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Jesus and the Armadillo

John Leedy

February 12, 2012
Mark 1:40-45

02-12-2012 Sermon It was hot that day.  The sweltering, dry sun beat against the man’s already burning, red skin.  His skin, his wretched, leprous skin.  His source of shame, isolation, and great impurity.  Cast out from society, from his family, and his home, he had pleaded with the temple priests for healing, for acceptance, for his inclusion in society.  They had laughed and cast, once again, the outward pointing finger at him.  Unable to find work and forced to beg, the man clung to the fringes of the city, the realm of the unclean, the no-man’s land.  He was a ward of the public, unable to find respite in a home or a place of worship.  He was an untouchable, for to touch a man such as him would impart the same curse of impurity upon anyone who had cared for him.  Anyone who touched him would become a holy target, one who would no longer be accepted by the faithful and cast out from among them…to be forgotten…to be silenced…to die.  Turning a corner, the leper stumbled across group of folks walking and talking up the street.  The young man in the middle of the group seemed familiar.  Could this man be a rabbi, a holy person?  Would this man be willing to heal him? To give him another chance at life?  With nothing to lose, the leper fell to his knees before the group, closed his eyes and begged the man saying “If you choose, you can make me clean.”  It was silent for a moment.  The leper opened his eyes and looked up.  His heart sank.  There was anger in the man’s eyes.

It was hot that day.  I couldn’t have been older than 8 years old when my cub scout troop went camping in the piney woods of East Texas.  That hot, muggy gulf humidity made the air so thick, nothing short of having gills would have made breathing more bearable.  After pitching our tents and setting up the camp kitchen, my fellow scouts and I set out into the woods to explore.  Walking quietly along, my ears perked to the sound of rustling in a nearby holly bush.  Out from the shrub burst the biggest armadillo I had ever seen to this day.  Roughly the size of a small rhinoceros, the pre-historic looking beast scampered toward me– it’s grey scaly armor flashing against the orange pine straw that covered the forest floor.  Suddenly aware of my presence, it stopped a moment – frozen.  If ever I had experienced a more epic stand off between man and beast, I couldn’t tell you.  There we stood, staring at one another, each of us determining how this was about to go down.  Then from behind, I heard my scout leader holler, “Hey look, John found an armadillo!”  Found an armadillo was an understatement – just like saying, hey look, John’s out in the ocean found a group of great white sharks.  Our paths had crossed by chance, and sooner or later, one of us was going to have to make the first move.

I wonder if this was how Jesus felt as he looked into the face of the leper at his feet.  Certainly lepers were common in his day.  In Jesus’ time, when someone contracted a skin disease, they were to go to the temple for examination. Without modern medicine, many skin diseases were labeled as leprosy.  The term leprosy in the Bible is more a generic term for skin disease than the more precise pathology of today.  To have contracted leprosy in ancient times meant disaster for a person.  The prescribed treatment of leprosy was isolation from society – to prevent others from contracting the illness.  The priests, who were to function as healers, were to proclaim the person unclean until their malady had cleared up – if it ever did.  To be unclean was to be shamed, to be ostracized from the family and from the “ritually clean” public.  One would have to announce one’s uncleanliness before others on the street in order to give them time to back away from you.  To be unclean meant you were not welcome in a house of worship – your unclean-ness could be transferred by touch to others.  In fact, anything you touched became unclean.  You could not eat with others, sleep near others, or enter the homes of others.

As my scout master approached the scene, the mighty armadillo, sensing being outnumbered, quickly turned on his stubby hind legs and ran off.  “Good thing you didn’t touch him,” said the scout leader.  “Yeah,” I thought, “as if my first instinct was to offer my hand to the Doberman sized Sherman tank murder monster.”  The scout master continued, “If you had touched him, you could have gotten leprosy.”  I suppose this is a kind of Texas wisdom akin to “make sure you close the cattle gate behind you” and “don’t get too friendly with fire ants.”  Oddly enough, those were two other hard lessons I learned in the boy scouts.  Anyway, I remember thinking back to my scout masters warning – “If you had touched him, you could have gotten leprosy.”  I had heard as a child not to touch things in case they were germy.  But this was touching another living thing – another living thing that had the ability to transfer illness, disease, uncleanliness.  That moment established in my young consciousness a fear of the unclean touch – that there are things, possibly living things, in this world that could defile you if you so much as touched them.

The leper took a deep breath, waiting for yet another rejection from a holy person.  Then the man spoke.  But not in the wrathful tone he was expecting.  His tone was strong, purposeful, intentional.  “I do choose.” He said. “Be made clean.”  Elation filled the man’s heart, “At last, he thought, someone willing to give me another chance at life, someone willing to walk me through the healing process.”  Then the leper froze, a new sensation gripping him.  A sensation he had not felt in years.  Someone was touching him.  He looked to his shoulder. The man was grasping his arm.  Not just a glancing touch, but a fully conscious hold.  The leper looked up and as he did, the man reached out with his other hand and touched his face.  His leprous, scaly, diseased… wait! No! The touch of the man’s hand did not burn.  It did not cause pain.  The man’s hand met no lesions or scars.  His face was smooth, clean.  He looked at his arms, once covered in the shameful red marks of leprosy, now restored flesh, good as new.  Standing to face this miracle worker, this holy healer, he was immediately caught off guard by the man’s words.  “Look, I know this must be a big moment for you, but see that you say nothing to anyone about this to anyone.  I want you to do something bigger, something bolder.  I want you to re-enter the city, march into the temple, into the holy place, right into the face of the priests, and offer yourself for cleansing.  I want you to show them what the Kingdom of God looks like, face to face.”

