Sunday, October 13, 2013
Keeping Their Distance
Keeping Their Distance from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.
Our gospel lesson this morning is from the seventeenth chapter of Luke. By the seventeenth chapter, we’ve already heard the story of the Prodigal Son. We’ve already seen Jesus heal on the sabbath. By the seventeenth chapter, we’ve already learned the Lord’s prayer. We’ve already hear the story of the Good Samaritan. By the seventeenth chapter, Christ’s followers have already been sent out to proclaim the good news of God and returned to him. Twice. By the seventeenth chapter, we’ve already been fed alongside a crowd of five-thousand. We’ve already seen the dead raised and the seas calmed.
By the seventeenth chapter, we can probably assume that word has gotten around about Jesus’s ability to work miracles, to heal and to feed God’s people. But knowing that healing is in Jesus’s power, they still keep their distance, as if they are shielding themselves from the rejection they have already faced so many times from so many other people who should have answered their plea to “Show us mercy!”
Most folks have heard that leprosy is the Biblical description for any of many skin diseases, not necessarily just for the chronic bacterial infection we know it as today. Those who suffered from whatever condition had been identified as leprosy were ostracized, kicked out of the social order for the duration of their disease. Their uncleanness was seen as a punishment for some sin for which they had not atoned.
This kind of social separation a way of keeping the community pure, of keeping those who retained their righteousness from being pulled off-course by those who sinned and did not make restoration for it. Jewish Law and custom provided ways for those who were cast out in this way to be reinstated to the community, they had to prove that their disease was gone to a priest, who would then declare them ready to rejoin their congregation. But until that time, they were shunned.
It is no surprise, then, that people would hide their skin conditions as long as they were able, not wanting to be seen as the abnormal sinner, worthy of rejection by their community and their God.
The signs of their need for the LORD are written on their skin, and yet the shy away from one who they know can heal them, because they’ve been shown over and over again that they are only worthy of rejection.
I wonder how much of their fear we can see in ourselves.
Their brokenness is clearly visible, and oftentimes ours is not. Instead of a skin affliction, it’s guilt, or fear, or anger. Maybe it’s just the feeling that we’re only going through the motions of our lives and it doesn’t have any meaning. I think for many people, it’s a fear that people will see that we’re only faking our way through things, and we’re not actually as calm or in control as we seem, we just hope no one notices that we have no idea how to handle a situation.
My dad is a big Simon and Garfunkle fan. We were listening to one of their albums on Dad’s record player one night, and the song “I am a Rock” came on. It sang of a person who isolated themselves because they had been hurt before, refusing the love of others because, in one verse, “If I never loved I never would have cried.” As the song came to and end, Dad held up a hand to emphasize the closing lyrics, “I am a Rock/I am an island./ And a Rock feels no pain./And an Island never cries.” As the music faded, he voiced the implied question, “So why am I crying?”
We tell ourselves that we are the rock, the island, that we are unaffected by what’s going on around us because it protects us from being hurt.
So we keep our distance, because if people could see that our wounds are not skin deep, but have infected the core of our being, surely they would reject as thoroughly as the lepers who find themselves keeping their distance outside a town on the border of Galilee. So we find ways to protect ourselves from the truth of our brokenness, to avoid our weakness.
We spend so long covering up our leprosy that we sometimes begin to believe it’s not there. Or we tell ourselves it’s just a small thing that will resolve itself before too long. Nothing to worry about.
That’s where we find the Exiled people to whom Jeremiah is writing.
Jeremiah was appointed prophet during a disastrous time for the people of Judah. During his ministry, the Babylonian Empire conquers Judah and carries its people away from the Promised Land. What’s worse, they destroy the temple. For the ancient Judeans, everything they have believed about God is under attack, their home is destroyed and they are ripped away from the promise of God. Reality doesn’t make sense anymore, and a number of false prophets try to console the people by saying that they’ll soon return and that everything will be ok again soon.
But the Babylonian Captivity lasts for seventy years. It isn’t over quickly, and in order to survive and remain in relationship with God, the people need to deal with what’s really going on in their world, even though it is a painful process, it is a necessary one.
