Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.”
(Watch video https://youtu.be/-95sTha1BLs.)
Have you seen this commercial?
The company, Vaev, was born in Copenhagen.
Now this bizarre tissue company is setting up in Los Angeles.
According to the commercial and website, using a tissue that carries a human sneeze is safer than needles or pills.
The “logic” is: “We tear our muscles to become stronger…why should the immune system be any different?”
You may think: “This is crazy—nobody’s going to buy this!”
There are more than 200 viruses that cause the common cold.
And the viruses keep changing and evolving.
One tissue isn’t going to work!
But the tissues, which sell for $80 a piece, are supposedly sold out!
(How can you run out of snotty tissues?)
Doesn’t this sound nuts—isn’t this absolutely crazy?
A similar product might be to market rags that are infected with some kind of creeping, crusty, crud from a skin disease.
Just rub it around everywhere and hope that it builds up your immunity to everything—from acne to leprosy!
Years ago many skin diseases were described as “leprosy.”
Wouldn’t it have been great to have an infected healing rag?
Or Maybe There are Other Options?
The theme for worship during the season of Epiphany is “Follow.”
We have heard Luke’s stories about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and we have been following him to a variety of places.
So far we have tried to keep up with him as he has travelled to his hometown, to the synagogue, and to the lake.
This week we will follow his footsteps into one of the cities.
Each story challenges us to choose the road of discipleship.
These stories about Jesus are wonderful.
They are powerful—and they can appeal to all ages.
They reflect important virtues of faith, hope, and love.
And they often describe unlikely heroes—overcomers.
The person in today’s passage is a prime example.
There has been much talk in the news lately about the people in our country who are in the “top 1%” and the “bottom 1%.”
We have heard about the so-called “safety net” for the bottom 1%.
With which group would this person with leprosy be?
It doesn’t take too much thought to figure out his category.
Not only would he be in the bottom 1%–he would be in the bottom of the bottom 1%–unclean, unwanted, untouchable.
Let’s try to imagine the scene and situation.
Jesus is in one of the cities of Galilee.
It is odd that we aren’t told the name of the city—or the man.
This person covered with leprosy bows before Jesus and begs.
The encounter must happen near the city limits because people with the disease are not allowed near anybody else.
They literally had to keep a defined distance from other folks.
And yet, perhaps we can understand some of the rationale?
We still “quarantine” people with contagious diseases today.
Over 17 million folks in our country have the flu.
We have heard about the measles outbreak—which shouldn’t be happening.
If you knew you were sitting next to someone with something contagious, would you scoot down the pew a little bit?
In some ways this just makes good, hygienic sense.
But there is much more to this man’s situation than that.
For the man in the story, leprosy is not just a diagnosis.
It is a social and religious death sentence for him.
He is forbidden to have any human interaction.
He has to give up family ties—perhaps his wife and children.
His spirit has been hollowed out by loneliness and isolation.
He has to deal with religious “enforcers” whose spirits are hardened and calloused against any kind of compassion.
All of which makes what he says to Jesus absolutely astonishing!
He is dwelling at the corner of faith and doubt.
He is at the border of human hope and he has two choices.
He can be resigned to the cards that have been dealt to him.
Or he can reach toward the mystery of grace beyond all hoping.
He chooses the latter—and begs and falls to his knees.
He offers an amazing profession of faith.
“Jesus: “If you choose…you can make me clean.”
And Jesus is moved with strong compassion and love.
We don’t always get an insight into Jesus’ emotions.
But this One who was, and is, and ever will be the “help of the helpless” is moved—and he stretches out his grace-filled hand.
Jesus dares to touch the untouchable one and speaks to him.
“I do choose…be made clean.”
And the healing…happens!
Then Jesus speaks to him again—and says something really odd.
Jesus orders him not to tell anybody about his healing.
Right—how is he going to keep this great news a secret!?
How do you receive this kind of gift and keep it to yourself?
The order does no good—because “the word gets out.”
“Now, more than ever, the word about Jesus spreads abroad.”
And we see an ironic “reversal” in this story.
Before the healing, the man had to keep his distance.
After the healing, it is Jesus who needs to “distance” himself from the crowds by withdrawing to deserted places to pray.
