6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46 | 1 Corinthians 10:31—11:1 | Mark 1:40-45
Oh, God, who teaches us that you abide in hearts that are just and true, grant that we may be so fashioned by your grace as to become a dwelling pleasing to you. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
IN the opening prayer, we prayed that God would dwell within us, that he would help us create a place for him where he longs to become part of our lives, not as someone telling us what to do as much as someone helping us to understand who we are. That prayer even said, “That you would come and dwell in hearts that are just and true,” as if we had to be, first, just and true, and then, “You will come.” It’s interesting how much that misunderstanding impacted me as a child. I grew up in a church that, the minute I sinned, I was out of God’s favor, so if he was part of me, he left. The idea was that he would only dwell in places that were clean and free of sin meant I had two choices: to stop sinning, which I tried (it didn’t work) or to talk myself into being someone I’m not and say, “Well, no, I am just, and I am true, and I’m doing the best I can, so I think maybe God is glad to be part of the beautiful, perfect life I’ve created out of my mind and my will.” Then I end up living a lie.
So this image of God entering us to effect change is so important, and he comes not because we are clean, but because he longs to clean us — with our permission. So we must say to him, “Yes, come. Dwell within me and be a light to enlighten me so I can see the truth of who I am and why I’m here and what responsibility you’ve given me in the world, and I will do my best to try to accomplish it.” And anyone who seeks to accomplish it in a way that’s perfect is never going to accomplish it, because we can’t begin accomplishing something perfectly. We start imperfectly, slowly, a little at a time, and we need God’s presence throughout that long process called life when, if we live it as God calls us to live it, we become more and more who we are, not in some kind of selfish way, but in self-discovery of the gifts we have and how we should use them, and the responsibility we have to the world around us, particularly to the circle of friends we are close to.
So that truth, when it enters us, that enlightenment, has a goal, and one of the goals we could say is very much a sign that it’s operating is union, communion, connection. Enlightenment, the truth, is based on the fact that the world, as God created it, is a place of harmony. It’s designed so that it works together. It’s designed to connect. So if you want to look at an image of evil, what is it doing? It is feeding us with lies that create separation and isolation all over the world, and it’s usually over our weaknesses and our sins. So one of the great ways in which the Old Testament talked about sin in the beginning was to say it’s like a disease called leprosy. Leprosy is such an interesting disease. It’s contagious. We don’t come into the world filled with lies. We catch them; we get infected by them when we’re very young, unable to filter them out. Our life experiences do that to us, and we’re not able to work them out. We’re not able to make sense of them: tragedy, abuse and violence. But we have this promise that this God, what he’s longing to do, is to create for us an ability to see ourselves as we truly are. And what’s interesting about leprosy is, first and foremost, when you’re in the disease, you are automatically separated from other people. You’re isolated. So sins, illusion and lies isolate us from ourselves and others. The other thing it does that I find so interesting, especially if you have leprosy on your face — if you want to do something that’s not easy to do, go to the Internet and look up pictures of leprosy. When it’s on the face, you cannot see a face. You cannot make out lips. You cannot make out a nose. You can see eyes in this strange-shaped skin all over your face. It’s as if you’re unrecognizable. When you see the face, it’s so amazing. When you look at something like that, you don’t realize how much, when you read a face, how much you receive about a person. The face is amazingly revealing. You can feel something coming from the face, in terms of whether this person is trustworthy or not. So to lose that ability to communicate, connect with people as you truly are, as you are made by God, is for us to see each other as we are, our faces.
I love the image that we get. When we die, we see God face-to-face. He sees us completely. We see him completely. So the idea that sin has this effect on us, that it can distort who we are, is something I believe is worth pondering, because it gives me an enormous amount of motivation to not fall into traps. I think it’s interesting that there are people out there — some of us choose the dark side, and we do bad things to people, and we are dangerous. I think the serial killer is probably the most frightening of all people. He seems nice and pleasant in some ways, and then you realize he and his partners have this incredible, dark thing inside them that destroys life around them, but there’s also a distortion that goes in the other direction. When people try to become super-nice, super-wonderful, it’s as if we decide, “I’m not going to succumb to a distortion of who I am by choosing to do things that go against my nature, that is to do evil, but there’s something else that’s evil that gets away with thinking it’s not. It presents itself as if it’s not, and that is being more than we are, being more helpful, more caring, more what other people want us to be. The motive behind it isn’t truly wanting to help. It’s wanting to be loved or to be seen as valuable. It’s very subtle, and it’s very common, in my life anyway, in my family. I see it around me. People exaggerate what they’ve accomplished. They brag about the people they know, what they have. I do it way, way too much, and when I even do it, I feel there’s something phony about it, and finally I think I’m trying to make myself aware that, when I do that, it’s anything but truthful.
