Friday, December 01, 2006

"If You Choose, You Can Make Me Clean"

Today is World AIDS Day. To observe this event, I'm posting a homily I preached on February 16, 2003, because it includes a story I told about our friend Michael, who died on Mother's Day, 1996. Gary and I didn't know Michael very long, but I still think about him all the time.

This is a very localized, personal story about a disease that's become a global epidemic, but it's the story I have to tell; and maybe what I say here applies globally, too. To offer healing, we have to risk relationship, however complicated and chaotic that relationship may become.

The Scripture readings are 2 Kings 5:1-15 and Mark 1:40-45.

* * *

“If you choose, you can make me clean.”

Today’s Gospel and Old Testament readings are about choices, and about the risks that come with those choices. These stories are about people who choose to ask for healing, and people who choose to offer it. The person who asks for healing risks rejection. The person who offers healing risks relationship.

Without treatment, leprosy is a terrible disease. It causes numbness in the face and extremities, which become injured and deformed. Today, we can cure leprosy, and we know that it’s not especially contagious. But first-century lepers were social outcasts. They had to live in isolation, for fear that their defilement -- both physical and spiritual -- would infect others.

The word we translate as “leper” in the Bible is actually the generic term for a number of skin diseases. In the thirteenth and fourteenth chapters of Leviticus, God commands that people with such conditions be brought before the priests, who will determine the exact nature of the illness and decide if the patient must be sent into permanent quarantine. Even if someone had been cured of a skin disorder, that person was still considered unclean until purified by a priest. This cleansing involved ritual decontamination, not just of the patient, but of clothing and living quarters. Only after all of this had been done could the leper be accepted back into society.

These elaborate rituals are the context for today’s readings about Elisha’s healing of Naaman and Jesus’ healing of the leper in the Gospel of Mark. In both stories, the cleansing ritual is radically simpler than Leviticus says it should be. Naaman, despite his illness, has a great deal of social status; the nameless leper in Mark has none. But both of them have faith that God can cure them with only a wave, or a touch, of the prophet’s hand. Both choose to ask for healing.

The difference lies in what they do when their request has been granted. Naaman, told by Elisha to wash himself in the river Jordan, pouts but obeys. The leper in Mark, commanded by Jesus to be silent about his healing –- and to present himself to the priests for the ritual cleansing described in Leviticus -- blithely ignores both orders. Giddy with restored health, he shoots off his mouth, and Jesus finds himself mobbed by other people who want healing.

These two stories aren’t just about decontamination; they’re about decorum. They’re about the patient’s relationship with the community. Naaman, who has a social reputation to lose, plays by the rules, and when he gets the healing he wants, he politely offers Elisha presents. The leper in Mark doesn’t play by the rules. He’s already a social outcast; he has nowhere to go but up. And so he behaves in a way that makes life more difficult for Jesus. He can’t be bothered with decorum, because he’s just gotten his life back.

As disciples of Christ, we are called -- among other things -- to include outcasts and to heal the sick. Cleansed in the waters of baptism, we, too, are commanded to offer cleansing and community to those whom others consider unclean: the poor, the ill, the imprisoned and the improper. We are called to love people who create either physical or social revulsion in their neighbors. The leper in Mark reminds us why this is so difficult. The people we help don’t always behave the way we want them to afterwards. They aren’t always decorous. If we choose to make them clean, our own lives can get a lot more messy.

When my husband Gary and I, not yet married, lived in New Jersey, we had a neighbor named Michael who lived two floors above us. Michael had AIDS, and his doctor had told him that he had to get rid of his cat. Cat waste carries a disease, toxoplasmosis, which is harmless to most people but can be deadly to anyone with a compromised immune system. Michael couldn’t clean his beloved cat’s litterbox, because it was too dangerous to his health.

Gary and I knew that AIDS, like leprosy, is much more difficult to contract than many people think it is. We weren’t worried about catching anything from Michael, and we wanted him to be able to keep his pet. So we offered to clean the litterbox for him. It wouldn’t be that big a deal: an hour or two a week. Right?