Jeremiah’s letter to those who have been carried off to Babylon requires the people to face their brokenness on a national level. He tells them again and again that they cannot pretend it will all be over soon, but to rebuild their communities and lives again in the new place to which they have been taken. He tells them to act in faith when everything around them is screaming to react out of fear and self-protection.
The Captives in Babylon have seen in their own lives that nothing about their reality was reliable, not their monarchy, not their temple worship, not even their homes. In a disaster like this one, their identity is totally broken, and the world doesn’t make sense anymore. If any population would have an excuse to withdraw into themselves and not to trust or rely on anyone, it is those who lived through this nation-spanning trauma.
Yet Jeremiah coaxes them out of their withdrawal, commands them to have faith that they have a future again. He tells them to build houses and settle down, To get married and have children, and to tell those children to get married and have children of their own. He even tells them to pray for the cities of those who have carried them into exile. Because their future depends on its welfare.
But they have a future. Though this terrible thing has happened, and more traumas may be in the future, God promises a future. God’s redemptive arm is working even through the violence and suffering of their reality, sending a prophet to heal their community identity, to make sure that they know that although life is not always good, God is.
I recently hear a story from a friend of mine who works in a hospital about a family who had received bad news about a patient, and was reacting angrily. My friend, who was doing an internship with the Chaplain’s office, has a background in the military, three black belts, and ran his own bouncing service for a while before going into ministry. So when one of these family members got into his face, everything in his background screamed at him to hit first, before the guy could hurt him. Had he done so, he would have forever been mythologized as the Chaplain who punched someone.
But he didn’t. He chose to remain vulnerable. An angry, grieving, family member was looking for someone at whom to be angry, and my friend chose to neither hit first nor run away. He had the faith to be vulnerable, as Jeremiah did. To remain open to God’s action in their lives. The people have been so traumatized that they do not even know what they need, but God is there, speaking to and through Jeremiah, because even when we don’t know it, we need the LORD.
I’ve met dozens of people who have claimed to not be in some way wounded by their lives. I’ve met many people who have said that they have been able to handle everything without anyone’s help. I’ve met many people who assert that they are strong enough to build their lives by themselves.
But I have never met anyone for whom that was true. Some folks are really good at hiding their wounds, at masking their darkness, at covering their shame. But everybody has been exiled in some way. Everybody is a leper who fears being cast out. We work so hard to be the rugged individuals of the American Dream, those who faced the world on their own and triumphed on their own strength. But try as we might, we are not those people.
But I don’t think we need to be. I think we need to be the kind of people who can remember that we need each other, and that more importantly, we need God. It’s been said that “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I hate that phrase. I think it’s another way to pretend we are strong, and to avoid dealing with the real pain in our lives. What doesn’t kill you leaves unfeeling scar tissue. God makes you stronger.
When Jesus saw the lepers, he said “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they left, they were cleansed. There’s no bargain, no demand to be paid back. God sees people who are wounded, who are unclean, and heals them without question. They knew their condition, and cried out to Jesus for help. I don’t think they were especially sinful, or unusually broken, I think their particular brand of exile was just easier to see than those of the community members who had cast them out. Perhaps we will be able to recognize, as the lepers did, that we cannot be who God has created us to be on our own. Perhaps we should trade our “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” for “God’s strength is perfected in weakness.” Perhaps we should abandon the fantasy of the self-made man for the hope of the God-centered community.
Then maybe when the LORD comes by we can approach him, confess our sickness, and be healed. Then, without having to run off and prove ourselves, we can join the Samaritan, who was already an outsider, in grateful praise of a God who will be with us even though we cannot be worthy of that presence and love on our own.
That’s the kind of God we have, one who knows our brokenness and whose isn’t stopped by it. Even though that means that we take God’s love to the cross, God will not exile us for our spiritual leprosy any longer, but when we try to keep our distance, God pursues us to the cross, to the grave, and to resurrection to show that God’s loving desire to be with us is stronger than what separates us.