Come As You Are
Come As You Are
October 8, 2017
People can be incredibly mean. We need look no farther than the horrors of this week’s news to understand this. It’s Sandy Hook. It’s Virginia Tech. It’s Orlando and the Pulse nightclub. It’s a country music festival in Vegas. Human cruelty shatters whatever else was happening in an instant of unimaginable terror.
Of course, that’s not the only way that human cruelty is expressed, just perhaps the most dramatic and shocking. Ride the school bus or walk a playground. Be the player on the visiting team. Look different than most people or talk different than most people or think differently than most people and sooner or later you will be on the receiving end of human prejudice and hate. The vast majority of people will not be cruel. However, the ones that are will carve their hate right into you.
Again, it is not that everyone will be mean. That’s what makes it extra painful. You think to yourself, “Well, maybe I’ve found shelter from all that stuff.” You let your guard down. Then, you run into the wrong person at the wrong time. Honestly, the really tricky thing is that the same person who was kind can be cruel, as well. what makes things really tricky is that the person who was the object of someone’s cruelty can easily then, when given the chance, became someone else’s abuser. People aren’t necessarily consistent or rational. People are insecure and defensive and impulsive.
There are things that make someone a target. Some of those are as obvious as they are ridiculous: race, religion, gender, age—basically anything that quickly identifies someone as different than us. We abuse you and dismiss you and push you away and we feel better about ourselves and closer to one another. Human insecurity and the giant struggle to be “in” and be part of the tribe are the source of an awful lot of what is awful about us.
In Jesus’ day, the easiest targets of all were the lepers. First and foremost, people in Jesus’ culture had almost no medical knowledge. Science was beginning to take shape in places like Egypt but it was not making it’s way into Israel. Religion, itself, was a big reason for this. Due to religious laws, bodies were to be buried almost immediately when someone died. Since an awful lot of medical knowledge was gained through dissecting bodies, those opportunities were lost. Instead, people relied on sacrificing animals at the temple and itinerant healers who made their way around the countryside offering little real hope. In other words, if you got sick, you were in deep trouble. So, people avoided the sick at all costs. This avoidance was supported by the conviction that those who were sick were, in fact, being punished by God.
If you pause and think about it, we don’t have to go too far back in our history to see how our own ignorance of a “new” disease led to horrific treatment of those who were sick. Do you remember how cruel people were to Ryan White, the child in Indiana who had AIDS? Do you remember how universally it was assumed to be a disease that only gay people contracted? Do you remember how the televangelists declared that this was God’s judgment on gay people? Then, of course, you had Princess Diana who reached out and touched HIV positive children in a profound stand for compassion and justice. The truth is that we are only a new disease and a big dose of fear away from being mean to the sick.
The cruelty to lepers was institutionalized. It was built into the structure of people’s lives. These people who, in truth, suffered from what we would know as a whole host of different skin diseases not just leprosy, were so easily identified as being sick that they were shunned by everyone. They could not come into town or have a conversation with anyone. They were required by law to ring a bell and shout out, “Leper!” so that everyone could get out of their way. They lived off of the scraps that a handful of people would leave out for them to eat. The only company they might ever have would be that of other lepers. However, that would mean a fierce competition for the scraps of food. It also meant that people would be even meaner to the dreaded cursed group.
Again, we can get all “holier than thou” here but we better be honest if we do. Fear of folks who are different or folks who are sick of folks who make us uncomfortable has marginalized a lot of people, not just two thousand years ago, not just 50 years ago, but still today. This is especially true when we feel like our prejudice is in fact sanctioned and justified.
So, the horror of our text for this morning when someone read it in Jesus’ day would have been first and foremost that a leper had the gall to approach Jesus and speak to him. “Thankfully,” the person in Jesus day would have said, “at least the leper had the common courtesy to plant his nose on the ground and not make eye contact when he spoke.” After all, if you have to speak to a leper, at the very least the leper out to be deferential, right?
