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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ins and Outs

In Jesus Christ, God makes all outsiders insiders, calling us through each other to become people who in turn see no boundaries, no obstructions, to others, rather who welcome with God’s arms.  This is the healing, the grace, the salvation of God at its core.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, year B; texts: 2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; Mark 1:40-45

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

There’s a nasty part of the broken human condition that seems to occur across cultures and societies, a flaw in how we live as social beings which is shared by rich and poor, young and old, east and west, and is lived and practiced by just about any kind of group of people we can imagine.  Actually, it’s all about those groups: human beings like to classify, divide, distinguish, and clarify which people belong to which group, and by extension which group is better than which group.  That we do this with everything we study is considered good science, ordering, naming, classifying, to better understand.  But our constant need to evaluate some groups as better than others, especially when applied to how we live with others, leads to painful results.  War, genocide, bullying, prejudice, oppression, religious hatred come immediately to mind.

Simply put, we like classifying groups and types of people because we want to be insiders, not outsiders.  If we believe something politically, we’re the “right” kind of people, and those who disagree with us, of course, are not.  If we have a certain status, we’re in and others aren’t.  If we’re a certain race, or nationality, or gender, or faith, we cling to the idea that ours is best.  Though some of us are so proud to be among those who are truly enlightened (as opposed to all those whom we know to be ignorant) that we take great pains not to speak our prejudices and our insider dreams aloud because we know how wrong it would sound, because we know we ought to be ashamed.

This is not how God created us to be.  If God’s hope for humanity is that we love God completely and love our neighbors as ourselves, having insiders and outsiders clearly is not in God’s plan.  Today’s Scripture points this out as well, but perhaps in a more subtle way.

Today we have two stories of lepers being healed by the power of God, which on their surface might seem simply more in our series of reflections on God’s healing we’ve had in these latter three weeks of the Epiphany season.  But these two were lepers, which meant these two were also outcasts, relegated to the fringes of their respective societies.  By any insider/outsider metrics, these two were clearly outsiders.  Unfit to mingle even with the social groups to which they did formerly belong, Naaman and the unnamed leper of Jesus’ encounter were marginalized in the extreme (though in Naaman’s case, perhaps that remained in his future, as he still seems to be interacting with his people.)

I want to suggest that in fact all healing by God is best understood as bringing the outsider in, breaking down walls that divide, and creating a new community of God’s shaping.  Leprosy will help us see it in one way, but this is the definition of the grace the Son of God brought to the world.  Reiterated in multiple ways by the apostle Paul in his letters, and lived and breathed by the Son of God himself in his earthly ministry, to be given the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is to be brought into life, where there are no groups, no us v. them, no insiders or outsiders.  This is the life we are offered, the life the whole world is offered.  And we see it clearly today.

Today healing is defined by God’s grace reaching the outcast.

It’s hard to read Naaman as an outcast because in the story he looks and acts like the great commander of the Syrian army that he is.  He is beloved to his king, and seems to have a household who loves him, even the slaves.  But his days at court are numbered.  Leprosy’s not just a life-threatening disease to fear in these days.  Its contagion means for Naaman that he will have to live apart from all he loves, outcast, unable to see and be seen.  And his days as a valuable general are certainly over.

In that context, we can see why his king is willing to pay so much for him to be healed.  And Naaman’s healing is a gift of life – he is restored to all he holds dear.  He is brought back in.

Jesus’ leper is in a similar situation, but less so if we care about status.  No one even thought to remark upon his name, this is no arrogant general demanding a certain way of healing.  But he and Naaman have more in common than anyone else, for this leper’s life is lived on the outskirts of his village, away from everyone he loves, left to die in pain.  Worse than the pain of leprosy must have been the social loss, the absence of loving, caring friends and family.

And he demands nothing, only offers Jesus a choice, “If you choose.”  It’s a choice of faith, however: he believes Jesus can restore him not only to physical health but to his life, his community.  And so the enemy general and the common Israelite Jew are restored by God’s healing to their lives and their loved ones.

And this is what Jesus does again and again, whether physically healing or simply welcoming and loving and caring: he bridges gaps, crosses boundaries, reaches out with God’s love and creates a new community.
His whole ministry focuses on outsiders coming in: Poor people with no status, despised tax collectors, those everyone knew to be “sinners,” people with disease (even those who weren’t literally outcast but for whom disease separated them from abundant life), those people on the fringes believed to be possessed by demons.  Even Jesus’ Galilean disciples, who were considered ignorant, hillbilly rubes by the sophisticated Judeans of the cities to the south.

And Jesus’ ministry challenged the insiders more than anyone else he encountered: Both the social insiders like the elite and wealthy Sadducees, and the religious insiders like the pious and faithful Pharisees, who should have seen God’s Messiah in their midst, couldn’t get past Jesus’ inclusive vision of God’s kingdom.  The tragedy is, they were welcome too, though without their status; and some, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, heard that good news.

This, then, is our chief experience of healing and grace as well, that we who were far off have been brought near, we who were outsiders are welcome.

Think about the times you have not felt welcome, not a part of a group, an outsider.  There are so many ways we exclude others, I have yet to meet someone who hasn’t had that experience of not belonging, of being outside.

