Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Soul Sores*

Preaching is more complex than it first appears. The preacher has to take a story that talks about something that happened long ago and far away and somehow make it say something to a contemporary audience that, in most cases, has no experience with the event therein described. That is to say, preaching is difficult because it invariably involves negotiating the distance between “then” and “now.” On the one hand, you don’t want to place all the emphasis on the “then” lest you make the sermon nothing more than a “history lesson.” But on the other hand, neither do you want to place all the emphasis on the “now” lest you cut the story loose from its moorings in history and reality and make it nothing more than a “symbol or metaphor” for the preacher’s prejudices. So the preacher has to keep one foot firmly planted in the biblical world and one foot firmly planted in the contemporary world. Sounds like a recipe for a hernia!

And when the text you're preaching is a story, the problems proliferate. You see, part of the power of a story is its capacity to invoke identification with the listener or viewer. But with whom do you identify in a story like this? Jesus? A lot of preachers do. That’s why they fill the air with “oughts” and “shoulds” and “musts” and say to their congregations: “Now, let’s all go out and try to be like Jesus and touch a leper.” But most of us have never seen anybody with leprosy, let alone been close enough to touch a leper. So what do we do? Well, we transfer “leprosy” to its contemporary counterpart – AIDS which the Christian rock star, Bono, has called the “leprosy of our age.” And so, the point of the sermon becomes, “If you wanna be like Jesus, go out and find somebody with HIV and give them a hug.” But for many of us, that’s just as remote from our experience as leprosy.

That’s why biblical scholar James Sanders says that when you read the Bible or preach a sermon about something Jesus did, don’t identify with Jesus in the story. You’re not Jesus. Identify with one of the other characters and you have a greater chance of hearing the “Gospel” in the story.

That’s why I want to take you into the story Mark tells in 1:40-45 not through the experience of Jesus, but through the experience of the leper. And the way I’d like to do that is by telling you a story.

Maya Angelou is a kind of renaissance woman. She has done all sorts of things. She is a writer, a poet; she has written a number of autobiographical works including one wonderful one called I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; she is a singer; she has been a dancer; she worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights movement in the sixties; she has written an opera. She is a remarkable woman in every way.

Some years ago, she was in San Francisco working on a PBS special on African art. Before the show was to go on, she had a call from a stranger who said that he happened to have a collection of African statues which he thought might be very useful to her on the program and that perhaps she would like to see them and maybe make use of them. She accepted and saw them. They were just what she was looking for. He lent them to her and she used them in the program.

As a result of that, they started a friendship. She got to know the man and his wife. They had dinner together a number of times and became good friends. When the PBS thing was over, she went back home to North Carolina.

Some time later, she returned to the Bay Area and remembering this friendship, called up the man and said, “ Hi. It’s Maya Angelou. I'm back. I would love to pick up our friendship where we left it off. I enjoyed you so much before.”

He said, “Terrific. Let me tell you a little bit about what I have been doing since I last saw you.” He had been in Europe working with the problems of the American troops stationed over there.

She said, “Really? How did it go?”

He said, “Well, The black troops over there have a particularly difficult time because there aren’t many blacks around. But our black boys, also...”

She said, “What’d you say?”

He said, “The black troops have a particularly difficult time for various reasons but our black boys, also...”

She said, “What’d you say?”

And it hit him what he had said and the fact that that word “boy” had a long and ugly history in the segregated South. It had been a term of derision and denigration in a racist South and is particularly onerous to African Americans. He said: “I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I said that. I don’t know where that came from. Please forgive me. I’m mortified. I …I’ve got to hang up now.”

She said, “No, please don’t. This is just why we need to talk. Don’t you see? Bigotry is not something we just carry on the outside. It shows on the outside, but it’s deeper than that. It’s a kind of leprosy – “soul sores” that isolate us, shut us out and lock us in and make us feel ‘unclean.’” “We’re all lepers,” she said, “if you scratch us deep enough.”

They agreed to continue the conversation, but when Maya tried to call him again, he never answered. She left messages, but he never called back, and finally she quit trying resigned that she would never be able to get in “touch” with him, in more ways than one.

In Mark’s story, the man whom Jesus healed had sores on the outside. Most of us, thank God, have never seen a leper, leprosy having been largely eradicated in the industrialized West, but in Jesus’ day and culture it was an all-too-common experience. The word in the Greek, lepra, was used for a wide range of cutaneous skin disorders covering everything from relatively minor ailments such as leucodermia and psoriasis to the more dangerous and potentially deadly Hansen’s Disease, what we call “leprosy” today. Caused by a fungus known as Hansen’s Bacillus, leprosy depigmented areas of the skin, degenerated into blisters and ulcers (“skin sores”), and in the most severe cases could lead to necrosis in which the extremities decayed and died and sloughed off leaving the victim horribly disfigured.

But leprosy didn’t just leave sores on the outside, it left sores on the inside too – “soul sores.” So frightening was the specter of encountering a leper that the book of Leviticus has two whole chapters teaching priests (the “health inspectors" of the day) how to diagnose leprosy and how to pronounce lepers, once cured, ritually clean. As for the leper: “The one who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his lips and cry ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp” (Lev. 13:45-46).

