Whitney Houston, the Leper, and Us

Two news stories caught my eye this week: The death of Whitney Houston and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton’s visit to the Hospital for the Criminally Insane in St. Peter, Minnesota. The New Testament Gospel text for this morning was the story of Jesus and the leper (Mark 1:40-45). The title of the Sermon was simply “THE LEPER” preached at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church, Chaska Minnesota, February 12, 2012. Here’s the text of the sermon:

Just another leper,

the better left unseen.

“Surely it is their own fault

for not keeping clean.”

Just another AIDS case

now hidden well away,

“They must have brought it on themselves

promiscuous or gay.”

 Just another boat person

sponging on me and you,

“They’ve only got themselves to blame

by trying to jump the queue.”

Just another drug addict

shooting up behind the shed,

“Don’t waste your pity on such trash

they’re better off dead.”

Just one determined Jesus

coming through our lands,

welcoming all the unclean mob

with warm, saving hands.

–      Copyright B D Prewer 2002, “Lepers, Jesus and Us”

Who is the leper?  Could he be me? Could he be you?

I’ve spent a lot of time with the leper.  I live inside his body. The sense of nausea with my own sorry self, and I’ve met him a thousand times in the same sense of leprosy I’ve experienced in the lives of others.

This disease is part of the human condition itself. The sense that there’s something wrong with us, something that doesn’t belong, isn’t worthy, needs to stay hidden, closed off from the rest of the world, a leper kept at arms length from full participation in the fullness of life.

Sometimes the disease is so clear it slaps you in the face.  We see it clearly in others.

Whitney Houston, that beautiful soul – the god-daughter of Aretha Franklin and cousin of Dione Warwick – is found dead somewhere in Beverly Hills. “Cause of death unknown.” But what we do know is that she struggled for years with the horrors of addiction, this sense of isolation and self-accusation that was the lot of the leper who came to Jesus that day.

Some of the lepers are people of fame and apparent success, like Whitney.

Others are people of infamy. Like the psychotic mother who took the life of her nine-year-old son when the voices told her to kill him. As we did at The Legal Rights Center, we took her case not because she was innocent, but because she was a human being – the most obvious of lepers, a decrepit sinner who had stabbed her son more than a hundred times. She had gone off her medication, and the “voices of the Devil” had taken over. After rhe State had committed her to the Minnesota Department of Corrections’ Hospital for the Criminally Insane, a sorry place, if ever there was one, I visited her. I listened to her sobs. I watched the tears streaming down her face, looking through the glass of the prison visitation room tha t stood between us. The walls of her inner prison were thicker and higher than the walls of the hospital that housed her. Back on the medication that put her back in her right mind, she was inconsolable, a leper who could never undo what the voices had told her to do.

But it’s not just the likes of Whitney,whose sense of leprosy was hidden by success, or the likes of Mary, the pitiful victim of criminally insanity, who is the leper.

We all are.

Listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the great heroes of the Christian faith, in words of Voices in the Night, preserved from his prison cell where he was imprisoned for his participation in a failed conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He is alone in the middle of the night, restless, ill at ease, in dis-ease, you might say, with the dis-ease of spiritual leprosy, lying there, listening in the night for the sounds inside and beyond the prison.

         Night and silence.

Only footsteps and shouts of the guards.

Do you not hear it in this silenced house,

Shaking, breaking and collapsing,

As hundreds kindle the glowing ember of their hearts?

Their songs they hide,

My ears are open wide.

“We who are old, and we who are young,

We children of every tongue,

We who are strong, and we who find it hard,

We who sleep, and we who guard,

We who are poor, and we who have all,

         Together into failure fall, (italics mine)

We who are good and we who are unclean,

Whatever we have been,

We…with scars we cannot hide,

We witnesses of those who died,

We who are defiant and we who are bemused,

By long isolation, sorely abused.

            Brother, we seek and call for thee!

            Brother, do you hear me?”

Who was the man who broke the rules to force his way through the clean crowd, shouting “Unclean! Unclean!”  while he coveed his face until he got to Jesus?

Could he be me? Could he be you?

“If you will it,” he says to Jesus, “you can make me clean!”

And stretching out his hand with great compassion, he touches the untouchable, and says, “I will!  Be clean!”

“Just one determined Jesus coming through our lands, welcoming all the unclean mob with warm, saving hands.” And the cleansed man ran and told everyone what Jesus had done for him.

How about you?

The Jesus Beyond Our Categories

Steve Shoemaker, host of “Keepin the Faith” (WILL/AM, Illinois Public Media) emailed this morning asking for thoughts about a post on “Protestants for the Common Good: ‘People of Faith Advancing Justice in Public Life'”: Can Christians Be Conservative? – an insiders’ academic debate among contemporary Christian theologian-ethicists. It’s worth a read. Tell me what you think.

