Sermon preached February 15, 2009
Scripture Reading: Mark 1:40-45
So last week’s sermon title was “I’ve Got Rhythm,” and it sat proudly out on our sign outside the church. Someone commented to me that if that were posted outside a Catholic Church, the meaning might be entirely different. And then I thought about the combination of last week’s sermon title and this week’s on the sign of a Catholic Church and couldn’t help but laugh. It’s o.k. I was in the car by myself. “I’ve Got Rhythm” followed by “Oops!”
Some might find this humor a little risqué for the church. There are hints of sexuality in it. The church is no place for talk about sex. If we talk about alcohol it ought to be in purely condemnatory terms. Same goes for dancing. You heard no doubt about the Baptist pastor who preached vigorously against premarital sex – it could lead to dancing you know.
Somehow we have it ingrained in our heads that to be religious, or maybe even more religious – to be pious, is to avoid these more earthy topics except in either whispered or condemnatory tones. To be religious is to be like this character in Lewis Smedes little fable, “The Magic Eyes.” In the village of Faken in innermost Friesland there live a long thin baker named Fouke, a righteous man, with a long thin chin and a long thin nose. Fouke was so upright that he seemed to spray righteousness from his thin lips over everyone who came near him; so the people of Faken preferred to stay away.
Don’t you hear in that description something of the picture you have in your mind of what a really pious/religious person is like? Isn’t our picture of being religious colored by images of people who are stern, who lack humor, who are rigid, who follow the rules oh so very well. If any of you have seen the movie Doubt the nun played by Meryl Streep fits the bill pretty well.
There is a certain allure in this image of religiousness, we are attracted by a certain purity perhaps. But we are also, I think, deeply ambivalent about being too “religious” with that image in mind. One of the interesting things about being a clergy person is that others assume that anything religious will be appealing to me. I have often heard people talk about an acquaintance and then say, “You would like him, he’s very religious.” What people don’t know is that when I hear that my stomach often tightens, because frequently the image given of the very religious person is someone who listens to Christian radio all the time, watches religious programming on the television, never cusses – but rarely laughs, prays in such a way that everyone seems to know they pray, has observable religious symbols displayed, carries a Bible in a prominent place. Please know that I am all for prayer and the Bible, I love religious symbolism, sometimes listen to Christian radio and can find ETWN and Inspiration on my cable system – but I have a hard time with a view that sees the deeply religious in these terms alone and often adds a sternness, a rigidity to it. I listen to classic rock and jazz most often, and I may know more about Seinfeld than Joel Osteen.
I struggle with that understanding of being pious, being religious precisely because I read my Bible and there I read stories like today’s story. In today’s story being deeply religious, if we take Jesus as our model for what that means – Jesus, along with other Biblical characters, being deeply religious is about creative disobedience. It is about depth of feeling and living. That’s right – religious, pious, creatively disobedient, depth!! Quite a combination.
Let’s start with Jesus. First of all, Jesus is deeply moved in this story. “Moved with pity” – Peterson translates this “deeply moved,” Jesus acts. The language here is of strong emotion, deeply moved, and it has tones of compassion and anger. Jesus might be angry at the pain he sees in the leper who has come to him. Jesus might be angry at the religious system that has isolated this man and failed to bring him any kind of healing. There may be anger, but compassion, deeply felt compassion, is the predominant response.
Then Jesus breaks the rules. He engages in creative disobedience to the rules and regulations of his day, the religiously enforced rules. Oops! Jesus reaches out and touches the leper. Touching a leper made one unclean. Jesus turns that idea on its head. Reaching out in compassion and healing doesn’t make the one who reaches out unclean, it helps heal and make clean the one touched. Yes, there is a physical healing, but also a spiritual and emotional healing. The leper is welcomed back into the community. And the writer of Mark’s gospel puts this story of creative disobedience right in the first chapter of his work (compared to Matthew, ch. 8 and Luke, ch. 5).
But then Jesus seems to morph into a kind of narrow religiousness, giving a stern warning, giving strict orders to the leper not to share his story, but to go right to the priest to testify. And what does this leper do? Oops – he creatively disobeys Jesus, and somehow the gospel writer does not identify this as a problem! The leper chooses to embody the spirit of Jesus instead of following the strict rule Jesus lays down. How audacious, and can’t you see this leper joyously dancing, leaping, speaking, shouting, singing!
And here’s the message for today – let the leaping leper in. Broaden your imagination of what it means to be pious, what it means to be religious. Let the leaping leper in – see deep religiousness in Christian faith as deep engagement with the world, with its hurts, pains and joys, see deep religiousness as depth of heart and feeling and thinking and compassion. Broaden your imagination of what it means to be religious, what it means to be a person of deep faith – let the leaping leper in and live in this broad imagination. I want this church to be a risky place, a dangerous place. I want it to be a place where we are all in danger of becoming more deeply religious, not in that narrow, pinched, prim and proper sense that is the caricature creation of our culture, but deeply religious in the sense I see in this story - a story of creative disobedience, of risk, of adventure, of joy, of healing, of depth, of leaping.
Please hear me well. I am not saying that in the life of Christian faith there is no place for order, structure, rules, conceptions of duty. There certainly is. Not long ago I was at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Board of Ordained Ministry for The United Methodist Church in Minnesota, and I was the only one who had a copy of the new United Methodist Book of Discipline. I serve on local, state and national/international United Methodist boards. I am excited to have been recently elected to the first ever United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order. I am denominational up to my eyeballs. I am our Minnesota Conference parliamentarian, and I feel bad when I hear Robert’s Rules of Order get bashed. Within Christian faith, within Christian spirituality and religiosity there is a place for order, structure, duties, rules.