Sometimes it’s at school when we’re growing up, from playgrounds at recess to middle school lunch rooms (which might be as clear a foretaste of what hell might be like as we get).  Sometimes it’s at work or college as young adults, when it seems that we don’t have a place, where we’re longing to belong, to find a group.  Sometimes it’s like our people today: things we suffer separate us from others.  For millions around the world, it’s all those social ways, and then added to that are the constraints of poverty, of minority status, of different abilities, of oppression, of lack of education.

And sadly, even the Church of Christ is a place of exclusion, of insiders.  Horrible things have been done to people by the very Body of Christ who was created and called to welcome them.

And to a certain extent, our sense of unworthiness can make us feel separate from God.  Perhaps that was behind the leper saying “If you choose”: we aren’t sure, knowing what we know about ourselves, that even God truly ought to welcome us.

So the powerful good news that in Christ we are welcome, forgiven, loved, embraced, we belong – there is hardly anything we could hear that is better news.  The experience of the Christian community offering the welcoming embrace of the loving, Triune God is a powerful one that has transformed billions.  This is why we sing words like that of the psalmist today, “You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy!”  This is certainly the way I experience grace more than any other way: both in knowing God still loves me and says I’m worthy, and in knowing that in this place others say and feel the same thing.

But like the Pharisees and Sadducees, here is where that nasty piece of human nature arises: once in, we want it to be ours alone.  This is the horrible truth: we who are made welcome often refuse it to others: Those who come to us for love and grace but who are somehow not seen as worthy.  Those who believe other than we, whom we then relegate to outside our attention (and presumably God’s as well).  And those who struggle to live every day but about whom we can’t be bothered to care.

Our sense of not being worthy ourselves is somehow lost when we’re “in.”  I know, for example, that I don’t mind waiting in a long line as long as there are lots of people behind me.  And once welcomed into a group, it’s hard to remember those who don’t feel that welcome.

But on a day when we’re welcoming people into membership in our congregation, we’d best pay attention to this.  One of the things which delights me about Mount Olive is that we say to people often that they are welcome to sojourn with us without joining as members – that this is and must be a place where all who need to come can come.  We also delight, as today, when people choose to engage with us in this ministry more fully by joining our work as fellow members.

But the true community of Christ is far broader than this congregation, and we would do well to remember that.  (Especially when we’re tempted to congratulate ourselves on how well we think of ourselves.)

Which brings us to an important character in Naaman’s story today.  Or characters.  His servants who speak the truth.

Naaman is fiercely proud, even if he’s now outcast – he won’t do what is simple because it’s beneath him.  He’s still got enough insider to disparage the river of Israel, the Jordan, and the dismissive healing he’s offered.  The prophet of the LORD doesn’t even deign to come outside and talk to him, for goodness’ sake.  He sends his messenger, and tells him to get into the filthy Jordan to be clean.

His servants are lovely here.  We can almost hear the gentle cough, the “With respect, my lord . . .”  And they say that had he been asked to do something hard, he’d have done it.  They know their lord, they know his spirit, his courage.  And his pride.  And their truth-telling changes the day.  Naaman listens, bathes, and is healed.

This is what we need in our lives, this is what I urge you to pray for, and to cultivate in your lives: truth-tellers who speak to us in love and help us see what we won’t see.

Because the healing welcome of God for us is the same as for Naaman: we are welcomed freely and lovingly.  But there might be things we need to let go of.  God could have healed Naaman without the Jordan.  But perhaps he needed to be healed of his pride and arrogance, too.  And his ethnocentricity.

We are forgiven and blessed by God – and asked to let go of the things for which we needed forgiveness.  We are welcomed in, and asked to let go of our need to foul that welcome by shutting the door behind us so that others also cannot be welcomed in.  There are few things more disgusting than hearing a Christian who has been welcomed and loved and forgiven of all, denying the same to someone else.

And truth-tellers in our lives can help us with that.  Those who know us and love us well enough to gently cough and say “With all due respect . . .”  Those who can remind us when we’re falling into our old habits, or when we’re dishonoring our welcome by not welcoming others.  Those who can call us to account, like Naaman, so we can let go and truly receive God’s grace and love.

Because it’s not hard to argue that if we aren’t welcoming of others, if we’re trying to keep all our sinful habits while claiming to be forgiven, if we’re denying God’s grace to others, we likely haven’t truly experienced or received it yet, and there’s something in us blocking it.

I have come to believe that this is a vital need in my life, and I cherish the people I trust who speak truth to me in love.  Who can help me see myself as who I am, someone desperately in need of God’s grace.  And can help me learn to let go of whatever is blocking me, making me not of Christ, so that the healing, welcoming grace of God in Christ can truly bring me in and change me.

It doesn’t take a great deal of thought to realize what’s next.

We who have received the welcoming grace, the healing welcome of our Lord Jesus Christ, are sent to be that welcome, that grace.  We have no business treating Christ’s community as an insider’s club.  And the easiest way for us to understand our mission in life is to look and try to see anyone, anyone, who might believe themselves to be outside.  They won’t be hard to find.

Because God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself, Paul says.  There are no more outsiders, no more insiders.  Just the loving embrace of the grace of God known in the healing power of the risen Son of God.
And all are welcome, all are offered healing.  Thanks be to God.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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