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 The Compassionate Choice

Sermon - 2/12/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 1:40-45

We have been reading, pretty much the entire month of January, the first chapter of Mark's gospel. It is so loaded with so much. We've already seen a couple of healing stories, and now we come to the third healing story. Now, if you were paying attention from the Old Testament reading from 2 Kings, you'll recognize why these two selections are paired together:

A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ 42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ 45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

I would invite you this morning, as we reflect on this text, to reflect with me and for a moment on the role of faith and the choices we make in healthcare, especially of those choices we make for others.

What has been in the news this last week -- it began with the Susan B. Komen Foundation (being a man, I didn't pay that much attention to these things, I didn't realize it was the largest foundation in the country for breast-cancer research). They made their announcement that they were no longer going to provide funding to Planned Parenthood for breast exam's, and there was a furor over it. And immediately there was all kinds of speculation that the official reason that they gave was not the real reason, that it was really motivated by religious or political reasons. And sure enough, after all the furor, they reversed themselves, a vice-president resigned, and it was revealed that she was the one that was pushing for it, primarily for those very reasons, including her objections to the involvement of Planned Parenthood in abortion services, even though the money given to Planned Parenthood was strictly for breast exams. But still, they wanted a clean break.

Well, so it turns out that when Komen made their initial announcement of what the official reason was for defunding Planned Parenthood, they should have simply said, to quote Senator Jon Kyl from Arizona (when also making up facts about Planned Parenthood): "Not intended to be a factual statement" :).

Then after that little debacle, President Obama was feeling left out. So he had to get into it, and the administration announced new rules for coverage of birth control that would require certain religious institutions (and particularly Catholic hospitals and universities that the administration did not consider to be a religious organization under the definition, and therefore they were going to have to play by the same rules as everyone else) and would have to cover women who chose certain birth control medications, to cover that in their insurance policies. Well, a big furor over that. And like Komen, the administration reversed itself and came up with a compromise.

And then finally, we saw in our local news the case announced yesterday in the Register Guard of the two parents who are being charged with manslaughter because of their teenage son who was ill and they chose not to seek any medical treatment for him, and instead chose to rely on faith and prayer. And tragically he died, when he had a very curable condition.

So here's the question I invite you to ponder as we examine the text: what is the role of faith in the choices that we make regarding healthcare?

And here's the principle for which I want to argue: that our faith calls us to choose compassion as the overriding guiding principle in those choices that we make as it impacts the lives of others.

So, to ask the old question 'What would Jesus Do?', is to ask: "What would compassion do?".

The story here in Mark's Gospel of the leper, I think illustrates this principle quite clearly and powerfully. It seems especially fitting as we prepare for our observance of the Week of Compassion next week, to reflect on this text. Week of Compassion, of course, that program that responds to humanitarian needs around the world.

Now the context for this story, I think, is very well-known. It's rooted in the social conventions surrounding leprosy. Leprosy in ancient times covered a broad range of skin diseases. They could be things that were curable, or not. They could be things that were contagious, or not. But because of the lack of understanding of the transmission of disease in that time, anyone with leprosy was an isolated, quarantined, and in some cases forced to live in a leper colony if the disease did not go away on its own. And furthermore, it was widely held that leprosy was a sign of punishment from God, of some displeasure, some sin. And so leprosy was not only a physical disease, it also carried with it an enormous social stigma. It was the Scarlet Letter of ancient times, inflicted by God. A sign of great shame.

And so the primary concern of this leper is not his skin ailment. His primary concern is that he has been judged by society as being unclean and therefore cannot participate and in the normalcy of social interactions. He's an untouchable. He's a social outcast. He's of the lowest of the social outcasts. And so his request of Jesus is not just to heal him, it is to cleanse him. That is, to restore him to an accepted and welcome status within society.

So, note that his statement 'if you choose, you can cleanse me', is not just an expression of confidence in the ability of Jesus, it reflects his recognition that Jesus might as well not choose to do so. Because that has been his experience of how people respond. You know, you walk to the other side of the street, you look the other way, right? How many of us come to the street corner with a person with a sign, all of a sudden think of something else we have to do -- adjust the radio, etc. Anything but look at that person. We choose to look the other way.