As we read on in the text, we are startled by Jesus’ words to the healed leper.  I know that if I had just miraculously healed someone of a crippling disease, I would want the world to know.  But Jesus knew that something bigger than healing was at work here.  Our text says that when Jesus encountered the leper, he was “moved to pity.”  I want to take a second look at that word “pity.”  The Greek for that word is “splanchnizomai.”  Let’s all say that together – I’m just kidding.  To translate this word as pity doesn’t do it justice.  In fact, there is not a truly good English translation of this word.  To get close to it, we have to understand splanchnizomai as Brian Blount writes, as a “profoundly intense response that viscerally propels one feeling compassion into action on behalf of others.”  So instead of pity, let’s try to understand Jesus’ feeling toward the leper as a kind of holy and righteous anger.  It is anger on a mission.

Why does Jesus get angry here?  Is it at the leper? Certainly not.  A clue to this can be found in Jesus’ instruction to the leper after he is healed.  In his book, Binding the Strong Man, Ched Myers explains the source of Jesus’ anger: “Jesus’ instructions that the leper go back to the priests and undergo ritual cleansing only make sense if the man had already been to the priests and been rejected, who had for some reason rejected his petition.  Jesus makes clear that the cleansed leper’s task is not to publicize a miracle but to help confront an ideological system… He is to make the offering for the purpose of witnessing against them.”  The phrase, “witnessing against them” is a technical phrase found in the Gospel.  It is the same phrase used in the gospels for testifying before a hostile audience.

Church, we live in a society crowded with lepers walking in the midst of hostile audiences.  Think for a moment of those our society deems untouchable, on the fringes, not welcome among us.  Need some help?  Jon Walton, Presbyterian Pastor of First Presbyterian in New York city tells the story of a friend who, after leaving the doctors office upon hearing his positive diagnosis for HIV, walked down Madison Avenue in a daze; the only word he could think of was “unclean.”  Jon comments that “It was bad enough to know he was ill, but quite another to feel the social ostracism he might suffer, not only from people who didn’t understand his illness, but also from his friends who he believed would now look down on him.”  Every year, the youth and others of this church participate in the Austin AIDS Walk, last year, one of our teenagers approached me during the walk and asked, “Hey, I see a lot of companies and charities here, why are there not more churches walking?”

Let’s expand the circle a little bit.  What other types of unclean folks walk among our hostile audiences?  Who else is at the fringes of our society?  Last week, I noticed a post begin to trend on Facebook.  The “Drop the I Word campaign” began sweeping across the internet.  As I looked closer at this movement, I was trying to think to myself – What I word were they talking about?  Then I saw it.  This was a campaign to ask people to stop using the term “illegals” to describe people.  You and I both know the people group we are talking about.  People our society deems as illegals – as if that word constituted their identity.  Use of that word sets up two distinct people groups – the legals and illegals, more Biblically speaking, the clean and unclean.  I remember another campaign asking people to drop the R-Word, proclaiming that one’s ability to learn was not a label of identity, just as one’s immigration status was not a label of their identity.  The more we widen the circle, the more words, the more labels, the more people groups we are forced to reckon with.  To Jesus Christ, a person who had leprosy was not a leper, but a human.  To Jesus Christ, someone from another country was not an illegal, but a child of God.  To Jesus Christ, someone living on the streets was not a hobo, but a brother or a sister.  We live in a society crowded with lepers walking in the midst of hostile audiences.

And who exactly are these hostile audiences?  In Jesus’ time, it was the religious institution.  Now let me clarify.  These were good, well-intentioned people that were being faithful to their covenant, their instruction.  They are not the enemy.  Nor are the institutions of our day, our government, our churches, and our causes.  These institutions seek to be faithful to their founding principles, their beliefs, and their identities.  The hostile audience that Jesus told the cleansed leper to testify against was not a religious one.  Jesus very well could have said “Sir, march yourself down to the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and present yourself.”  The hostile audience that Jesus testifies against is greater than any one religion, government, or cause.  The hostile audience is us.  The hostile audience is you and me – our very human nature.  This deep conviction that it is possible for other living things to defile you if you so much as touched them.  It is this human nature that draws lines, sets up barriers, builds walls between us and them, legal and illegal, healthy and sick, smart and slow, gay and straight, clean and unclean.  Jesus is testifying against the nature of sin, against the very death of the perfect creation that God set into motion.  Jesus reaches out and touches, seizes the walls built by our fear and sends them crashing down.  Jesus, by touching the leper, literally becomes himself unclean – one who has taken on and identified with the marginalized of the world.  Dropping words is not enough.  Jesus commands us to touch, to identify, to become one with those on the fringes of society.

Friends, hear the good news of the Gospel: we are all re-claimed lepers.  We have all felt the sting at some point in our lives of being outcasts, of feeling different, of being shamed.  But we have all been touched by the grace of Jesus Christ that breaks through the barriers dividing us from one another, even down to the barriers of sin and death that separate us from the love of God.  We are called by Christ not just to revel in our new found freedom and acceptance, but to boldly stand up to a hostile world and present a new story, a new reality, new skin – washed by the healing touch of Jesus Christ.  Just as San last Sunday, preached that after being healed, Simon’s mother-in-law became the first deacon, we see this week that the re-claimed leper became the first of the evangelists.  Our text says that the leper went out and began to proclaim this good news freely.  This is our call this morning – that although we walk amongst hostile audiences, we are reclaimed lepers, shouting the good news of the Kingdom of God out into the world.  We are breaking in the new reality of Jesus Christ, a reality that exclaims that none are left out, none are excluded from the table, and none are banned from society or the church.  It is this very Kingdom of God where lions and lambs rest together, where friend and foe sit at table with one another, and yes, even where boy scouts and armadillos give each other a hug.  Amen.