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Bishop Karen Oliveto gave the following sermon on Nov. 13, 2016 at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
Mark 1: 40-45
Two of the most challenging days I have ever had in my more than 30 years of ministry have been 9-11 and 11-9. when so many came to me for pastoral care. On Wednesday, November 9, the first call came shortly after midnight. An African-American pastor called me in tears, her voice barely audible because of the grief that came from deep within her soul, “How am I going to tell my teenage son in the morning? The world has just become that much more dangerous for him.”
I received an email from another pastor, asking if I can write a note to the queer young people her church serves, who are now afraid that the bullying they deal with on a regular basis will become more pronounced and violent.
Several friends have talked about how the election has been a terrible trigger for them, surfacing memories of abuse they had hoped they would have long forgotten.
Teachers told me of how they spent time soothing crying children, who are afraid that one day they will return home from school to find parents missing, having been rounded up and deported.
Mothers and fathers asked me what they could tell their children, now that someone who has shown such disrespectful behaviors towards women has been elected a world leader.
At a time when the global village is shrinking, it seems as if instead of feeling a greater sense of community and connection, more and more people are feeling pushed to the margins, outcasts, untouchables.
One of my favorite hymns begins with the line: Open my eyes that I may see.
Open my eyes that I may see.
I use this line as a prayer regularly, because it seems that a part of my human condition is to not keep my eyes open. There are things I become blind to. There are those around me that I overlook. There are those whose suffering or state is too disturbing, and so I close my eyes. Do you know what I’m saying?
Open my eyes that I may see.
This is a basic and sad truth about human nature. There are things about each other that causes us to close our eyes to the other. Just about everyone in this place knows something about this: Whether it is our skin color, our accent, the clothes we wear, the jobs we have (or don’t have), our gender identity, our sexual orientation, our handicapping condition, our size, our addictions, our tattoos, our piercings, most of us have had the experience of being shunned, ignored, overlooked, not seen.
This is a most painful, dehumanizing, demoralizing experience. The gifts and skills we possess and can contribute to the greater good go unacknowledged or unappreciated. The hurts and wounds we carry that can be healed in community fester and cripple us. We are pushed to the margins, sidelined from participating fully in the world, and our cries and contributions are unheeded.
But there is one who sees. There is one who hears our cries. In the book of Jeremiah, God speaks: “Listen to the cry of my people from a land far away.” God hears the cry of resignation, of deep despair, of broken hearts. And how does God react? Jeremiah continues: “For the hurt of my poor people, I am hurt. Oh that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night.” The God who created us is a weeping God. A God who cries.
A God who cries is one who cares and cares deeply about the world as a whole, and people, too, one by one. God sees us. God is moved by us.
This commitment to seeing us fully and responding with compassion was embodied in Jesus. This is what made Jesus so dangerous. Jesus saw those who were overlooked. Jesus saw the outcast. Jesus saw the widow. Jesus saw the children. Jesus saw the immigrant. Jesus saw the mentally challenged. Jesus saw the physically challenged. Jesus saw the physically diseased. Jesus saw those people whom the state had a vested interest in suppressing. Jesus saw those whom the religious authorities wanted nothing to do with. Jesus saw those whom the dominating class overpowered. Jesus saw the rough and the raw. Jesus saw the bleeding and wounded. Jesus saw the crushed and defeated. Jesus saw, and was moved to compassion and action. And the most important action was to let those whom he saw know that they were central to God and God’s purposes. They were and are an exclamation point on the heart of God.
Our scripture today is one of the many stories we have of Jesus seeing the invisible. Leprosy in Jesus day rendered one an untouchable and forced to the figurative margins of society and the literal edges of the town. They were considered an illness to be avoided, a cancer that could be caught, an affliction from God that forced one out of community.
The leper comes to Jesus and begs to him, “If you touch me, you can make me clean.” People who are invisible or untouchable know what they need in order to be treated with dignity and restored to community. The problem is, most of the time we don’t listen. We tend to our own places of privilege or think we know best. But this leper, like so many marginalized folks I’ve known, knew exactly what he needed. And he wasn’t afraid to ask for it.
Jesus looks to the man. He SEES the man. He takes in his whole condition. He sees in him not only the diseased parts of him, but the parts of promise that are waiting to be loosened within him. Some translations say “Jesus took pity on him”. Other translations say Jesus “had compassion”. I go with compassion over pity any time. Pity keeps someone an object, something instead of someone. An issue instead of a person. A problem to be solved instead of a person worthy of wholeness.
To have compassion ... oh, that changes everything. Compassion causes us to open our eyes and see the common humanity we share with another. Compassion causes us to be uncomfortable with assumptions we’ve lived with when we see how some of our life choices are detrimental to another’s life. Compassion moves us to action, because to do nothing would violate a central tenant of our faith, to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.
Jesus has compassion and even though he has spent a long day healing one person after another, gets it together enough to do it one more time. He touches a man no one else is would touch and the man is cleansed of his leprosy. The very thing that kept him at arm’s length is removed and he is returned to community, a whole man.
We need to do this for each other.
I know some of us have been kicked out, kicked down one too many times. Love has broken your heart to pieces and you are feeling beyond the reach of love. Your addictions have clouded your vision, keeping your eye on the one thing that will blind you. Your voice, the work of your hands, your intellectual labor have been ignored, put down or owned by others. You have been put in a corner where no one can see you for so long you have come to believe that that’s where you belong.
But you are an exclamation point in the heart of God. God weeps with you, for you. We are here to extend a hand to you, to see you in all your fullness, flaws and all, and let you know you are loved. We are here to do the work Jesus begun. To see each other fully. To love one another as completely as we can. To stand with each other. As the song, They’ll know we are Christians by our love teaches us: “We will stand with each other, we will stand side by side. And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
As we face the days, months and years to come, Jesus calls to us. Jesus says, live as my beloved brothers and sisters. Care for each other. Heal one another. Protect one another’s dignity. Save each one’s pride. Live out your love so brilliantly so that no one will find themselves lost in the shadows, cowering in fear or languishing in oppression.
I was speaking at a conference not too long ago, and one of the other speakers was from Zimbabwe. He told me about the traditional greeting in Zimbabwe which he says has no real English (and I would dare say American) equivalent. It is called “Chabadza” and it is always said when you pass someone and it means something like, “Hello, can I help?”
Unlike here, where we say without even meaning it, “Hi, how are you?” in Zimbabwe they mean it. He said to me, “When we say Chabadza, what we mean is ‘Greetings! Let me stop a while and help you with what you’re doing. We will work together and we’ll talk a bit and then I’ll be on my way.”
Chabadza is the sharing of a moment, a participation in the task at hand and an acknowledgment that life is best when it is shared.
Life is best when it is shared. As long as we live in silos that separate us by our differences, we don’t get to enjoy the best of life and in fact life turns deadly for those who are feared because of differences.
As this critical juncture in our nation’s history, it is time we practice Chabadza. What would it mean for you to practice it in your office, in your community, as you walk down the street. How would your living change if you took the time to look others in the eye and say let me join you, side by side work with you, so I can learn from you and make your walk in this world a bit easier.
This is how we heal the lepers of our current age. This is what is needed to heal a fractured nation. This is our task as we work for justice, fairness, and equality. This is what is required of us as children of God.
So today and in the days to come, I invite you to walk in the world differently. To see people you often overlook. To stop and share life together. For that is when healing happens, That is when community is created. This is what causes compassion to well up within us and compels us to work for justice.
Chabadza. Hello. How can I help?