This week we've watched as Prop 8 in California has been ruled unconstitutional, and the state of Washington has legalized gay marriage. Human rights activists, allys, friends and families have all rejoiced in the recognition that mutual love and joy between two persons, regardless of sexual orientation, is starting to be understood as "ok". And as I watched the morning news today (Thursday) and saw a UCC minister in clericals talk about the march of solidarity from Vancouver, WA to Olympia, WA, I was deeply moved with joy. Finally, "the church" was showing support for our LGBT brothers and sisters, instead of playing the role of the oppressor. Hopefully, Oregon, and the Episcopal Church at large, will take note of these happenings, and realize we can no longer condone making lepers of people in our communities.
And these happenings bring me to this Sunday's gospel text (Mark 1:40-45). In this gospel, we encounter another healing, this time of a leper. As most of us know, lepers were regarded not only as physically unclean, but also ritually unclean. The laws found in Leviticus prohibited lepers from participating in worship, family meals, and other social encounters. By virtue of their disease, they were exiled from the community and forced to live "in the deserted places", which were also considered rather dangerous. It is here, in the wilderness, that Jesus encounters this leper.
Like the others who have been healed by Jesus, we know virtually nothing about this man. We don't know what his life was like before being ostracized. We don't know anything about the family he might have been separated from. We just don't know, and for all we do know, Jesus didn't either. But seeing this man having been separated from his community, moved Jesus with pity. The Greek word that the writer of Mark used for pity is "splanchnizomai", and what it really implies is a "profoundly intense emotional response that viscerally propels one feeling compassion into action on behalf of others" (Brian Blount & Gary Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices). In other words, Jesus doesn't just feel bad for the leper, he feels compelled to do something about this man's situation. And so he touches him.
Like the touch he gave to Simon's mother-in-law, Jesus touching the leper is going against social norms and religious law. Once again, he is making the statement that the healing power of the Kingdom of God is available to everyone. Jesus is not waving his hands and yelling (as many faith healers in the media are portrayed to do), he just simply touches the leper. His personal presence and touch are acts of both mercy and liberation. Then he tells the leper to show himself to the priest and then tell no one what has happened. This raises lots of questions for us. Why does the man need to show himself to the priest? Why shouldn't he tell others what has happened? What is Jesus up to?
By showing himself to the priest, the man is proving that he can return to the community. But he's also testifying to the power of the Kingdom. As for not telling anyone, scholars argue back and forth on this one. But in the end, they all agree that by disobeying Jesus' direction, the man becomes a disciple and evangelist--he tells the good news of healing and liberation.
Having touched the man, Jesus has also made himself unclean. He cannot return to the towns and villages to continue his mission. His compassionate action, his action of solidarity, has placed him in a position of being exiled. Yet this does not keep people from coming to him. Through his action, and the spreading of the good news by the man, the barrier between clean and unclean, unacceptable and acceptable has been broken down. This is what I mean by the Kingdom being one of liberation...there are no insiders and outsiders.
So who are the lepers today in our context? Perhaps they are the diseased and disfigured, the immigrant, the very poor, the disabled, or the social misfit. Perhaps at one time or another, some of us have been the leper in our families or social circles. And it is here, among the lepers that we find Jesus. Jesus doesn't hide in church buildings or in holy places. Jesus is out there with the people, living among the hopeless and disenfranchised. And as disciples, we, like the leper of the gospel, are to go out and tell the good news, break down barriers, and connect people's need with God's liberation and healing.
How do we do this? We volunteer. We serve. We listen, advocate, and walk in solidarity. We offer our presence to another.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.