February 19, 2017 Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
Integrity. Do you know what that word means? Some would say integrity means being honest. Telling the truth. Some have said that integrity is seen in how you act when no one is watching. But literally, the word in integrity means being whole. Undivided. Complete. It comes from the same root as the word integer in mathematics. An integer is a whole number. A complete number like 1, 2, 3 or 4. Not a part or fraction like ½ or 3.14. Having integrity means being whole. Undivided.
This story we just read is all about integrity, Jesus’ integrity. For the last three chapters, Jesus has been preaching a long sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, that is all about how to live as his followers. It’s full of radical teachings about the kingdom of God. Like lifting us the poor, the hungry, the thirty, the persecuted as those who are blessed by God. He calls his followers to radical ways of living like loving our enemies, like turning the other cheek, like praying for those who persecute us. He invites his audience to reimagine what they always thought about who God is and how God is at work in the world.
Now, as soon as he finishes the sermon, Jesus comes down from the mountain and is immediately approached by someone who is suffering. And what does Jesus do? He heals the man who is sick. He acts in a way that shows us what the kingdom of God looks like in our world. He heals the man who is sick. Jesus’ words, his many many words from that long sermon up on the mountain, go hand in hand with his actions down on the level ground of reality. They are a whole, not divided. What he says is what he does. There is a holy integrity at work here as Jesus reveals radical kingdom living is on full display.
The man’s disease, leprosy, carried not only a painful physical effects but also social and religions consequences as well. Lepers were exiled from their families and communities. Considered untouchable by society and unclean by their faith. Cast out and left alone to die. Everyone was so worried about interacting with them because of fear that they might be contagious.
Lest we think this was just some ancient superstitious practice, let us remember how we still reaction to epidemics today. As recent as a few decades ago, we still sent people with leprosy away to live in leper colonies. Last summer, Dr. Dick Otts, a physician in town and brother of some of our church members came to our summer Sunday School class to share his experience from med school of working with a leper colony down the road in Louisiana.
There has always been a great fear of those who suffer and a desire to keep them at a distance.
So, when this man suffering from leprosy comes to Jesus, he is committing a major social and religious taboo. He should not dare to approach Jesus and the crowd. He should stay away. Stay back. Keep his distance. He should know better. But he comes anyway, and he calls Jesus “Lord”—something that only disciples do. And he begs for healing.
No one would have held it against Jesus if he walked past this guy. Sure we want to live nice religious lives when we come down the mountain…good lives…godly lives. But that doesn’t mean we have to help everyone who asks for help, does it? (Jesus’ sermon actually addressed that question too.) I mean, this guy could be contagious, and he is certainly pushy. No, Jesus, just walk on by.
But Jesus stops. He hears him. He heals him with his words. And then, the most scandalous part of the story, Jesus reaches out and touches him with his hands. He touches the lowest of the lows—the worst of the worst. He crosses a boundary that should not be crossed. The legal, social religious, and medical authorities were all clear on this matter. No touching! He’s contagious.
Sometimes, faithful integrity means crossing boundaries, so that healing can occur.
You know when a hurricane comes toward the coast and its power is so much stronger than what our natural systems are used to? With wind gusts and storm surges and flooding so strong that sometimes it can make rivers even flow in reverse order away from the sea? That’s exactly what’s happening in this story! The normal worldly flow of uncleanliness goes one way. You stay away from the unclean, the outcast, the poor, the one who is different, because they are contagious and you might catch their condition. But rather than being made unclean from his contact with a leper, it is actually Jesus’ holiness and righteousness that causes the sick and outcast man to be healed, restored, and made whole. God’s power, God’s kingdom, God’s presence in Christ makes the ways of the world flow in reverse order.
What are the things that we’re afraid to touch today? Who are the people we’re afraid to touch? Who are we afraid to spend time with? Afraid to listen to? Afraid of what it might mean if they moved into our neighborhood? Who are the untouchables? Who are the ones we would be embarrassed to be seen with because of what others might think?
Central Presbyterian Church is in downtown Atlanta, right across the street from the Georgia state capital. A few years ago, they hosted their annual Ash Wednesday service at noon so that state legislators could worship on their lunch break. That year, though, their pastor had also invited men who were staying at the church’s homeless shelter to come and worship as well. Folks of all kinds filed in for this midday service that began the season of Lent. A friend of mine was there and she wrote about what she saw happening. It came time near the end to place ashes on the foreheads of those in attendance. Everyone was invited to come forward, and the pastor put ashes on the head of the first person in line. Then he handed the container of ashes to this person who turned around and did the same for the fellow behind him. One by one, worshippers received the sign of a cross on their foreheads and then then placed that same sign on the person standing behind them. As my friend who was there in worship says, “That’s when it happened. A man who spends his days on the streets took an already grimy thumb and covered it with ash. Then he took it an make the sign of the cross on the forehead of one of Georgia’s [most prominent elected officials]. ‘Remember that you are dust,” he said, “and to dust you shall return.’ One with no power spoke truth to the one with all the power: You and I both will die. You and I have both been claimed by God in baptism. You and I both rely—body, mind, and soul—on nothing but the grace of God. And it happened not once, but over and over again, hand to head, ash to skin, as the greatest and the least of these acknowledged their common humanity and dependence on God.”  Rich and poor. Liberal and conservative. Hungry and full. Dirty and clean.
Sometimes, faithful integrity means crossing boundaries so that healing can occur.
I’ve read this story many times throughout the years and it never really jumped out to me as too important. We’re always invited to find ourselves in the story, and I guess I’d always thought about myself and most of the rest of us as the silent disciples here. Those in the crowd who heard the sermon and are following Jesus down the mountain. This interaction between Jesus and the leper is something that we just observe from a distance.
Boy was I wrong. Because the truth is we are in this story, but standing in a different place. We are the leper. We, all of us, all of humanity, are the sick man. We are sick with sins of division and discord, animosity and cruelty…and it is contagious. It spreads like wildfire. Just look around. Look around our country, our world today. We are a broken and divided people. We are not whole. Each and every one of us is sick, but we refuse to associate with others in their own sickness. We don’t want to be anywhere near “those people.” I don’t know about you, but many days with the brokenness of the world on full display, it is enough to make me feel depressed, isolated, lonely, and fearful. We are sick, and we aren’t getting any better on our own. Where are we in the story? We are the exiled, the outcast, the sick man without a community…without a chance.
And yet, it is stories like this one that give me hope. Real hope. Not hope in us or what we can don, but hope beyond ourselves. Hope beyond our human resources. Hope in the God of the gospel who heals and transforms. Hope in the love of Christ that reaches across all boundaries in transformative, restorative, life-changing ways. Hope in the boundary-crossing ministry of the Church, the body of Christ, called to touch and welcome the untouchable and the outcast. Hope that we might be made whole as we work to restore what is divided. Hope in the grace-filled waters of baptism that are so powerful they make the powers of this world flow in reverse order. Hope that we are and will be made whole. Made whole. Whole people. People of integrity.
Sometimes, faithful integrity means crossing boundaries so that healing can occur.
Friends, the good news of the Gospel, the good news of these waters, the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is that God is already at work crossing all boundaries and making us whole. In grateful response, let us participate in this kingdom work with lives of boundary-crossing faithful integrity.
To God alone be the glory.
 Kim Long, The Worshipping Body, 43.