Via Creativa: What Now?
Breaking the Rules

By: Candace Chellew-Hodge

Preached February 26, 2012 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, SC

Readings:
Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46: "He is unclean ..."
Mark 1:40-45: "you can make me clean"
  Hear this sermon at the Jubilee! Circle Web site.

Our first song comes from an Australian band that was formed in 1975. During their career, the Little River Band sold more than 25 million records and achieved 13 U.S. Top 40 hits including this song. Lonesome Loser, went to #6 on the U.S. Billboard charts in 1979. Let's try it.

Have you heard about the lonesome loser,
beaten by the queen of hearts every time.
Have you heard about the lonesome loser?
He's loser but he still keeps on tryin.

VERSE: Sit down, take a look at yourself,
don't you want to be somebody?
Someday somebody's gonna see inside.
You have to face up, you can't run and hide.

CHORUS: Have you heard about the lonesome loser,
beaten by the queen of hearts every time.
Have you heard about the lonesome loser?
He's a loser but he still keeps on trying.

"The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a leprous disease on the skin of his body, he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests.

He is leprous, he is unclean. The priest shall pronounce him unclean; the disease is on his head.

The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, 'Unclean, unclean.' He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp."

Are you still awake out there? This passage from the book of Leviticus is heavily edited for our reading this morning. We skip from verse 2 all the way down to verse 44. The 42 verses in between are equally as scintillating as what I've just read back to you, which is to say, it's pretty darn dull. It goes into great, gory detail about various afflictions of the skin including boils, burns, sores, scars and just plain itchy skin.

For those who have promised to read the Bible through the year, this is one of the places where people tend to skim very quickly through not just this chapter, but the whole book of Leviticus, because all 27 chapters are chock full of this kind of exciting stuff.

But, this book was the heart of religious practice for our ancient Hebrew ancestors. For them, Leviticus is part of THE rule book - the Torah. Anyone want to guess just how many laws the Hebrews had to follow? 613 - laws that included everything from how to sacrifice animals to God, how to tithe to the temple, how to cut your hair, to what kind of food they can and cannot eat. These rules were no trifling matter. Following these rules is how one becomes holy - and not just how ONE becomes holy, but how the entire community becomes holy and set aside as the chosen people of God.

Author A.J. Jacobs wrote a book a few years ago called "The Year of Living Biblically," where he tried to live by all 613 Jewish laws - some with funny results like the time he stoned an adulterer. Jacobs was in a park, dressed in his biblical garb of a flowing white robe and staff. An old man asked him what he was doing and Jacobs explained that he was living according to biblical law. The old man said, "I'm an adulterer, are you going to stone me?"

In an interview, Jacobs said he told the man, "'Yes, that'd be great,' and I took out some pebbles I had in my pocket for just this occasion.

The Bible doesn't say what size they have to be, so that was my loophole. He grabbed for my pebbles in kind of a preemptive strike. I was taken aback, so I figured I was justified in stoning him. An eye for an eye."

But, what Jacobs also found is what the ancient Hebrews understood all too well - following those rules, while we may find them silly, can also be life-changing. In that same interview, he said that year of living biblically made him more grateful. "The Bible talks a lot about thankfulness," he said, "and I'm more thankful than I ever was. I try to concentrate on the hundreds of things that go right in a day, instead of the three or four that go wrong. I love the Sabbath and its mandated day of rest and reflection."

So, rules are not all bad. They can be life changing, they can make us more compassionate, and they can help us live peacefully together in community.

Unless you're a leper.

Unlucky in love that's what they say,
he lost his head and he gambled his heart away
He still keep searching though there's nothing left.
He staked his heart and lost
Now he has to pay the cost.

CHORUS: Have you heard about the lonesome loser,
beaten by the queen of hearts every time.
Have you heard about the lonesome loser?
He's a loser but he still keeps on trying.

It's ok, he smiles and says,
though this loneliness is driving him crazy.
He don't show what goes on in his head,
but if you watch very close you'll see it all.

"The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, 'Unclean, unclean.' He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp."

He shall live alone - outside the camp. The poor, lonesome loser, tossed from community because of his ugly skin.

Just a little bit of history on what the Hebrew scriptures are referring to when it talks about "leprosy." Some scholars say it's not leprosy at all, but other diseases like psoriasis or other non-contagious disease. Whatever this disease was, it produced scaly skin that apparently grossed out our ancient ancestors to the point that they didn't want anything to do with those afflicted by this disease.

We're not so different thousands of years later. We still don't care too much for sick people, especially when we can see the manifestation of their illness on their skin. We tend to stay away from people when they get sick. We may love them, but we also may find that we draw away from those afflicted with AIDS or cancer. We may not have a rule that sick people must live outside the camp - but often, we isolate the ill anyway by drawing away from them because of our own discomfort.

