|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on February 26, 2012 at 10:30 AM|
February 12, 2012
Have you met people who think they aren’t good enough for church? When I get my act cleaned up, then I’ll come back to church, they say. I’ve had students tell me that they don’t think they are a good enough Christian and we wouldn’t want them as part of our ministry, as if they’d somehow contaminate us up if they were around. It’s always something that surprises me, perhaps because I have grown up in the church. And I know that we are often as messy a bunch of people as the world around us. It’s just that we know the truth of a God who loves us anyway.
But there are still plenty of folks who think they aren’t good enough or together enough to come into the church. That Jesus may be able to tolerate them, but they need to stay away from the community that worships him. Because somehow they aren’t clean enough yet. I may not understand that kind of talk, knowing what a mess I have been at times, but as I’ve been reading this gospel lesson, I’ve been thinking that maybe that kind of talk goes back to Jesus’ time, when cleanliness was a big thing.
Not how clean your floor was or your car was, but how ritually clean you were. Only clean people could enter the temple to be able to offer prayers and sacrifice to God. So staying clean was essential. So much as touching one who was unclean meant that you were cut off from some parts of religious life and the some parts of the community.
Cleanliness was so important for the life of the community that the rules were pretty clear about who was clean and who was not. It was something that defined you and something you couldn’t change. And anyone who was different was generally considered unclean- whether they had a disease, a disability, or were born looking different than others. And if you were unclean, there was nothing you could do, short of being healed, that would allow you to be a full part of the community.
And having leprosy kept you even more separate. Not only was it a painful and disfiguring disease, but it meant that you had to live apart- that you were cut off from his family, your community and your livelihood. It was as close to being imprisoned as you could get. The man we meet in the gospel lesson knew that now his first and last identity was as a leper. Who he was really didn’t matter much.
And to make things even worse, he even had to shout “unclean!” whenever people walked past. Not only were lepers cut off from their community, but it was their responsibility to help keep others clean. They had to announce to everyone that they were separate, that they were different, that they were ones not to be touched or talked to. But we hear about the one day a leper refused. He refused to keep everyone else safe, but walked right up to Jesus and said, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”
Now Jesus could have ignored him. He was a faithful Jewish man, one who was considered clean, and he could have ignored this leper like all the rest. Jesus could have clung to his own privileges and his own holiness and turned away like everyone else. But instead, he was willing to touch this man who all the world called unclean. To touch this man who scared people and made them uncomfortable. To risk being called unclean himself. But instead Jesus says, “I do choose to make you clean.”
And when Jesus reaches out his hand, he doesn’t become unclean, but instead he brings the healing, restoring, life-giving power of God to this man. And this man is made clean simply because he was touched by Jesus. Now he could be welcomed back into the community. Now his life could go in a different direction. Now he had a name again and an identity. No longer was he a leper to be avoided, but a brother to be looked at in the eye. One who could be touched and spoken to and loved. One touch of Jesus was enough to restore him. It was the kingdom at work.
You see, that is what the kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming was all about. In Jesus, God had unleashed healing and wholeness on the world. Instead of staying far away, God came close, close enough to touch all those who didn’t deserve to be touched, all those the world had called unclean and all those who had messed up and fallen short. In Jesus, God came to bind up those who were broken and cleanse those who were a mess. To break the boundaries that keep us separate from each other and restore us to community. To cleanse the world so that uncleanliness would never again separate us from God or from each other.
Because what Jesus says to the leper, he also says to us- “I do choose to make you clean.” I do choose to change your life. I do choose to call you good enough to come into my presence and be touched with the power of God. And I do choose to restore you to health and to who God created you to be. I do choose to put you back in your community and restore relationships of love and compassion. And he keeps coming to us- all of us messy people and crabby people and people who are falling apart at times.
Jesus didn’t come to hide out among people like him, people who already had it together. He didn’t come to the people with all the advantages or the people who acted right and looked right. He came to break apart the rules about who can enter God’s presence and who is good enough to be a part of God’s community. He came to all those the world keeps separate, all those who have not been welcomed, and all those who don’t feel they are cleaned up enough.
And we like hearing that when it’s Jesus doing the boundary crossing. When it’s Jesus helping the people that make us a little uncomfortable and a make us feel a little unsafe. We like that he’s going out there to reach out to others.
But this is not just Jesus’ work. We are people called to follow him wherever he leads. And that means following him right into this work. We don’t get the right to be too uncomfortable to reach out to our brothers and sisters. Our discomfort doesn’t give us a free pass not to welcome and embrace those we’d rather not look at- whether that’s someone who is fighting illness, someone we’re afraid of, or someone who seems to have more problems than we know what to do with. We may not be able to heal them- that’s Jesus’ job- but we don’t have a choice about reaching out to welcome them into our community.
And there are plenty of days that I don’t like to hear those words any more than you do. That’s not because I don’t love what Jesus came to do, it’s not that I don’t know how good it is to be made whole by Jesus when we are a royal mess. It’s not that I don’t understand how life-giving it is to be welcomed into a community. But it’s simply because it’s a lot of work sometimes. I have a hard enough time making it through the day already. There are days that it’s just too much to feel guilty about all the people that I neglect, all the people who are still left out. I don’t have the energy to look all those folks in the eye that I would rather not see. That’s Jesus’ job- the one who has patience and love and compassion that I will never know.
But we are the community that bears the name and the blessing of Jesus. We are ones who have been called to love and welcome those who Jesus loves so that we can see it in action. So that we can learn what that overwhelming love means for all of us. And that means that the church should be full of the people that Jesus came to touch. It should be always reaching out to break down walls that keep our brothers and sisters separate, to invite them into community to be made whole by Jesus. Our mission is Jesus’ mission and that means work for us.
It would be nice to say that when we do this- when we reach out to those who have been left out- that we will learn from our brothers and sisters and become better people and learn things. And often that’s the case. But the truth is also that sometimes it’s just plain annoying and inconvenient to welcome those who are different than us. Sometimes it’s exhausting to care so much.
Sometimes it will be joyful work and sometimes it will just be plain work. The reality is that Jesus even got tired of healing sometimes and had to take some breaks off by himself. Sometimes breaking down boundaries and welcoming others is inconvenient and tiring. But it’s kingdom work. It is living out the kingdom Jesus preaches. It is living out the love that reached out to us.
We don’t get to just watch God’s kingdom unfold. We get the privilege and responsibility of working together with God to bring the kingdom to all those who long for it. We can’t make it come, but we can announce it and share it. It may not be easy work, but it is God’s work. And we know that as we do it, God goes with us to lead us, support us and to restore us when we are broken. It will always be work, but we are allowed to be a part of God’s work to restore the whole world and be people that God works through.