When It Shows

(A sermon for Epiphany 6B–February 12, 2012–2 Kings 5:9-14; Mark 1:40-45)

There was a time I was so itchy I caught myself rubbing my back against a door jamb. I didn’t even know what I was doing. I was standing in a doorway, talking, and I realized the person on the other side of the conversation was looking at me wide-eyed.

I had eczema, and I was living through a flare.

Feverishly itchy red patches of skin appeared all over. My inner arms and wrists were awful. And although it wasn’t the itchiest part, the thing that bothered me most was the redness around my eyes, because other people noticed it.

And they mentioned it.

It isn’t a secret when it shows.

Eczema is an auto-immune disease. Your immune system reacts as if there’s an attack even though there isn’t one, really. I’ve had it all my life. Sometimes it’s so mild it’s almost gone. Other times it’s so fierce I can hardly think about anything else. And scratching the itch only makes it worse, which makes it more florid, which makes it even more visible.

I hate attracting that kind of attention.

And so, I imagine, did Naaman. His skin disease bothered him. Now, it didn’t stop him from being a military leader, which is amazing given what we know about other lepers in the Bible. Maybe he came from an important enough family that people looked the other way. Maybe he was just so gifted that people refrained from telling him to his face what they thought about how he looked. But it burdened him, and he wanted it to go away.

He wanted to be normal.

It isn’t a secret when it shows.

In Jesus’ day, lepers were kept away from the rest of the community. People believed that a visible illness, something you could see, meant a person was out of relationship with God. People with skin diseases were not only kept out of the social community. They were denied the religious community, too.

We like to think we’re better than that. We like to think that how a person looks doesn’t matter to us, and certainly it shouldn’t matter to God.

We like to think that.

Even in modern times we can give in to our prejudices and our fears and close people out instead of inviting them in, and we can be painfully obvious about it.

It isn’t a secret when it shows.

There’s a group called One Million Moms. The name of the group is perhaps an exaggeration. On Facebook, they have about 40,000 fans. The purpose of the self-described “family values group” is to raise objections and pressure advertisers. Recently they started a campaign against JC Penney, criticizing the company for using Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson. It’s because she’s gay that One Million Moms launched the protest, suggesting that Penney’s must have bad values if they hired DeGeneres.

DeGeneres, who is a comedian, and therefore funny, responded in good humor, pointing out that it’s true she is gay.  She doesn’t keep this a secret. She lets it show.

DeGeneres went on to say this:

“If you’re just getting to know me, I want to be clear. Here are the values that I stand for. I stand for honesty, equality, kindness, compassion, treating people the way you want to be treated and helping those in need. To me those are traditional values. That’s what I stand for.” (From the Los Angeles Times blog, video below.)

Jesus found himself in a similar conflict. The religious leaders of his day lived by rules that were designed to separate and categorize people according to their ability to follow those very rules. If there was anything in the world wrong with you, if you deviated from normal in any fashion, the leaders could cut you out of the community. And if you were cut off from the religious community in those days, you were cut off from the social and the economic community, too.

If you had a visible illness, such as a skin disease, people shunned you. You lost not only your health, but your ability to be part of the economy. You might as well have been dead to your family.

And what do we do when something goes wrong? We come to church.

You couldn’t do that either.

But the word was out there about Jesus. Just last week we read about how he healed people all day, then moved on to other towns and healed people all over the place. He wanted to tell people the good news that God’s kingdom was at hand, right here, right now! But the people wanted his hand to be used for healing, for casting out demons, for lifting up sick people from their dying beds.

So the leper came to him, and said, “You can heal me if you choose to do it!”

Jesus could see he was a leper. It’s not a secret when it shows.

Untouchable: that’s what a leper was.

Moved with pity –filled with compassion—Jesus said, “I do choose.” And he touched the man and healed him.

Now, here’s the thing. It didn’t really count until the priests said so. Jesus had healed the man, but his restoration to the community, technically, could not happen until he made the proper sacrifices and went through the ritual motions, the very things that never would have made him well.

And so we wonder what Jesus was about here. The man was well already. Why didn’t he just send him home? Everyone could see. It’s not a secret when it shows.

Ellen DeGeneres said she doesn’t usually talk about her haters.

Jesus was already hated by the religious leaders, because he had shown himself to have more authority in his teaching than the priests or the scribes. But he sent the man back to them, because it would do two things: the man would be restored not only in health but in status, and the religious leaders would know they hadn’t done it themselves.
You see the other translation of “moved with pity” is “moved to anger.” And I don’t think Jesus was angry with the leper who came to ask for his help. He was angry about the way the so-called values of religious people denied help to those who needed it.

Now, we’re religious people, and I know when I hear a story that suggests religious people think only one way, on any subject, well…let’s just say it moves me and not to pity. It’s frustrating that religious groups on one side of the spectrum use words like “family” and “mom” to imply that there is only one way moms and families might think.

It kind of makes me itch.

It’s not a secret when it shows.

Here’s what I think.

I am a mom. I have a family. I’m okay with Ellen speaking for JC Penney, and although I am not a frequent shopper there, they are more likely to get my business now than before because they stuck up for her. Those are my values, and they’re not far off from Ellen’s, with one exception.

Let’s hear her words again:

“I stand for honesty, equality, kindness, compassion, treating people the way you want to be treated and helping those in need. To me those are traditional values.”

They are to me, too, but I go farther. I stand for those things because I learned them from the stories of the same Jesus who healed the leper and sent him back into town to make a point to the religious authorities. Because the point he was trying to make was this. No matter what we look like, no matter what ails us, no matter where we live or how we earn our living or who we love, GOD loves us. And knowing that, we had better find a way to love each other and live in community together.

And that kind of love? It’s not a secret when it shows. Amen.

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