We transform sick people into lonesome losers, beaten by our own discomfort every single time.

Perhaps to make themselves feel better about shunning the sick among them, the rabbis who have written commentary on this passage in the Talmud say that those struck with leprosy, or whatever ailment it really was, brought the illness on themselves. The Talmud says that lepers are ill because they committed the sin of lashon harah, which is evil speech or slander. In short, these people are sick because they broke the rules. They transgressed one of those 613 rules - and perhaps even more of them - and God has stricken them with scaly skin as a punishment. Isolation is the best thing the community can do for them in this case so their disobedience to the rules doesn't infect everyone around them.

To save themselves, then, they have to become those lonesome losers - shunned until they repent, get back to following the rules, and are healed by God. Only then will proof of their salvation be believed.

Just imagine yourself as that leper - that lonesome loser - boils and scabs all over your skin, and the community telling you that it's your fault that you're sick. You've sinned! You've committed lashon harah and you need to get right with God and get back to following the rules. I imagine our Via Creativa question might begin to bang around in your head. "What now?" you might ask. "What now? What can I do get back in the Holy's good graces and back to my community?"

As we have discovered this quarter, when we really ask that question on a deep and aware spiritual level, often the answer that comes to us is not the one either we, or society might expect. What if real salvation, real repentance and reconciliation to God and each other, is not about following the rules, but instead is all about breaking the rules?

Sit down, take a look at yourself,
don't you want to be somebody?
Someday somebody's gonna see inside.
You have to face up, you can't run and hide.

CHORUS Have you heard about the lonesome loser,
beaten by the queen of hearts every time.
Have you heard about the lonesome loser?
He's a loser but he still keeps on trying.

In the African culture, nakedness is a powerful way that women have found to break the rules. In most African cultures, nakedness does not bring shame to the person who is naked, but to those who see the other person stripped bare.

In Nigeria, the threat of seeing a woman naked has often been enough to turn the tide of public opinion against the oppressors.

In South Africa, shortly before the end of apartheid, police showed up at a squatter's camp with the goal of evicting the residents so they could demolish the camp. They told the women they had five minutes to gather up their belongings before the bulldozers moved in. The women, who were not armed and had no way to fight off their attackers, instead began to shed their clothing until they stood bare before the men and their bulldozers. The police turned and fled. So far as I know, that camp still stands.

Theologian Walter Wink concludes that "Jesus' teaching on nonviolence provides a hint of how to take on the entire system by unmasking its essential cruelty and burlesquing its pretensions to justice. Those who listen will no longer be treated as sponges to be squeezed dry by the rich. They can accept the laws as they stand, push them to absurdity, and reveal them for what they have become. They can strip naked, walk out before their fellows, and leave the creditors, and the whole economic edifice they represent, stark naked."

In short, to reveal the unjust rules in this world, sometimes we have to strip them bare so that those who uphold laws that oppress and repress others will be ashamed at how they have treated their fellow human beings.

Breathe deeply.

Our second song comes from a man known as the King of Pop. Michael Jackson started his career singing with his brothers in the Jackson 5 in the 1960s and started his solo career in 1971. This song comes from Jackson's 1991 album Dangerous. Jackson said in 2001 that "Heal the World" was the song he was most proud to create. It peaked at number 27 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and was the last song played at his funeral in 2009. Let's try it:

VERSE 1 There's a place in your heart
And I know that it is love
And this place could be much
Brighter than tomorrow
And if you really try
You'll find there's no need to cry
In this place you'll feel
There's no hurt or sorrow

PRE-CHORUS There are ways to get there
If you care enough for the living
Make a little space, Make a better place

CHORUS Heal the world
Make it a better place
For you and for me
And the entire human race
There are people dying
If you care enough for the living
Make a better place for you and for me

In our Jesus story, we find our guy still wandering around Galilee very early in his ministry. So far he's taught in the temple, causing a stir with his knowledge of the scriptures. He's cast out a demon, healed an apostle's mother in law, and taken some time off to pray and recharge his batteries a bit.

Now, he's approached by a leper - this lonesome loser who wasn't allowed to live in the community. His act of even approaching Jesus is a gutsy one - one of great chutzpah. He's probably heard of the great acts that Jesus has already done and he understands this man to be a healer. He comes to Jesus and falls on his knees, pleading with him to be healed.

"If you choose, you can make me clean," he tells Jesus.

