey in faith, where the barrier between heaven and earth is thin and heaven is drawing close, because we were paying attention to something else.

God spoke to Jesus directly at his baptism, and God spoke directly to the disciples at the Transfiguration, proclaiming him the Son of God, and God speaks to us, the Body of Christ, right now, and in our day-to-day life. May we have eyes to see, ears to hear, and may we remember that God is with us, and follow.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Touch Anyway!

This Gospel reading is one that has intrigued me for years. I cannot help but think that, if the church - and yes, i speak of the people of the church, be it an institutional church or a church plant, living-room Bible Study group or Emergent cohort - could ever truly lay hold to what it meant when Jesus touched the leper, then nothing would ever be the same. It may sound hyperbolic, but I wonder if that touch isn't the key to bringing the reality of the Kingdom of God into the here-and-now... not just talking about how nice the Kingdom/Heaven/Eternity will be, but making the freedom, joy, reconciliation and salvation a tangible truth right now.

But I digress. The sermon:


Check this out on Chirbit

2 Kings 5:1-14
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman's wife. She said to her mistress, "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, "Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel."
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, "When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy." When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, "Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me."
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, "Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel." So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha's house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean." But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?" So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one.So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

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.

Last week, our Gospel reading left us with Jesus traveling all around Galilee, preaching and casting out demons. One can imagine Jesus and his disciples, walking the hot, dusty roads, every day another town, another synagogue, another small crowd gathered, perhaps near the town’s well or cistern, while Jesus preaches the Good News about the now-and coming Kingdom of God.

Maybe they’re so engrossed in what Jesus is saying, they don’t hear it at first – the dingling bell, the hoarse voice calling out, “unclean, unclean!” But soon enough, there’s a gasp from the back of the group, and the crowd parts – well, recoils, really – to reveal a dirty, disheveled man, dressed in rags, his pleading eyes fixed on Jesus. You can almost hear the voices hissing in revulsion, “leper!”

This man had, of course, heard it all before. He knew what he looked like to the townspeople, and he knew what he represented. No one knows how long he’d been like this – cast out, unclean, a source of some pity, and a lot of horror, condemned to wear rags and warn people of his presence by ringing a bell and shouting “unclean!” But today, he’d had enough. This was the day that something had to change.

You see, when we read a couple of weeks back that Jesus’ fame was spreading throughout Galilee following the casting out of the demon, that wasn’t hyperbole: people had been talking. He’d cast out a demon, they said, and cured a woman of a fever, and a bunch of other people in Capernaum had gotten cured that day, too. Somewhere, this leper had gotten wind of this miracle man, and he had felt a stirring of something he hadn’t felt in years.


So when he heard that Jesus would be in a town near where this leper wandered the wilderness, he set off to meet this man, to see if what they said was true.

I wonder if he had come quietly at first, and had listened for a bit to what Jesus was saying. And I wonder if it was the message of Jubilee – the release of the captives, the freedom of the oppressed, the setting right of things – that gave this man the courage to do something that was absolutely, expressly forbidden: he approached Jesus. He got close. He fell to his knees in the Galilean dirt and said, “If you choose to, you can make me clean.”

That’s an interesting choice of words, isn’t it? “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.

And lest we think that, since we now know so much more about the disease, there’s no need to ostracize and demonize those who are suffering from Hansen’s disease, it’s important to note that leper colonies still exist in countries like India, Japan, Egypt, Nepal, Somalia, South Korea, Vietnam… and the United States.

Small wonder then that leprosy was feared in Jesus’ time. It not only robbed a person of their health, to one degree or another, but it robbed them of their home, their livelihood, their place in the religious community and the culture, and it ultimately robbed them of their very humanity. Notice how  even Mark doesn’t call this kneeling pile of dirty rags at Jesus’ feet a man, or a person, nor does he give him a name; he is identified only by his disease, a “leper.”

But I said that this man, this human, this person, was looking for more than simply a cure for his disease, didn’t I? Leprosy, you see, was more than just a disease.

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. 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 with leprosy was not “diseased” as opposed to “healthy,” no. They were “unclean” as opposed to “clean” – meaning that, as a leper, they were unacceptable to the community, untouchable, dirty, sinful, ostracized and prohibited from worship. The leper was required by the Law to mess up his hair, tear his clothing, and live away from friends, family, and was 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 the day 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, except for the bell-ringing and the yelling “unclean” thing, anyway, 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 1980’s, and the terror over the AIDS epidemic, and not knowing if you could catch AIDS from mosquito bites or bathroom doorknobs 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!

