I have tried my best throughout this last week to stay at least 15 feet away from Pastor Steve and his bad case of the flu. In fact, we in the office have made him shout, “Unclean! Influenza!” so we know when he’s coming and we can get out of the way. Poor guy has probably felt like a leper all week.
And it is leprosy, at first hearing, that seems to be the thread of connection between our Old Testament Lesson and our Gospel lesson. But I think it’s something more universal than leprosy. I think the first thing that unites these two passages is — desperation. Namaan and the leper in Mark are both desperate to be healed, to be made whole. They’ll do anything to be healed, to be whole. Namaan travels miles and spends a lot of money based on the word of a slave girl, all in the hope that some unknown prophet in some far away conquered land might be able to rid him of this disease. It doesn’t happen the way Namaan had in mind, he has to swallow his pride and eat a little crow, but it does happen, he is healed, and he gets it — he gives God thanks and praise.
Likewise the leper who approaches Jesus risks it all just by getting close. Now leprosy could be anything from a rash to a flesh eating bacteria. It didn’t matter. People were scared to death of leprosy. People lived in absolute fear of leprosy and all those who had leprosy. So, if you had a skin disease you were made into an instant outsider. The law in Leviticus was clear: “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ And he shall live alone, his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Lev. 13:45-46)
So if you had leprosy you lost everything — job, family, place in the community — everything. The leper who approaches Jesus shows his desperation by breaking the law, by coming into the city, and getting close enough to Jesus that he could talk to him. He’s lucky he wasn’t stoned. But Jesus has pity on this poor desperate leper and heals him. Suddenly, the leper’s desperation is turned to joy! Jesus tells him to go and show himself to the priest, to prove that he’s cured, and also, Jesus tells him, don’t talk about this healing with other people. In other words, Jesus didn’t want to be known only as a healer, or worse yet, as a magician. But so overcome with joy is this former leper, that he can’t control himself. He goes and blabs to anyone and everyone. This former leper becomes not just a proclaimer of the good news, he actually becomes the good news. His joy, his laughter is absolutely infectious and spreads more quickly than any form of leprosy the world has known.
This “joy factor” is another aspect that unites Namaan and the former leper in Mark. Both of them experienced an outpouring of joy. But this uncontrollable sense of joy was not just because they had been healed. No, it was because they had been made whole; they could re-enter the community, they could go home to their families, they could get back to their jobs, they could live life again.
This is where I think we have to be careful to distinguish between healing and wholeness. Lot’s of people are healed from a disease but go back to living the same dead-end lives they were living before they got sick. To be made whole is something else. It is to be changed, it is to be transformed, it is to know that God is at work in your life, it is to be overcome by joy. To be healed can mean a lot of things, death is a form of healing. But to be made whole is to be enveloped by a peace that passes all understanding, it is to know a joy that bubbles up uncontrollably, it is to know the power of God’s grace in one’s life, and it is to respond with thanks, with gratitude, with laughter.
So what we really have is a series of contrasts. We have the contrast between those who have leprosy and those who don’t; between a fearful culture and desperate people; between people who long to know wholeness and the one who can make them whole.
In a lot of ways it sounds like our world. I mean, we live among lepers. Sometimes we’re the leper and other times we treat others like lepers. And there’s no question we’re all in search of wholeness. If we’re honest we can admit that there are so many different kinds of barriers that separate us human beings, that make us (or somebody else) a leper — fear, mistrust, misunderstanding, anger loneliness, the inability to communicate with each other, the inability to communicate even with those we love the most and are closest to. In so many ways, we move through life shrouded in desperation. Either we feel like a leper to the world, untouchable and unclean — or we have chosen others to be treated like lepers, untouchable and unclean.