Wrong. Michael, it turned out, didn’t just have AIDS: he had the world’s most impossible personality, and he was absolutely starved for human contact. When Michael hugged you, it felt like he was never going to let go. He told us every detail of his life; he wanted every detail of ours. He pounded on our door in the middle of the night when he was in pain. He pounded on our door first thing in the morning, even when he wasn’t in pain, to raid our refrigerator for breakfast. When Gary and I got engaged, Michael complained that Gary should have gotten me a flashier ring. When Michael was in the hospital, he called to demand that I bring him Godiva chocolates. “You can’t say no,” he told me. “I’m dying of AIDS.” Michael had no decorum whatsoever.

But he also gave us gifts and left messages on our answering machine to tell us how much he loved us. He cheered me on through the process of getting my Ph.D. He insisted on paying for a limousine to take me and Gary to our wedding, and he asked if he could give a toast at the reception. He was too sick to give it; he had to go home. But he had a friend read it for him, and it was beautiful.

He could be wonderful. He could be horrible. You never knew which side was going to come out. He had a habit of begging us to take him to parties we were going to, because he was lonely. But if we did take him along, he often wound up doing something totally socially unacceptable. Because his illness left him so little privacy, he seemed to believe that he had a perfect right to invade other people’s. Once, at a party given by Gary’s boss, Michael searched the hostess’s medicine cabinet and gleefully told me and Gary -- and the other people standing near us -- what medical conditions she had.

Michael and I had quite an argument after that little incident. “Michael,” I told him, “if you keep acting like this, you won’t get a chance to die of AIDS, because somebody’s going to kill you first!”

Gary and I loved Michael, but we also fought with him, ranted about him to other friends, and sometimes found ourselves avoiding him. What we had offered as a simple act of cleaning turned into a messy, complicated, demanding relationship. We didn’t handle it perfectly, but our lives would ultimately have been poorer if Michael hadn’t been in them. He could be absolutely impossible -- but if we had it to do over again, we’d still choose to clean his cat box.

“If you choose, you can make me clean,” the leper says. And Jesus, reaching out to touch the untouchable, says, “I do choose.” What he gets to choose is whether to be caring; he can’t choose how the person he cares for will respond. Jesus risks relationship, not knowing if that relationship will be easy or exhausting, decorous or difficult. He does what he knows he can do, even though he doesn’t know what the leper will do in return.

What he gets is a mess: the news spreading all over the place, and so many people clamoring for a piece of what the leper got that Jesus can’t even go into town openly. But I have a very strong hunch that if Jesus had it to do over again, he’d make the same choice. I think he’d still touch the untouchable. I think he’d still choose love, however messy it might become.

What do you think?


  1. I'm glad Michael had you and Gary in his life. Sometimes acceptance is what the difficult personality needs...

    AIDS is such a hideous disease, and so many people think its "cured". Sadly, we can slow it down, but not cure it. The rates of HIV infection are actually starting to go up again, because so many people are no longer afraid of it..

  2. Jesus wouldn't choose love - he is love, no choice about it. He gave his mortal life out of love for us weak ones, the ones with the choice. Once we begin to understand that we see our choices more clearly.

    And we still choose wrong, sometimes.

    And he still loves us, all of the time.

    Michael was just a human being, like every one of us, and as capable of being amazing and disappointing as any of us. I'm glad he was lucky enough to know you and Gary, and you were lucky enough to know him.

  3. I must say that as a lapsed episcopalian if you lived down here in Vegas I would go to church again. That was beautiful.

    Love, Alyson

  4. Thanks for the comments, all!

    John: Well, we weren't always very accepting. Learning to set limits was definitely essential to dealing with Michael. As for people no longer being afraid: yeah, I know. I've read about barebacking parties and that kind of thing. Terrifying!

    Martyn: On at least one occasion -- with the Canaanite woman -- Jesus didn't initially choose love, although he quickly realized his mistake and corrected it.

    Alyson: Thanks for the lovely compliment! (And I've added you to my blogroll.) I've posted a number of homilies here, so feel free to browse (click on the "preaching" label). As for finding a church home: yes, it can be hard! I don't know why you're lapsed, or whether you've tried out any of the churches in Vegas, but I'd be happy to listen if you feel like talking about it. You can e-mail me at SusanPal (at) aol (dot) com. (If you don't feel like it, that's fine too, of course!)

  5. Hi, Susan! I'm glad that you and Gary had time with Michael. My ex and I had a similar friend who served as best man at our wedding. We miss him too.

    Hope and Peace.


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