I remember when we were on a work trip years ago in Georgia. The Jim Crow laws were gone but the Jim Crow customs were not. Our host for our work was a great guy—Curtis—who happened to be African American. This was not big news since about 85 percent of the people in the county where we were working were black. However, this made for all sorts of strange customs. Confederate flags flew off the back of every pick up truck driven by a white guy. When we entered any door, Curtis ran to open the door for us. If I opened the door for him, he would refuse to go in until he held the door. When we sat down at a restaurant, he would not sit until we were seated. When we pushed him on any of this, his answer was, “People are watching. I don’t want problems.” It made me so uncomfortable to feel complicit with those rules…
Jesus broke the rules. I want to say that again to all of us who were fed the notion that Jesus was a good, rule-following, law-abiding, get-with-the-program kind of guy: Jesus broke the rules. He didn’t just feel uncomfortable and comply. He brashly stepped right across the boundaries. Jesus does something that would have creeped out ninety-nice percent of the people who saw what he did or read about it later: he touched the leper. Luke stretches the moment out for us: “Jesus reached out his hand and touched him…” All of this comes on the heals of the incredibly wise statement of the leper: “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean!”
Think about that statement. The leper tells the truth: things don’t have to be this way. I bet every one of us here at some point or other has stood in the middle of someone being mistreated and thought to ourselves or even had that person say to us: “This doesn’t have to be this way!” And yet, most of the time, what we do is talk ourselves out of taking a stand: “Well…this is just the way it is, I guess. What could I do?” Honestly, the door is wide open for us to do that even with this text. After all, what the leper is asking for is for Jesus to heal his skin. That’s exactly what Jesus does. Jesus heals him. And, since none of us have the power to do that, well, thank God, we’re off the hook right? We can even think to ourselves, “Why doesn’t God do something to change this person’s life now!”
Even if we grant that Jesus could do things that we cannot do, there remain a couple of problems. First, God inspired people have done the research and developed the treatments for leprosy and psoriasis and a host of other such skin diseases. We don’t rely on healers. We rely on medical science which arose because, in my view, people harnessed and honed their God-given gifts. God still heals but in medical settings which, in fact, is probably even better odds than happening to run into Jesus. Still though, leprosy (and any number of other diseases) continue to exist in our world (mostly in the Third World) because people don’t have the money to get treated. All you have to do is look at the AIDS relief efforts in Africa to see the results when we share medical resources. Maybe we’re not off the hook after all…
Second, the pain that the leper was in was not just the pain of his skin disease but the pain of how he was treated. What does Jesus tell the leper to do when he realizes that his skin is clean? Jesus tells him to go show the priest, to walk straight into the temple and offer the sacrifice that any person who was seen as a full human being would have had the chance to offer. What Jesus is telling the man to do is to go show the “holier than thou” folks how wrong they were. Show them that your disease is gone and then ask them to see the person who has been there all along.
It sounds so totally simplistic but so much hinges on this: we are supposed to see the person in front of us. Regardless of what color their skin is… Regardless of what gender they might be (or perhaps they are inviting us to see that gender, itself, is not so easy to define…) Regardless of where they are from… Regardless of what name they call God… Regardless of how uncomfortable they might make us… We are to look at the person in front of us and see someone who has every claim to respect and care and compassion as we so readily grant to ourselves. We are to see a fellow child of God.
Are you sick, in body or in spirit? Of course, you are invited into our church. Come on in and let’s see if together we can find some healing. Are you in pain from the cruelty that’s been shown you? Come on in and let’s see if we can provide some relief. Have you spent far too much time feeling unloved or disliked or unacceptable? Come on in and let’s see what it feels like to be included in a community for whom being accepted and loved unconditionally is the bedrock good news on which we stand.
In a week in which a man stood in a window hundreds of feet up and saw twenty-thousand targets, our only recourse is to systematically walk through each day seeing one beloved person after another. May God be with all the victims of human cruelty. May God help us each to be as a source of healing for those people.