Then, our Greek gets a little bit interesting. The passage we read this morning says that Jesus "was moved with pity." Other translations say he was moved with compassion and still other translations say the actions by this leper made Jesus angry. It's clear, however, that Jesus is not angry with the leper, but perhaps angry at how the rules of his society treated this leper. Either way, the word used here basically means "to be moved as one's bowels." Indeed, the treatment this leper had received at the hands of his brothers and sisters made Jesus sick. He felt it down into his gut.

What Jesus did next is easy to miss in a cursory skimming of this passage. We read it with or 21st century eyes and we see nothing wrong - but to Jesus' peers, he commits a revolutionary act, and breaks a big, very important, rule.

"Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him ..."

Jesus touched a leper. This guy, who not just a few verses ago, expounded on the law with authority, just broke one of those laws. He touched a leper!

Of course, the next thing that happened also broke the rules - the leper was healed - just by the touch of a compassionate hand. That's not how lepers are healed. They are healed when they repent of their sin of lashon harah and not one minute before.

But, perhaps the most remarkable thing about this passage is that not one, but two laws get broken all in the span of five verses. Jesus breaks the first rule, touching this leper and healing him. This empowers the leper to then break a rule of his own. Jesus tells the leper to go and show himself to the priests, because the law said that only a priest can declare a leper clean and eligible to return to the community.

Instead of going to the priest - instead of following the law - this leper went out into the community and began to testify about how Jesus had healed him.

When we're bold enough - when we're compassionate enough - to break the rules that keep our brothers and sisters in bondage and isolation, we empower those who were oppressed by those rules to break unjust rules themselves. When we touch others in this world with compassion, we free not just ourselves, but them as well. In short, Jubilants, we can heal the world.

Breathe deeply.

If you want to know why
There's a love that cannot lie
Love is strong it only cares
for joyful giving
If we try we shall see
In this bliss we cannot feel
Fear or dread we stop existing
And start living

PRE-CHORUS Then it feels that always
Love's enough for us growing
So make a better world
Make a better world

CHORUS Heal the world
Make it a better place
For you and for me
And the entire human race
There are people dying
If you care enough for the living
Make a better place for you and for me

BRIDGE And the dream we were conceived in
Will reveal a joyful face
And the world we once believed in
Will shine again in grace
Then why do we keep strangling life
Wound this earth crucify this soul
Though it's plain to see
This world is heavenly Be God's glow

Who are the lepers of our world today, Jubilants? Immigrants? Poor people? The hungry and homeless? Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people? The elderly? The sick? Those of a different political or spiritual belief than ourselves?

Who needs our compassionate, healing touch? What rules are keeping us from reacting with that compassion to those who are clearly in need? What rules are keeping us from offering a healing touch to those who are clearly being oppressed by unjust rules and laws? What rules keep us from reaching out and offering a healing touching to those who enforce those unjust rules and laws?

What rules, Jubilants, do you need to break? You may find that those rules weren't imposed on you by society or by government, but by yourself.

Maybe you have a rule that only those who help themselves deserve the help of others. Maybe you have a rule that forbids you from touching a sick or dirty person for fear of getting sick or dirty yourself. Maybe you have a rule that you'll only give to those you know and not to strangers, because who knows how they'll use it, and they certainly won't ever pay you back.

You see, Jubilants, we have our own 613 rules we live by. We may not have written them down like those desert-dwelling, rule-loving Hebrews did, but we've all got rules and nobody imposed them on us but ourselves.

I invite you this morning, Jubilants, to review your own rule book. Check in with yourself and see what unwritten rules you're following that are keeping you from reaching out in compassion to the world around. I invite you also, to review those rules that keep you from extending that same kind of compassion to yourself. Maybe your rules say you're not good enough, or lovable enough until you change something like your hair, your weight, your nose, or your attitude.

Break the rules, Jubilants! They were made to be broken, especially if they are keeping you from extending compassion to anyone - including yourself.

I invite you, Jubilants, to heal the world. You all have the power to do that, y'know. You all have the healing touch that world needs. When you touch those that the world has declared unclean, miracles happen - both you, and the person you have touched - become whole. You both become fully human, and in that fullness of humanity, you become divine. Break the rules, Jubilants, strip them bare and reveal their shame. Touch the lepers and heal them - then, go tell the world about the miracles you have seen and experienced. Heal the world, Jubilants, make it a better place for you and for me and the entire human race.

We could fly so high
Let our spirits never die
In my heart I feel
you are all my brothers
Create a world with no fear
Together we cry happy tears
See the nations turn their swords
Into plowshares

PRE-CHORUS Then it feels that always
Love's enough for us growing
So make a better world
Make a better world

CHORUS Heal the world
Make it a better place
For you and for me
And the entire human race
There are people dying
If you care enough for the living
Make a better place for you and for me

Oh, Yeah!

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.

Copyright by the author All Rights Reserved

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