Notes from Sermon
First Sermon at Grace Episcopal Church
6th Sunday of Epiphany, Year B
15 February 2009
I most recently came from Arizona with its great Catholic heritage of art and missions. The great things about the missions are their simplicity and their brightly colored statuary and paintings of the biblical stories and the lives of the saints. I have no idea what Saint Sebastian believed or taught or stood for, but I know that he was pierced by like a million arrows. And I know that that other guy lost his head in the 14th Century because he is carrying it still in San Damiano.
But I didn’t really grow up in Arizona as a Roman Catholic. I grew up in the South as a Baptist. And we didn’t have statuary or elaborate murals. We had felt board. Do you remember felt board? It was this vast field of green felt—every story in the Bible took place in this luscious landscape of green, no matter what the text said about deserts. And the characters were these cut out figures of felt. You can still get them. In fact, I went online to see if someone had produced what I think might be the best idea ever for a felt board character: a leper that is covered in sores with pieces of flesh felt that you put over the sores to show that he is healed. I couldn’t find anyone who has done it yet, so if you are good with felt, there is a goldmine of an idea.
To be a leper in Jesus’ day was more than just having sores though. According to Deuteronomy 13 and 14 it involved being cast out, being put away. The law stated that a leper must wear torn clothes and leave their head uncovered to show the disease and they must cover their mouths and shout “unclean, unclean,” so that others could avoid them all together. They were cast out of towns, and it wasn’t like here in Michigan or in Mississippi where I grew up and there was a lot of small towns with houses in between. It was more like Arizona where there are clear lines between what is town and what is wilderness. It was to be sent out to live in the wild.
In fact there is recorded from around the time of Jesus a rabbinic argument over whether one could speak of a leper as dead or not. If they were considered dead, then their life could be a mark of honor if honorable, but if considered alive but cast out they were a shame on their family forever.
This leper in Mark breaks the law to come up to Jesus. The word in Greek is he called him “along side of.” And Jesus is moved in the story either with anger or pity, another textual ambivalence. But it is perfectly clear in Greek that the leper comes close and that Jesus touches him to heal him.
Oh, to be touched by Jesus. This is our great desire, to be healed, touched, known. In the midst of lives of separation and leprosy, we want so badly to be touched.
But this healing is not just an act of pity. Jesus is acting as a broker of God’s power and forgiveness. He is welcoming the leper back into community. It is a strange healing story in that Jesus sends him back to the priests to be inspected and to offer the sacrifice demanded by Moses as a “testimony to them.” This is odd because Jesus never does this. He acts as God’s broker all the time. In fact the next set of stories in Mark are about that very thing, Jesus’ power over the temple.
This is a protest healing. There was a broker already for God’s power. It was the temple and it was managed by the priests. They brokered God’s power to heal and to forgive. They kept God in control and profitable. So Jesus’ acting as healer is subversive of that “God-given” authority.
God, as we know God in Jesus, wants to reach out without the brokers and touch us, you and me. Oh, to be touched by Jesus. To be cleansed by the Living Waters himself! To be in the embrace of Christ!
But we are not called to just be healed. Or to just revel in the touch of Jesus. We are called, you and me, to be the touch of Christ. To be the Body of Christ, his hands, and his embrace to a world that is sick and cut off. We are called to be Grace. We are called to pass through the Living Waters of Baptism and be cleansed and then turn and reach out to others to bring them into the loving embrace of God. This is our calling as a church. This is our calling as individuals following Christ. This is our Grace.
Grace means “free gift.” Its Greek word is the root of charisma, charity, and character. We are called to be offering that free gift of healing and hope and touch and community in a world that desperately needs it. This is our calling here. We are called to be Grace.