Community Church of Glen Rock
February 12, 2012
“Jesus could no longer go into a town openly.” Why not? I’d always held the romantic, and naïve, notion that Jesus couldn’t enter the villages because his popularity made it impossible for him to move through the crowds. They couldn’t find a synagogue with sufficient pews. They were lined up like at Lourdes waiting for the healing. Giant fans trying to find a place along the parade route last Tuesday morning. Turns out I was probably wrong. No surprise.
It is more likely that Jesus couldn’t be seen entering a village because it was too dangerous. He was too dangerous. He was, in fact, subversive. I use that term because it might startle you, make you perk up your ears. I also use it because it was true. He was killed after all. And he was killed because he was seen as a threat – to both the Jewish establishment and the Roman government alike.
But I need to explain this a bit. Maybe more than a bit! I am subversive if I become a part of your community, fully sharing your values, and then turn those values on their head. I become a teacher because I love teaching children. So I become part of a school; and school is about educating children. But say that I educate them to think for themselves and they do! And they turn against the administration of the school. I have subverted them, and the school from the inside. I will not be thanked and I won’t be welcome.
If recent Jesus scholarship is right at all, the story goes something like this. Israel lived in expectation of the coming of God to vindicate God’s way in the world. The result would be the restoration of the Temple, God’s victory over pagans (that’s the Romans, among others), and the establishment or re-establishment of the people of God. Jesus, like John his predecessor, would have sounded like a prophet who announced the coming of that kingdom – the “kingdom of God” we heard Jesus proclaim as just around the corner at the outset of Mark’s gospel. Jesus would not only tell of that kingdom in sermons and parables, but would begin to live it out.
Except, that he subverted the story. That is, he took what was familiar and made it not only strange, but offensive at the same time. Here’s how he did so, or how Mark tells the story anyway. The law taught Israel, the Torah taught, that is, God taught that it was crucial for the community to distinguish between what is clean and what is unclean. This wasn’t just God being arbitrary. The distinction was there for the health and safety of the community. This would be not unlike the requirement that medical personnel wash their hands before dealing with a patient. It’s a matter of life and death.
Mark shows a Jesus who violates that distinction, who won’t observe proper boundaries. In fact, it’s almost as though Mark shoves that picture in our face. We heard last week that Jesus touched the hand of a sick woman; that’s to violate the boundary doubly. The sick are unclean. Later in Mark we can read the story of Jesus raising a dead young girl as he touches her. Again that violates the boundaries. The dead are unclean, the young girl is unclean.
But nothing makes it as clear as our story of Jesus’ healing of the leper. The leper was unclean par excellence. The leper was outcast and with good reason, or so it seemed at the time. His disease was so highly contagious that lepers were required to do a sort of self-quarantine. They could not live in society. They were outcast. So much so that they had to announce their approach so that the innocent could get out of the way.
It may be more graphic to think of the unclean from the perspective of what today is sometimes called the “ick” factor. What makes you turn away in disgust? Here’s a graphic description of an encounter with a leper from Fred Buechner in his near-classic novel about the eleventh century saint, Godric. Godric meets a leper on the road one day. He stops to help the poor soul. He leans down to help the leper to his feet and we read:
As I bend down, it turns to face me. Then I see it has no face.
I can’t say if it was a man I kissed or maid or why I kissed at all. I’ve seen them make the sick eat broth by holding it so close the savor draws them on. Maybe misery has a savor too so if you’re near enough, sick though you be with sin, your heart can’t help but sup. In any case I closed my eyes against that foul and ashen thing that once was human flesh like mine and kissed its pain. When it reached out to me, I fled till I was far enough away to puke my loathing in a ditch.
And it’s worse. It wasn’t just as though you could catch something from lepers that would mean your slow and painful death. You would yourself become unclean and so become a danger to those around you. You now are cut off, isolated. You don’t belong because you’re dangerous.
Dangerous. Jesus became dangerous because he consorted with the unclean, and in so doing he became unclean himself. So you didn’t want to let him into town. With that what had sounded so promising – Israel back on its uppers and God on the divine throne – turned sour. Jesus has become subversive.
Something is happening. Jesus is resetting the boundaries. He is reconfiguring human community in such a way that the outsider is welcomed on the inside. And the outsider is the one whose presence in our midst would be considered dangerous. It could rub off. It could not only call all that is right and good into question, but it could change our world so that we couldn’t recognize it any longer.
