Standing on the Side of Love
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40A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” 42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
As you all know by now, this Tuesday, February 14th, is Valentine’s Day. And unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past three months, it’s a sure bet that you have been confronted by a vast menagerie of teddy bears, cards, flowers, conversation hearts, and chocolate candy, all strategically placed at the entrance of every single store in the city. In fact, I distinctly remember going shopping for a last minute Christmas gift toward the end of December, when I was surprised to find that the Christmas decorations had already been taken down and replaced by Valentine’s Day displays, in December!
For years, the cynic in me believed that Valentine’s Day was nothing more than a made-up holiday designed by Hallmark for the sole purpose of selling more greeting cards. My worst fears were confirmed when the restaurant industry joined them in this little venture, bringing their heart-shaped doilies along with them. I soon began to realize that I was facing a losing battle, and there was indeed a national conspiracy against the civil rights of single people. That was before I met my partner, Ginny. Let’s just say that I’ve changed my mind, about a lot of things, since then.
But what in the world does Valentine’s Day have to do with the story of Jesus healing a leper in our Scripture passage this morning? In fact, I was asked that very question by someone from the Spiritual Life Team, as we were constructing this week’s bulletin. My initial answer is “more than you might think.” Let’s see if you agree with me, after the conclusion of today’s service.
Valentine’s Day, so they say, is derived from both Christian and Roman origins. But more likely, it’s derived solely from its pagan roots, as most of our holidays truly are. In particular, it stems from the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, a fertility celebration which was held annually on February 15th. Oddly enough, it seems quite similar to how many of our modern American celebrations of the holiday are observed.
But in 496 CE, Pope Gelasius transformed Lupercalia into a Christian feast day and moved it up one day earlier to February 14th, in honor of St. Valentine, a Roman martyr from the 3rd Century (approximately 270 CE). As the legend goes, during the lifetime of St. Valentine, the golden era of the Roman Empire was coming to a close. A lack of worthy, ethical politicians and administrators had created an atmosphere of frequent internal strife and political chaos. Education was in decline, taxation was on the rise, and the economy was struggling. Does that sound a little familiar?
The Roman Empire faced external threats on every side – from the Gauls, the Slavs, the Huns, the Turks and the Mongolians. The Empire had extended itself so far, that it had grown too large to be shielded from foreign aggression. More and more of its citizens were being recruited to serve as soldiers, in order to protect imperial interests. Again, I ask you, does this sound at all familiar?
And furthermore, Roman Emperors had assumed that married men would not make good soldiers, as they would be too emotionally attached to their families. They believed that marriage made men weak. So the Empire had issued an edict forbidding Roman soldiers to marry, which became known as the Roman Marriage Ban.
The ban on marriage was terribly unpopular, but the people did not dare to voice their protest against the Empire, for fear of being executed over their lack of patriotism. But one 3rd century priest, bishop, and physician, realized the injustice of the decree. St. Valentine saw firsthand the trauma of lovers who had given up all hope of being united in marriage, and he planned to counter the imperial edict in secret. Whenever a couple intended to marry, they sought St. Valentine, who met them in a secret place, and joined them in the sacrament of holy matrimony. And thus St. Valentine performed many illegal marriages. But such momentous ceremonies cannot remain hidden for long. It was only a matter of time before the Emperor Claudius II became aware of St. Valentine’s subversive activity and had him arrested, and later executed. But that’s not the end of the story. While in prison awaiting his sentence, St. Valentine was approached by his jailor, Asterius, because he had heard that St. Valentine was a physician and a healer. Asterius requested that St. Valentine restore the sight of his daughter, which he did, resulting in a friendship between St. Valentine and Asterius' daughter. It is said that just before his execution, St. Valentine asked for pen and paper, and signed a farewell message to her, “From Your Valentine,” a phrase that has lived on ever since. St. Valentine is believed to have been executed on February 14th, in the year 270 CE. Of course, the most plausible historical evidence suggests that St. Valentine was martyred by Rome for refusing to renounce his Christian faith. But the story of Valentine’s Day remains with us, nonetheless.
Aside from February 14th marking the observation of Valentine’s Day, it also commemorates the conclusion of Standing on the Side of Love month. Who here has heard of the Standing on the Side of Love campaign? Anyone? A few years ago, the Unitarian Universalist Association began a public advocacy campaign to harness the power of love to stop oppression, exclusion, and violence. Most of their work to date has been associated with defending the civil rights of immigrants, and protecting the rights of GLBT people, and most especially continuing to work to secure the basic civil right of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people to marry whomever they love, and to outlaw statewide marriage bans which would forbid GLBT people from participating in the holy sacrament of marriage.
