Monday, February 12, 2018

A complete reversal

Homily: 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle B

          Friends, in these (what I’m calling) “intervening weeks” between the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Lent this coming week, we have been presented with an image of Christ who is doing something new.  In the third Sunday in Ordinary Time, we heard Jesus proclaim that the “time of fulfillment” was at hand, meaning that the third Christian age, in which the promise that God made to our first parents after their first sin would finally be realized, had now begun.  Then, in the fourth Sunday, we heard Jesus teaching in the synagogue with his own authority and how he demonstrated his authority when he drove the unclean spirit out of the man in the synagogue.  The people were amazed at this “new teaching with authority” and perhaps began to see in Jesus the one of whom Moses spoke: “A prophet like me will God raise up for you…”  Then last week, the fifth Sunday, we heard how Jesus entered the home of Simon Peter and healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (and, subsequently, hundreds of others from that town).  Although the next morning all came looking for him, Jesus refused to become a spectacle (like many “wonder-workers” of the day) and chose, instead, to leave that place to preach in other towns.  He was truly a “new prophet” and could not be contained to any one place.

          This week, we read a story of reversal.  In our first reading, we listened to the words of the Book of Leviticus, detailing what someone with an ailment of the skin must do.  Here we see a microcosm, if you will, of the Fall.  In the Garden of Eden, our first parents sin and so are marked with death.  God, however, is life and death cannot dwell in the presence of God.  Therefore, Adam and Eve are driven from the Garden and cannot reenter until they have been cleansed from this “stain” of death.  Leprosy (which, in the Old Testament, was a “blanket” term for those with various skin ailments that included, but was not limited to, what we now call “Hansen’s disease”), to the people of ancient times, was an outward sign that death was touching a person.  Anyone marked in such a way could not enter the temple—the place of encounter with God—to offer worship.  Thus, the person also became a threat to anyone who wasn’t so marked and wanted to enter the temple to worship.  Thus, the leper had to stay separated and declare himself “unclean”, lest others be "infected" with death, too.  And, just like with Adam and Eve, who couldn’t cleanse themselves of the sin that caused death to touch them, so too the leper didn’t have any way to cleanse the skin ailment on his own.  He simply had to pray that it would clear up so that he could be restored to the worshiping community.  For a first century Jew, this was just the way the world worked.

          In the Gospel, we then hear the story of reversal.  First, the man approaches Jesus (a bold move for one who was supposed to keep himself at a distance!).  He pleads with Jesus and Jesus does the unthinkable: he touches him!  But, instead of the uncleanness coming out of the leper and going into Jesus, what happens?  Cleanness goes out from Jesus and into the leper: a complete reversal!  And how do we know?  Because, as the scripture says, “the leprosy left the man immediately, and he was made clean”.  After, Jesus tells the man not to make a big deal out of it—in other words, that he no longer has to “shout out” about himself—but what does the man do?  He immediately goes and tells everyone he meets.  No one went around shouting “I am clean”, because it wasn’t necessary.  But this man does so voluntarily, reversing his obligation to declare himself unclean.  Finally, while the man can now reenter the town and join the worshiping community, we see that Jesus cannot!  But is he really excluded?  No!  Because, instead of everyone staying away from the ones outside of town, they all come out to him!  The presence of Jesus causes each of them to recognize that they are "unclean", in some way, and that they have been unable to become "clean" through their own efforts.  Thus, they "separate" themselves from the town (and, thus, the worshiping community) so as to meet Jesus and to be made clean.  And so we see that Jesus takes our helpless story and he reverses it: proving once again that the “time of fulfillment” has, indeed, come.

          If we stop and pay attention for just a moment, we see that this is us!  So much hullabaloo is being made about "identity politics" and ending oppression of "marginalized groups" (based, for example, on race, gender (actual or otherwise), sexual attraction, socioeconomic status, etc.).  The fact of the matter is that we're all oppressed in some way: that is, we all have some kind of leprosy that alienates us in some way.  Take a hard look!  We're all messed up in a lot of ways!  And none of us is capable on our own making ourselves clean.  Thus, the good news that we hear today.  Look at what Jesus did to the leper!  He completely reversed everything that pushed him away.  And how?  By his own divine power, of course.  But what actuated that power?  The man embracing his leprosy and taking a bold step to overcome it.  This man saw his “oppressed” state, but refused to remain a victim and approached Jesus.  And through Jesus, his “oppression” was overcome.

          This, therefore, is the message for our day: stop acting like a victim and try to do something to make it better.  (This isn't a good bumper sticker slogan, I know, but it's darn practical!)  Recognize that you're a mess, yes.  Recognize that you're a mess because life is hard and full of suffering, yes; but also because you've given in to the victim mentality and haven't made good choices.  Then recognize that there is something that you can do about it and start to do it.  Come to Jesus and submit yourself to his will, like the leper from the Gospel reading: "If you will, you can make me clean".  Then ACT!  If there is anything disordered in your life (of which you are the cause), start to put it in order.  Most of us have a God-ordered path for our lives (marriage, parenthood, etc.).  If you don't, you're probably not here.  If you don't and you are here, then your first job is to get yourself on a God-ordered path.  But if you are on your God-ordered path, then look at what disrupts your journey on that path and start to get it out of your life.  For example: almost anything produced by Hollywood, social media (the source of gossip and narcissism!), 24-hour news programming, etc.  You won't fix everything—there's still suffering that just happens in the world—but at least you'll have mitigated a lot of the self-inflicted suffering, right?

          And why all of this?  Because there are real victims out there—that is, those whose suffering is severe and not self-inflicted—and they need real help.  But we help no one when we sit around wallowing in our own victimhood, saying "well, I can't because of x, y, and z."  Well, yes, maybe "x, y, and z", but you can do something.  Whatever that is, you need to do it.  Even if that's just to shout out about it.

          Friends, in Jesus, our long exile has been reversed.  Everything that kept us separate from God is flipped on its head and redeemed.  But if we don't act, we'll never fully realize it.  The first act is to believe: to believe in the power of Christ to flip it over.  And so today, as you approach the Eucharist (whether or not you are able to receive it), pray, before you receive it (or before you present yourself before it); "Jesus, if you will, you can make me clean"; because, I assure you, he does will it.  Receive, then, his healing; and go forth telling everyone how Jesus made you clean and put your life back in order so as to make life's sufferings a little more bearable for you and, thus, for those around you.  Then we will begin to see more clearly the truth that Jesus proclaimed: that this truly is the time of fulfillment.

Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – February 10th & 11th, 2018

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