Sunday, February 12, 2012

Love, safety and belonging

Text: Mark 1:40-45 (Jesus heals a leper)

Do you remember the first day of school when you were young? I was often a mess on those days. Would I fit in? Were there any bullies in the class?Were there other kids more likely to be bullied or rejected than me?

I was afraid that I might become an outcast. I hoped to blend into the crowd and not come to the attention of an in-group.

School can be a cruel place, and because of that fact, children often hide who they really are. But it is not just school. Sometimes even in our closest relationships, we are scared to reveal our true selves. The pain of not being accepted hurts som uch that it is sometimes the thing we fear the most.

In the time of Jesus, to be a leper was to be an outcast. People were afraid of you. There were no antibiotics to cure you. You smelled of rotting flesh. As a leper, you lost all contact with family, friends, and work. The only people you could be with were other miserable lepers.

In our reading from Mark today, a leper confronts Jesus in a surprising way. This man doesn't stand back. He doesn't keep in his place. He steps forward to Jesus, and on bended knee begs Jesus to make him clean. The leper knows that Jesus is someone who can heal him.

Mark says that Jesus is moved by compassion for this man. But there is footnote in the text that says the translation from Greek into English is not certain here. Another possible translation for the word that we read as compassion is anger. In either case, Jesus is moved by this man's story. Where most people respond to leprosy with fear, Jesus responds with compassion or anger or both.

It is easy for us to imagine why Jesus would feel compassion for the leper. He is sick, isolated and outcast. But why might Jesus also feel anger? Perhaps because lepers are cut off from family and friends. Perhaps because the religious authorities enforce this ostracism? Perhaps he is angry because most people respond with fear to people with skin diseases and not with compassion.

Today in Canada no one suffers from leprosy. And while there are still far too many lepers in countries like India or Brazil, the number is declining because of antibiotics.

But we have two definitions for the word leper. One is a person suffering from the bacterial skin infection. The other is a person who is a pariah or an outcast for any reason. So while it's unlikely that any of us have experience with the terrible skin disease of leprosy, we do have experience -- far too much of it -- with outcasts.

As I mentioned at the outset, this can happen in school. Kids often form in-groups, and out-groups -- the bullies and the bullied. I am glad that more attention is being paid to bullying in recent years and that campaigns exist to try to reduce it. A key example is the "It Gets Better" campaign, which was started by Dan Savage on YouTube last year. This campaign focuses on youth who are bullied because they are gay or lesbian.

It is not just youth who are sometimes ostracized, of course. In certain circles, senior citizens are excluded; or people with disabilities; or recent immigrants. The list could go on, unfortunately.

Even those who aren't the direct victims of bullying are affected and hurt by it. We hide our true wants and our true feelings because they might not be accepted by our family or colleagues. We stifle some of our pain or hurt or anger because we fear that it won't be well received. We wonder what would happen if we were truly ourselves. Would we continue to fit in and be OK?

Our story today of a leper in ancient Galilee can stand as an image of one of our worst fears; of being miserable and not finding acceptance; of needing love but not getting it; and of fitting in absolutely nowhere.

In Mark's story, Jesus does an unusual thing when the leper confronts him -- he reaches out and touches him with his hands. This might be the first touch the leper has felt from a healthy person in a long time. And Jesus speaks these wonderful words: "I do choose. Be made clean."

Perhaps as important to the leper as the cure is the relationship that Jesus offers. Jesus is clearly a person with deep feelings. Like the leper, he is angry at disease and social ostracism. He is moved by the man's suffering. And he is stern in his parting warning to the cured man.

More than that, Jesus sees this man, reaches out to touch him, and speaks to him. While healing this man's skin, Jesus also heals the social wounds that made him an outcast. In effect, Jesus brings him home.

It's a simple moment, with the simple acts of seeing, touching, and speaking. And is this not precisely what we most want? . . . to be seen for who we are, even if we sometimes don't like how we look. To be touched by the kind hands of someone who loves us and accepts us despite our brokenness. To belong to a community that is made up of others who have feelings, needs and doubts similar to our own.

The leper in Mark's Gospel has Jesus to reach out to him. But whom do we have? In a rich country like Canada, we don't suffer from leprosy. But most of us have deep unmet needs. When we come to church on a Sunday morning, we probably come wanting to hear that we are loved and accepted even if we are broken in various ways. We come to be accepted even if our feelings of despair, doubt, pain, or fear seem too big. We come hungry to know that we are not alone and that we have a community to which we belong.

It was such a hunger for love, safety, and belonging that brought me back to church in 2001. However, the plain truth is that I haven't always found all of this in church, probably for the good reason that we who make up the church are only human. Unlike Jesus, our inner shame about our own brokenness or dark emotions sometimes make us incapable of loving and accepting one another.

God in Christ calls us to welcome the outcasts, to love and accept all who are broken and hurt, and to create a space where our most difficult questions can be asked and our darkest feelings can be poured out. We are called to create a community where we recognize ourselves in each other and in the God who has compassion for us. But we know that, unlike Jesus, we do not always measure up to this call.

And that is OK. For while we may sometimes fail, God in Christ does not. Inside us, between us, and all around us, we have been given Christ's Spirit to hear our misery; a Spirit that touches our hearts; a Spirit that feels anger and compassion alongside of us: and a Spirit that gives us a home where we belong. It is a home where with grace we are able to create more loving and more accepting communities.

We won't always succeed in offering one another all the love, safety, and belonging we so need and deserve. But God in Christ will not fail us. His hands are always there, ready to touch us in love, and to show us the way home

Thanks be to God.


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