The Returning. And The Returned.
Barely dry from his baptism, Jesus has already made a name for himself. Moving through Galilee – collecting his disciples, casting out demons, healing the sick, and teaching with great authority. People flocked to him from all over the place, to see the Rabbi who lived fully and faithfully in the will of God.
But now Jesus does something no good Rabbi would dare to do. He goes to place where the impure people have been quarantined. And adds cleansing a leper to his impressive resume.
Why is this so amazing? We know Jesus is a healer. But this particular healing is different. Jesus breaks a purity law that God handed down to Moses in order to help this man. And in return, the healed man will disregard what Jesus has asked of him.
It’s not the kind of sacred practice we like to preach in church, is it? Disobeying God, disregarding Jesus. We also don’t think about leprosy that much. Or live by the ancient Jewish purity laws. But that doesn’t mean they can be disregarded. They still exist today in many different forms.
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As you know, we are in the middle of a deadly pandemic. We know that in order to keep deaths down, we quarantine those who are contagious. And do the same to anyone who comes in contact with them.
Be it leprosy or COVID, this ancient practice is still one of the best ways to contain the virus so it doesn’t spread. Only the lepers in Jesus’ day weren’t sent to their bedroom to binge on Netflix. They were sent far away to fend for themselves in the wilderness.
Forced to be away from their loved ones, lepers couldn’t work or even worship. If they were caught in public, people would yell “Unclean, unclean” – stigmatizing them further. It was more than social distancing. It was the kind of social shaming that we often do to people with AIDS or prison records.
Stripped of their humanity, lepers were condemned to die alone in isolation. Likewise, anyone who touched a leper was also considered unclean. And they too would be marginalized and stigmatized.
So why would Jesus endanger himself to willingly heal this man?
Mark said that news was spreading quickly about Jesus and people were coming to him for all kinds of help. Maybe he touched the leper so he could be alone in quarantined for a couple of weeks of rest. Or perhaps Jesus was angry at how society allowed people to be demonized? Either way, Jesus just had compassion for the man, like he had for all who come to him?
Compassion is what God is all about. Compassion is the key that started Jesus’ mission of driving people back to God. So, it’s not a surprise that Jesus would make compassion a priority over any law or dogma.
In taking the risk to heal the leper, Jesus showed his disciples how far they must go to follow him – they needed to be willing to see others through the heart of God. And take the risk to be God’s heart - even if it killed them.
The leper knelt before Jesus and said, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” And Jesus said, “I do choose.” Our job, as followers of Christ, is not merely about obeying a set of rules. It’s about making the choice to tear down the walls that separate us and build bridges that bring people together. It’s about being the visible presence of God’s redeeming love to all people – especially those who have been cast away.
Jesus shows us that sometimes we have to go out into the world and meet people where they are. When we do this, we too can free people of their demons, serve others without expecting anything back, and show the kind of mercy and grace that can return people to their rightful place in God’s heart. Jesus’ mission was to open up the kingdom of God for everyone – even those we don’t want around us. This includes the sick, the marginalized, and the social lepers of our day.
With a single act of compassion, Jesus imitates and initiates God’s loving grace that welcomes us back with open arms, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. If you have ever been deemed unworthy, felt marginalized or pushed away, through Christ God says welcome home.
This is the good news that caused this unnamed man to run off and tell anyone who will listen, despite the fact that Jesus told him not to. He can’t help himself. God’s grace is just too powerful to keep to himself.
Just as Peter’s mother-in-law was the first to understand what Jesus’ mission was about, this guy becomes the first to preach it. Long before the disciples understood what was going on, the church was already taking shape through the most unlikely of people.
While Valentine’s Day reminds me of how powerful God’s love is, it also reminds me of what I am called to do. To proclaim God’s love – teaching, healing, and returning people back to
God’s heart like Jesus did.
You see...we are all ministers. We all have gifts that we can use like Jesus to did with his miracles. Some of us may be healers. Others have gifts of listening or kindness or patience or boundless energy. It doesn’t take much more than saying, “I do choose” to share the kind of compassion that God has shown to you and me through Christ. That compassion can be expressed in a variety of different ways.
Right before Christmas there was a news report about a mother who had lost her job and savings because of COVID. Desperate to feed her kids, she was caught at the grocery store for not ringing up all the groceries in her cart. The police officer who came to arrest her decided to instead buy her $250 worth of groceries so her family could have enough food to get them through the holiday. This is how one selfless person chose to show God’s compassionate love to someone in need.
Then there are the volunteers who have been showing up to mow the lawns of essential workers. One lucky recipient, an ER nurse named Logan Gillen was so grateful that he could come home after an exhausting shift caring for COVID patients and have the time to spend with his family. Why? Because people in his community chose to give of themselves like Jesus did - with God’s compassionate heart.
And maybe you heard the story of Sofia and Astor Mendoza, two young kids who refused to let COVID have the final word. The day before Easter, they created 150 handwritten notes filled with words of hope and encouragement, then delivered them to everyone in their neighborhood. No one told them to do this. It wasn’t a school assignment. They just wanted to share some love to those who were quarantined and in self-isolation.
Henri Nouwen wrote, “Whenever we love our enemy, we exhibit something of the perfect love of God, whose will is to bring all human beings together as children of one Father.”
By that he means whenever we forgive someone instead of getting angry at them, or offer hope instead of adding more despair, or welcome someone instead of cold-shouldering them we make God’s unconditional love visible. And that is the sole mission of any church that dares to follow the way of Jesus.
On Wednesday, the church will kick off Lent. I can’t think of a better time to practice our call, then by going out and returning hope and joy throughout our communities. I would invite you to spend the coming days thinking about how you can show your compassionate heart in the world? How can you be the light of Christ, the beacon of hope that shines brightly on the path that leads people back to God?
Will you be the hands that touch a wounded soul? Or the gentle words that soothe a wounded spirit? Will you be the arms that hold and hug a person who may be dying? Or the friend who sits and listens and loves another because you see in them a beloved child of God in need?
Maybe you will smile more at people. Or take some chalk and write a positive message on the sidewalk in front of your house. The possibilities are endless for those who choose to be the eternal love of God.
As you leave here today, remember that we are all ministers, called to be little Christ’s in the world. Jesus has shown us the way to be the very living presence of God’s love so others might see their way too.
This isn’t something we do just on February 14th. But it’s what God desires from us every day of the year.
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
Logue, Frank. How Far Are You Willing To Go? https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermon/how-far-are-you-willing-to-go-epiphany-6-b-2012(accessed on February 12, 2021)
Metz, Susanna E. His Fame Began To Spread. www.episcopalchurch.org/sermon/his-fame-began-to-spread-epiphany-6-b-2000 on February 13, 2000 (accessed on February 10, 2021)
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An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”