Sunday, February 15, 2009

Becoming Human Again: A Homily for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

For our meditation this morning we have two profoundly moving stories about the healing of leprosy: Naaman, the Syrian warrior who seeks out the Hebrew prophet Elisha, and the unnamed man who humbly implores Jesus to make him clean. In both these stories, the issue isn’t simply about a medical cure, but also about being made clean. Leprosy was much more than a skin condition. It carried a terrible social stigma, rendering one morally impure, dirty, literally untouchable.

To be a leper was to be beyond the pale of human community. It meant exile from even the most cursory human interchange. It was to be an outcast. For these men, then, healing meant so much more than curing a disease. It meant becoming human again.

This desire to become fully human, to be in communion with God and with one another, is our soul’s deepest longing. The stories of Naaman and of the unnamed leper are our stories, mirroring back to us our desire and our fear. There is something of the leper in all of us. We all want to be made clean.

Naaman immediately put me in mind of the Roy Cohn character in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millenium Approaches. Roy Cohn was a real-life lawyer and power-broker in New York, a right-wing demagogue and closeted homosexual whose bread and butter was the demonization of other homosexuals for political gain. From Joe McCarthy to Ronald Reagan, Roy Cohn was a key Cold War anti-communist and anti-gay crusader.

There is a revealing scene in Kushner’s play, in which Roy is sitting in the office of Henry, his doctor. The year is 1985, and Henry has just diagnosed Roy with AIDS. For Roy, it is not the threat of death that disturbs him, but the threat of being identified with homosexuals and drug-addicts. It is the threat of social stigma and powerlessness that he most fears.

Roy tells Henry, “Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry? . . . Roy Cohn is not a homosexual.”

Roy Cohn is representative of a certain class of closeted, affluent gay men, who in the early days of the AIDS pandemic were horrified to discover the ways in which AIDS stripped them of the cover that protected their privilege. Suddenly, they found themselves either in denial – Roy Cohn protested that he had liver cancer to the end – or else they found themselves in solidarity with drag queens and heroin addicts struggling to be made clean. In Kushner’s play, Roy is never made clean because he is never willing to accept the powerlessness revealed by his need. Ironically, it is a former drag queen, a black nurse, who cares for Roy as he is dying; irony, however, doesn’t lead to insight or healing for Cohn.

Naaman, like Roy Cohn, is a man of power and privilege who would never be seen with lepers. You can imagine his growing anxiety as the spots begin to appear on his skin, his mounting fear as he contemplates the loss of status that the progression of this disease portends. Unlike Roy, however, Naaman is willing to accept the reality of his condition, even to the extent of entrusting himself to the advice of a Hebrew slave-girl, who tells him of a prophet in Israel who can make him clean.

Naaman goes to Israel, but not without struggle. It is humiliating to go hat-in-hand to those whom he holds in contempt, people over-and-against whom he has defined his own superiority. He clings to his sense of privilege and is enraged when Elisha doesn’t just magically wave his hands and provide an immediate cure. But Elisha knows that real healing requires more. It requires a kind of baptism.

Naaman has to die to his self-image as one who is powerful and superior. He has to drown that image in the waters of his enemies, in the Jordan River, so that he can become simply human, no more and no less. Sure, there are purification rites and perfectly good rivers back home in Damascus, but only in the Jordan River can Naaman recognize the humanity of the Hebrews – the despised other – and see mirrored in them his own humanity.

The restoration of healthy skin, the outer change, is a sign of the deeper, interior transformation that Naaman undergoes. That deeper change is an acceptance of his own humanity, in all its vulnerability, and the humanity of those whom he formerly despised. Naaman recognizes his dependence upon the other, the enemy, the way in which healing is realized through acknowledging the intimate and inescapable interconnection of all things. He is restored to communion with God and with others.

We desire to be made clean. We want to experience this communion. But it means accepting our leprosy, our vulnerability, our need to accept those aspects of ourselves and of other people that we would rather deny or demonize – our imperfections, our weakness, our fear, our anger, our illusions – all those things which render us unclean, all those truths that would make us outcast if others only knew.

And it means being willing to simply ask for help. This is what is so affecting about the unnamed man who humbly kneels and begs Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Perhaps this man had undergone another kind of death, dying to his self-image as a victim, as one who deserved and simply had to accept being an outcast. At any rate, he can no longer deny his desire to be made clean.

We have the power to make one another clean. How? By touching each other, by refusing to believe the lies we tell to stigmatize some people so that others can feel better about themselves, smug, superior, and secure. Jesus made the leper clean by touching him, by acknowledging their shared humanity and refusing to treat him as an outcast.

I’m reminded of a story I once heard about Jon Bruno, the Episcopal bishop of Los Angeles. Bishop Bruno is a former football player and L.A. police officer. He is a big, imposing guy, not somebody you want to mess around with. Even his name sounds tough! In the early days of the AIDS pandemic in Los Angeles, Jon was still a parish priest. Young men were getting sick and dying all around him, social pariahs often abandoned by their families, sometimes even by other gay men terrified of the disease. Here was a new class of lepers.

But Jon knew how to make people clean. He kept a rocking chair in the corner of his office. As these dying men came to him seeking healing, Jon would hold them on his lap with his big arms wrapped around them, and gently rock them for as long as they needed to be held. Immediately, the leprosy left them, and they were made clean.

Jon is a disciple of Jesus, and he understands what Jesus knew so well. We have the power to make people clean, if we choose. And we, who so passionately desire to be made clean, can be whole again if we are humble and have the willingness to ask for what we need. Do you not realize how much we need one another for our healing? Do you not hear Jesus saying to you today, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Together, we can become human again.

Bishop Ed Browning famously proclaimed, “In this Church, there will be no outcasts.” Let us stretch out our hands and touch one another and make it so. Amen.

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