At the beginning of Epiphany, we were reminded that epiphany means, revelation, and this season for the church year is all about the revelation of Christ to the world. Our journey of Sunday mornings began with Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan River, we were quickly fast forwarded for a couple of weeks to Jesus calling together the Disciples and grappling with Nathanial’s question if anything good could come out of Nazareth. We then heard the accounting of Jesus speaking in the Synagogue and speaking as one with authority. These past two weeks, we have heard accounts of Jesus’ miraculous healings. And, if the events at the beginning of Epiphany did not get peoples attention, the healings certainly did. This morning, as we delve into one last story of revelation, I again ask you to enter with me into the realm of our religious imagination as we explore the account of Jesus healing the leper.
I ask us to approach this account through the lens of religious imagination, because without doing so, the story is just another story of a miraculous healing. An accounting of an event that happened long ago, a story we can all look at and say, isn’t that nice, and move on. But as I have said so many times, with every story and account in the Gospels, the soul of the story, the kernel of truth the reader is supposed to glean from the telling is rarely ,if ever, on the surface, but somehow found at a deeper level.
Our Gospel passage today is about an actual, historical event . . . . and it is about something more. It is as much about physical healing, as it is social commentary. In ancient Palestine, leprosy was not the specific disease it is today. Instead, the term covered a wide variety of skin diseases. People with leprosy could suffer from something as common as psoriasis to something on the level of the flesh-eating bacteria that was the focus of much concern a few years back. Unfortunately, for many in ancient days, most any skin ailment was feared and deemed contagious. These diseases made the individual unclean and to have to live apart from the rest of the community. If healing did come, only after being inspected and declared clean by the Priests of the Temple could one resume living among the healthy. In other Gospel accounts, we know that during Jesus day, just beyond the city and village borders, leper colonies were common. In one account, Jesus wanders into a leper colony that was formed among the caves outside of the village. It was to places like this that those deemed to be unclean were sent, to literally rot away until death took place. No one dared care for the afflicted, for fear of catching the disease, and this was certainly a place where no member of the authority would go, because to touch or to be touched by one who was unclean would leave one defiled.
In today’s Gospel, the fact that Jesus was someplace close enough to be in contact with a leper was significant to ancient ears. The fact that Jesus was willing to speak with one suffering from leprosy, is even more significant and the fact that Jesus was willing to touch, the Son of God, the most clean of all people willing to touch the leper and risk defilement knocks the significance of the account out of the ball park.
But the core of the message has little to do with the leper and Jesus healing him, and more to do with the simple phrase, “ and (Jesus) moved with pity touched him.” In other translations the word for pity is translated as anger.
What was Jesus angry about? Possibly because a group of people whom through no fault of their own had been ostracized from society. A group of people that spanned every level of education, economics, and ability were deemed untouchable simply because they had a disease. As I reflected on this one line, I began to ask myself, who else were the untouchables in ancient days. And the list grew long; it included widows, orphans, the blind, the lame, tax collectors, etc. etc. And then I asked where was Jesus when they are mentioned. And the answer was always the same. Jesus was among them. And in fact, at times even sought them out. He healed them, he embraced them and he dined among them. And, as God incarnate, he made them clean, another term for righteous, properly defined as right before God.
The next question I found myself asking, who are the lepers of today. This question was harder to answer because when we are part of the culture that condones the exclusion of others, then it is harder and more risky to perceive. In this part of my quest, I found it easier to identify where the leper colonies of the past were and where Jesus has been present.
The first was obvious, as the lines of separation were clear during the days of racial segregation throughout this country. From institutionalized slavery to freedom, to civil rights, the last 175 years has seen one group of people who were marginalized, openly abused, both mentally and physically by those in control, now deemed clean though the work of the body of Christ, the Church. It was a sector of the Church that began to call for abolition, it was a sector of the Church that acted prophetically and pushed for civil rights. Modern day saints of the civil rights movement not only include great men of color such as Malcome X, and Martin Luther King Jr., but white men and women as well, who were willing to risk their jobs and their lives to fight for the rights of all. These people included an Episcopal seminarian named John Daniels who gave his life to save a black child from the bullets of the Klan. And a little known minister and retired Yale Divinity Professor Gaylord Noyce, who walked arm in arm with Dr. King despite the threat of losing his congregation.
Despite the advances we have made with civil rights, institutional racism still exists. Twenty years ago, when I worked for the Dixwell Community House in New Haven Connecticut, as part of my training, the executive director worked hard to show me the vestiges of racism that continue to this day. Issues of racism that continue even today despite the fact a black man now occupies the oval office. Racism exists through our entitlement programs that continue to foster dependency, rather than independence. Did you know that to this day, a person on welfare loses on average $3.00 to every dollar they make working and that working full-time on minimum wage does not cover what many receive as a subsistence level of support on welfare. Institutionalized racism continues to exist in our educational system, as inner city children continue to lack access to the same level of education as their suburban counter parts. Not because inner-city schools lack good teachers, but the same resources and learning environments afforded suburban children. To this day, employment statistics continue to bear witness to the inequality of education and opportunity in this country where people of color continue to be disproportionately represented in labor statistics as unemployed or underemployed.
As I reflected on today’s reality, I asked how would Jesus respond to the 20-year-old gang member who has grown frustrated and angry at the world. The young person who has not only given up trying, but is so frustrated with life because no matter how hard he tried, he could not overcome the social and physical barriers that have blocked him from succeeding since the day he was born. Would Jesus walk by him and ignore him, or would he reach out to embrace him, healing his scars, erasing his tattoos and then send him to the employment office, now deemed employable.
And this is not the only area in American life where great strides of civil rights have been made, where the Church has played a role as the hands and feat of Christ and sought to make those deemed unrighteous before God by many right with God. Just this week, despite great strides around issues of marriage equality, the lgbt community was figuratively assaulted when a special interest group called the Million Mothers, demanded JC Penney fire Ellen DeGenres as one of their spokespeople, simply because she is gay, and threatened to encourage others to boycott JC Penney if they did not do as they demanded. I applaud the JC Penney Company for not giving into this form of bigotry and ignorance. For they like Christ, were willing to stand and be among the lepers. And I also applaud Bill O’reilly, who despite his position with Fox News and the constituency who supports his program, risked it all and spoke out in defense of Ellen DeGenres and her employment with JC. Penney.
These are but two examples of who the lepers represent today, there others, the mentally ill, who make up the majority of those who live on the streets and to some extent the frail elderly, who often institutionalized because our health care system is not designed to support long term in home care. And our list can go on and on.
As we explore the story of Christ healing the leper we come to realize that this story is not just about an individual healing, but about inclusion and invitation. It is also a story that calls us as the Body of Christ, the Church, to actively identify the lepers of today, and to be like Christ, willing to stand among them, and with them as we seek justice for every human being, even if it means defiling ourselves in the process.