This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Friday, March 1, 2013

3 Freed Men.

Luke 5:12-32

            Now with three or four disciples, Jesus continues his ministry.  He is in some unnamed city of Galilee when a leper approaches him.  Now the word “leprosy” in the Bible refers to any number of virulent skin diseases, from Hansen’s Disease to Psoriasis to fungal infections.  Whatever this man has, it is severe because we are told he was “covered” with it.
            The consequences of having one of these diseases was exclusion from the community and from all human contact.  Often they were highly contagious maladies; quarantining these folks was for the protection of everyone else.  But there was also a ritual purity issue.  Having one of these conditions meant one was excluded from the religious life of the people.  They were pariahs and outcasts.
            Our skin is the largest organ of our bodies; it contains and protects us and also serves as a literal boundary between us and what is not us.  It is the main receptor of our sense of touch, and the interface between us and the world.  It is the medium of our connection with each other.  But when our skin is diseased and dysfunctional it becomes, instead of a connection, a barrier, a separation, a wall, cutting us off from true human contact, distorting our experience of the world, and rendering us helpless, hopeless prisoners.
            The man who sees Jesus may have been breaking the law just by being with other people at all.  But he has enough trust in Jesus to bow down to the ground and implore him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.”
            Jesus then stretches out his hand and actually touches him, which would have horrified anyone watching this.  Not only was Jesus opening himself to infection but he also would have caught the man’s ritual impurity by touching him.  By touching him, Jesus is taking on the man’s ostracization and isolation.  Jesus did not have to touch him physically; he heals plenty of people by his word alone.  But the leper he touches.
            If we’re going to follow the Lord Jesus, we’re going to have to touch people.  We’re going to have to touch the most untouchable people in our society.  The people whom we render unclean, whom we cast out, whom we decide are not worthy of our contact, those are the ones whom Jesus touches.  Are we not to follow his example?
            These can be moral outcasts, political rejects, economic pariahs, as well as people with physical diseases.  The early church was known for being the only community that would visit and minister to plague victims in the Roman Empire.  Certainly many Christians caught the disease and died as well… but they knew it was more important to express the love of Jesus Christ while they were here, than to stay “pure.”

            Jesus redefines purity.  Now purity is determined by the inclusive, welcoming love that binds us to each other.  It is God’s love that both cleanses and connects us.  The impure one is not the one who has safely navigated through life without the stain of disease, but the one who has been infected with the love of God.  Love is the “disease” that purifies.  The ones who don’t have that disease are the ones who have cut themselves off from the gathering.
            Jesus sends the man to the priests to certify the cure and officially gain readmission into the community, “for a testimony to them,” he says.  And the testimony is that there is Someone out there who is overturning the rules of who is in and who is out.  Someone is breaking down the walls that divide us, excluding some, including others.  Someone is shaking the foundations of the system and taking away people’s impurities.
            It is only now that the guardians of the religious establishment get wind of Jesus’ activities.  If he is erasing the fences that define and control the social order, they have to check him out.  So Pharisees and teachers of the law venture up to Galilee.  Who is presuming to touch a leper and instead of contracting uncleanness himself, the leper contracts purity from him?
            Jesus is teaching and healing in someone’s house.  People have come from all over, especially sick people.  It’s very crowded.  A group of men arrive carrying a paralyzed man on a stretcher, but they can’t get in.  So they go up onto the flat roof.  Somehow they carry him up there and sit him down while they literally tear apart the tiled roof of the house!
            Would that anyone were that determined to get in here!  Would that it were so crowded here that people have to get imaginative to the point of destruction to get someone inside, to Jesus!
            They lower the man through the hole in the roof right in front of where Jesus is.  And when Jesus sees how much the friends trust him, he says to the paralyzed man, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” 
            What prevents us from acting, walking, taking initiative, doing something?  What paralyzes us?  What prevents us from trusting God?  In my experience, it is fear.  Fear is the opposite of trust.  Fear is what paralyzes us; fear is what causes us to fall short and miss the mark, which is what sin literally means.  And fear is what Jesus releases in this man, based on the fearless trust of his friends.
            I can relate to the paralyzed man, not because I have ever been physically paralyzed, but because my failures and sins are more a matter of what I didn’t do, what I didn’t say, where I didn’t go.  Sins of omission, they’re called. 