“Soul Sores.” As painful as was the leprosy on the outside, the leprosy on the inside was worse! Lepers were shunned – because their disease was contagious, certainly, but it was more than that. It was their pain, their loneliness, their unspeakable fear no one wanted to “catch,” so they were kept at a distance, barred from the community, declared “unclean,” “unworthy,” rejected by both God and man. Not surprisingly, many retreated into fear, anger, loneliness, and denial. And the leprosy on the inside was often worse than the leprosy on the outside.

What makes this story so compelling is that none of us has to travel very far to find our own “soul sores.” “We’re all lepers,” she said, “if you scratch us deep enough.” Transparency in relationships is so rare that most of us have never experienced it. Like “leprosy of the soul.” My the games we play, even when it appears that the relationships are warm and cozy. But scratch a little deeper and the “soul sores” are there. We don our masks and pick up our scripts and read our lines and shout “Unclean!” when anybody comes too close for comfort. Even in the church of the One Who reached out and touched the leper, more often than not we resemble in so many ways a dysfunctional family which consists of sort of a superficial togetherness (what Will Willimon has called “a conspiracy of cordiality”) and yet inside we’re full of inner-loneliness and hidden agendas. We’re terrified, you and me, that if anyone ever finds out what we really are on the inside, lepers all, they’d reject us, never suspecting that they hide the very same “soul sores.”

Do you remember Robert Duvall’s character in Tender Mercies? Mac Sledge had been a successful Country & Western singer and song writer out in west Texas until the bottle “laid him low.” A “liquor leper” he was. Wrecked his life, ruined his career, ravaged his marriage. In deep denial, and unable to find healing for the “soul sores” he’d been carrying for years, something unexpected happens to break through his denial.

In a moving scene, his 18 year old daughter, whom he’d not seen since she was a little girl, comes to see him and remembers with him the daddy who was clean and whole. As she stood there in front of him, she seemed a parable of his sad, wasted life, his daughter he’d never really known. They awkwardly try on a conversation, these two strangers separated by old wounds that refused to be healed, but the words hang loose and baggy about them. And as she turns to leave, she looks at her old, weathered, pathetic Daddy, and calling up a sacred memory she says: “Daddy, do you remember that song you used to sing to me at night before I went to bed?”

“No, can't say that I do."

“You know, it went something like... ‘On the wings of a snow, white dove; He sent His...something, something love.... ‘How’d that go?”

“I don't remember.”

She leaves. But as she’s driving off, there’s old Mac, pressed against the window watching his baby leave for the last time, and he starts to sing: “On the wings of a snow, white dove; He sent his pure, sweet love; A sign from above, on the wings of a dove.”

And Mark says that the leper knelt before Jesus and said: “If you wish, you are able to cleanse me.”

And with simple elegance, Mark reports that Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out his hand and crossed the line, broke the taboo, and touched the untouchable, on the outside and on the inside, and said: “I wish. Be clean.” He left him no place to hide; he left him no need to. He accepted him, sores and all, and made him whole again, outside and inside. Jesus told him to keep it hush-hush, but how could he? The RSV says that “he went out and began to talk freely,” but that hardly does justice to Mark’s Greek. Translate it: “He went out and sang like a bird!” A dove, I suspect.

You wanna know what he sang? I don’t know for sure, mind you, but I have a hunch it went like this: “I am loved; I am loved. I can risk loving you, for the one who knows me best loves me most. You are loved; you are loved. Won’t you please take my hand. We are free to love each other, because we are loved.”

Oh yes. The Maya Angelou story. Sometime later, Maya was giving a series of lectures back in San Francisco, and in the course of the lectures told the painful, painful story of her earlier encounter with her soul-sick friend and the leprous sores racism had left on his soul. When she finished, a smallish, white, Anglican clergyman stood up and said to the stunned crowd: “Here I am.” It was her friend from years ago, the one with the “soul sores,” the “guilt leper” that had kept her shut out and locked up all those years. He slowly walked up to the platform and threw his arms around her and she around him, and they touched, leper to leper, on the outside and on the inside, they touched and embraced and wept and left whole again.

And so, for all you lonely lepers out there, carrying your “soul sores” on the inside, Mark, Maya, and I have a Gospel word for you. Right now, He’s passing by, reaching out to touch you, to cleanse you, to make you whole again – outside and inside.

But you knew that, didn’t you. You knew that already.

*The following is a sermon composed and preached for the good folk who put up with me each Sunday at the church where I serve as Interim Pastor. If you'll let me do this this one time, I promise...I'll not ever do this on a blog again!


J. Travis Moger said...

For those of us who don't have the privilege of hearing you preach, please do post more like this one. I love your sermons. J.T. Moger

pastor.mvbc said...

I agree wholeheartedly...keep sharing your sermons.

Michael A. Jordan
Pastor, Mount Vernon Baptist Church
Axton, Virginia
D.Min. Student, M. Christopher White School of Divinity