That brings me back to this image of what is sin. Why is it there, and what does it do? Sin is so fascinating in Scripture, Old Testament, New Testament, because when Jesus comes, he makes it clear that it’s not so much us, but a spirit that enters us, an evil spirit. There’s not much in the Old Testament about evil spirits, but when Jesus begins his ministry, it’s one of the first things he makes clear: when you are filled with the truth, when God dwells in you, as he dwells in Jesus, he’s the model of who we are as believers. When you believe in that incredible power, negative power, it’s helpful, in a sense, to say, “Well, maybe these desires I have, these lies that I belong to, they didn’t necessarily only come from my family of origin or from the culture, but there’s some spirit in the world that keeps trying to seduce us into a lie.” Maybe it’s just seduction, in a sense that it continues to encourage us to believe in a lie as if it’s true. So we see Jesus doing something really interesting. When he heals — and what’s interesting about his healing, most all of his physical healings, are about making a human being fully human. Eyes really see. Ears really heal. Tongues really speak. Hands really work. Legs really take us places. It’s all about human beings having become fully human, and then he does this other mysterious thing. He drives the negative spirit out of our human experience, and what’s interesting about it, when he first does it in the reading two weeks ago, it was as if the demon spoke very clearly about who he was. “I know who you are, God. I know you’re the Son of God. I know you’ve come to destroy us. Don’t destroy us. Put us in a place. We need to be in something to be effective. If we can get into a spiritual being, be it animal, man or whatever, into the life force of that, we can work to destroy it, but we have to be inside.” It’s why they said, “Put us in these swine,” and the swine self-destruct. It’s frightening to think that there’s a spirit like that, but it’s helpful, because it gives us a sense that there’s something in us that isn’t evil, because our nature is designed for love and for connection and then for unity. The evil spirit is just the opposite. It’s designed for destruction, separation, isolation, competition and violence.
You look at the world today, and it’s so interesting how all of a sudden it seems more than ever that we have almost every issue. There’s division in our culture, whether it’s about gender identity, our sexual orientation, our political party, our income level. It’s as if all of a sudden, all these figures are at war with each other, or at least there are two ways of looking at them that somehow create division. And what is the answer to that? It’s so simple in a way. It’s the truth. There’s a truth about things, and the truth is they all work together. They all are made for each other. There is a flow of life between everything that God has created. All the diversity, all the different levels, there’s a role in each one that is important to embrace, but we don’t want to listen to something that’s different than we are. We don’t want to rethink what we feel about those things. We cling to illusions, because somehow we fear that, if we have to admit that there’s something we do not see and we claim it’s true and it really isn’t — that’s amazingly difficult for human nature to do that without divinity inside them, without an indwelling presence of a figure of God who wants to slowly enlighten you into the truth every day. And so it seems as if one of the most important things we could learn as a culture, as a community is, when we’re at odds with something, when we feel real division, separation — it’s not just that I don’t understand that position. That’s healthy, but I hate the person who has that disposition. That’s unhealthy. I feel nothing in common with the person who has that. I’m separated from them. In fact, I’d like to destroy them. That’s evil. That’s the spirit that comes into us.
So we see Jesus doing the miracle in the story today, in this gospel passage, and it’s clear that, in dealing with this evil spirit in the form of leprosy, he said, “Do you want me to make you clean?” It’s so simple. Do you want to see the truth? Do you want to be free of all of these illusions and sources of anger and shame and fear? Do you want to be free of that? Yes, I do. Does God want you to be free of it? Yes. Is he willing to cleanse you of it? Yes. So then we end up in that place of communication with a divine Spirit that’s inside us and asking him every day, “Show me. Teach me. Help me to see the truth.” And the beauty of the truth is it will always lead someone to union and communion, oneness, wholeness, life.
I don't know why that seems so different to me, even when I just say that, from the way I was first taught to live in this world, I was taught to stop sinning, to almost hate that in me. That wasn’t what it was supposed to be. Seeing its presence, there was a problem, and I just projected onto everyone around me. If people with different opinions would just go away, if they’d all agree with me, then we’d have a unified world. How naïve is that? Because first of all, the division itself is a challenge for us to come to some consensus. When you have a major division over issues, you know that probably each person has some part of the truth that they’re working for and want to see happen, but they close off to the fullness of the complexity of it all. Life is complex. Our world is complex. So many factors are involved in making decisions, so many things one needs to consider, and how can you do that unless you have help, unless you have some source of truth and light, understanding, compassion, empathy? All those things, they’re natural to us. They are our nature, but they need to be ignited. They need to be exposed for how wonderful they are. They need to be seen as the goal that we want to achieve, and we don’t achieve it overnight. We achieve it in small increments. We become a little bit more understanding. We stop screaming. We start listening. Maybe we make a little bit of change here, a little bit of change there, but if that is guided by the spirit of light within us, it will bring us to that wonderful, promised place of peace. That’s the promise of God. That’s what the world is moving toward every single day when people open themselves to one simple thing, truth.
Father, we open this time to you, asking you to create within us a dwelling for you. It’s not a place of purity. It’s a place of longing, a place of desiring to be in you and you in us, your truth as part of who we are, and that truth, we know, will bring us the place that we were meant to have with you, a place of great peace and great understanding, but most especially effectiveness in bringing this gift to the world. So bless us continually with an awareness of your presence that is always, always a part of us, and we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.