Homily: Compassionate Community
Today’s Gospel picks up where last Sunday’s left off. Jesus has to leave the crowd at Peter’s house and travel on to the neighboring towns. Tension builds. Plans have to be adjusted along the way. Dramatic healings and exorcisms apparently don’t fit into a nice, quiet ministry of tending the flock.
First, he spends some time alone, in prayer, in a deserted place; he’s just a little thrown by the response to his ministry of preaching and healing. Perhaps he doesn’t want to be seen as a magician, or even to be known as a worker of miracles. You see, miracles can keep people from hearing the message he proclaims, of love and understanding nad forgiveness, from coming to understand who he is, from coming to true belief.
And then, right in front of Jesus, there appears a “dead man walking”: a leper who begs to be made clean, if Jesus wills it. The leper’s has been living as a corpse haunting the edges of the community he could no longer enter. He was considered “unclean” because his physical imperfection violated the Holiness Code.
The leper dares to approach Jesus, instead of remaining at a distance and calling out a warning: “Unclean!” You can picture how easily and effectively a leper got through the crowd to within Jesus’ reach, can’t you? They’d have parted like the Red Sea! Yet Jesus stands his ground. “If you choose, you can make me clean!” If you choose? Or if you dare?
This was a matter for the priests, not the doctors. In their own day, their own way, the priests were key to holding the community together, to making it work and keeping it safe. They established balance in the world, making life as comprehensible as it can be in the middle of ordinary chaos. They were considered the place where God’s finger touches the world and holds it still.
Laws were not cold-hearted, meaningless regulations. With each step toward the mysterious center of the world, Jews drew nearer to that which kept them safe and stable. The priests tended the ritual of reincorporation, of rejoining his cleansed body to the body of the people. That’s why Jesus sends the healed man to the priests
Safe to touch
Have we somehow progressed beyond treating some people as unclean and untouchable because of disease? We’re tempted to assume that Jesus, being who he is, knew how safe it is to touch the man. But we know people we’d rather not see, let alone touch. Skin disease is difficult enough, but for a long time people with cancer and later those with HIV/AIDS have experienced a distance that surrounds them once they’re diagnosed. Touching a leper was associated with huge personal risk. Jesus touching the leper was akin to the images in the 1980s of Princess Diana hugging the AIDS sufferers.
The same is true about people with mental illness. There are probably no lonelier people, even among our church members, than the families of people who are mentally ill. Our awkward silence
and discomfort in the face of their suffering enable us to avoid letting our lives touch theirs. Are we afraid that we might “catch” their pain and their problems?
In every age there are ‘unclean’ people and things that have been touched by the inexorable, the uncontrollable, the uncanny. Uncleanness pushes them to the edges of the community, like that leper.
But we’re not so far away from that same fate, you know. All it takes is one catastrophic illness, one financial misstep and all our plans go out the window, and with not too much bad luck, any one of us is out of our house and on the outside edge of a community that had been our home. We could so easily find ourselves on the margin, too, where most folks wouldn’t want their lives to touch ours.
No gentle healing
Once we sense how the leper might have felt, we have to deal with Jesus’ reaction to his plea. He was ‘Moved with pity’, we are told. We commonly say that a person’s pain touches our heart, but in Hebrew thought compassion comes from the guts. So Jesus felt something powerful, something physical, when he looked at this man. Perhaps Jesus was angry at the added suffering of the man’s isolation. Or maybe there is something more, something about how the things Jesus was doing were already creating tension between him and the religious authorities of his day.
Jesus is paving a broad, inclusive road leading to a holy Kingdom. Upon it, God is drawing all redeemed people back home. What happens in this story is more a cleansing than a healing, although the man’s restoration to his community is a kind of healing itself.
Trying to keep things quiet
Ironically, as the leper is restored to his community, Jesus himself becomes a kind of leper, banished by his own popularity and power, the overwhelming needs of the people, and perhaps the rumbles of tension between him and the priests. It’s no wonder that he tries to keep things quiet by
telling the now-clean man not to tell anyone what has happened.
Publicity creates audiences, not congregations, and Jesus had to avoid the towns, keeping himself in the countryside.” But it’s no use, because word continues to spread, because it’s the Gospel, the Good News. Later, Jesus would send His disciples, saying ‘Go, tell all nations.” Some call that the Great Commission. How ironic, then, that now it is given to us, and we become followers who don’t tell anyone. I guess that might be called ‘the great omission’,
With the man on his way home to his people, bursting with the news, Jesus heads out beyond the edge of town, but the people come after him anyway. It’s clear, that “the kingdom of God is on the
loose. It is beyond even Jesus’ control. It is a mission that invites conflict in its challenge to any power that does not intend peace, justice, and love. All the way to the cross, Jesus will be trying to get those who hear Him to accept the Good News of God’s Love.
The transformation that happens when people are touched by Jesus through us is overwhelming. Once we who are the church touch a person who was unclean or ill, that person becomes part of the faith community….he or she once again have a family, and became a functioning part of Christian ministry. We’ve already watched Simon’s mother-in-law become the church’s ‘first deacon,’ and now this former outcast is preaching to the crowds!
Even a personal faith isn’t a private one
We have also to ask how we hear this story today, and how it shapes our understanding of ministry, our understanding of ourselves as a compassionate community. We’re tempted to keep our faith personal, a private relationship with Jesus that changes our lives, at least on the inside. But it’s not enough to relate personally to Jesus and then live off that moment of healing or connection.
We have to return again and again to Jesus’ word and to the company of other followers and walk the way together. We need one another, a community of faith, in which we can better understand who Jesus is, and what that means in our lives, that is, what it will mean to follow Jesus faithfully. We’re called to serve and heal and make whole, to restore and rebuild and reach out.
But This call is not always easy. Suffering exacts a toll because it can sap our energy, jeopardize everything we have achieved, and leave us unproductive and feeling worthless. Suffering isolates us from our community and affects our inner well-being, reminding us of how finite we are, and our vulnerability and our desperate need of one another and of God But the final challenge on even a deeper level — the way we turn these people into objects with labels like ‘the sick, the lepers, the poor, the downtrodden.’ This only draws a greater line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It makes ‘them’ almost a something instead of human beings, sisters and brothers.
We should also we think twice about using the word ‘wholeness,’ as if people who are sick are not whole persons. It is as if wholeness was incompatible with impediments, physical or otherwise. In fact, the even greater challenge is for the compassionate community itself to be healed in a very real sense of its own illness, because being ill or handicapped is to understand alienation and brokenness, and sin as well.
And so we hear the story of today’s leper, just as those early Christians told it and heard it, and, like them, we need to let ourselves and our lives be shaped and cleansed and remade, so that we too might be restored and healed as well. Don’t hear the story and still miss its message. But its tidings of inclusiveness and love speaks more …. speaks volumes. Kate Huey Weekly Seeds