And the leper knows that Jesus could have just as easily 'drive' on by, without even acknowledging his existence, because that's what most people do. And I wonder: do you suppose it would make a difference, when we have nothing else to share, if we would at least share a smile? Might that help? Might it help us?

Now, Jesus, of course, does respond -- the text says he's moved with pity. Or, if you're following your footnotes, what does it say? I always love pointing these out, because it adds so much richness to the text -- not all of the footnotes, but this particular one. There's a little footnote that Jesus is moved by. . . . . Anger!

Some of the texts say 'anger'. It turns out in this particular case that it's one of those 50/50 choices that the folks that do textual criticism, that deal with the words on the page, they can't make up their mind -- is it 'compassion', or 'anger'? Could be either, not sure, tough call.

Well, that kind of changes the text a little bit, doesn't it, the meaning. Is he angry at the leper, you know, this outcast, 'how dare he interrupt me', is that it? Or, is he angry at the situation, that this man should be an outcast?

I serve on the City of Eugene's new task force for the homeless, a bunch of community people and agencies, public employees and the like, trying to figure out (in the wake of Occupy Eugene) some new program to assist the homeless. Let me tell you, I have heard many times this kind of anger being expressed as people share their feelings about the situation, about the lack of options for shelter for those living on the street.

That Jesus definitely is NOT angry at the leper, I think, is very evident by what he does. What is that? He reaches out and he touches the leper.

Now, if you were to write a screenplay about this particular scene, you would put in here some instructions -- "audible gasp from the bystanders", right? Because touching a leper was something you did not do -- it makes one unclean. Jesus would have to go through all kinds of purification rites now, to be accepted back into society.

And so that's why it's very interesting to compare this story from 2 Kings 5:1-14, with this Naaman, a foreigner, who wants to be healed of leprosy, and he hears of this prophet, right? Notice what Elisha does--Elisha doesn't touch him, Elisha doesn't even go to see him, Elisha sends a servant with instructions (he's going to stay away, as far as he can, but tell him what he needs to do). The rest of that story is very fascinating, you might want to read that -- not now, some other time :). About a servant that tries to profit off of this, and the leprosy gets transferred from Naaman to the servant because he tries to make money off of it, and for all of his descendents. Another theological problem we won't get into this morning.

Steve Kohl, a retired Professor at the University of Oregon in Japanese literature, participates in our Thursday morning group but lives in Sweet Home, so he's not here in worship very often. He was telling us a story from about 15 years ago in Japan -- Japan has leprosy, modern-day leprosy, that has a real social stigma around it. There was a particular piece of legislation that was approved by the Legislature, and signed into law. As is frequently the case, there was a signing ceremony. Many of the advocates themselves with this disease were present at the ceremony. The Prime Minister, you know, does his thing, and he goes to acknowledge the people present. In Japan, how you greet someone is to bow, right:

Now, if that was all he had done, which was all that was expected that he do, all would have been fine and good, and he could go off and do his prime minister things. But he didn't. He bowed, and then he reached out in the more Western tradition and shook the hands of each of those lepers.

Can you imagine the impact that had? I suspect that had more power and meaning than the individual piece of legislation.

Anyone in the medical profession can tell you the importance of touch for healing. Human touch carries enormous emotional significance, beyond just that physical sensation. A handshake, a hand on the shoulder, a hug when invited and welcomed and appropriate, can be tremendous medicine, for all kinds of ills. By the same token, touch -- when uninvited and unwelcome, or withheld -- can be very damaging to the well-being of the individual.

So Jesus shows his sensitivity to the primary dis-ease of the leper by touching him. Thereby ending his isolation and beginning his healing. It's important here to recognize the difference between healing and curing. Curing involves a change in the physical condition. Healing involves a change in the social, the emotional, the psychological, the spiritual condition.

And that's why a person who has a terminal illness may still speak of being healed, because you can be whole even though your body may be giving out on you. There's a difference.

To be healed is to be made whole. So that's the good news -- healing healing is always possible for us.