And this broken man kneels at Jesus’ feet and says “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 synagogue with my people 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 what would happen if all of us reacted this way whenever, for example, we hear about the violence against civilians in Homs being carried out by the Syrian government? What would happen if we reacted this way when a bullied teenager resorted to suicide? When a child on the Horn of Africa starved to death, or an American child went to be hungry again? I wonder what would happen if it made us mad in exactly the way that this leper made Jesus mad?

You see, when Jesus got angry, things happened, and they happened fast, they happened for good, and they happened in unexpected, breathtaking ways.

That leper knelt at Jesus’ feet and said, “You can make me clean if you want to,” and Jesus did something shocking. Something horrifying to everyone around him.

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, I wish there were a way to convey just how disgusting and gruesome and socially unacceptable this thing was, I mean just do not do this ever: you do NOT touch a leper. Ew! Just, I mean, ugh, DON’T!

Jesus knew all of this. Jesus stretched out his hand. Jesus touched him anyway.

“I do choose. Be made clean!”

I think that I is very possible that, in this day and age, one of the most valuable things the church has forgotten how to do – and yes, I speak of the church as an institution, but I also mean, and I am sorry, but I mean the people in the church as well – we may well have completely forgotten how to touch.

We have the internet, we have FaceBook and Twitter and texting and email and Skype and Oovoo, iPhones with FaceTime – I even have a language translator on my BlackBerry, I can type a phrase and my phone will say it in a dozen or more laguages! We are the most highly connected people in history – but in being plugged in to cyberspace, have we forgotten how to connect with one another on the human level?

Jesus reached out and touched, and it changed everything – not just for the man, who was instantly made whole again, restored to his home, family, livelihood and synagogue, but for Jesus, too…

And I have to wonder – in amongst this person and that person arguing over legislation, between this group or that group promoting a program or a plan or another sure-fire strategy to make Everything Better…

What if we reached out and touched? What if we dared to identify the lepers in our own societies, had the courage to confess the types of people we as individuals consider untouchable, and what if we decided to put all that aside – like Jesus did – and reach out to these groups and individuals with healing and wholeness and reconciliation?

What if we decided to touch anyway?

It might be dangerous. It might be dirty. It might change everything for us in inconvenient ways. Certainly, Jesus (being who he was) knew that as soon as this now-clean man left he was going to completely ignore everything Jesus said about keeping it quiet. He knew that very soon, because of this one touch, the crowds would become too large and too unmanageable and he would have to leave the cities and stay in the countryside. He knew that this touch would change everything in inconvenient ways… but Jesus touched anyway.

Because the imperative to live the reality of the now-and-coming Kingdom, setting free the captive, releasing the oppressed, bringing Good News to the poor… that was most important to Jesus. That was the whole point.

And lest we forget, for we who are the body of Christ, that is the whole point for us, too.

So touch anyway.

Almighty God,
Jesus touched the leper. He reached out to the least, the forgotten, the marginalized, the “less than.” Help us to accept the challenge to reach out, to touch, those in our own world who are “less than.” Help us “touch anyway.”
In the name of that Jesus who touched the leper, and who died and rose so that we who are “less than” can be loved and accepted and brought into loving relationship with our loving and eternal God, in the name of Jesus who taught us to pray, saying…

Sunday, February 5, 2012

"It Makes a Difference To That One."

The idea that "there is no 'them'" comes from my friend Jimmy Spencer Jr., whose book, "Love Without Agenda" is a must-read. Seriously.
I think far too many people treat Christianity as a cause to be defended, rather than what it is: a kingdom to be inhabited, a restoration of community with the Creator, unconditional and abundant grace and love to be lavished about in a scandalously extravagant manner.

I've said it before, and I will say it again. God loves everyone. Jesus died for everyone. Jesus rose for everyone.

For crying out loud, let's start acting like it.

Isaiah 40:21-31
Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

1 Corinthians 9:16-23
If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Mark 1:29-39
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

This is the Word of the Lord.

