A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on February 12, 2012.
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
I still remember one of the most traumatic days I ever had in elementary school. I was in the fifth grade, it happened at the end of English class right before lunch. The teacher had finished her lesson, and she was about to line us all up to go to the cafeteria, when I raised my hand, waited to be recognized, and then asked, “Mrs. Gordy, weren’t you going to assign us homework?” “Why yes,” replied Mrs. Gordy happily, “thanks for reminding me!” At once, the whole class moaned in unison. Here we were, just about to get a rare night without an English homework assignment, and I had to ruin it for everyone. My classmates felt like I had punished the whole class, and in return, the whole class punished me. All the way to the cafeteria, my classmates called me names, and whenever I tried to look at them, they turned their heads away. They kept this up until I was crying in front of the whole school cafeteria while waiting in line to get my lunch. It was one of the most traumatic and humiliating days of my life.
Looking back, even I have no idea why I did it what I did. But I totally know what it feels like to be shunned, to be ostracized, to be rejected, and to be treated like I didn’t exist. I wonder if that’s how the leper felt in this story from our Gospel lesson this morning. In New Testament times, “leprosy” was a catch-all condition that included all kinds of skin diseases, such as dermatosis, psoriasis, suspicious baldness, and other skin conditions. Some forms of “leprosy” were contagious and deadly while others were not. But without our present-day medical knowledge, these diseases were lumped together, and people who were afflicted by any of them were all excluded and quarantined from the community. Leviticus 13:45-46 prescribes the fate of a leper: “As for the leper who has the infection, his clothes shall be torn, and the hair of his head shall be uncovered, and he shall cover his mustache and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall remain unclean all the days during which he has the infection; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” Can you imagine being ostracized because you had itchy, flaky skin or you were prematurely bald? On the other hand, imagine the money you could make by selling “Head and Shoulders” shampoo and “Hair Club for Men” products!
In Jesus’ day, lepers were cast out of the community; they were not allowed in places of worship. They were separated from friends and all public life. They could no longer work; therefore they couldn’t earn an income for themselves or their families. “Healthy” people would not dare to be in the same vicinity as a leper for fear of contagion or being made religiously unclean. Perhaps the worst was that lepers were cast out of their homes and villages so that they could not see and touch their wives or children. The leper was a medical outcast, a religious outcast, a social outcast, an economic outcast and a family outcast. They were shunned, ostracized, rejected, and treated like they didn’t exist, as if they were already dead.
Sometimes, the most devastating part of being sick is not the illness itself, but the isolation that it brings. Sometimes, it is the social isolation, the emotional ostracization, the spiritual shunning, and the social rejection itself that lead us down the road of physical and psychological illness. We human beings need to belong to something and to someone. We need the love and care of a community. As a first-generation immigrant, I know what it is like to try to fit in a new culture, to learn a new language, and to adopt new customs. And yet, for all my efforts to assimilate, there have been times when I have been mocked and even shunned because of how I looked and because of my race, — things that I can’t control. Perhaps you have your own experiences of exclusion. Some of you remember when this church split, and you still feel the pain of that public rejection. Some of you know what it feels like to be excluded from a group of friends, shunned by family members, rejected by a spouse or significant other. And if you know how that feels, then perhaps you may sympathize with those in our society today who are still ostracized because of the color of their skin, who are rejected because of their sexual orientation, who are shunned because of their religion. It is hard to imagine what life is like when people avoid you as if you were tainted and unclean, or when people treat you as if you were dead.
But like the old man in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the leper in this Gospel story basically said, “I’m not dead yet!” This leper had apparently heard about Jesus and his healing powers. He was so desperate that he crossed the distance that he should have observed and approached Jesus, knelt down in humility, and begged: “If you are willing, you are able to make me clean.” The leper believed that Jesus had the power to make him clean. The only question, the only barrier, is whether Jesus would choose to do so.
Out of his deeply-felt compassion, Jesus replied: “I am willing, be clean!” But Jesus did not merely say these words of healing. He stretched out his hand and touched the leper. Furthermore, Jesus did not just “reach out and barely make skin contact” with the leper. The word for “touch” is properly translated as “to fasten one’s self to, to adhere to, to take a hold of.” Jesus reached out and spanned the distance between unclean and clean, He broke across the barrier between diseased and healthy, and He embraced the leper. And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cured.
Within the arms of Jesus’ loving embrace, that leper was healed, not just physically, but socially and spiritually. He was healed for community. No longer an outcast, he was now freed to go back home to be embraced by his family, his friends and his community. However, before Jesus let him go, Jesus strongly warned this man not to tell anyone about what had happened, but to first go to the priest and be certified as clean. It seems like a strange request to us, and perhaps even to this former leper, because he promptly disregarded Jesus’ stern command for silence and began witnessing about the miracle that Jesus had performed to anyone who would listen.
“Hey, everybody! Listen up! You all know me, right? I was the town leper and none of you wanted to get near me because I was unclean. Well guess what? Jesus touched me and healed me. Now look at me! I’m clean! I’m clean!”
I’m sure there were a lot of amazed looks and joyful celebration among some of the town’s people. But I’m sure there were others who thought, “If this Jesus touched this leper, then according to our religious laws, it means that Jesus is now unclean! Hey, we can’t let Jesus come back into town! Leviticus 13 says that an unclean person shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” And sure enough, Mark the Gospel writer records that “as a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places.”
Last year in Matthews, North Carolina, a 12-year-old boy with cerebral palsy was asked to leave church during Easter services. Jackson Helms went to church with his family. Right after the opening prayer inside church’s sanctuary, mom Kelly Helms says Jackson voiced his own kind of “Amen.” Shortly after that, a church volunteer escorted Jackson and Kelly out into an overflow area to wait out the rest of the service. The mother said, “I don’t think I ever felt like that before in my whole life. It was not a good feeling.” That church’s employees say the church focuses on worship, not ministries. And in a statement, a church spokeswoman said “it is our goal to offer a distraction-free environment for all our guests. We look forward to resolving any misunderstanding that has occurred.”
There is a cost in being a more inclusive Christ-like community. It may mean worship services that are more distracting. By accepting to those who are outcast, we may open ourselves up to the rejection of others. Les Andrews, a beloved church member and trustee who passed away in 2008, served on the Prince Edward County School Board in the 50’s, when the county decided to close the public schools. Les was in the minority who voted to keep the public schools open. For his stance, Les and his family were ostracized by many in this community, even by some in this church. Jesus, when he embraced and healed that leper, immediately experienced the rejection that all lepers faced. And if it cost our Lord in this way, why would Jesus’ disciples expect any less when we attempt to follow Jesus?
In a post script, the text concludes by stating: “Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.” The radical act of inclusion by Jesus led some to reject him. And yet, as news of that radical act was spread abroad, it led others to still come to Jesus. Jesus came to seek the lost, to save sinners, to dine with outcasts, to heal the lepers and to restore the unclean. And I guarantee, those were the kind of people who still came to Jesus, because they knew that while everyone else had rejected them, He would not turn them away. They trusted that Jesus would hold His arms open wide to embrace them into a healing community.
I believe the Spirit of Jesus is here still in the margins of life moving among the lost, the sinners, the outcasts and the “lepers” of today. Would I be among the group of people who would prevent Jesus from entering our town, or would I be one of those people who would still come to him, perhaps even to welcome him into our community? What would you do? Amen.