Epiphany 6, 2012
I have this birthday card that we bought for my grandmother a couple of years ago. I never really got around to sending it. I was working in two parishes, and Charity was beginning her work as a counselor, and—of course, Gareth had just come along, so we had two little boys to look after… At least those were all of the reasons I gave myself for why I never wrote anything in it, and I never sent it.
We actually bought the card the same year that my grandmother had gone into a nursing home. She had lost most of her vision from macular degeneration, and was showing the beginning signs of dementia. And after a long bout with shingles, she never fully recovered her mobility.
Anyway, I think that part of my reason for never sending the card was that I wanted to hang on to something—it was like my denial that she would never be in her house again, and that she would always be there to be my advocate.
Now, something you have to understand is that I’m the youngest of three children, and the only boy. This, of course, gave me great advantage in many areas of life—especially with my grandmother, who constantly reminded me that I was going to carry on the family name (and all of that). Well, once I reached adolescence and became less and less likable; it never seemed to matter what I’d done, or what kind of trouble I was having in school. My grandmother was always an advocate for me, and her house was always a safe place for me to land. And I’m pretty certain that I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t had her in my corner. In fact, I might not be alive if she hadn’t been there to knock sense into me when I needed it.
As I thought about this card and my grandmother—more than sentimentality—I realized what an amazing gift I was given in her. Y’know, just to have a safe place, where I was accepted unconditionally gave me some grounding—even just a place to get my head straight (and often she was the one to provide the straightening).
And in a world where young people are killing themselves because they can’t handle the pressure put upon them; or because of bullying…I have to say that having that safe place was essential to me getting through those years.
What got me thinking of all of this was something I had read in a commentary on today’s reading. This story where a man with leprosy approaches Jesus and asks for healing, and Jesus performs the healing, and sends the man away…yadda-yadda (very Markan Gospel). But as it turns out, there is a textual issue that could add a whole extra dimension to the story.
The word is that in older forms of the text, Jesus’ reaction is not “pity” as we have it in our translation. Instead, it might be translated as “anger” or “indignation.” Apparently Jesus was “moved to indignation” when he saw the man with leprosy…
Now there are a couple of ways that we can look at this; either Jesus was frustrated that his mission to preach the coming of the Kingdom had been stalled by one more sick person—not a really positive image. Or he was angry at what this man’s plight represented about society. Namely, he was a reminder of a social system which had become divine judge and jury to the sick and the lame. A system which forced people who needed help and support into isolation.
But, judging from the way that Jesus responds with a willingness to heal the man, (and a touch to confer that healing)—I would have to say that the latter understanding is most appropriate. That, in fact, Jesus was moved to heal the man out of compassion, but moved to indignation by what the man had gone through. The sins of the world, I guess you could say.
Historically, we know that people with leprosy were outcasts because of how contagious the disease was to people. In Jewish religious life, a person with leprosy was not only considered physically unclean, but also ritually unclean. Levitical Law was clear about what was expected of people with leprosy. Effectively they were to live outside of civilization. They were not permitted to share in the daily life of the community, and they were prohibited from worshiping in the religious community. And only in the case of miraculous recovery could a person return, after having seen the priest and given the appointed offering.
This was such a strict practice that (if we remember from our Old Testament reading), even Elisha didn’t touch Naaman when he came to be healed. However, here in Mark’s Gospel, we have Jesus not only healing the leprous man, but touching him and sending him to be readmitted into civilization both socially and religiously speaking.
Now, I wasn’t on a quest to try to figure out who would be considered a leper in today’s society—that just seems vulgar and opportunistic. But I am interested in this “indignation” idea, and I’m especially interested in our own response to the way our society seems to fail so miserably at caring for those who need it—even if it’s just a matter of giving people a safe place to land.
The truth is that I probably could have worked up a laundry list of things for us to respond to, and that wouldn’t have been terrible. But sometimes indignation calls us to outward action, and sometimes it calls us to a new kind of openness.
This is why I keep coming back to this idea of a safe place…a place like the one my grandmother made for me…a place where people could be accepted no matter what.
Perhaps it sounds overly simple, but it makes me wonder what could be different if we made a safe place for people.
I mean what if a safe place meant keeping young people who are gay from committing suicide because they feel like they don’t belong anywhere else? Or any young person for that matter? What if a safe place meant making room for a divorcee who has been disowned by other churches? What if a safe place meant making a home for broken, faulted, lost people?
I can imagine that we’d be able to find more than a few people to join us.
Outside the door that leads to the sacristy, we have one of those familiar metal signs which reads: “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” Maybe some of us have gotten so used to seeing them around that we forget how powerful a message that is… But for the people who do see it, and can really believe it, the Episcopal Church might just be the touch and word that could bring them back to a relationship with God and God’s people.
I think I can speak for all of us when I say that this is certainly a place of transformation. So, people could definitely find this to be a safe place.
And just imagine if we had more than just the metal sign to tell people, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” Better still, what if by our life and love and welcome in this place, we could tell people that God welcomes you…? I imagine all that it would take is for those of us who have found our own safe place here to offer the same hospitality to others.