I was at a retreat with 25 of my colleagues from Oregon and Washington engaging in theological reflection this past week. We all take turns writing papers for this retreat, and then we sit around and we discuss them. Now, if that sounds fun to you, get help :)

At any rate, we were discussing this paper on the importance of ritual to help facilitate grief work. And the question came up, you know funerals, memorial services and the like, to help people deal with the death of a loved. The question came up: are there times when we are called to disrupt, instead of to facilitate, those rituals?

What? Gary Shoemaker, a colleague of Judy and I when we were in Seminary with him down in California, now a Pastor up in Washington, shared this story. He said he had a gay friend who died of AIDS. The family was of a more conservative church where they held the service. In the course of the service, a very well-meaning person got up and shared how this friend on his death-bed repented of his sin. And everyone knew what he meant -- yeah, hallelujah, praise Jesus, now he can go into heaven, right?

Gary couldn't stay silent. When his turn came to speak, he said he had to disrupt the ritual. He shared that he knew his friend well enough that he did not repent of being gay, that was part of who he was, because he didn't need to. He was not very well-received. But Gary's point was that we have an obligation to disrupt the rituals of society when those rituals victimize people, as in this case.

The movie "The Help", up for best picture, great movie (go see it if you haven't), a powerful story of rituals of the South that victimized women of color. And what happens when someone tries to disrupt those rituals.

You see, the touch of Jesus doesn't just cure the leprosy, it does that, but it also heals the leper. It restores him to wholeness by removing the stigma and the shame -- even if he was not cured. He is now healed. Jesus then instructs him to go to the religious authorities to have this cure confirmed, which according to the law was required before a leper could re-integrate into society now that he has been healed.

In other words, Jesus tells him to play by their rules, to stay within the religious system. Only that's not what he does, is it? This gets really tricky -- because the leper disobeys Jesus. Are we supposed to hold that up as a model for us? He disobeys Jesus. He doesn't go to the priest, he immediately goes and starts sharing with everyone the good news. He re-integrates with society because he has already been healed, see?

And by so doing, he actually honors Jesus as the higher authority, and hence he doesn't need to go the priests.

Now, let's see: do I recall someone saying something about religious authorities objecting to someone else's authority on matters of health care? Oh yeah, it was me :) The United States conference of Catholic Bishops are not happy with that compromise around birth control that allows Catholic hospitals and Universities to avoid paying for birth control medications chosen by their female employees. Evidently they just don't want them to use the stuff.

E.J. Dionne, writing for the New York Times (published in the Register Guard this week), who himself is a very devout Catholic (he was the speaker a couple of years ago at Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon's annual Collins lecture series) and Dionne got it right, in nothing that the original policy of the Obama administration failed to adequately take into account the nature of those Catholic institutions and that under the First Amendment they are guaranteed certain protections against the interference of government on matters of doctrine. It is a First Amendment issue. Just as the bishops got it wrong, on their objection to this compromise that will allow women to have access that they can afford to birth control measures, by purchasing it separately.

Now, any critique of the Catholic hierarchy is much better coming from a fellow Catholic than from a Protestant minister, so it would be better if I just kept my mouth shut. But. . . . :)

So, why, in this whole debate, has no one named the elephant in the room: how is it that an elderly group of celibate men get to make the decision for birth-control for young, sexually active women? There's a disconnect here. I'm just asking.

If we have to make a choice between compassion for younger women, not prepared for parenting or for another child in their family, and religious authorities, let us err on the side of compassion.

If we have to make a choice between shelter for the homeless and political authorities protecting tax breaks for the wealthy, let us err on the side of compassion.

If we have to make a choice between shaking hands with someone off the street or our own need for cleanliness, let us err on the side of compassion.

If we have to make a choice between affirming another person's humanity and dignity, and our policies and procedures, let us err on the side of compassion.

If we have to make a choice between a latte to start our day and a small sacrifice to save someone else's life, let us make the choice and err on the side of compassion.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says "Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect", which seems about as likely for us as being born of a virgin. Worked for Jesus, but you know. . . .

In Luke's version, same text, Luke 6, reads: "Be merciful (or in some translations--be compassionate), as your father in heaven is compassionate". Yeah, I think maybe I can do that one.

This is what Christian faith is about -- being guided by love and compassion, because that is the way of God.

In our life, we have lots of choices. If we want to be like Jesus, may we choose the compassionate one.


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