At the same time, our primary images of the Christian religious life should be dynamic, adventurous – images of dancing, leaping, singing, shouting – images of jazz where the music is improvisational, always responding to the other musicians and to the spirit of the music, and the Spirit of our music is the God we know in Jesus Christ.
Some of you know I teach a class in Health Care Ethics – “Religious Perspectives in Health Care Ethics.” This year I re-wrote my introductory lecture to describe what I mean by religion, being religious. I describe human existence with the help of Ernest Becker. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, 26: The essence of man is really his paradoxical nature, the fact that he is half animal and half symbolic…. He is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature…. Yet, at the same time… man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-grasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways – the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. (Becker, 268-269): The real dilemma of existence: the one of the mortal animal who at the same time is conscious of his mortality. A person spends years coming into his own, developing his talent, his unique gifts, perfecting his discriminations about the world, broadening and sharpening his appetite, learning to bear the disappointments of life, becoming mature, seasoned – finally a unique creature in nature, standing with some dignity and nobility and transcending the animal condition; no longer driven, no longer a complete reflex, not stamped out of any mold. And then the real tragedy… that it takes sixty years of incredible suffering and effort to make such an individual, and then he is good only for dying. It is not a lecture that has them rolling in the aisles. Someone else described coming to terms with the human situation as “terrified tenderness: a sudden new awareness of what a fix we’re in on this earth, stuck in these bodies, with these minds” (George Saunders, Harpers, January 2009, 29).
So what is religion, if this is the human situation? I share some definitions of religion in the lecture, some offered by my own teachers. (Frederick Streng, Understanding Religious Life): Religion is a means to ultimate transformation… a fundamental change from being caught up in the troubles of common existence (sin, ignorance) to living in such a way that one can cope at the deepest levels with those troubles. (2) Religion – the instrument humanity has fashioned in relation to certain objective forces to heal forever its deepest maladies. (Religion and Ultimate Well-Being, Martin Prozesky, 9) (Schubert Ogden, Is There Only One True Religion or Are There Many?): By “religion” I understand the primary form of culture in terms of which human beings explicitly ask and answer the existential question of the meaning of ultimate reality for us. (5) These definitions share some common themes: ultimacy, personal-existential, transformation (lived experience – shaped, healed). The religious question is: “What makes sense of the human condition and is there some ultimate reality, some ultimate good, to which the human person can contribute in the span of a life that will inevitably end?” CEUs will be available following the service!
My point is that this sense of religion is so much more than the image of the narrow, prim, proper person who cannot talk about the very stuff of life – sex and sorrow and death and healing and justice and joy and love. To be religious in the sense offered by Christian faith is to see the human condition for its dignity and tragedy, for its incredible potential and for our failure to live out that potential with grace and humility – to see deeply and then to live with integrity, authenticity, courage, compassion, joy, love. To be religious is to risk creative disobedience sometimes in the service of healing, justice, inclusion, compassion, love. It is to be willing to be deep and deeply moved. We need to let the leaping leper into our imagination of what it means to be a person of faith and then live out of that imagination.
David Roche is an inspirational speaker who has a compelling personal story. Anne Lamott shares it in her book Plan B. Roche was born with a large benign tumor on his face. Surgeons tried to remove it when he was very young, and ended up taking his lower lip. Radiation treatment caused the lower part of his face to stop growing. David knew love and esteem from his parents, but acceptance among others was often more difficult. He remembers a game of spin the bottle when the girl who was supposed to kiss him recoiled in horror. He also remembers a date with a girl named Carol. It took David a long time to ask her out, but finally he did and she agreed. They went to the movies and afterward sat on his front porch; he kept trying to put his arm around her but couldn’t quite do it, so they talked and talked and talked. He wanted to kiss her but was too shy to ask; he was afraid it was like asking her to kiss a monster. Finally she said, “I need to go home now,” and he said, “Carol, I want to kiss you,” and she said, “David, I thought you’d never ask.”
That was a moment of true grace, and from this experience, he built a church inside himself… teaching people to tell their stories, their marvelous, screwed-up, and often hilarious resurrection stories. David calls it the Church of Eighty Percent Sincerity. “We in the Church of Eighty Percent Sincerity do not believe in miracles. But we do believe that you have to stay alert, because good things happen. When God opens the door, you’ve got to put your foot in.” Anne Lamott comments: It’s such subversive material, so contrary to everything society leads us to believe – that if you look good, you’ll be happy, and have it all together, and you’ll be successful and nothing will go wrong and you won’t have to die, and the rot won’t get in. (109)
David’s story, and its impact on Anne Lamott are much closer to genuine Christian religion than the pictures of narrow piety we may carry around inside of us. Christian faith subverts those images of narrow religiosity and piety. Christian faith is about life, about seeing it deeply, knowing it profoundly, and living with integrity, authenticity, courage, compassion, joy, love, in an on-going dance with the God we know in Jesus Christ, a Jesus who engaged in creative disobedience in the interest of healing and compassion and justice. The religious life, Christian version, is about a Jesus who is deeply moved and creatively disobedient and about a leaping leper who cannot contain the joy inside of him. Let that leaping leper in. Amen.