Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Who are the lepers in your life?

     At the risk of offending Charlie this week, I am somewhat glad he interrupted my sermon during the second service. A lesser man might think I was throwing darts at him, but Charlie would know better. Charlie always tries to be at whatever ministry St. Alban’s has undertaken. Whether it is AFM, Community Meal, entertaining us at the Renewal of Vows, working on the grounds, or any number of other ministry opportunities, Charlie is there. Charlie is always diving in to help others. His interruption, however, helped to make one of the points of this week’s Gospel. Of what am I talking? I was describing the illness called leprosy. I was describing the putrid smell, the physical deformities, and the utter sense of isolation and abandonment that often accompanies the disease. The numbness, the stink, the fear seen in the eyes of others can often lead to mental illness and, unfortunately, even suicide.

     In the Ancient Near East, the stigma of the disease was far worse than anything you or I could imagine. Most priests in the ANE were the possessors of the "secret" cures for the disease. People would come to them, pay them, and hope that the cure would work. It was a great racket, to be sure, much like some of our infamous faith healers today. If the cure for a skin disease worked, fame spread and money flowed into temple coffers. If it failed, well the one being healed had done something really bad to offend the gods.

     In Israel, the disease was considered God’s disease. The first mention of it occurs when Miriam, Moses’ sister, decides that Moses is just too uppity. She leads the people in rebellion against Moses. Unfortunately for her, her brother really was God’s anointed prophet, and so she actually led the people of Israel in revolt against God. Her punishment was leprosy. Unlike their fellow priests in the ANE, Israel’s priests could not cure leprosy.  The had no magic, no arcane rituals to give hope to the afflicted.  They could only identify the disease. Two entire chapters of Leviticus (13-14) are devoted to identifying the disease. If a priest of Israel determined that someone sufered from leprosy, the person was cast out of the assembly (Lev. 13, Num. 5). The disease made the infected religiously impure. And such a person could give their religious impurity to others.  So, for the good of the community, the individual was expelled from the assembly.  Possibly because of the view that the disease came from God and because of the fact that one afflicted with the disease was religiously impure, it is the only disease whose healing must be witnessed by others. Until the priests, who had cast the afflicted out, pronounced the leper clean, the leper could not rejoin society.

     Do we really understand the plight of the leper in ancient Israel, as Charlie groaned on Sunday? I doubt it. We have no disease that cuts people off from community, that abandons people in the way that leprosy did in the ANE. To be sure, the Black Plague likely had the same effect at first, probably AIDS, maybe even some others. But there are very few conditions which cause us to treat people as lepers were treated. Except maybe in our own hearts.
Think of the servant ministry that you hate the most. Maybe it is the Community Meal in July and August when those homeless men and women have not showered in the wonderful heat and humidity--their smell makes you long for “wet dog.” Perhaps it is the AFM person who comes in and does not know the meaning of the word “toothbrush” or “mouthwash”-- their breath is enough to make you want to live downwind of a paper mill or oatmeal factory. Maybe it is the AIDS victim in a hospital or hospice--whom you believe is rightly afflicted by God for past transgressions. Maybe it is the alcoholic or heroin addict -- whose very wasting away terrifies you. Maybe it is the chain smoker -- whom you know might cough up a lung on you at any moment. Each of has the terrible phobias and judgments which prevent us from being that light, that healer, that messenger of God which we are called to be. And, far too often, our judgments are merely behavior rationalizations. The smell might rub off and I am going out to dinner or meeting friends. The addict might try and steal from me to support their behavior. What if I catch the disease? We are amazing in our ability to try and withhold God’s grace.

     Jesus’ behavior teaches us an important lesson. He never condemns the leper or any other diseased person for that matter. Jesus knows that humanity is sorely afflicted. He, better than anyone else who has walked the face of the earth, knows the consequence and the cost of sin. Better than anyone else, He knows the healing power of God. He cures the sick, He strengthens the enfeebled, He casts out unclean spirits, He restores the outcasts, and He returns them all to community, to relationships, and to His service of others! He understands that people are not pollutants.

     Brothers and sisters, you and I are called to carry that Good News and that healing to the ends of the earth. The very people that we wish the least to share His message with are the very people in our lives who may need to hear it the most! They, of all people, understand the consequences of the afflictions. They, better than most, understand just how broken they are. They, better than nearly all of us, truly understad the need for a Savior. Do we get the picture, as Charlie said? I suppose our responses to others in the coming days, weeks, and months will be a testimony to us. Pray to God for the grace to go, not where you will, but where He will, not to whom you will, but to whom He wills. Pray to be that person whose presence, whose touch, whose words of the healing and hope found in Christ Jesus, restores another to His presence and ushers in the Kingdom in the life of the lost.

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