The story challenges us in a number of ways.
Who are the “untouchables” today?
What types of people do we try to avoid in our own community?
If we follow, what are we to do as individuals—and as a church?
People with “Conditions” Are Still among Us.
Every city, every religion, every culture and nation has its outcasts.
They are the ones we fear and don’t know by name.
They are the ones who remind us of our own weaknesses.
They are the ones we do not want to see or meet or touch.
They are the lonely and left out people at school or at work.
They are the ones with all kinds of “skin” conditions—not due to illness—but related to colors that are different than our own.
And speaking of emotions about all of this, Jesus has others.
When Jesus meets the man with leprosy, the primary translation for the story is that he is “moved with compassion.”
Other accounts offer another very viable translation option.
One is that when Jesus sees the man he is “moved with anger!”
Why would he be angry at this poor man who asks to be healed?
Some believe that Jesus is not mad at the man—but angry at the religious folks who labeled him and tossed him out of town.
The very folks who should welcome him in—cast him out.
Their primary concern is not the disease, but about “cleansing” and passing the religious regulations and rules related to the purity laws of the day.
There is a difference between healing and cleansing—that’s why Jesus gives him a prescription to go get checked out by a priest.Jesus often tries to reopen connections to the covenant community for those who are denied acceptance for legalistic reasons.
He brings in the outcasts—those who are off-limits by the “institution”—the tax-collectors, foreigners, folks with diseases.
His hand goes out to those who are avoided like the plague.
Those institutional problems are still with us today.
They are very much a part of our politics and religion.
And they cause us to feel compassion…or sorrow…or even anger.
For instance, we just heard that because of budget problems, our city is planning to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars of support for area community ministries—including St. Matthews Area Ministries—which we helped to found decades ago.
These cuts will impact the neediest of the needy in our community.
What will be the response from people and churches and groups in Louisville?
And it is painfully ironic that some leaders of one of the largest denominations in the world have become “untouchable.”
They have hidden behind their immense power and resources.
The stories of the abuse of children and women are staggering.
Now the Southern Baptists have released their own report.
And our hearts break and our souls ache.
Much damage has been done—much healing needs to happen.
We may think those are the problems of another denomination.
We may step back and say: “Good luck with all of that.”
But it is our problem, too, because it is one of Christianity’s many faces.
And our collective historical track record is troubling.
No wonder some folks are avoiding the Church like the plague.
Some folks assume that one face represents all our faces.
“If that’s what Christianity looks like—no thanks!”
That is why this story can become so important for us.
It addresses concerns about individuals and institutions.
Jesus offered unconditional love to the folks with “conditions.”
He tried to replace the face of the religious institution of his day.
As Jesus-followers, we are to offer the kind of love he offers.
We are to “put on his face” as we care for those around us.
We can work together to hold institutions accountable—as the Parkland High School students have done so well this past year.
But more often we need to love and care for the one we are with.
So, again, I have to thank so many of you for doing this so well.
For sitting by the bedside of the sick, I thank you.
For your patience with challenging children, I thank you.
For dealing with those with dementia, I thank you.
For listening to those who are lonely and left out, I thank you.
For supporting those who are suffering, I thank you.
For holding a loved one’s hand ‘til death parts you, I thank you.
I also want to express my gratitude to you as a faith community.
In recent weeks I have heard “Good News” from those who have decided to make Beargrass their church home or who have been our guests.
They have offered comments about this congregation like these:
“I have found a church with an open Table—all are welcome.
“I have found a church that offers Christ-like hospitality.
“I have found a church that welcomes people with problems.
“I have found a church that helps the hungry and homeless.
“I have found a church that reaches out to refugees.
“I’ve found a church that cares about orphans in Guatemala.
“I’ve found a church that gives money for disaster relief through Week of Compassion.
“I have found a church with folks who really care for the Earth.
“I’ve found a church with people who have a passion for justice.
Friends, today we are called again to follow Jesus.
We are called to be his hands and feet and voice and face.
We are invited to work with him to bring hope and healing.
We are asked to bring about individual and institutional change.
If each of us reaches one…helps one…loves one…each week…
Oh, what a world…what a city…what a church this could be!
Friends…if you choose…you can follow Him.