“Who’s Your Leper?”

EPIPHANY 5B – 12th February, 2012

St Matthew’s, Guildford

Eight days ago, on Saturday about lunch-time, I had finished a marriage preparation session with a young couple, and had a spare hour to relax before doing it all over again with another couple.

And the door-bell rang!

There was a lady there who wanted to talk to me about praying for Muslims.  She felt that “the Lord has laid on my heart to pray for Muslims in Australia”.  And she came equipped with a booklet entitled “Twenty Days of Prayer for Muslims”.  It had daily notes on different aspects for which to pray.  And I found it interesting to talk with her for a few minutes.

I wasn’t really interested in keeping the booklet and less interested in having copies for distribution to members of my congregation, especially when it said on the cover words to the effect of “Do not leave this booklet in a public place”!

I’m sure you all pray for Muslims in your daily prayers, just as you probably pray for Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and even Christians!   And I’d be prepared to bet that the intention of the prayers would be very wide-ranging, depending on your personal beliefs and prejudices!

On the ABC’s “Family Confidential” last Thursday evening, Australian author, Bryce Courtenay, spoke of the illness and death of his youngest son, Damon.  The boy was born with haemophilia and in his teens was infected with HIV/AIDS through blood transfusion.  What wasn’t mentioned in that programme, but was in an interview Bryce gave with Gillian O’Shaughnessy on 720 Afternoons was that, when it became public that Damon was HIV positive, he faced much public shame and ill-treatment.  HIV/AIDS was the big bogey-man of the 1980’s, its victims frequently being assumed to be homosexual and therefore “getting what they deserved”.

Prejudice against people living with HIV/AIDS was rife, and these folk were often treated, even within medical institutions as outcasts.  One might almost say, “as lepers”!

It seems that most human beings carry prejudices and intolerance as second nature.  In Australia, there has been discomfort since WWII (and possibly before that) as successive waves of immigrants have arrived on our shores – Italians, Greeks and other Europeans, Vietnamese and others from SE Asia, and now refugees from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.  This latest wave of migrants/refugees come with a new challenge to many Australians – that of Islam.  It is a blending of religion and culture which challenges, and perhaps threatens, much of what we hold dear in our national self-perception.

We may well fear that our tolerance and welcome are being stretched just too far.  And I confess that I find the challenge of Islam and the culture of many of its adherents quite threatening.  I would prefer that migrants to this country adopt our language, dress and customs; but, perhaps that is not mine to decide.

In today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings, we see cultural and religious prejudices being challenged by leprosy – a disease which carried all the stigma and fear then which HIV/AIDS did in our communities in the 1980’s and ‘90’s.

To be a leper, was to be an outcast, cut off from one’s family and friends, from work and the ability to earn money, from all religious and cultural activities.  Lepers had to live in camps well outside of the towns and villages, and ring a bell and cry out “Unclean” whenever they were within range of “normal” people.

All the Bible commentaries remind us that the words “leper” and “leprosy” in our scriptures can include a wide range of diseases and disorders of the skin – one thinks of psoriasis and eczema, ringworm and skin cancers as possible candidates – as well as the classic leprosy; which really means that there were probably many more outcasts than mere “leprosy” suggests.

The laws of Israel in regard to “leprosy” were for the protection of the health of the whole people; but that did not, of course, reduce the impact on families and individuals, and probably did nothing to decrease or prevent the fear and resultant prejudice suffered by its victims.

So, a powerful Syrian military leader by name of Naaman develops “leprosy” and looks like losing his status and income and family.  (I presume the Syrians had similar measures in place to deal with the disease as their southern neighbours).  When all looks hopeless, a young servant-girl, originally taken captive from Israel, cares enough to suggest the master go to the prophet down south in her homeland.  By a roundabout process, Naaman comes to the house of the prophet Elisha, and is told by Elisha’s servant to go wash in the River Jordan seven times and he’ll be cured.

Naaman, naturally enough, protests, but on the bravely-given advice of yet another servant, does as the prophet says.  And we read, “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”

We could draw from the story at least two messages:

  • Never value your greatness too highly to take advice, and
  • Never value your humility so much that you fail to offer help

In the Gospel story, a leper disregards all the legislative and societal taboos, presenting himself to Jesus, challenging him with, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”

And Jesus pulls no punches, showing absolutely no prejudice when he says, “I do choose. Be made clean!”  Sure, he tells the now ex-leper to go and show himself to the priest and make an offering in accord with the Law; but he certainly shows no reluctance to accept the man.

I’ve been thinking about what the “leprosy” of today is, and who the “lepers” are.

I suppose it’s different for each of us; so I can only make some possible suggestions and let you touch base with your own fears and prejudices.

  • People who have a different language, culture and/or religion to our own
  • People whose sexual orientation is different to our own (GLBTI)
  • People with addictions to alcohol and other drugs, legal or otherwise
  • Outlaw motorcycle groups
  • People with physical disabilities
  • People with mental illness, including many of the homeless people we see

This morning, we are  welcoming into the Church through Baptism “one of our own” – Elizabeth .  She is stereotypically “acceptable” to us because she is a baby, beautiful, healthy and innocent.  As yet, we have no way of knowing how she will grow up; though we do know her parents and they, too, are perfectly “acceptable”.

It is only too easy to welcome Elizabeth

“as a member with us of the Body of Christ

as a child of the same heavenly Father

and as an inheritor with us of the Kingdom of God.”

But I can guarantee that your week will not be made up entirely of “acceptable” people.  I hope that you will encounter between now and next Sunday someone whose presence and personality with challenge your likes and dislikes, your tolerance and prejudices.

For it is they whom Jesus came to serve and to save;

and it is they whom Jesus calls us to welcome and serve.

St Paul reminds us that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”[1].

We are called in our Baptism, in our being declared children of God, to love and welcome all of humanity as God in Jesus has welcomed us.  Of course, that is not always easy.  It took Jesus all the way to the cross!

Loving and welcoming doesn’t always mean agreeing.  Praying for Muslims may well include praying that they might come to know God better through Jesus Christ.  But that’s a pretty good prayer for us all, Christians included.

Loving many people who make us uncomfortable may need change in ourselves or them – most probably in both!

Jesus and Elisha didn’t welcome the lepers and leave them in their disease and isolation.  Both welcomed, accepted and acted for the healing of their petitioners, and thus brought about a reversal of their fortunes.

Result?

The Syrian Naaman declared the God of Israel to be the only true God and determined to worship God alone.  The Galilean ex-leper “went out and began to proclaim it freely”.

Perhaps if we were to show more acceptance and welcome, more folk would turn to the God whom profess to love and serve

Like my visitor of last Saturday, I will continue to pray for Muslims and for all people.  But I recognise the need to pray for myself – as perhaps you will for yourself – for the love and tolerance and understanding of Jesus; for the challenging and breaking-down of my prejudices and the fears that prevent me from being what St Paul called in last week’s Epistle, “all things to all people, that I might by all means save some”.


[1] Romans 5:8

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