Second Sunday of Christmas
January 3, 2016
First Christian Church
When I was about 13 or so, I went with Mom to the credit union near her place of work, the old AC Sparkplug factory on the eastside of Flint. This was back in the day when people went to an actual bank to cash their checks. Mom waited in line to be served and I stood near the back of the lobby off in my own world. Some time passed when I heard a voice. It was gentleman (a security guard) and I can’t remember if he asked what I was doing here or if I needed help. Before I could answer, my mother, who had finished her business came up and said I was with her. As we left the credit union, Mom chastised me for not standing still. I didn’t understand then why Mom was so upset. It’s only been with age that I came to understand what had went on. It didn’t really matter what the gentleman with the bank said, the underlying message was basically what was I doing there? What my mother understood and I did not, was that I was being watched…watched as a threat. Now, I was rather tall for my age, but that wasn’t the reason I was being watched. As you can now probably guess, I was being watched because I was black. I’ve always thought it funny that people might see me as a threat, because if someone knew me, they would see I’m not that scary, especially my 13 year-old self. But what my parents knew and what I would come to realize is that no matter how gentle I might be, some people might see me as a threat, a danger.
This all came to mind this week after hearing the news of a grand jury deciding to not indict two members of the Cleveland Police after they shot 12 year-old Tamir Rice in November 2014. Tamir was in a park playing with a toy gun. The video of the shooting is rather chilling. A police car roars up near the gazebo where Tamir is playing. The car stops and out jump two policemen who immediately shoot the 12 year-old. As far as the surveillance video shows us, there was no talking to the child, no asking questions, no assessment of the context. It was just race to the gazebo and take out a supposed threat.
In our text today, we start a journey through the book of Mark. It is the shortest gospel and it dispenses with the birth story of Jesus and goes straight to his ministry. Jesus is busy. He casts out demons and heals the sick.
And then we come to verse 40. Jesus encounters a man with leprosy. He was considered unclean according to the religious custom and forced to be on the margins of society. The man encounters Jesus and asks, if Jesus is willing to make him clean.
Notice the man didn’t say, please heal me. Instead he pleads that if Jesus isn’t too busy or is able to squeeze him into his calendar to heal him. Maybe this is a sign that of how outside of the community he felt, he felt so much like a nothing that he couldn’t ask Jesus boldly to be healed.
This is where the passage gets interesting. In verse 41, we have a few different meanings of Jesus’ response. Some sources say that Jesus was moved with pity or compassion. That would make sense. We see this in other parts of the gospels where Jesus cares for the people and tries to heal them of their illnesses. But other sources say Jesus was angry or as it says in today’s reading, “incensed.” That view is harder to square. Why was Jesus angry? Who was Jesus angry at?
The text doesn’t reveal any clues. I think it goes without saying that Jesus would have compassion on the leper. Would Jesus be angry as well?
We can’t know for sure, but it is a possibility. Jesus has shown anger before, so it doesn’t come from nowhere. Jesus might have been angry at how this man was being treated. Maybe Jesus was angry at how religious law kept this man on the outside of his community. We don’t know, but this view makes us think about the use of anger in the life of the church.
If we are aware of the world around us and we are aware of what God means for God’s creation, we will probably be angry at how the world is. We will want to work to be agents of God’s love, justice and grace.
If we go back to the news of the past week, people are upset because a 12 year-old who was doing what 12 year-olds like to do was gunned down as a threat, most likely because of the color of his skin. In spite of all the progress that this nation has made in race relations, it should disturb us that this still happens some 50 years after the civil rights movement.
But the church isn’t called to just be angry. It is also called to be healers. We might not be able to remove leprosy from people, but we can with God’s help try to bring healing where the world is fractured. The church is called to be where there is hurt and bring healing, just as Jesus did. The ultimate symbol of identifying with hurt is when Jesus is on the cross, suffering and dying in our stead for the healing of all creation.
Jesus walking among us meant a reveal of the kingdom of God. It is a place where lepers are healed and welcomed back into community. It’s a place where the sick are healed and the poor are fed. And if we are paying attention, it is a place where young black men aren’t immediately seen as dangerous.
The coming of Christ forever changed the world in ways we can’t imagine. Peter Wehner, a political writer who served in the last three Republican administrations wrote in the New York Times on Christmas Day how Christianity changed how we look at the poor. He writes:
In his book “A Brief History of Thought,” the secular humanist and French philosopher Luc Ferry writes that in contrast with the Greek understanding of humanity, “Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity — an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.”
Indeed, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (blessed are the poor in spirit and the pure in heart, the meek and the merciful), his touching of lepers, and his association with outcasts and sinners were fundamentally at odds with the way the Greek and Roman worlds viewed life, where social status was everything.
“Christianity placed charity at the center of its spiritual life as no pagan cult ever had,” according to the theologian David Bentley Hart, “and raised the care of widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor to the level of the highest of religious obligations.” Christianity played a key role in ending slavery and segregation. Today Christians are taking the lead against human trafficking and on behalf of unborn life. They maintain countless hospitals, hospices and orphanages around the world.
We moderns assume that compassion for the poor and marginalized is natural and universal. But actually we think in this humanistic manner in large measure because of Christianity. What Christianity did, my friend the Rev. Karel Coppock once told me, is to “transform our way of thinking about the poor and sick and create an entirely different cultural given.”
In 1986, an odd song made it to the top of Billboard’s Top 100 charts. It’s odd because it was a piano-driven song in a time of synthesizers and big guitars. The song is “The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range. The song talked about poverty and racism in 1980s America. The chorus starts by saying “That’s just the way it is, somethings will never change.” We get the impression that some problems are so complex that nothing will ever really change. But, the closing of the chorus tells us not to give into despair by answering “But don’t you believe them.”
I am not asking you to join a protest march. But I do hope in this new year that we who believe in a God who came to earth to be like us and to bring healing, will be a little angry at the state of the world and in the name of Jesus seek to be agents of healing. That we can someday be a world where a 12 year-old kid in Ohio, or a 13 year-old kid in Michigan won’t be judge a threat by the color of his skin.
That’s just the way it is? In Jesus Christ we say, “But don’t you believe them.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.