Sermon - 12th February 2012
Inclusion of the Marginalised
Scripture - Mark 1:40-45
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video]
I think that there is a basic human need to be connected to other people. Actually, the desire for intimacy - and please don’t hear that as merely sexual intimacy - is fundamental to how we understand ourselves as human beings. ‘I am because you are’. It says in Genesis 2 that ‘it is not good for Adam to be alone’. So, God creates a context for humans, and that context is relationship; relationship to each other, the wider world around us, and to God. Some say that this is what it means to be made ‘in the image of God’. God is Trinity, therefore we are community.
Human beings seem to love creating groups. We have churches, families, sports clubs, political parties, tribes, nations and I could go on and on. Unfortunately, sometimes we define ourselves and our groups by what we are not. So, I am a Christian because I am not an atheist. That example is a little crass, but it communicates the point.
Unfortunately, thinking like this can cause real problems as it often creates ‘outcasts’. An ‘outcast’ is someone, or a group we fear, or despise, or misunderstand, or make fun of, or hate, or maybe just disregard and ignore. Usually, we identify these people as the cause of our problems and then try and irradiate them with the hope of destroying our problems. Some of the neo-fascist and racist groups do this today. They see immigrants as the cause of Britain’s financial problems, or at least as a major contributing factor, and so they want to get rid of them. Unfortunately, this type of thinking doesn’t really work, as after you remove one group, and things don’t get better, then you have to turn to the next group, and so on and so forth.
In the words of Pastor Niemöller,
First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me
Right, I feel like I need to take a deep breath here, because that is heavy and maybe too much for a Sunday evening. Now, hopefully you are wondering, what is this guy talking about, and what, if anything has this got to do with a story about Jesus healing a leper?
Lepers were outcasts. A leper was basically seen as the ‘walking dead’. He would have been viewed as being similar to a corpse, spreading infection and disease and making anyone he came into contact with ritually unclean, and possibly ill. As a leper he was someone to be feared, to hate, to despise and stay away from. Jesus was probably within his rights to stone him because he came near him, because this person, if they even saw him as a person, was a complete social outcast; disconnected from community, one of the things that God has used to define our humanity.
Most of us can associate with being an outcast; whether that has to do with our gender, sexuality, race, social class, educational abilities, physical abilities or something else. We know what it feels like to be excluded, and cut off from the intimacy of others. This is a very painful experience and should never be trivialised or hushed up. Some people seem to be able to stand up and fight those who would make them outcasts. I am thinking about someone like Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King, while others get destroyed by those who would exclude them. I read a very sad article about homophobic bullying in British schools and some young people who saw ‘taking their own lives’ as the only option of dealing with this situation. Something is drastically wrong when a 14 year old kills himself because of being excluded and scapegoated.
I think that the leper in our story is a fighter. He approached Jesus and said, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean’. He couldn’t have known how Jesus would respond. He must have been frightened. Jesus didn’t exactly represent the in-group himself, but he could have excluded the man. Many people see God as excluding them because of what we, as the church, tell them about God.
It is important that we are shaped by stories like this one. Let’s get this straight though: this man is not acceptable according to the religion of the Old Testament; he is ritually unclean and if anyone touches him they will be unclean as well. And what does Jesus do? He touches him. He didn’t need to … he could have healed from a distance: like throwing a coin at a homeless person, rather than chatting with them; or being distantly nice to someone with mental health issues, rather than being engaged in their lives; or possibly giving verbal support to a charity working with refugees but being horrified if one tried to marry your daughter. God doesn’t include from afar; here Jesus is God in flesh and blood, bone and sinew, touching an unclean-walking-foetid-corpse - I’m not saying that is what he actually was, but that is how he most probably would have been seen.
I am willing, he said. Be clean!
Those words radically changed this person’s life. But, there is an interesting note to make here because Jesus goes further than just healing him. Jesus tells him to go and make an offering for his purification. This may seem weird, but in order to be accepted back into the community he needed to have his healing verified. Only the priests can do this, so Jesus not only heals him but he puts him back in relationship with community.