I almost get the feeling sometimes, when reading the book of Mark, that Jesus and the apostles were running everywhere they went. Mark uses words and phrases like “immediately,” “just then,” “straightaway,” “as soon as.” The intensity and speed might just make us rush along in reading, and that would be a mistake. Because even though Mark seems to be sprinting through the ministry of Christ, there is a lot to look at as he flies by.

Our Gospel reading picks up where we left off last Sunday; Jesus has spoken in the synagogue at Capernaum, and has cast out – more like evicted – a demon from a possessed man. He leaves the synagogue with his disciples and goes to the home where Simon and Andrew live.

There is some credible evidence that we know exactly where this synagogue and house were. Archaeologists have excavated the site of the synagogue at Capernaum, and in its shadow is a place that, since at least the second century, Christians have believed the home of Simon and Andrew to be.

In that day and age, the idea of a single-family home would have been as foreign as a radio broadcast. The houses were generally quite large, with one entrance, rooms surrounding a large open courtyard where the cooking was done. Sometimes these homes had a second story, very often there were stairs to the roof, where one could catch a cool breeze in the evening. Simon and Andrew’s whole family would have shared the structure, and the fact that Simon’s mother-in-law lived there as well would not have been much of a surprise.

In fact, we can infer that Simon’s mother-in-law acted as the matriarch of the home, taking care of the day-to-day comings and goings, purchases and cooking, and all the thousand details that would have gone into keeping a house that size running. She would have been well-known to everyone in the community from the marketplace, the common well, and neighborly conversation. And it needs to be noted that it would have been not just expected, but a great honor, for her to provide hospitality to visitors.

But this day, Simon’s mother-in-law was sick. I wonder if the phrase from our reading, “…they told him about her at once” came out more like, “Um, Jesus, dreadfully sorry supper isn’t ready, but, y’see, the mother-in-law, well, she’s terribly ill right now, and none of the rest of us know how to boil water. Want some bread?”

But in reality it wasn’t that simple. A fever in those days, before the development of aspirin and antibiotics and such, could have been deadly. So of course Jesus does what we expect him to do – after all, we’ve read the Gospels, we’ve heard the stories, we know what Jesus did to people who were sick, right? “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

Now, I do not at all think it is a coincidence that the Greek word used where we read “and lifted her up” is the same word used for resurrection. And lest we think that Jesus simply went into her room and healed her so he could get a sandwich, there’s another important Greek word in action here for “she began to serve them.” Diakonos, which our word “deacon” comes from, is the same word Jesus uses in speaking of himself, in the tenth chapter of Mark when he says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

As miraculous as the healing is, as astounding as the earlier exorcism may be, there are even greater things at work here, you see. These are merely elements of the greater message that Jesus is proclaiming.

As far as Mark is concerned, the synagogue which Jesus spoke in earlier that day was the first one of any importance that Jesus visited. But from Luke’s Gospel, we know that this is the second such visit. Because before he came to Capernaum, he was in Nazareth, where he took the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and read from it these words: “18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”

This is where, after he read the passage and sat down to teach, he said “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” – and he like to have gotten killed.

I want to suggest that, even though Mark makes no mention of the Nazareth event, the things that Jesus does in Capernaum are making the same bold statement. Jesus has proclaimed the year of Jubilee!

The year of Jubilee is first mentioned in the 25th chapter of the book of Leviticus. The children of Israel, until recently a nation of slaves to the Egyptian people, were entering into a land promised to them by God – filled with houses they had not built, orchards they had not tended, fields they had not planted, riches they had not earned. All they were about to receive was a gift from God, and it was imperative to the spiritual health and the integrity off that community that they never, ever forgot that fact.

So every fiftieth year, a ram’s horn would blow, and in that year, every plot of land that had been sold was to be returned to the original owner. Any persons who had sold themselves into slavery were freed. Any money owed was forgiven. The slate was wiped clean. Sure, fifty years is a long time, and yes, adjustments in how much land or loans cost would be made based upon how close to that fiftieth year you were, but in the end, on that fiftieth year, when the ram’s horn blew, everything reset at zero. The poor were restored to wholeness, and the rich had just enough.

That was how it was supposed to have worked, anyway. In practice, most scholars think that this “Year of Jubilee” happened rarely, if ever. There were judges who could be bribed, and priests who could be paid to forget what year it was.

