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The Compassionate Community

Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, M.O., on Feb. 15, 2009.

Mark 1:40-45

Poet Robert Frost’s work is known for its conversational style and tone. In fact several of his poems are written in the form of dialogues. In The Death of the Hired Man, for instance, Warren and Mary, a husband and wife, are discussing a farm laborer who has returned, despite the husband’s begrudging attitude about his return. In the backdrop of World War I, during hay hauling time a hired hand abandons the farmers at their time of need. Even when he was there to work, he had been generally undependable. But he returned when he learned he was dying. Mary, the wife, tries to tell her husband that the hired man considers their place his home:

Warren, she said, he has come home to die: You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave
you this time.

Home, he mocked gently.

Yes, what else but home? (Mary replied.) It all depends on what you mean by home. Of course he’s nothing to us, any more than was the hound that came a stranger to us out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.

(To which Warren replied sadly,) Home is the place where, when you have to go
there, they have to take you in.

Hmmm ¦so Frost is the author of the line: Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. Well, maybe whether you’re the unreliable hired hand or a wayward son or daughter. It’s a terrible thing to be banished from the community. It’s a tragedy whenever someone comes to the end of their own resources and all they have left is their family only they realize their family doesn’t want them back. If it’s true in families, you know it’s true in church where the boundaries of going home can be rigid and unforgiving.

Maybe the story of the leper approaching Jesus is not so startling as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in Mark’s gospel. He was interrupted in the synagogue, and then there was the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law followed by all kinds of healings and exorcisms when the word got out about his willingness to be a healer. But when you unpack the baggage of this story with its Jewish ritual cleanliness laws this scene crackles with intensity.

I

The Gospel of Mark is written in direct, unadorned language and this is nowhere clearer than in this passage: A leper came to Jesus, begging him, and kneeling, and saying to him, ˜If you will, you can make me clean.’ But the language stirs our imagination and makes the situation vivid. This desperate leper, accustomed to repeated rejection, came begging, kneeling, and you can hear the cry that followed those postures, saying, If you will, you can make me clean. Whenever this leper dared to approach anyone else, not to be healed by them but to request food or even to sample a little human concern, he had learned to expect rejection. He read this in their faces and in the body language, sometimes accompanied with sharp words.

But Jesus, moved with pity (the Greek word expresses the deepest concern and compassion), stretched out his hand and touched him. Touched him! Touched a man with disgusting skin and active contagion. Jesus broke radically from the social system that had imprisoned the man and reached out and in doing so, he broke the social boundary of social space. In Mark’s stories, Jesus’ hand is a sign of mercy. It is the first promise of community that transcended Hebrew purity laws and religious dogma.

And all manner of social upheaval was unleashed! Take note of the subtle way Mark tells us of the price of breaking social taboos and including the unclean in the community. But he (the healed man) went out and began to proclaim it (the good news) freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter (Mark 1:45).

In the Levitical Holiness Code, touch was powerful. It made the difference between being clean and being unclean. Touch something unclean and one must go through the prescribed steps to be cleansed. Jesus touched the leper and he was healed. But in the process, Jesus himself bore the stigma of being unclean. This is a powerful bit of business as Jesus is now considered ritually unclean and cannot enter the city openly. He stays out in the country now and the people are forced to leave the villages to find him and they do so in droves.

II

Mark’s gospel has now taken us from the synagogue to the house to the open field, where the impure ones wander, those who cannot be integrated into the city. Thus, Jesus begins a ministry to the outcasts that will expand to include the paralytic and the publican and with them the nature of Jesus’ ministry. Why are they considered outcasts? Because they are branded as unclean by the Jewish ritual purity laws. For that reason, when the priest discovers their impurity, he expels them from the community as prescribed by Leviticus 13-14. This was the law of God and the priests kept the laws that condemned them. Thus, we encounter the unbending rigidity of a holiness code that demanded they wear tattered clothes and on those rare occasions when they moved about the town markets they would yell out their warning: Unclean! Unclean! But it went deeper than that as they were not allowed to pray in the temple or to go to the synagogue or share with their healthy family member’s bed and board. They were banished persons, solitary and separated from every meaningful relationship of faith and family.

Maybe we can be brave enough to admit there are banished ones in our own time. There was a decade or two at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic where more than one preacher declared those with the illness were socially unclean; some even claimed those with the disease were going to hell for the depravity of their sin as preachers declared that the illness itself was a sign of God’s curse. There have been days not too long ago when a divorce was enough for a couple to feel the wrath of the church. Some of you grew up in the days when card playing and shooting pool and smoking and drinking and dancing were the sins that would stigmatize you in way that would eventually shun you from the good fellowship of the church. Never mind the sin of gossip that greased the wheels for these kinds of things to be enforced.

My friend Micah Pritchett is the pastor of the Inglewood Baptist Church in the Northland area of Kansas City, a church that’s like us in many ways. Recently, the church invited the Heartland Men’s Chorus to give a concert in their church that featured music chosen to highlighted the justice issues of the last century “ music that celebrated granting the right to vote to women and the Civil Rights Movement. The Chorus was comprised of men who were both gay and straight men that came together to sing. And as you might guess, a good number of those men learned to sing as children in church. Like most children who come to love God in return for the love they are taught as children, they haven’t lost their love for God; what they’ve lost has been the love and acceptance of Christ’s church that banished them from the community of the faithful.

As Pastor Micah reports, the concert was an amazing event for the good members of Inglewood who witnessed a powerful concert by a chorus of fifty men, and afterwards they met one another, church and chorus members, in a reception designed to help the church adequately thank the men for their music. What he reported was something I’ve known for a long time: There are people outside the walls of the church, some of them are even children of the church, that would like very much to be welcomed back into the community. They report they’ve not lost their love for God. What they’ve lost is the acceptance of a church that’s declared them as unclean and banished them from the community.

III

What do we make of this dramatic yet subtle story? We’re given a clue in the words used to describe Jesus’ response to the man who bows and begs him. Some manuscripts of Mark declare he was moved with pity. Other manuscripts use a different verb altogether and claim he was moved with anger.

Some have suggested the change of verbs over the years has been to soften the message and draw upon the image of the compassionate Jesus, a notion that’s surely acceptable as a sign of Jesus’ tender reception of a world messy with humanity. But others have looked upon the claim that Jesus was instead moved with anger and we’re forced to consider the questions that are raised:

Was Jesus angry with the man? Was he embarrassed about the man’s actions in some way? Was he angry about being interrupted? Was Jesus angry about the illness itself, whatever his skin malady was that caused him to be declared unclean by a society that had few healing solutions that would lead to the man’s healing and re-entry into the mainstream of the community? Finally, was Jesus angry about the interpretation and application of the Levitical Purity Laws that separated unclean people from the clean? Maybe he was angry that the priests held the power to heal altogether too tightly with little concern for those who were banished by their word?

Who knows? Maybe being angry about the right things can be a passionate form of compassion. Maybe having a righteous sense of anger about how the world’s lines of clean and unclean can be two sides of the same coin when it comes to loving the world as Jesus loved it. Know this: There’s a risk in loving the unclean. The righteous keepers of the rules and regs of faith will hold it against you and will transfer their isolation to you as the one willing to love and accept the messy of the world into your midst.

But if we’re to be the compassionate community molded by the way of our Leader, we must look over the wall of the community to see who’s outside the gates, banished there by the people of God, unable to get in other than to get on their knees to beg. There’s a risk in loving the outsiders to be sure. But if we’re the people of faith we claim to be, that’s the kind of love we must share.