Just think about what’s happened in the last few days with these Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. Think about how something as seemingly mundane as a “cartoon” has not only fanned the flames of hatred, but has brought on such a bad case of leprosy that people have stopped talking and started killing one another. Now, I don’t think this a question of freedom of the press or free speech. Of course, these cartoonists have every legal right to print these cartoons. Freedom of speech is just the smokescreen we hide behind so that we don’t have to address the real issues, so we don’t have to examine the actual leprosy. Just as the Muslims hide behind the claim that Islam does not permit any depictions of Mohammed (which is only true in some parts of Islamic world). No the real issue, the leprosy, we face has more to do with the fact that we simply, and yet profoundly, do not understand one another and no one, so far, is willing to sit down and talk. It’s easier to treat one another as lepers. It’s easier to avoid any chance of coming together, because, heaven forbid it, we might be transformed by one other, we might be changed, we might even come away liking one another, we might sense the movement of God and experience joy — and we just can’t have that, can we? We can’t risk that possibility, can we?
Resa Aslan is a Muslim and a journalist. She writes that, “the sad irony (in all of this) is that the Muslims who have resorted to violence in response to this offense are merely reaffirming the stereotypes advanced by the cartoons. Likewise, the Europeans who point to the Muslim reaction as proof that ‘Islam has no place in Europe’ have only reaffirmed the stereotype of Europeans as aggressively anti-Islamic.”
Stereotypes are a form of leprosy that keep people apart. It’s a form of leprosy that we willingly take on because it offers us a safe haven form having to interact with the other and the other unknown. It’s just easier to adopt this form of leprosy than it is to risk reaching out and touching or being touched. It’s not until human beings are able to see one another as children of God that we’ll be able to sit down and begin to try and understand one another. This is true not just for Muslims and Christians, or Muslims and Jews, its also true for grown ups and teenagers, for blacks and whites, gay and straight, liberals and conservatives, old hymn lovers and new music lovers.
Because, you see, it’s not just a matter of being willing to reach out and touch. We can control that. We can control when we reach out and who we touch. No, it’s also, perhaps more importantly, a matter of being willing to risk being touched, touched by God and changed, transformed, made whole.
Author and poet Maya Angelou, in talking about the history of slavery in this country, states that on many plantations the slaves were not allowed to laugh. There was a rule against it. So when the urge to laugh became uncontrollable, when the urge to laugh became absolutely irrepressible, they had what they called “the laughter barrel.” At the moment when they couldn’t hold it in any longer they would, under the pretext of getting something out of the barrel, lean way down inside and let it all out. They would laugh and laugh and laugh.
Now, Maya Angelou goes on to say that what was behind such a strange rule was — fear. The plantation owners
feared that if the slaves were allowed to laugh, they might laugh at the masters. Or, worse yet, the laughter of the slaves might become so infectious that the masters would start laughing with the slaves. And how can you laugh with a person one day and have that person be a slave the next?
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I think the church today must become the modern day version of the laughter barrel. We live in a world that is in many ways hostile. The church is our safe place. It’s where we can come and let it all out. It’s where we can come and wrestle with the tough issues. It’s where we can come and be held accountable and hold others accountable in love. It’s where can come and seek the presence and guidance of God’s Spirit. It’s where we can come and experience wholeness. It’s where we can come and talk about our experiences of grace. And the church is where we can come and practice not only letting our joy out, but also sharing our joy with that hostile world out there.
You see, it’s not just about being together here in the church, it’s about being the church. Like the leper in Mark, it’s not just about spreading the good news, it’s about being the good news. And this is where we learn to be the good news. This is where we are touched, where our identity and character is formed by God’s Word, God’s sacraments, God’s Spirit. This is where we practice being authentic persons, genuine vessels of God’s care and compassion.
Look around you, this is God’s gift of a laughter barrel where lepers are welcome and so are tough questions. There’s no question that leprosy, in any of its many forms, is infectious. There’s no question that our world is sick and suffering. But we cannot forget that health and wholeness can be just as infectious. We cannot forget that God’s will for the world is peace and salvation. That’s why it’s so important that we learn to genuinely express the joy we experience through the touch of Jesus Christ in lives, not just here, but out there. That’s why it’s so important that we learn to laugh for joy in ways that share good news, in ways that cause us to become the good news! All in the hope that as we touch and risk being touched the world might be infected by God and reduced to the uncontrollable need to laugh…together.
Copyright 2006, Jeffrey K. London. Used by permission.