Untouchables no more

Good morning, Friends! Thank you all for coming today. I hope you’re already feeling blessed for being here.

This month, I want to talk about some of the different ways that people met Jesus.

Everyone’s different. There were simple fishermen. There were farmers and townspeople.There were Jews and non-Jews.

Most of the time, it doesn’t say what people’s past was. A few times, it does say, but it never says that Jesus was bothered by their past.

I want us to look at some of these different stories this month, because I want us to understand, deep down, that everyone comes to God in their own way. We’re not cookie-cutter clones of each other. And we need to respect that. Being different is OK.

So, remember, this is what we’re talking about, all month long. And each week, we’ll look at a different story.

Today, let’s read the story of a person who came to Jesus, who nobody else would welcome. No one would shake their hand. No one would even touch them. But Jesus did. Jesus reached out to them. And because Jesus did this, we need to ask ourselves if there’s anyone in the world who can’t be welcomed.

A man with leprosy came to Jesus and begged Jesus on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.

Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”

Instead the man went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.

Mark 1:40-45

I remember once, when I used this Scripture with a Sunday School class, that the kids were really puzzled by it, until I asked them if they knew what leprosy is. And they all shook their heads and said, “No!” So I had to explain.

Leprosy was one of the most dreaded diseases of the ancient world. And it still is today. Leprosy is spread by a bacteria. It attacks the nerves and skin and soft mucuous tissues of the person who has it.

A person with leprosy often can’t feel things like heat and pain, because of the damage to their nerves, so they often burn or injure themselves without realizing it. Leprosy can also cause grotesque deformities in the skin — great swollen areas which make the person look ugly to other people.

Leprosy often attacks a person’s voice and changes it. It often causes the patient to lose their hair. And the infections that go along with leprosy often cause a terrible smell.

In Jesus’ time, there was no cure for leprosy. Nobody knew how the disease was spread, but they knew that it killed you, often very slowly over a period of many years.

So, because of people’s ignorance and fear, people who had leprosy were declared untouchable. As soon as you were recognized as having the disease, you were thrown out of your family, and no one could touch you or have anything to do with you.

If you had leprosy, you were forbidden to come near anyone else, and for all practical purposes you were considered to be dead already. Many people held a funeral for their family member who had leprosy, as soon as they knew that they had the disease, even while they were still alive.

Nowadays, we know that leprosy can be cured. You take a combination of three drugs for six months. And people with the disease aren’t segregated or cast out in the way they used to be.

A few years ago, AIDS took the place of leprosy in our imagination. AIDS is a horrible disease. When it first came out, there wasn’t any cure for it. Everyone was terrified by it.

I had four good friends who died of AIDS, back when it first got started. They were all talented. Brilliant. Wonderful. A high school classmate. A fraternity brother. A college classmate. And the clerk of our meeting.

Our friend, Howard, when his family found out he had AIDS, completely disowned him. He died in the hospital, on a ventilator, and the only people who visited him, were friends from the meeting. His family didn’t even come to his funeral.

What did Jesus do for the man in today’s gospel who had leprosy?

The first thing I want you to notice how the story starts out. Jesus had been teaching and healing. Crowds came to listen to him. Even bigger crowds came to be healed. Jesus had to leave his own home town, because so many people were crowding around him.

In Matthew’s gospel, this happens right after the Sermon on the Mount. All those things Jesus said about the blessings of people who followed his way of life, right after the Lord’s Prayer, right after he said, “Don’t worry about your next meal. Don’t worry about what you’re going to wear. . .”

Right after Jesus said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you…”, after he said, “Ask, and it will be given; seek and you shall find, knock, and the door will open…”

Right after Jesus talked about not judging people, about trusting God. Right after Jesus says we need to build our house on a solid rock, not a sand castle on the beach. First thing after all this, Jesus comes down from his mountain top, and meets a person with leprosy.

That’s the way things really are, isn’t it? You can’t have some kind of a mountain top experience, without coming down to earth again. There is truth in those great ideas of Jesus — there is great truth in the Sermon on the Mount — but there is also truth to be faced, in the pain and suffering and isolation of people.