            So Jesus is always about release and freedom.  Forgiveness means release; it means taking away the fear that binds us and prevents us from acting; it takes away whatever paralyzes us.  The only antidote for fear, the means of forgiveness and release perhaps, is trust.  The man in the story trusted his friends, who trusted in Jesus.
            Jesus forgives the man’s sins; he releases him of whatever was binding him.  He takes away his fear by showing him that the world is a safe place, a place where friends care enough about you to rip somebody’s house apart so you can get the healing you need.  In the story, this forgiveness, this liberation, literally heals the man’s legs so he can get up and walk.  In our lives, our fear is banished by God’s love, and we are freed to get up and witness to it.
            The Pharisees and teachers of the law hear what Jesus says to the man, about being forgiven, and they take issue.  They think Jesus is usurping the place of God.  “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”  Who indeed?  They did not and could not realize that God was there in Jesus Christ.
            But Jesus does not want to argue fine points of theology with them.  He has a very practical and pragmatic response to their protestations.  He says: “Well, I can tell him his sins are forgiven or I can tell him to get up and walk.  Which is easier?  They mean the same thing.  If you prefer I will demonstrate that the man’s sins are forgiven and simply tell him to start walking.”  The proof that the man’s sins are forgiven, that is, the proof that he has been released of whatever was binding him and causing his paralysis, is that he’s no longer paralyzed.  He can walk.
            Forgiveness of sins is not a theoretical, abstract, technical, mental, psychological thing.  It’s not just positive thinking or having a different attitude.  It actually works.  It has effects.  The forgiven life is different in every respect from the unforgiven life.  It is the difference between bondage and freedom.  It is the difference between lying helpless on the floor and getting up and jumping around.     
            And Jesus says that “the Son of Man,” or the “Human One,” has the authority on earth to forgive sins, to release people from their slavery.  This authority belongs to the Messiah; and he gives the church this authority explicitly in John 20.  We are a community of forgiveness, of liberation, or release.  We are here to continue his ministry of setting people free.
            We demonstrate this not by adhering to the correct doctrine, but by actually setting people free.  Free from sins, addictions, social cages, poverty, bad habits, destructive relationships, anger, shame, and fear.  Whatever is keeping people from realizing their own true humanity revealed in Jesus Christ, that’s what we are to be about setting them free from.

            So far we have seen Jesus heal two men with very visible, physical diseases.  A man covered in a virulent skin disease, and a paralyzed man.  After the paralytic is healed and picks up his own stretcher and walks home praising God, Jesus eventually leaves that house and goes into the street.  And there he meets another man, another man in slavery or bondage.  Only this time it is not so obvious.  This time the man is perfectly healthy; his bondage is revealed in what he does for a living.  He is a tax collector.
            His name is Levi, and he sits at a booth in the middle of town where people come to pay their taxes.  It is not a happy place.  There is a lot of anger, hatred, pain, resentment, sadness, and brokenness in and around that booth.  It is a nexus of dark energy.  No one is having any fun.  The misery is mitigated for Levi by the fact that this work is wildly remunerative.
            Jesus, fresh from healing many people including the paralytic, probably has crowds following him.  He comes to the booth, and instead of turning up his nose and ignoring it, or scowling, muttering, and making an offensive gesture at it, Jesus looks over there and catches Levi’s eye.  And Jesus only says two words, “Follow me.”  “You, let’s go!”  “Come and be my disciple.”
            And Levi, right then and there, quits the tax collection racket, and joins Jesus.  He hears Jesus’ call; he senses Jesus’ acceptance of him; he takes Jesus up on his invitation.  Jesus wants him… which was an unprecedented experience for Levi.  Jesus releases him from a dead-end job in which he got rich oppressing his neighbors.   
            And that evening he invites Jesus to come to his house and have dinner with him and his other tax collector, lowlife, reject, sinner friends.  It’s like he is saying to them, “Come have dinner with the man who set me free!”  And Jesus, and his disciples, sit down to share a meal with the most despised people in town. 
            The Pharisees, who are the guardians of social and religious propriety, complain to Jesus’ disciples.  Why would anyone, least of all a religious teacher, associate with such people?  Doesn’t his association with them condone their lifestyle and their oppressive activity?  Wouldn’t someone be led to think that Jesus actually approves of these people, who are shredding the social fabric and squeezing people dry?       

            Jesus does not approve of sin.  That is, he is in a constant battle with the forces within us and outside of us that imprison, enslave, constrict, and cripple us.  As the fulfillment and embodiment of the Exodus, Jesus threatens and breaks every shadow of Pharoah over us.  He realizes that God is not punishing people for their sins so much as it is people who punish themselves by their sins, by clinging to whatever oppresses us.  Sin is like an addiction and Jesus has come to break its hold over us.
            He does approve of people.  So when he encounters the leper, the paralytic and his friends, and Levi, he sees people.  He relates to and identifies with people.  He is, after all, fully and most truly human.  He sees in others himself.  And he also sees what is cruelly torturing people, what is keeping them down, broken, in pain, confused, and imprisoned.  He welcomes and loves and blesses the person, which shatters the power of the chains that bind them.
            But he doesn’t usually do that without sharing fellowship with them, eating with them, living with them, walking with them, associating with, receiving, touching, addressing, and embracing people.  Sinful people.  Jesus does not sit on a mountain like the proverbial perfect guru.  Neither does he wall himself off in a study or sanctuary, for people to come to him.  He spends his whole career with people, in human society, constantly encountering needy, imprisoned, hurting human beings.
            Yes, Luke reports him frequently and regularly withdrawing into deserted places to pray.  So he shows this balance between action and contemplation.  But most of his day is in the thick of human society.  That is to whom he is sent by God.
            That is to whom we are sent as well.  Realizing that every person is a blessing and a miracle created in God’s holy Image, and also that every person languishes in a prison usually of their own making.  We are all torturing, crippling, defiling, and killing ourselves, and therefore each other… and it’s happening for no good reason.  I am reminded of Thoreau’s famous words: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
            We have each been given a song by God to contribute to the choir of creation.  Jesus Christ comes into the world to set our songs free.  What’s your song?  How can your song liberate the song of your neighbor?  How can we be as welcoming, as healing, as freeing, as inclusive, and as empowering as Jesus Christ?  Where are the lepers, paralytics, and tax collectors among us?  Who is going to bring the liberating grace of God in Jesus Christ to them but us?

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