Nice story, so what?
Well, there is a lot more I could say about this passage, but I want to just highlight one or two elements. Mainly, the idea that God takes excluded people and includes them, and, more to the point, he takes outcasts, and instead of punishing them, he welcomes them. So, what does this mean for us as the church community, the so called ‘body of Jesus’?
Included and Including
At first I thought that if I was around in Jesus’ day I would have been nice to lepers, but the more I have considered it I realised that I would have probably been as hateful as everyone else. That is a sad, but honest thing for me to say. Maybe the exclusion that I take part in is nice ‘middle-class’ exclusion, but it is still exclusion. You might be different to me, you might love everyone, accept everyone? If you are like that then please lead us by example. But, if you are like me, then maybe some of my conclusions will make sense to you; but I don’t offer any of this as an expert, just someone who is trying to authentically follow after Jesus.
Like I just said, the story challenged me to think about the people who are lepers in my life. Those who I define myself as not being like: ‘I am not a fundamentalist Christian, I am not hateful like those over there’. I came to the conclusion that it is not good enough to ‘scapegoat’ those who I may feel would ‘scapegoat’ me. Maybe everyone else is not the problem, maybe I need to take responsibility for my part?
I am not saying that we cannot challenge others, or even oppose them. But there is a difference between creatively opposing, and making outcasts. My feeling is that it is very difficult to accept anyone else unless you can on some level accept yourself. We all know that, but really think about it for a moment. Is it acceptable to tell a 14 year-old, whose life is being made a Fliving hell, to love their enemies? I would argue no it’s not. first help the kid love himself and then help him positively resist the hatred of others, and hope that he doesn’t get defined by other peoples hatred, or his own!
No-one can really love healthily unless they do it from a place of feeling somewhat positive about who they are. I think Jesus knew who he was, that is why he loved his enemies, and didn’t make outcasts. He didn’t need to reject the leper, or the tax collectors, or the prostitutes, or the Romans, or women, or ardent religious people. Some of these groups posed an actual threat to him, and wanted to hurt him and exclude him, but Jesus just kept on being Jesus. I like that idea. Just keep on being a human, which means being connected to other people, the physical world, and God. It means knowing we are worth something, and on a deep level, that God has said ‘we are good’. Choose to not define yourself by what you are not, but know who you are.
But what about hell, surely God excludes people to hell. Well, this is not really the place to talk about that fully. But when I read Jesus talking about God excluding, I feel that it has more to do with people excluding themselves, making themselves outcast, rather than God doing it. Funny how those who like to exclude people seem to spend a lot of time talking about hell though! Maybe God just loves us enough to accept our decision to want no part in him?
Anyway, I think this passage is saying something quite simple. Jesus embraces the outcasts, and I think that the rest of the Scriptures, and the tradition of the church tell us to act like Jesus. So we are ‘included and including’. But a word of caution here, this is not an easy task. Remember that Jesus became unclean when he touched this man, he became associated with the reason for this man’s outcast nature. And so will we if we seek to be the body of Jesus on this earth. People will misunderstand us, hate us, while others will love and honour us. Following Jesus has a cost.
This story may not seem like it, but it is actually a resurrection story. I have persistently said lepers were like corpses, and healing a leper was seen as the same as raising the dead. I think that we need to frame our own acceptance, and the acceptance of others, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Those who made Jesus an outcast did a good job of it and destroyed him, but all their hate, fear and power could not completely destroy him. In the midst of death comes resurrection. When Jesus returned he could have done the same to them, but he chose to love them instead. So we know that a little suffering for others, while it is painful sometimes, can bring about new life. Maybe, we could connect with those who we feel need God’s love, the homeless, the broken, the vulnerable, our own souls, the fundamentalists, the hateful, the powerful. Maybe when we do this there will be more hope for 14 year old kids who see no better way out of their outcast status, than killing themselves.