The phrase “standing on the side of love” references how religious people should respond to a moral conundrum. When we find ourselves in an ethical quandary, and we can’t tell right from wrong, let us choose to stand on the side of love. If we do make a mistake, then let’s get caught erring on the side of love. Hence the title of this morning’s sermon, “Standing on the Side of Love.”
But again, you may ask, what does any of this have to do with the story of Jesus healing a leper in Mark chapter 1? Let’s look back at this morning’s Scripture passage. The phrase “leper” in this context does not mean someone with Hansen’s disease, or what we now call leprosy. It’s referring to someone who has a skin disease of any kind, eczema, psoriasis, or any fungal infection, that renders a person ritually unclean, according to the priestly holiness code outlined in the book of Leviticus, in chapter 13. In other words, a person suffering from a skin aliment could not fully participate in Jewish society, could not worship God in the temple, and had no sense of being connected with a community or a family. This person was socially isolated. He was completely alone, and economically disadvantaged, since he was unable to work or hold a job. He was a social pariah, with almost no rights at all.
Yet the man in our text refused to accept the status quo imposed on him by society and by the religious establishment. He believed that Jesus could heal him, could transform him, and reconnect him to the world around him. And he dared to act on that belief. The text says that he approached Jesus. Jesus did not approach him. He approached Jesus, and he begged and pleaded with Jesus, saying “If you choose, you can make me clean.”
Most often, in the healing narratives contained within the Gospels, we see people in need initiating contact with Jesus, and making the first move. Whether it’s the woman with a hemorrhage who touches his robe, or the demon-possessed man who chases after Jesus, the Scripture is clear that we have to make the initial approach. We have to ask God for what we need, in order for our healing to take place. Remember Jesus’ own words to his disciples, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you shall find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.”
Jesus also had a choice. He didn’t have to heal the leper; instead, he chose to do so. He chose to break the law, to violate the priestly holiness code of Levitical Law, in order to perform the most loving act that he could. Jesus healed the man by touching him, rendering himself both spiritually unclean, and legally unclean, in the process. Jesus could have healed the man without touching him, yet he chose to touch him anyway, because he knew that a healing touch was what this man truly needed.
The leprous man had only asked for physical healing, because it was all he knew to ask for. Perhaps he didn’t know that he needed spiritual healing. But the spiritual condition of this man is what concerned Jesus, even more so than the physical. The physical condition, though important, is not the only thing that matters. It’s just the only part that we can see with our eyes. But God chooses to see into the depths of our hearts (1 Sam 16:7, Ps 139).
Jesus healed the man, and then ordered him to go to a priest and offer a sacrifice in the temple, in order to be fully cleansed according to the Levitical Law. Without completing this act of worship, and beginning this task of re-integration with the community of faith, this man would not fully heal.
Jesus chose to heal the leper by touching him, even though he knew that becoming unclean would create a major inconvenience for himself and his ministry. Jesus was afraid of what would happen if the man’s story got out. If word spread among the people about what Jesus had done, then what effect would that have on Jesus’ ability to walk freely about the town? Would he still be able to minister openly to the people, to preach and teach about the kingdom of God, and to spread the good news of God’s favor to all people, if word spread throughout the town about this miraculous healing? What if everyone were to come to him to request healing? Not only would he be completely overwhelmed, but his ministry might be reduced to a magic act, or a circus side show. Even so, Jesus responded to the man’s request by setting aside his own fears and doing the most loving thing that he could do in order to help the man who stood before him. Jesus chose to stand on the side of love, no matter what it cost him.
And what about you this morning? Are you the leper in the story? Are you the one in need of healing? Imagine yourself in the story, saying to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” What are you asking Jesus to heal? In the depths of your being, which part of you needs God’s healing touch?
And how does God respond? What is God saying to you, in the depths of your heart? In the depths of your being?
Or are you Jesus, in the story? Has someone approached you, and asked you for help, for healing, or assistance that you can provide, with a simple act of love? But you hesitate, because you know what it will cost you.
All of us are gifted with the power of choice. We too can choose whether or not to ask for our own healing; and we can choose how we will respond, when others ask it of us. Let go of your fear this morning, and step out in faith, daring to believe in God’s healing power of transformation, that what society has rendered unclean may be restored to wholeness, through the power of prayer, and through the community’s acts of love. This Valentine’s Day, let us commit ourselves to standing with Jesus, and with St. Valentine, on the side of love. For when we stand on the side of love, we stand with our God.
In the name of God we pray, Amen.