2 Kings 5: 1-15b; Ps. 30; Mark 1: 40-45
******** United Church of Christ
February 12, 2006
I would venture to say that most, if not all, of us have been excluded at least one time in our lives. We were judged by our appearance or by the clothes we were wearing. We said something that was misunderstood or hurt someone. We couldn’t control our feelings of grief, anger, or sadness. It was the color of our skin or a language we didn’t speak. It was our attraction to the same gender, persons of both genders, our transgendered or intersexed nature, our confusion about our identity. It was our weight. It was depression or bi-polar disorder or those two weeks we spent in detox, the years we spent in and out of therapy. It was the wheelchair, the crutches, the cane, the walker, the missing limb. It was a speech impediment. It was difficulty with hearing or sight. It was our age. It was an illness or disease. It was our religion. It was whether we had money or an education or a job; it was where we lived, where we grew up, what family or background we came from. Whatever it was, we were judged on the surface, only skin deep, without someone getting to know us inside and out.
It is difficult for human beings not to judge in some way. It is our ego that sorts and categorizes all of the information that our brain gathers: it’s a cold day, this room is warm, she’s wearing a heavy sweater, he’s tall for his age. We then take that information and attach some kind meaning or an association to it in some way so that when we come across the same or similar piece of information we will recognize it and it won’t have to be sorted in the same intricate way.
Imagine going through your day and not associating anything with the color blue. You’d look up at the sky and say to yourself, “It’s blue”, and then go onto the next thing, without thinking about whether it’s azure or cerulean, how bright the sun is, a lighter feeling inside, days on the beach or on a mountain, the poem you read that described a blue sky as though it was ironed, and on and on. Everyone associates something with something else—for good or for ill. Most of the time we learn these associations from others and from our own experiences; these responses are often conditioned.
In the movie “Trading Places”, Eddie Murphy plays a con artist street bum who gets “adopted” by two filthy rich brothers who have a bet as to whether they can recondition this reprobate into a gentleman while turning their cultured, equally snooty associate, played by Dan Ackroyd, into a gun-toting, poverty stricken criminal. What’s truly rich about the movie is that the two victims of this plot overcome their assumptions about each other and work together to bring down the scheming brothers.
For its day that movie poked fun at our assumptions, exaggerated them a bit to show us how real they are, and in the end we had a good laugh, if a bit raunchy. But nowadays those assumptions and crash judgments are getting our world into trouble. Listen to this contemporary analogy of the reading from 2 Kings:
“Saddam was an Iraqi military general, praised by all as a valiant warrior and a great man. In fact, the God of Israel and our God had granted victory to Iraq through Saddam.” This is how the story of Naaman begins. Imagine how it would end given this contemporary interpretation. Naaman is given a second chance in that he is restored to health, his skin like that of a young boy; like a baby’s bottom, I was thinking. I looked up the word “clean” as it is used in this story; it means to be unadulterated, pure and bright, physically sound, as though one were restored to a state of innocence, as though the past had been erased.
In Jeremiah God promises to make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, even though they broke the old one, even though they didn’t deserve it. God promises to forgive their iniquity and to remember their sin no more.
We give the past such power and permanence. Our ego is never so active as when it is sorting over the past and keeping it very much alive in the present. One of my nasty habits is rehashing those times when I have said the wrong thing or thought I said the wrong thing or wishing I had said that witty or cutting remark or hadn’t said it or when someone hurt my feelings or excluded me or accused me. Lately I have been trying to stop when I catch myself doing this and ask God to heal me, to help me to remember the lessons but to forget the sins of my past, and those who trespassed against me, as God is so willing to do.
Letting go of past hurts, past wrongs is a lot like letting God change a light bulb that doesn’t work anymore.
How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? What? Change the light bulb? My grandmother donated that light bulb.
How many times does it take for a pastor to change a light bulb? We don't know, everyone fell asleep while she was giving a sermon on it.
How many United Church of Christ members does it take to change a light bulb? How dare you be so intolerant! So what if the light bulb has an alternative light style?
How many Assembly of God church members does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, he already has his hands in the air.
How many Pentecostals does it take to change a light bulb? 1 and 99 to cast out the spirit of darkness!!
How many TV evangelists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but for the message of light to continue, send in your donation today.
How many Worshiping Musicians does it take to change a light bulb? One, but soon all those around can warm up in its glowing.
Why did I just tell all those jokes? Laughter reminds us of the joy of being in this community, the joy we feel by having been touched by Jesus. Laughter has the power of healing, to mend and bind together a community, to renew our minds and our spirits and turn our mood inside out, to make the past a thing of the past. We are no longer outcasts, strangers, loners excluded from the inner circle. We who were on the outside have been welcomed in. Jesus has reached out with pity and compassion, in other ancient authorities, with anger at our exclusion, chosen us and touched us with healing power and restored us to life and to community.
You see, the people of Jesus’ time expected that where the messiah is, there is no misery. Jesus gave them and us a more meaningful expectation, that where there is misery, there is the messiah; and where there is the messiah there is healing and joy that cannot be contained. Only God was believed to heal at will. When Jesus chooses to heal, he reveals that compassion is the root of God’s power and that God’s power is with him and is in every place where there is anger at the human condition, every place that pity and compassion move across boundaries that exclude.
Jesus redefined what it meant to be pure; not ritually or religiously pure or morally or socially pure or physically pure but pure in heart: to be loving, extravagantly and unconditionally so. He took the purity laws and turned them inside out. They were created to put the community and its members right with God and to set the Jews morally and spiritually apart from those who worshiped other gods. Instead these purity laws were abused and were used to exclude persons from the community of faith because they were considered unclean and impure. When Jesus healed the man of his skin disease he released him from a past of exclusion, unemployment, beggary, and poverty. He restored him to his family, his faith community, and to life itself.
So, ******** United Church of Christ, what in your past that is holding you back do you need to be released from? How has Jesus restored you to life? When has this congregation been moved to extravagant love? Who are the outcasts, strangers, and loners that need your healing touch? Who are the insiders, the popular powerful folk, outsiders in a place like this, who also need your extravagant love and gentle nudging? To what misery can you give witness to the healing power of Jesus?
It is important to remember that with anyone, we don’t know the whole story. Sometimes all we can see is what a person or group or nation presents to us on the surface. It is up to us to choose to go beyond whatever boundaries or obstacles and reach out with love, the extravagant love of Jesus that reached out to us when we were outside the gate. We have been turned inside out, pure and bright and new each day, that we might reach others who are outside and invite them into this joy that cannot be contained. Thanks be to God.