for the 6th Sunday
in Ordinary Time Year B
first posted 2.12.12
In today's Lectionary New Testament reading St. Paul tells us that we should, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." That is, the great Apostle presents himself to his ancient readers as an example of what it means to follow the living, risen Christ.
Of course, the idea of following the Christ as he is presented in the Gospels is attractive to the believer's heart and given as a serious goal for the believer's calling, but by and large this practice is very difficult to accomplish.
Today's Lectionary GOSPEL reading is an excellent example of this challenge. Here Jesus is confronted by a man who has leprosy, which meant he was not only sick, but he was also ritually unclean and unable to participate in the temple activities. This situation is very serious and made the "unclean" person an object of a double ostracism.
This also meant the leper had to announce his disease to all who came near:
"Those who suffer from any contagious skin disease must tear their clothing and allow their hair to hang loose. Then, as they go from place to place, they must cover their mouth and call out, 'Unclean! Unclean!'" (Lv.13:45)
Nothing tells us of the leper's exclusion from the community and the temple more clearly than this. He lived in isolation and hopelessness, really, and since there was no known cure for the disease, the only hope for restoration was probably the miraculous, which actually did have precedent. Remember the story of Naaman?
9 So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and waited at the door of Elisha's house. 10 But Elisha sent a messenger out to him with this message: "Go and wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored, and you will be healed of leprosy." 11 But Naaman became angry and stalked away. "I thought he would surely come out to meet me!" he said. "I expected him to wave his hand over the leprosy and call on the name of the LORD his God and heal me! 12 Aren't the Abana River and Pharpar River of Damascus better than all the rivers of Israel put together? Why shouldn't I wash in them and be healed?" So Naaman turned and went away in a rage. 13 But his officers tried to reason with him and said, "Sir, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, wouldn't you have done it? So you should certainly obey him when he says simply to go and wash and be cured!" 14 So Naaman went down to the Jordan River and dipped himself seven times, as the man of God had instructed him. And his flesh became as healthy as a young child's, and he was healed! 15 Then Naaman and his entire party went back to find the man of God. They stood before him, and Naaman said, "I know at last that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. Now please accept my gifts." 16 But Elisha replied, "As surely as the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will not accept any gifts." And though Naaman urged him to take the gifts, Elisha refused. 17 Then Naaman said, "All right, but please allow me to load two of my mules with earth from this place, and I will take it back home with me. From now on I will never again offer any burnt offerings or sacrifices to any other god except the LORD. (2 Kings 5:9-17)
Perhaps the story of Naaman was on this leper's heart when he came close to Jesus. Having heard of Jesus' power to heal, in this man's mind Jesus might well have been his only hope for restoration to his family, to his community and to the temple worship. And so, he breaks the rules and rather than proclaiming his disease from a far off, he comes close to Jesus and dares to speak to him,
"If you wish, you can make me clean."
Then, a most extraordinary thing happens. Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out his hand and touched the man. I've often wondered how long it had been since this man had felt the touch of another human being. Someone has called what Jesus did here as taking the unantiseptic risk -- a willingness to get ones hands dirty, a willingness to risk uncleanness. Apparently, Jesus has no fear in this regard. He is so moved by the man's situation that he touches him, even when a word spoken could presumably have done the job as well.
Of course, there is more going on here than just this man and his need. In this healing, as in all of Jesus' works of mercy, he offers the nation a sign of his Messiahship. This time it would be to the priest:
"show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them."
And so, Brothers and Sisters, this is a beautiful story of Jesus' compassion and mission, and there is much here for us, as well. I would offer three ideas as windows into the text:
SINNERS CAME TO JESUS
SINNERS TALKED TO JESUS
SINNERS WERE TOUCHED BY JESUS
SINNERS CAME TO JESUS
First, notice that sinners (and by that term I mean all of us, for all have sinned) willingly came to Jesus. That is, there is somehow an openness to the person of Jesus that invited those ones who were unclean, those who somehow just didn't measure-up.
I suppose this truth is not news to you. Like me, you have probably somehow experienced this same compassion and availability of the Christ through his Spirit. I would testify that this compassion has been true for me not only in my initial experience of meeting the LORD now so long ago, but many times since then when wrecked by life or grieved by temptation's victory, I came to the LORD in prayer and found to my joy a consistently compassionate heart. Said differently, in my darkest hour, the LORD has always been present to me.
But, we must ask the question: Are we, as followers of the Jesus-way, available and present to the other, offering this same compassion as the LORD to those broken ones who come along beside us? Remember, after all, how we came into this homily: The great Apostle offered himself to ancient readers (and presumably to his current ones as well) as an example of what it means to follow the living, risen Christ.
So, are we willing to follow the Christ out of our comfort zone? Do we have the willingness to take the unantiseptic risk and to "dirty" our hands with the brokenness of this world at war with itself? Or, said differently, are we willing, through the Spirit, to offer the touch of the Christ to the one who crosses our path as did Jesus with the one who crossed his path?
SINNERS TALKED TO JESUS
Notice, second, this man came to Jesus, and the Master takes time to listen to him. I love this. Jesus, willingly focused his undivided attention upon this man and his need. I wonder, is this true of us? I fear that, unlike the Master, all to often we are much to busy to listen, much to busy, to take time to really hear the person in front of us. Often our agenda takes precedence and the person before us is lost beyond us because of our need to offer a canned speech of evangelism or a memorized presentation.
But Jesus is different. Jesus never runs rough-shod over his audience; he always takes the personhood of those in need with utmost seriousness, listening with clarity and compassion.
As followers of the Jesus-way we too must meet people as people not as potential clients or patrons. As followers of the the Jesus-way we must offer people the gift of time and true listening, which is the greatest gift of all for our time is our life. An, finally, as followers of the Jesus-way we must suspend our own agenda, our own needs, our own likes and dislikes, fears and phobias, and in the power of the HOLY Spirit offer the person in front of us the reality of the risen Christ, now powerfully alive through that same Spirit, and displayed through our own personal, unique giftedness.
SINNERS WERE TOUCHED BY JESUS
Finally, notice the touch of Jesus. Again, this displays the risk of ministry, the willingness to incarnate the self within the brokenness of the human condition.
In this regard I am reminded of a man I knew years ago. He was a minster employed by his denomination. This man's calling was to interface with the community in ministry -- to go where others were unwilling to go. Somehow he discovered an opportunity to minister in a local bar. He would go in, sit down and order a soft-drink and offer the ministry of listening. When his superiors found out what he was doing they told him in no uncertain terms to cease and desist. When he explained his calling to the community and how the LORD had opened this door of ministry, and that he intended to pursue it, they fired him.
I've often wondered what happened to this young minister, and I’ve often wondered just where these bosses thought Jesus would hang-out if he were ministering in our day? Would he be in the cathedral? in the denominational headquarters? Hardly. No, he would have been in the bars and the broken places:
"seeking out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go, looking for the places only they would know..."
The key for us, then, is this notion of openly sharing the compassion of Jesus, which begins with a willingness to see the other as valuable and made in GOD's image no matter who or what they are, and extends to a willingness to touch them in Christ’s name. To be sure, this is not easy, but this is what it means to truly follow the Christ, and the Jesus-way demands of us nothing less...