16th Feb, 2003

The Sixth Sunday After The Epiphany

Preached by the Rev. Mark D. Stuart

“‘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…’”
Mark 1:40 – 41

Jesus touched him… the leper in the Gospel typifies the untouchable. Touching the leper is Jesus’ risk and the leper’s greatest need…And Jesus knew the risk must be taken. The Gospel tells that Jesus was moved by compassion toward the leper. This was no intellectual decision. There was no consideration given to the political consequences of identifying with a social outcast. There was no theological reflection on the liturgical correctness of the act. There was not even any concern given to Jesus’ own physical, medical safety. He moved in a reflex action from the very center of his being.

“Compassion,” the contemporary author and theologian Frederick Buechner writes, “is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you.”

Often anger arises as a natural response to compassion. Another translation of this passage has Jesus indignant or angry when he saw the leper. Not angered by the request but angered by the ravages of the disease, angered by the cruelty of social isolation, angered at a religion more concerned about its law than its people. Anger and compassion energize us to cross the barriers that separate us from the hurting and the outcast of the world. Anger must flow with compassion: it does not stand alone well. Otherwise we war against concepts, institutions, and structures rather than for the people who are being offended by them. Without compassion binding us to the feelings of the ostracized, in our anger we slip into noting our own feelings and begin to take offense from all those who thwart our just intentions. Without compassion our righteousness indignation soon becomes bitterness and in our bitterness we isolate all those with whom we disagree. We become as cold and oppressive as the most narrow religious or the worst authoritarian regimes.

I do not intend to directly speak to you today about the disease of leprosy in the ancient and modern world, or even the obvious comparison to the AIDS epidemic. That is a very important topic I will reserve for another opportunity. Rather, I identify in Jesus’ compassion, anger, and healing of the leper in St. Mark’s Gospel the larger issue of confronting society’s scapegoating. This is not a matter relegated to ancient Judean treatment of lepers, along with Samaritans; or to the medieval treatment of Jews; or to the Puritans burning witches. Today’s Scriptures contain an interesting reflection on the notion of “social acceptability.” When people are different from us, those with the most features in common band together and single out the “other.” International wars have been started over these differences, too, and we stand at the brink of one of them right now. Meanwhile, at home the “different” continue to be harassed. The majority limits its range of social contacts with “those people.” Their contacts with society as a whole are restricted, or if forced to interact with the majority, they are sent constant reminders of their unacceptability.

People who are different simply do not “fit in.” Their differences are viewed as “defects” invested with a social stigma the majority does not want to “catch.” The acceptable majority avoids them and above all avoids touching them. Until the Civil Rights Movement, African heritage was such a social disability that white shop keepers would slap black customers’ change on the counter to keep from touching their hands. In some eateries, if African Americans were allowed in, they were allowed to sit only in designated spots and the dishes they eat off of were kept separate just for their use. Public restrooms and drinking fountains were all segregated and if a black person happened to violate the rules they were considered criminals; if a black person happened to swim in a public or hotel swimming pool, it would be immediately closed, drained, and disinfected. Even in many Episcopal parishes in the North (and certainly in the South) until Civil Rights, African Americans were either routinely denied the Sacraments, or required to wait until all the white parishioners had received the chalice before presenting themselves at the altar for Communion.

Despite the oppression and prejudice of his society 200 years ago, a former slave named Absalom Jones was ordained the first African American Priest in the Episcopal Church, and the first black American to receive formal ordination in any denomination. Last Thursday, Feb. 13, is his feast day now on the calendar of the Episcopal Church. He led a wonderfully full and active life working against every form of oppression and slavery, but according to Lesser Feasts and Fasts, “it was his constant visiting and mild manner that made him beloved by his flock and the community.” He was an activist. He was a leader. Like Jesus, he got people’s attention. But, like Jesus, it wasn’t to point to himself that he did these things; it was to show others what it really meant to live in the kingdom of God.