Here’s what I wrote:

I’m not sure quite how to respond to the piece or the discussion. Off the top, I would say that Jesus himself didn’t neatly fit any of the four polar categories: conservative/liberal; reactionary/revolutionary. Even more, if the question whether the “authentic Christian” can be a conservative is more than a rhetorical question, it should be immediately dismissed – the question itself means that the answer has already been decided in the negative. Sort of like the question “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?!”

Greenfield’s take on Mark 1 is interesting, but, on first reading, it seems to me to miss the point that John the Baptist’s wilderness movement involved all four dimensions. It was conservative, liberal, reactionary, and revolutionary all at the same time. The trek to the Jordean wilderness was a reaction to the collusion between the local religious and political authorities (e.g. Vichy France?) and their Roman (e.g. Third Reich) occupiers. It was also a revolutionary call for a new social order, “the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news.” The grounds for that claim sprang out of the tradition that John and Jesus were conserving, while liberating it from captivity to the spirit of self-serving gains, idolatrous collaboration, self-righteousness and ethnocentrism. In short, the John-Jesus movement doesn’t fit nicely in any one or two categories.

Everywhere I look in the Gospels, I see a Jesus who doesn’t fit our categories. I still don’t know what to do with him.  “Can a Christian be conservative?” assumes from that outset that to be conservative is to be an “inauthentic” Christian. But even if one believes that conservative views and practices are inimical to the way of Jesus, there is the deeper question that puts that question in proper perspective: “Can a sinner be a Christian?” Only a sinner can be a disciple of Jesus. Some of the sinners and sins are primarily conservative, some liberal, some reactionary, and some revolutionary by disposition and by political persuasion. Most of us are some strange mixture of the four. So I would answer Larry’s question “Can Christian be conservative?” with “You betcha!”  How do I know?  Because it’s the wrong question. I don’t get to choose who is “authentically” Christian anymore than Jesus let his detractors decide.  Moreover, I know conservatives who call themselves Christian who put my stewardship and hands-on work with the poorest of the poor to shame. While I’m calling for the revolution, the conservatives I have in mind spend every Saturday preparing and serving meals at the homeless shelter and every Sunday afternoon after putting up with my sermons visiting people they know in town who are down and out – slipping them $100 bills so the utilities don’t get turned off – while I, having preached the revolution, go out for lunch and then go home for a nap.

William Stringfellow stops us all cold in our tracks with his criticism of the church:

Christ’s is a ministry of great extravagance – of a reckless, scandalous expenditure of his life for the sake of the world’s life. Christ gives away his life. The world finds new life in His life and in His gift of His life to the world. His is not a very prudential life, not a very conservative life, not a very cautious life, not – by ordinary standards – a very successful life. He shunned no one, not even adulterers, not even tax collectors, not even neurotics and psychotics…not even poor people, not even beggars, not even lepers, not even those who ridiculed him, not even those who betrayed him, not even his own enemies. He shunned no one. The words that [describe] the ministry of Christ are…sorrow, poverty, rejection, radical, unpopularity. They are the words of agony. It seems ridiculous to apply such words to the ministry of churches nowadays. Yet where these words cannot be truthfully applied to the ministry of churches today they must then be spoken against the churches to show how far the churches are from being the body of Christ engaged in the ministry of Christ in the world.

For Stringfellow the gospel was the vitality of the Word-made-flesh among the principalities and powers of death in this world. None of us has a corner on that Word. One might say that for Stringfellow there is a fifth category that describes the authentic following of Jesus: the life of ‘resistance’ as articulated in An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land and The Politics of Spirituality, books uniquely addressed to the church in the American situation.

The question, it seems to me, is beyond ethics, and it is certainly beyond the false choice between the polar opposites: conservative/liberal; reactionary/revolutionary: Can or should a Christian be conservative, liberal, a reactionary, or a revolutionary? The ethics question rises from the theological-faith question: “Where today do we encounter the vitality of th e Word Made Flesh,and, in that encounter, who and how does God call us to be among the principalities and powers as the sinful, timid, confused, forgiven and redeemed disciples of Jesus

In terms of Christian ethics, as I see it, the answer, depending on the situation, involves all four dimensions supplemented by Stringfellow’s fifth descriptor.

I see elements of all five, for example, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who boldly conserved the tradition against the false interpretation of the German Third Reich and its ecclesiastical collaborators and paid the price with bodily resistance. Yes?  No? Maybe?

Look forward to hearing your comments.