Which is precisely what would happen. Jesus would gather around him – children! Well, we like that picture, don’t we. He would tell stories where the Samaritan is the hero, and to get close to that we have to talk about religious folk we don’t like very much as being the good neighbor (perhaps a Muslim community center near ground zero). He would consort with sinners; that’s eating and drinking with the child molesters and the Bernie Madoff’s. Paul put it in a language that sounds so Biblical we don’t hear it: “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.” And in this day and at this time, I dare to add: there is neither gay nor straight. We all belong to this new community, the community where the boundaries are shattered open outward.
Jesus would become the outsider – for the sake of the outsider. No, it’s stronger than that: Jesus would become unclean for the sake of the unclean. Jesus would become dead for the sake of the dead. To violate the boundaries to let the outside in and, get this, to put him or her at the head table at the banquet!
In a minute, I’m going to ask who you think the outsider is in our world. But first I’ll pause and ask: maybe you feel that you are on the outside. It might be a matter of shame. Is there something about yourself that makes you feel shame? Shame is a powerful and destructive emotion. It tells you that you don’t belong. That you should be shunned because association with you will bring shame on those who befriend you. The shame you feel may be because of something you’ve done. Or it may be because you’ve been made to feel ashamed – of the color of your skin, of a handicap that limits you, of a disease that others find repulsive, of a parentage that doesn’t fit, you don’t look like you should – think of how we think of ourselves when we’re overweight. Shame puts you on the outside. And it’s worse because you’re sure it’s your fault.
Jesus doesn’t obey the norms of a safe society, even of a moral society. Jesus reaches out to embrace you, to welcome you into a community that says: “you belong with me.” Even if it puts Jesus at risk. Love risks. Love risks everything.
Now I’ll ask: who is on the outside? Because if you’ve been on the outside you’re a bit more sensitive. You look around and wonder: who else is left out? Who else is treated as though they don’t belong because they’ll contaminate the gene pool? Who is treated as though they don’t belong? Whom do we want to keep arm’s length?
We could start with the homeless, those forced to live on the street, bussed to the edge of town as was a recent policy in the city, or ushered to the city limits in towns like ours. It could be Muslims whom we will allow but whom we’ll keep an eye on, and certainly won’t get very close to. For me it could be those whose political values I find just plain nuts, or Christians whom I find have become captive to ideology. Who do I, whom do we, hold on the outside?
Here’s what that means: Jesus will be a problem for us! Jesus is dangerous because he pushes us beyond our boundaries. No, it’s worse, he welcomes people inside that we’re not so sure belong outside. The church has wrestled with Jesus as a problem from the very outset. Over and again we set barriers where Jesus wants doors. Over and again we gather with our own kind, with friends like ourselves. For good reason. We’re afraid.
At this point in the sermon you might expect me to get sermonic and urge you – us – to a greater openness. That as followers of Jesus, it’s our task to cross the boundaries, to enter the world of those who are different, who are “other.” Or at the very least to welcome the other inside our doors. And not simply to give them a place in the pew (and hand them a pledge card), but to allow ourselves to be changed by their presence. To be willing to risk contamination, to risk being changed, to dare to die that we might live. You might expect me to do that. But I’m not going to.
Instead I suggest something more radical – and more real. Because, you see, Jesus isn’t about telling us to go “build the kingdom of God” as though he gave us the blueprint and his Spirit gives us the inspiration. As it happens we can’t pull it off anyway. Every attempt has ended not only in disaster but bloodshed.
The question before you, the question to your life, is not whether you’re ready to extend yourself, as difficult as that may sound. The question is: are you prepared to live in the world that Jesus has already prepared? Jesus has already begun to break down the boundaries. Jesus has embraced the unclean. He has brought the outsider in. And he welcomes you in, too. Are you ready for this new world? It’s there, it has begun to dawn.
It’s there in dribs and drabs in the church. We haven’t got it in the church; we aren’t at the kingdom place yet. But God uses the church as a sign. After all, we are the sinners! We were the outsiders. We are the lepers. We may not “get it” fully, but we confess it. This afternoon, our classis will gather in this sanctuary to reflect on the Belhar Confession. A confession is the church’s way of responding to God by saying what we understand God to be about in the world. This confession declares in part that God is in the world bringing together that which is separated – the clean and the unclean. And the church reflects this in its unity. It goes on
This unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything that threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted.
Jesus has begun a new world where the unclean are brought inside. The one place where he expects this to happen in his church. He invites you to live in that new reality. It will mean a change in your life. It will mean shifting who you are to conform to this new reality. Are you ready to live that reality, one of radical hospitality, where you are welcomed, and so is the neighbor who before was such a stranger? Are you ready?