The Untouchables

BS and Joan on November 15, 2014
BS, Joan and me on November 15, 2014

Mark 1:40-45 NRSV

As was pointed out a couple of weeks ago, for Mark, Jesus is a teacher. He is a teacher with a new teaching, one with authority. Last week, when Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law, we were taught by Jesus that it is not God’s will for anyone to be sick or even have a fever. As Jeremiah prophesied: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm…”

I have said before, albeit somewhat selfishly, that I believe it is God’s will for all men to live to be over 100 years-old and perhaps be married to a much younger woman, which is, of course, perhaps the only way a man can get to a hundred.

However, living in this broken and fallen world, we rarely encounter people who have been so blessed. Because not everything that happens in this world is the will of God, we seldom encounter people with the vitality and longevity of BS and Joan Smith. That is why we are having a party today. This is why we are celebrating today as a community of faith. For their long life together is a special thing. It is a good thing. It is a God-willed thing.

Some of you may say, “Well, I don’t want to live to be 100.” I dare you to say that the last day of our 99th birthday if you look as good as BS Smith! You know who wanted to be a hundred? Well, this past Thursday, it was BS!

This morning, we are still in the first chapter of Mark, and Jesus is still teaching.

“A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling, he said to him…”

Can’t you just picture the desperation? You can almost see it: “begging,” “kneeling.” This picture teaches us that when we are desperate, when we are despairing, when we are anxious, we can always come to Jesus.

“If you choose, you can make me clean.”

Well, of course Jesus chooses. As we have already learned, Jesus never wills for anyone to suffer.

We are then told that Jesus is “moved with pity…” It is important to note that the Greek word here is a visceral, gut-wrenching word. Jesus was moved from deep within his soul. Jesus literally felt this man’s pain. Because he was suffering, Jesus also suffered. Some scholars have said that the word is better translated: “angry.” When Jesus encountered human suffering, it angered him.

Here, Jesus teaches us that God is moved by human misery and suffers with us. As I tried to say yesterday at Alawoise’s memorial service, God never willed for her have Parkinson’s disease. When Alawoise felt the very first symptoms of the disease, God felt it too, from deep within God’s very soul. So, of course, Jesus chooses for him to be made clean, whole and well.

Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and touches him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Here is where the story gets interesting. It is interesting, because Jesus reaches out his hand and “touches” this one who was considered by faith and society to be “untouchable.”

Leprosy was the most feared and dreaded disease of Jesus’ day, one that always brought horror and despair. Leprosy is an indefinite and general term used for a whitish rash on the skin. Spots, sores and swelling may also be present. It was an uncomfortable disease; however, what made leprosy so feared was no so much what it did to a person physically, but what it did not a person socially. The disease excluded one from the general population, and thus, from the people of God.

Chapters 13 and 14 of Leviticus discuss the social side effects of this disease at great length. Because a person with leprosy was considered to be “unclean,” a leper had to wear clothes which had been torn so they could be easily recognized and avoided. Lepers also had to cover their mouths and cry “unclean, unclean” in the presence of others so no one would approach them. Eduard Schweizer comments that rabbis considered a leper to be a “living corpse.” They were alive, but not alive. They were here, but not here; in the community, but not a part of the community. They were unalive, unaccepted, and untouchable.

So, when Jesus was deeply moved, or angered at the man’s disease, he was angry not only by the physical pain of it, but by the social pain of it— how this dehumanizing disease took people out of community, how it made them social outcasts, outsiders, untouchables.

However, at least one person did not regard the leper as untouchable. Mark writes that Jesus reaches out his hand and touches him. And “immediately the leprosy left him and he was made clean.”

The passages that we have been studying the past few weeks teach us a lot about healing. We learn that Jesus is against all forms of suffering. Jesus wants to deliver us from afflicting spirits, break our simple fevers and cleanse us of our most dreaded diseases. But, notice in this morning’s lesson that after Jesus touches and heals the leper, he gives the leper some “stern” instructions.

“After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

Although Jesus had made the man clean, he wanted him to follow through with the cleansing rituals that would restore him back into community. Yes, God is concerned about our physical well-being, but God is more concerned about our spiritual well-being and our acceptance into community. More than anything else, Jesus wanted this outsider to become an insider. Jesus wanted this untouchable to be touchable.

I think I speak for everyone when I talk about the admiration I have for BS and Joan Smith. Some might say, “Well, of course, you have. You have to admire couple who is 90 and 100 years old. However, it is not so much their physical age or physical vitality that I admire, as much as it is their determination to be in community. Almost every time I visit with them, they ask me about the well-being of others. How is “Jimmy Cowan? Have you heard from Joyce Letchworth? Tell me about Alawoise. How is Harold holding up?”

And on more than one occasion it has been one of them who actually informed me of a concern in the community. I can clearly hear BS asking: “Jarrett, did you hear about so-in-so? And with compassion obviously arching from deep within his soul, he shakes his head, and closes his eyes with almost an agony and anger and says: Shhhhhhhh.”

Both BS and Joan want to meet every new person than joins or even just attends our worship services. And they don’t just want to know their names. They want to know where they live, where they went to school, where they work; who are their parents? Who are their grandparents? They are genuinely interested in truly knowing them, loving them.

And BS constantly asks me about the whereabouts of certain people that he has missed from our gathered community of faith. “Jarrett, have you seen so-in-so? She has not been here in several Sundays. Jarrett, you need to go see her.”

And you should never be fooled by his poor eyesight and selective hearing, for he doesn’t miss a thing, especially when it concerns this, his community of faith.

And have you noticed something else about BS? He not only is concerned about you and others, he not only expresses his compassion and empathy for others, BS likes to reach out his hand and touch you. No matter who you are or where you are from, BS likes to hold your hand. For no one in BS’s book is an outsider. Through his eyes, it is as it is in the eyes of God, no one is untouchable. Everyone’s hand is to be touched, grasped, held. This morning, I am proud to say that BS and Joan are the epitome of who we are as a church.

For all are truly welcome here. This is indeed a safe place. We accept you as Christ accepts you: Just as you are. If you are sick, we pray for your healing. If you are grieving, we pray for your peace. Because we know that when you suffer, God also suffers, and because of that, we suffer.

And know this, here, in this place you will never be alone. Here in this sacred space, there will always be a hand to hold. For here, there are no outsiders. There are no untouchables. There is truly room at the table for all.

Mark continues: “But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word…and people came to [Jesus] from every quarter.”

May we go out this morning from this sacred place and do the same.

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