I bring you greetings from The Episcopal Church. We’re engaged in God’s mission in about 7000 congregations in 16 nations – in Taiwan and Micronesia, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, as well as the United States. We have been known as the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society since the early 1800s and we continue to try to live into that identity, knowing that God calls us to bridge all the borders that divide and separate human beings. This season of Epiphany reminds us that Jesus crossed the border between heaven and earth for the sake of all families, languages, peoples, and nations. We are sent to do the same kind of border-crossing work. This morning’s celebration is an important example, as the IFI and the ECP continue to move across borders that have separated people in the past. St. Jude’s even sits on the border between two dioceses, perhaps encouraging the faithful to keep crossing over! The relationships among our three churches are a further witness to a divided world, and it’s clear that together we have an ability to challenge the walls of injustice and violence that others try to build in this country and beyond.
The lepers in this morning’s readings are stuck behind social borders. They are walled off from their communities, forbidden to cross into “clean” territory. Maybe you’ve seen an air curtain in an architecturally innovative building. Those air curtains are designed to separate the outside from the inside – usually to keep the temperature inside the building more constant, to save energy and keep the air cleaner. Clean rooms for surgery or manufacturing computer chips are similarly designed to keep the inside environment sterile.
Naaman and the leper in the gospel live in a hermetically sealed world like that, shut away from neighbors by an invisible wall, only they’re on the outside, looking in. Their skin diseases give very public evidence of their uncleanness, and their societies have walled them off from interaction with so-called “clean” and “normal” people. Being unclean is much more a social disease than a physical one. In the ancient world there were other ways of being unclean that couldn’t be seen by your neighbors. The lepers know they are judged unclean, and if you read carefully, you’ll discover that they ask to be cleansed, rather than healed. The varieties of uncleanness are evidenced by the requirement that their newly clean state be certified before they’re permitted to rejoin society. It isn’t enough just to look good.
The ancient world had a well-defined system for dividing up the world, with societies divided into categories like clean and unclean, sacred and profane, shamed and dignified (or perhaps something like ‘appropriately proud’). In those days, people were afraid of pollution, both physical and spiritual, and the things you were supposed to stay away from were well known – dead people, women, foreigners, Samaritans. We would recognize some of those categories today: foreigners, immigrants, adherents of other religious traditions, people from the “wrong” families or parts of town. Adults divide up the world like that, and children do it, too – you can watch them chalk off the playground, often by gender and in-groups vs. out-groups.
Naaman is a powerful military leader, but he’s in trouble because people can see he’s got a skin disease – and something visible like eczema or psoriasis gives others the idea that there must be something dangerous about him, and they shouldn’t get too close. He just might have an evil spirit that will infect us!
The gospel leper wants to be clean more than anything else – he comes on his knees. He and Naaman go looking for restorers, people who will make them clean and once again fit for community interaction. They want to be restored to relationship.
We know that orphans don’t thrive if they are put in institutions that only care for their physical needs. Children need to be held and hugged and talked to. Adults need human interaction just as much – we all eventually begin to shrivel in enforced solitude.
Gospel work is about restoring relationships, with God and neighbor. It’s about cleaning us up for polite and wholesome society, and welcoming us back to the banquet table.
Most of the pain and dysfunction in human lives, whether it’s poverty, violence, war, arrogance, or oppression, arises from the boundaries we draw between “our” kind of people, the clean ones, and those outside the wall, whom we often define as dirty or less than human. We are pretty good at dressing up those divisions with fancy language, saying that this person is a criminal or an enemy, or that one isn’t “nice,” or that group over there will corrupt my children. In spite of all that division, God keeps looking for ways to break down the walls.
Who are the lepers around the edges of your community? People who’ve got HIV? Muslims? People from the lowlands? Tourists? Soldiers? What does it take to pronounce them clean and fit for relationship?
Jesus gives us example after example of breaking down those walls. He eats with all sorts of officially unclean people, he talks to women, he touches dirty people, he meets with his enemies, and he invites everybody to the banquet.
The people Jesus gathers as disciples are mostly unclean or dubiously righteous: Mary Magdalene, who has been healed from “demons,” fishermen, a tax collector, at least one revolutionary zealot, and plenty of other folk who know what it is to live on the margins. He is particularly attractive to people on the outs – that’s who all those crowds of people following him were – the landless and unemployed, the sick and the poor, and even some of the officially clean people who didn’t feel so clean.
Those marginal people are often the source of societal cleansing, even when they are feared because of their difference. Look at the slave girl in Naaman’s story, who steps across a border in order to break down a wall. She is a slave because her master’s soldiers captured her. But she offers to help him through one of her home-town prophets. There’s quite a lot of risky boundary-crossing going on here!
The outsider is an essential part of our own cleansing, for we cannot be wholly restored to right relationship without him or her. What we see as unclean God has already pronounced good at creation. That one on the outside is God’s beloved daughter or son. Who are we to cry, “unclean, unclean!”
The divisions between clean and unclean, inside and outside, friend and stranger, are maintained not only by those who draw the boundaries, but by those who accept those boundaries as normal. Sometimes we participate in our own exclusion by accepting somebody else’s definition of us as “unclean.” That has something to do with the requirement that the leper go and show himself to the priest. He needs somebody else to validate his cleansing. We need others to remind us of our belovedness – we cannot be whole and healed and holy all alone. It takes a community. Even God is a community.
At creation, God pronounces all of it “good.” Humanity is blessed and called “very good.” The great creation stories of Genesis insist that human beings are made for relationship, that it is not good for human beings to be alone. We are created for partnership with other human beings and with God, to tend the garden, break down the dividing walls, and bring the unclean inside the community. Who is being left outside? Who needs to hear, “I do choose – be made clean”? We can say those words and be the ones who restore others to community. All of us at one time or another need to hear those words and experience that restoration ourselves. Will you go and do likewise?