And the rich got richer, the poor got poorer.

But Jesus came to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God – freedom for the captives, sight for the blind, restoration and healing and life! And while in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus talks about his mission in the synagogue of Nazareth, in Mark’s Gospel, here in Capernaum, we see what the Jubilee year in the Kingdom of God really looks like.

In an instant, with a few words, a demon-possessed man is set free from his oppression, and restored to his place in the synagogue and the community. In an instant, with a touch, a feverish woman is set free from illness and restored to her place in the household and the community.

It’s no wonder that, as soon as the sun set and the Sabbath was completed, the entryway to Simon and Andrew’s home was clogged with people bringing others who were oppressed, others who were sick or enslaved by the demonic – men and women and children who needed release, healing, restoration.

And Jesus did what Jesus does – he proclaimed release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, and set free those who were oppressed…

And when he moved on the next day, it was so he could preach the Gospel in all those poor little villages and neighboring towns.

And, you know, the whole blowing-the-ram’s-horn thing to signal the year of Jubilee, it seems like that would be a loud proclamation, something that got attention, a sound like no other. Funny, isn’t it, that there’s no horns blowing in Capernaum. Jesus simply told the demon to shut up and get out in the synagogue, and he didn’t say anything at all to Simon’s mother-in-law. He didn’t go looking for things to do, he simply did what needed to be done in the moment at hand.

But as simply and as quietly as Jesus did what needed doing, people took notice. People responded. People recognized, in Jesus, hope for those who had been decimated by illness, tormented by evil, tortured by madness, removed from their rightful place in society. And through that recognition they saw and experienced the now-and-coming Kingdom of God.

Most simply put, in being for the proclamation of the Gospel, in being for the Kingdom of God, Jesus became known as someone who was for people, and that is a lesson for Christians today.

You may have noticed that, by and large, people outside the faith identify Christians more and more by the things we are supposed to be against. We have allowed TV preachers and opportunistic politicians of all stripes to define the faith as a system by which we identify what is wrong with everyone else. All too often, the Bible is used as a hammer – and everyone and everything is a nail. People hear about an Alabama legislator (who I will not name, because I don’t want to give him the publicity) saying that the Bible opposes teacher pay raises – but is all for legislative pay raises! – and they think every Christian is like him. People see Westboro Baptist Church picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afganistan, and think every Christian is like that.

Christianity has become, in many people’s eyes, both inside of and outside of the church, a clique, a social class, another case of “us” versus “them.”

But as far as the Gospel is concerned – and I mean the real Gospel, the one we find in the Scriptures, not the gospel that the TV preachers and the politicians and the pundits would have you believe – there is no “us” and “them.”

Hear the Word of God from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 53, verse 6: “All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.”

Without Jesus Christ, no one is “us.” Everyone – everyone – is “them.” We are all alike, left to our own devices. Self-centered, self-destructive, self-absorbed. Our god is the reflection in the mirror. And God knows that, and God loves us anyway, so much that Jesus Christ came and died and rose again to bring us back to God.

And that is how we should be known – not for being against and anti and opposed, but for being like Jesus, for people. All people. Everywhere. Like Jesus – not doing the big things or the flashy thing or the attention-getting things, but doing what is needed right now, in the moment, for someone who is hurting or oppressed or afflicted or forgotten. Declare the year of Jubilee, even if it’s one person at a time.

There’s a story that’s told about a man who is walking along a beach. The tide had gone out, and had stranded hundreds of starfish. He comes upon a boy who is picking the starfish up, one by one, and throwing them back into the ocean. He watches awhile, and says, “This seems like kind of a futile effort, son. There’s too many to save all of them. You could take all day, and it won’t make a difference.” The boy never misses a beat. He picks up another starfish, sends it spinning into the surf, and says, “It makes a difference to that one.”

Share that pot of coffee with a grieving person. Take that phone call from the depressed acquaintance. Buy that meal for the hungry homeless person. Give that dollar to the panhandler. Reply to that email, respond to that wall posting on FaceBook, return that text message. Declare the year of Jubilee, even if it’s one person at a time.

I know there’s not enough time in the day to respond to every request for donations, to participate in every worthy cause. Mother Teresa said that if you can’t feed a hundred hungry people, feed just one!

Believe me, it makes a difference to that one.