Through today’s story of the leper, we clearly see how Jesus is calling us to re-examine the barriers we create to ensure that only the “right” people come into our fellowship. But most of all the Holy Spirit is calling us to remember that the systems of power do not limit the power of God’s action to heal and transform the world. The Scriptures teach us, time and time again, that Jesus comes into the world not to support the “centers” of power but to touch and heal the people on the “margins” – the powerless, abandoned, excluded, degraded, exploited, and disregarded. These are those with whom “right” people do not associate but “righteous” people recognize as fully God’s own. The challenge of the Gospel is not to “include” them into “the circle” but to allow God to expand that circle until it most fully reflects the richness that God alone has created.

Many may comment that racial justice in this country has been attained since the days of the Civil Rights movement. True, there are more official laws to protect the rights of racially diverse citizens. True, Jim Crow segregation is now illegal. True, cultural and ethnic sensitivity is more cultivated than before…But it is also true that we, living on the west side of Los Angeles County, are in a much more tolerant and privileged enclave (for the most part); than most of the rest of the country. Many of you have relocated here from other cities and states for that reason, so you know what I mean. Having had the experience of living in the Deep South for too long, I can attest without hesitation to the fact that racism and homophobia are alive and well in America today!

Despite the quotation on “compassion” I mentioned earlier in this sermon, no matter how genuine my desire for empathy, I will never know what it is like to live as a black person in America, or as a Latino, or as an Asian for the obvious reason that I am white! For me to pretend otherwise would be disingenuous and patronizing. However, I am personally familiar with a certain large minority numbering by most estimates between 6% – 10% of the total US population, and between 12% – 15% of cosmopolitan urban areas, which amounts to a whole lot of folks, for you non-math majors. Yet, despite such a high percentage, society has hung on to its need to identify a collective scapegoat; so has tenaciously perpetrated and tolerated the most outrageous prejudice against gay and lesbian persons, even further justified since the AIDS/HIV epidemic.

This huge minority is the last which stands legally unprotected in most places; you can still lose your job or be refused housing with no recourse; it is still OK by most American standards to make public slurs and jokes about this group; and in 14 states, Puerto Rico, and the military it remains an illegal activity punishable by law; this is the last official scapegoat of most religions, who justify its condemnation by Holy Scripture, as ante-bellum slave owners twisted Scripture to justify slavery…

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that “Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away at its vital unity. Hate destroys a man’s sense of value’s and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”

On June 15, 1998, then Senate Republican leader Trent Lott told the Associated Press that homosexuality “is a sin… You should try to show them a way to deal with that problem, just like alcohol… or kleptomania.” Of course, this was the same man who later proclaimed that America would have been a better place if the staunch racist segregationist, Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat Party had won the White House. Now that statement he couldn’t get away with and resigned his position under pressure, following an apology. Naturally, he has never apologized for his anti-gay remarks and has never seemed to suffer politically for uttering them. Sadly, Trent Lott is far from alone in publicly voicing his prejudice; and even worse has been said by dozens of others in the public spotlight, inciting hate crimes and even the murder of innocent people. Diane Carman of the Denver Post wrote: “The opportunity to be threatened, humiliated and to live in fear of being beaten to death is the only ‘special right’ our culture bestows on homosexuals.” So it clearly appears in our own community last Fall when the district attorney refused to file hate crime charges against the perpetrators of unprovoked vicious attacks on innocent gay men in my own neighborhood of West Hollywood. But by far, the most appalling, outrageous, disgusting, and disturbing thing I have seen in a long time is the Perpetual Gospel Church’s website with an mpeg picture of Matthew Shepard’s face burning in hell with a daily updated report of how many days Matthew has been there. You can also click on an audio wav. File link to hear him scream in hell.

“…Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him…”

Jesus came to include. Sin divides, perpetuates alienation…Jesus came to save humanity from sin. He looks at us as individuals and as groups with eyes of love that invite us back into the inner circle, which is a movement rather than a place. This movement is outward, inclusive, and compassionate toward the “them” or “others” who have been sinned against. There are many forms of social leprosy around, which need to be healed… we need to be healed and we need to heal… the excluded and marginal, the ostracized and hidden, you and I, await the touch of our compassionate Lord.

Then one day, as we approach the table wherefrom Jesus himself becomes our food, becomes our very bodies, the prayer we have been saying for years becomes alive for us:

“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

… and in my healing you make me worthy.

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