Mark 1:40-45; Leviticus 14:1-32
January 31, 2021
— How much do you have to do to earn God’s approval?
Last week I shared a nightmare of mine; this week is what actually happened. When I was a teenager, I was very, very involved in my family’s church in Richmond. It really was my favorite place to be. I even found it more comfortable there than at home, as strange as that sounds. One Sunday one summer I thought I would wear something different to church. I had a pair of dress shorts that I had received from somewhere that I had never worn. “Let’s go to church in something a little more comfortable while still being appropriate,” I thought.
Big mistake. For some reason, once I got there in my dress shorts, I became extremely self-conscious about being the only person there wearing anything like that. I got comments, not ugly ones, but comments drawing attention to my outfit only compounded my feeling of out-of-placeness. I never wore them, again.
Does anyone understand what is so desperately wrong with that story?
For a very, very, very long time, the church has been worried about appearances. Now, don’t get me wrong – I understand why people want to dress up for worship, why we like beautiful things here, why the way things look matters to us. We are pointing to God’s glory which is itself beautiful; we come seeking to be respectful and trying to give God our very best; we want to worship in a space that we think points us to God’s perfection and God’s magnificence. I will never forget the first time I walked into the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris or St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican or the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Appearances can be amazing and meaningful.
But what happens when we are more consumed with appearances than the actual love of God and one another? What happens when we forget that we are just regular people, gathering with other regular people, and we all need God a whole lot more than we want to admit? It is easy to become comfortable with our routines and forms and liturgies and lose sight of the fact that a church is first and foremost a hospital for the sinful, broken, and hurting in spirit. If we neglect our shared need, if we focus on appearances, how does a church NOT transform into an uncomfortable, unwelcoming place for those who seem different?
These are really important questions that we should always keep in mind as we dare to dream about a future of shared ministry. If we can identify our assumptions and our core convictions about what God wants from us, then we can more fully embrace one another and give each other space to find the love of God in Christ on their terms. We had a military family in my last church that showed up one Sunday, parents and three children, a nice mid-western family in the area thanks to work and Ft. Pickett. I am not sure I ever saw the father in a tie, let alone a suit. When it warmed up, they would show up in shorts (and not even dress shorts but cargo shorts). Here we were in small town, Southside Virginia, and their wardrobe did not match up with anything that I had ever seen there. Honestly, I kept expecting someone to say something that would make them stop coming, but it either did not happen or they did not care. This wonderful, helpful, energetic younger family with three children was a big part of our youth activities and regular participants in worship – a great part of our church family, but they did not dress the part. They did not share the appearance of anyone else. It was a welcome surprise to find there a greater understanding of what was truly important. Of course, this applies to much more than clothes.
The man with leprosy also found a lot of welcomed surprise when he met Jesus of Nazareth there in Mark chapter one. There are two ways that the leper can be made whole. One of the ways involves a big show and a lot of work and a good bit of appearances. Jesus tells the leper to follow that way that Moses laid out hundreds of years before. I read you that way in Leviticus. You got a full picture of how involved and orchestrated and demonstrative that process was. It was laborious and demanding and expensive. Where does a beggar even get the offering for the poor person? But the religious culture put a high premium on that show. The leper could not be made whole without that production.
The other way that the leper could be made whole is the one that actually healed him. This is what the leper came seeking from the beginning, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” Jesus is so moved by the poor leper that he was filled with compassion and he does the unthinkable – he touches the leper.
I have actually been to a leper colony myself in India. Granted that leprosy back in Jesus’ day was not necessarily the same disease. There were a number of skin disorders and diseases considered leprosy, not just the one that we call leprosy today, I can tell you that while I felt compassion for the lepers that I met, I would not have physically touched them. I am not proud to admit that, but Jesus did touch. Touching a leper would have made him unclean, also. He did not care. He was not worried about the show or appearances. He cheated the system and cut right to the heal. He did not need the drawn-out procedure. He loved the man back into health and made him whole.
The thing about leprosy back then was that it cut you off from society, your friends and family, your village, everyone. People would have thought that you did something bad to deserve to be afflicted, so you were considered a sinner, too. It would have been easy to think God was very against you, but thinking that is the real crime in all of this. Just like in pandemic life, you would have been isolated to the point of despair with people afraid to come near you. In fact, you would have had something like a cow bell alerting people that you were coming to the village from the leper colony so they could all hide out of sight to not accidently get too close. How humiliating! We can only imagine how hard that would have been on the body, mind, and spirit.
Of course, Jesus is not a cheat as we usually think of the word, but he does set aside the appearance of wholeness, the show of appropriateness, the process of social standards. He shows us what we really have to do to be made right or to have God’s approval or to be restored into God’s people. This is the best part: we already are. Did you catch that the leprous beggar did not even explicitly ask Jesus to heal him? He expressed that if Jesus wanted to, he could. Yes, the text says he was begging for Jesus’ attention, but what we see in the plain text is a hurting, isolated, afflicted man humbled before our Lord and recognizing with faith that Jesus could restore him. The man’s plight moves Jesus to compassion enough to touch the leper into health.
This opens the way for the leper to be brought back into society – to be made socially whole. That is the point of the ritual of Moses, but which one means more to us today? The standards and expectations of society are nothing like they were 50, 60, 70 years ago, and some of us are very sorry they are not the same, but that says something about their value. Society’s standards do change. What is acceptable does change for good and for ill. A greater diversity of our American population is more accepted and has more opportunity today. That is something to appreciate even if we feel morals have suffered. But social standards cannot change our value or worth as human beings. The appearances cannot make us any more or less valuable in God’s eyes. So it is love, especially God’s love, that is the real driver. This is what never changes and what should truly drive every commitment we have as a church first.
Jesus never asks us to jump through hoops or put on a show or get right before we are loveable. He never asks us to prove ourselves worthy. He never tells us to heal ourselves before we can be saved. He takes all the tests and throws them away, so if that does not seem fair, then maybe you think Jesus is a cheat. I for one would much rather have a Savior who will save me and all of our brothers and sisters no matter what. I would rather have a God who truly loves unconditionally, without pretext or strings.
Wouldn’t you? To God be the glory. Amen.