March 1, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE DISABLED AND THE SICK
The second in a series of eight.
Christmas is over. We’re working our way through Luke’s Gospel in this Lenten series. Luke begins with Christmas, so that’s where we began last week. Yes, I know, it seemed a little strange. Each of the four Gospels offers its own unique slant on who Jesus was. In Luke we see that Jesus had a heart for nobodies. The people others didn’t have time for were the people Jesus took time for. Sinners, tax collectors, outcasts, the poor, the marginalized. These were the people he ate with and associated with. And these were the people who flocked to him.
Beginning with the night shift shepherds at Bethlehem. They were the lowest of the low. God gave them a special invitation to the manger. Then the story continues with two other nobodies, Simeon and Anna. These were two old people who had outlived their usefulness in the eyes of the world. The passage in Luke about them blessing the baby Jesus is as long and detailed as the familiar Christmas story. So obviously they weren’t nobodies to God.
The story skips from Jesus the baby to Jesus the twelve-year-old. He’s in the Temple with the Bible scholars. This nobody little kid is holding his own with the most highly respected somebodies of the Jewish faith. Again we have this theme of the one who appears to be a nobody, in fact being a somebody.
Then we skip from age 12 to age 30 when Jesus begins his public ministry. In chapter 4, he is back home in Nazareth. He’s speaking in his home synagogue. It’s a Rodney Dangerfield moment for Jesus. He can’t get any respect. They remember him as this little kid, this nobody. Now he’s acting like a somebody. Like he’s too good for them. Who does he think he is? The story ends with them trying to throw Jesus off a cliff. They were unsuccessful. Can you imagine how that would have changed things if Jesus had died at the base of a cliff at age 30 instead of on a cross at age 33? It wasn’t his time. He escaped.
So why were the people in Nazareth unable to see Jesus for who he really was? The nobodies we met earlier, the shepherds and Simeon and Anna, recognized Jesus as a somebody. Even the somebodies in the Temple saw in that 12-year-old boy something extraordinary. But to the somebodies in Nazareth, he was a nobody.
How we see things makes all the difference in the world. It’s not the things we see so much as the way we see the things we see. Do we see what’s there before our eyes and reach the obvious conclusion? We’ve seen this before. We know what we’re looking at. So we jump ahead to all these judgments and pronouncements. Or are we able to see past the surface appearances? Are we able to interrupt that judgment circuit that automatically kicks in? Are we able to see God’s possibilities when God’s possibilities are hidden from view? How do you see things? How do you see Jesus?
There’s a Canadian sculptor named Timothy Schmalz whose work of art has been rejected by more places than it has been accepted. It is a homeless man sleeping on a park bench.
From a distance it looks like a real person. But you get close and it’s obviously a statue. And you get closer and you can see the pierced feet. It is Jesus.
It was first offered to St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Both turned it down. It ended up in front of an Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina. There were a few letters written to the editor of the local newspaper. It was called an eyesore. One person said it “creeped [him] out”. Here is one of the more articulate letters:
My complaint is not about the art worthiness or meaning behind the sculpture. It’s about people driving into our beautiful, reasonably upscale neighborhood and seeing an ugly homeless person sleeping on a park bench.
As it turns out, a cast of this sculpture is waiting approval by the City of Rome to be installed on a sidewalk leading to St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Francis has already blessed it.
But here’s the question: What if it wasn’t a sculpture? What if it was a real person who had no better place to sleep? What would you see then? There’s that old hymn, “Open My Eyes That I May See.” How often do you make eye contact with the people you come upon who are obviously down on their luck? People holding cardboard signs asking for money. Do you look at them or do you pretend they aren’t there? Because you wish they weren’t there.
Or people with disabilities that make you uncomfortable. A few days ago many of us saw Richard Pimentel’s movie again and that unforgettable scene of him and his friend Art Honeyman being kicked out of the Pancake House. What did they do? Art had cerebral palsy. He looked strange. He was making the other customers uncomfortable. They wished he wasn’t there. The waitress spoke for them: “I thought people like you were supposed to die at birth.”
What a contrast to the way Jesus saw people! He left Nazareth and he met Art Honeyman. He met a leper. He met a man with the most feared disease of that day. If you had leprosy you were a nobody if ever there was a nobody. If you had a friend who was a leper, you would be kicked out of any restaurant for sure. In Oregon back in the 70’s, there was an “ugly law”. You could be arrested if you were so “maimed, mutilated, or diseased” that your appearance was upsetting. In Jesus’ day in the Holy Land, there was a “leprosy law”. You had to keep your distance from healthy people. You had to cry out “unclean! unclean!” to warn people to stay away.