It says the person who had leprosy, came up to Jesus, which was unthinkable in itself. A person with leprosy couldn’t come close to ordinary people. That kind of a person was even more cast out from coming close to a holy person, to a great teacher or leader.

So, it says something, first, that the person who had leprosy dared to approach Jesus, but second, that Jesus was inviting enough or reassuring enough, that the man thought that Jesus would even be willing to speak to him.

And the person with leprosy said to Jesus, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean…”

What pain, and what loneliness, and what hope are in those words! “If you want to,” “if you choose to, you can make me clean. . .”

And Jesus said, “I will!” Or, in another translation he says, “Yes, I want to — you are clean!”

What a picture that gives us, of who Jesus is. Jesus wants people who are cast out, to be welcomed back. Jesus wants to bring people who are dead in the eyes of society, to be brought back to life.

It matters so much for us to hear Jesus say, “Yes, I want to. . .” Because so many people have taken it on themselves to cast people out. Whether it’s AIDS or leprosy or whatever, we tend to cast out people, when Jesus’ response is to reach out to them and touch them and let them know that he wants them to be healed.

I want to ask, what Jesus would have done, for my friend Howard? Would Jesus have pulled away from him, because he was untouchable? Or would Jesus have reached out, and held his hand, and prayed for him?

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus didn’t ask the person with leprosy how he got the disease. And that’s true, by the way, with all of the other stories in the gospel.

Jesus didn’t ask people he healed, why it was that they were sick. Jesus didn’t ask the man who was born blind, whether it was his own fault or the fault of his parents. Jesus didn’t ask anyone he ever met why they were sick, or why they were broken, or why they needed his help.

Jesus never judged people because of a disease, or a condition. He met them, and listened to them, and forgave them and healed them and blessed them. Whatever it was they needed, that’s what Jesus did.

I think that it’s important that all of us understand how diseases are spread. That’s only common sense, and good education, and taking ordinary precautions against a disease which can threaten our entire lives.

But the good news is that, just like Jesus, we can touch people who are suffering. The good news is that no one is untouchable.

One of the cruelest things about leprosy, one of the cruelest things about AIDS, is the separation which these diseases bring.

There are other diseases which are just as life-threatening and painful. We certainly don’t treat cancer patients to that kind of isolation. Alzheimer’s disease is incurable, and we don’t let that keep us from visiting and loving.

These are our friends. These are the people we know at work, our relatives, our neighbors.

And the good news of the gospel is that people are not untouchable. We must not give them the impression that they are beyond God’s love, and we must not hold that wrong idea ourselves.
The good news is that no one is beyond the love of God. We can visit. We can pray. We can hold their hands, we can do things to provide for their physical and spiritual comfort. We can look into their eyes, no matter how terrible their disease may be, and still see the person who is there.

So many times, when I’m visiting a sick or terminally ill person, I sit by them, and I know that I can’t do anything. In the natural, I know that they’re going to die.

But I can let them know, that they’re not abandoned. Maybe I can’t help their pain, but I can share it. I can listen to them, and hold their hand, or embrace them, and not look away from them, and let them know that I am still here, and that God still loves them.

Do you remember the story of Lazarus, in the gospel of John? Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even though they die, yet they shall live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die…”

We have to take that word into the most terrible places we know. We have to live our faith in the love of God. We need to know in our own hearts that no one is untouchable. And we need to plant that seed of hope in the hearts of everyone we visit.

Every time I read today’s story, I feel as if I can see Jesus pausing for a moment, and turning his head to look at me as he reaches out to someone. And it’s almost as if I can hear Jesus saying, “Do you see what I am doing here? Now you go, and do the same. . .”

Jesus calls us to reach out, as he did. Jesus asks us to please touch the people who are considered unclean and untouchable.

Jesus asks us, as his friends, to do the things he did, to bring God’s love as he brought it, to offer his healing, and forgiveness, and love to the whole world.

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