Can Beggars Be Choosers? (Printable Version)

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at St. Matthew’s UMC Sunday, February 12, 2012, the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany.
Text:  Mark 1:40-45

“In his book, The Power of the Powerless (New York: Doubleday, 1988), Christopher de Vinck tells a simple story:  One spring afternoon my five-year-old son, David, and I were planting raspberry bushes along the side of the garage …. A neighbor joined us for a few moments … David pointed to the ground … ‘Look, Daddy! What’s that?’
I stopped talking with my neighbor and looked down. ‘A beetle,’ I said.
David was impressed and pleased with the discovery of this fancy, colorful creature. My neighbor lifted his foot and stepped on the insect, giving his shoe an extra twist in the dirt. ‘That ought to do it,’ he laughed.
David looked up at me, waiting for an explanation, a reason … That night, just before I turned off the light in his bedroom, David whispered, ‘I liked that beetle, Daddy.’
‘I did too,’ I whispered back.”#

In this story, the neighbor clearly assumes that no one would care if he squished the beetle and yet that little child did care—he liked that beetle.  And my favorite part of this story is that the father acknowledges that he had liked the bug as well.  In this simple act of agreement, the parent gives his child the freedom to choose life instead of death for a bug.  Somewhere along the line, it seems that the ways of the world teach us that there are creatures that don’t deserve our attention or care.  Bugs are to be ignored if possible, disregarded and squashed if we get the chance.

Jesus had a choice to make when he was encountered by the leper in today’s Gospel story.  This leper, by all the laws and conventions of the time, was not supposed to come near anyone; he was to live outside the boundaries of all community; he was to announce his wretchedness if he ever did encounter anyone, by yelling out “unclean! unclean!”; he had no power to heal himself or to reenter society; he was, by all accounts, of no consequence.  And yet he does approach Jesus as a beggar, on his knees.  And then the choice belongs to Jesus.  The leper says, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”

Although the story shows no hesitation in Jesus’ next move, let’s think about the choice that Jesus made.  The civil laws and the Bible (Mosaic Law) forbade that he should interact with this outsider; all of common wisdom would agree that to speak with—much less touch—this person was not only vaguely undesirable, but physically dangerous and spiritually condemning; it would infect you, body and soul.  This system had developed as a public health policy—a way to keep diseases from spreading.  But the same system also imposes a cost—the cost of the leper’s relationships, life, hope.  Of course, sometimes the conventional wisdom of the day has no truly positive intention but rather is just a thinly veiled way to maintain an oppressive system grounded in pathology and fear and hatred.

If we found ourselves in this story, approached by the leper, the beggar, the outsider, the condemned, the unclean, and we, like Jesus were “moved with pity or compassion,” the question is:  would we choose to reach out and touch the outsider?  Or do the pressures of the system, or expectations, the laws, the common wisdom, shake our confidence, causing us to question not only the wisdom of our compassion, but also the freedom to act on it?  My sense is that, more often than we might like to admit, we choose the road that keeps us safe, that conforms to the platitudes or even the real wisdom of the world—even if that road runs counter to our compassionate instinct.  In other words, I fear that we often “squash the beetle.”

When the leper approaches Jesus, he could not possibly hope to be accepted in the temple or in any polite society “as is”—that is, as long as he clearly falls in the “unclean outsider” category, there’s no way that the system will allow him to be an “insider.”  No, when that sick person came begging to Jesus, his only hope was that Jesus might choose to leave the safe space and “go out” to him.  And the beggar’s hope is not in vain.  Jesus says, “I do choose.”  And he reaches out to him and touches him.  Jesus chooses the leper, the beggar.  “Of course, by going out to him Jesus also becomes an outsider.”  By going out to him Jesus becomes “unclean.”  “Once Jesus chooses to help the outsider…‘He can no longer go into a town openly’ but must now stay ‘out in the country.’  But that’s now where Jesus chooses to be found, on the outside, so that those who are cast out may be in the proximity of his compassionate touch.  Just how much of an outsider Jesus must become by choice in order to save outsiders doesn’t become clear to us until the end of the story when he is ‘out of the city on the cross.’”#

There are modern-day lepers all around us, those folks who are deemed dangerous, unclean, and untouchable.  We might not want to acknowledge the fact that there are people whom we truly want to keep OUT of our church or out of our lives. But we need to face our own fear and prejudice and selfishness and hatred if we are to grow in love and spiritual maturity.  Who are those persons for you?  Perhaps they are folks with a criminal record, folks who are socially awkward, folks who don’t dress in ways that you find “appropriate,” folks who may not be versed in “how to act in church,” folks who disagree with or challenge your values or Biblical interpretations, folks who are undocumented immigrants, who have AIDS, who are addicts, who are pierced and tattooed—and for some, the ones we really don’t want to have anything to do with are those who would be judgmental on any of these counts or others.  Who are the “lepers” for you?  Who, if encountered, would you fear?  Who would you find repulsive or distasteful?  Who would make you uncomfortable?  Today, we’re reminded that following Jesus is not about our comfort.  Following Jesus is not about our safety.  Today we are reminded that Jesus chooses to reach out and touch the ones we don’t want anything to do with.  We’re reminded that Jesus gave his life for them—not just for you and me.

If we are willing to acknowledge the places in ourselves that are fearful, isolated, broken and bound by sin (things that separate us from God and from others), we are at the point of hope.  Because if we can see that, then we can claim our solidarity with the leper in today’s story.  We can begin to see how much we need Jesus to reach out and touch our brokenness, our shame.   [We, like the leper, can approach Jesus on our knees, and claim our need.]  We all harbor fear and loathing—in one form or another.  And in one way or another, we all have places in ourselves that are judged—by ourselves or by others—as unclean; we all struggle to find our place in a world that makes sense of things by drawing lines between the insiders and outsiders; we all deal with our sense of powerlessness over certain aspects of our lives; we are all bound by the powerful, pervasive forces of evil that would have us live our lives in ways that drain us and others of life and hope.  We can all, I hope and pray, identify with the leper in today’s story.  Even if we only acknowledge it in the deepest, darkest part of ourselves, we are all, to some degree, beggars.  That is, we are all needy, broken, powerless to save ourselves from the overwhelming forces at work in the world and in our lives.

Conventional wisdom teaches that “Beggars can’t be choosers.”  And, according to the ways of the world, this statement is true.  But the good news is that Jesus chooses to reach out and touch the lepers and beggars of the world.  You and me.  And he does this so that beggars can, in fact, be choosers.  Jesus’ touch frees us from all of that garbage that would tell us that choosing safety and cynicism and prejudice is the smart thing to do.  It is true that to care means that we might be disappointed.  It is true that to reach out and touch someone who is scary to us might mean that our lives will have to change.  It is true that our health or life or standing in the community might be put at risk if we choose to stand with the oppressed, the outcast, the leper.  But because Christ chooses us, because Jesus reaches out and touches us in our places of brokenness and fear and shame and weakness, we are freed to extend our hand to the outsiders among us; we are freed to risk loving and caring, to act with compassion and mercy and love even when all our worldly instincts dictate that we “step on the beetle.”

If you choose, Christ will empower you to act according to Godly instincts, will help you love and care and mature and grow and bring healing and reconciliation into the world.  If you choose…  It is not just your life that depends upon your choice.

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