Jesus didn’t stay away. Nobodies never repelled Jesus. They always attracted him. He didn’t much care if he associated with the somebodies. But the nobodies were his kind of people. Even nobodies who might infect him with a dread disease. He looked at this man and he didn’t see a leper. He saw a human being. He saw a child of God.
While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy; and when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and besought him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And he stretched out his hand, and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him.
Jesus saw in the leper something others couldn’t see. He saw a child of God. And the leper saw in Jesus something others couldn’t see. He saw the Son of God. He saw God’s healing power. Look at the words he speaks: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”
I think if I might have worded my request a little more tentatively. I might have said, “Lord, I’m hoping that maybe you might possibly perhaps be able to heal me. I don’t mean to impose. And I will understand if there is no cure for what I’ve got. Anything you can do will be greatly appreciated. And if you can’t do anything, I’m no worse off than I was before. So no worries.” I don’t think I would have been so bold and so confident and so full of total faith as to say, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”
Do you hear what he’s saying? He’s saying, “Jesus, I know you can.” He’s not saying, “Jesus, could you please heal me?” He’s saying, “Jesus, you can heal me. I know you can. So the only remaining question is, Will you? If you will, you can make me clean.”
Jesus said, “I will. Be clean.” And that’s all there was to it. The leper was no longer a leper. He was clean. The nobody was no longer a nobody. He was a somebody. He was always a somebody. Jesus saw that in him. And he saw that Jesus was a somebody, too. Somebody who could heal, if only he would. Not, Could he? but, Would he?
Are there any of you in need of healing? Unless I’m way off there’s no one here who isn’t in need of healing. Healing of the body. Healing of the spirit. Healing of memories. Healing of addictions. Healing of resentments. Healing of sin. Are there any of you bold enough to do what this man did? He laid it all before the feet of Jesus. He held nothing back. No tentativeness. No caution. No equivocation. He said, “This is me. This is who I am. And I have absolute faith that you can take the nobody that I am and turn me into a somebody.”
Leprosy was misunderstood in Jesus’ day. We call it Hansen’s Disease. It’s really not very contagious. All those laws and all that fear was really a lot of fuss over nothing.
But the greater misunderstanding regarding leprosy and really all disease was that it was a punishment sent from God for sin. We know better. And yet how often when we get sick do we instinctively say, “What did I do to deserve this? What sin did I commit?” We know the answer. We got sick because we were unlucky, not because we are worse sinners than the next person. But still this old idea that sickness and sin are connected is hard to shake.
In fact, the very word Jesus uses when he heals this man is the word also used for forgiveness. Katharidzo. It means healing and it also means cleansing. It means purifying. It means taking away our sins.
This man didn’t have leprosy because of his sins but he thought he had leprosy because of sins. That’s the way he had chosen to see himself. Others saw him that way, too. They saw him as a nobody and he gladly agreed with them. That would have probably been the end of it, except for Jesus. This despised, pathetic leper saw in Jesus the power to set him free. And Jesus did just that. Jesus healed him. Healed him of leprosy. Healed him of sin. It’s the same word. Katharidzo. He was a somebody now. Set free from disease. Set free from sin.
Right here in this encounter between Jesus and the leper we see the whole Gospel. It’s the Gospel in miniature. A man places his faith in Jesus. A man lays his whole life before Jesus, holding nothing back. His sickness, his sin, his shame, his secrets, his separation. Jesus reaches down and picks all this up and takes it upon himself. So the leper is no longer a leper. He is free. He walks forward faithfully and without fear. He now has a purpose in life. He, like Jesus, is going to find meaning in serving.
But what about Jesus? Jesus is now the leper, figuratively speaking. He would have to suffer a leper’s lot — separation, rejection, shame, death. Jesus who knew no sin had become sin. He had rendered himself unclean. Which is exactly what he will do on the cross — taking upon himself our sin and shame and guilt and doubt and darkness. Why? So we can be set free and become like Christ.
Paul captured this beautifully in the second chapter of Philippians.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Jesus Christ, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross (2:5-8).
In Luke’s Gospel, the Gospel of the Nobodies, we see Jesus emptying himself, humbling himself, lowering himself, so that we could be lifted up.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. We had a fair number of people that night for a brief worship service with ashes. Ashes aren’t very pretty. Some of us feel a little self-conscious with ashes smeared across our foreheads. We can’t wait to slip into the bathroom to wash it off. But what a powerful reminder that out of something ugly Jesus can create something beautiful! Out of the dirt and the muck of our lives Jesus says, “Be clean.” “Katharidzo.” Jesus takes on all that dirt and all that muck and we walk away free.
Lord Jesus, we come to you as lepers who need to be cleansed, as sinners who need to be set free. May we see in you what the leper saw: your gracious love and your healing power. We boldly speak those words of faith: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And we confidently listen for your response: “I will. Be clean.” In your name, Amen.