Homily on 2/12/2012

In ancient times there were few things more frightening than leprosy. This
widespread, highly painful disease was so contagious that people stayed
clear. Self-protection was on their mind.

We hear in the Book of Leviticus that if someone had a scab - a blotch - a
pustule - they were brought to the priest who declared them diseased.  The
leper lived apart and cried,“Unclean.”

Centuries later - in Jesus’ time - this was still the practice.

Worse perhaps than the physical disease was being cut off from people. You
made your home “outside” the village - excluded from Jewish society.
Without welfare or health care - you were condemned to a slow death.

***

It’s interesting that human communities, then and now, often define
themselves by excluding those thought to be dangerous.  

The thinking goes:  We know better who we are because we have excluded
the likes of them.  

In modern history it happened to Jews living across Europe.  In happens now
with restrictive immigration practices.  It happens with severe laws about
where sex offenders can live, making it nearly impossible to live anywhere.  
It happens because of race, sexual identity, and religion.

In the 1980s the rise of HIV-AIDS was like a new modern form of leprosy,
driven by fear of the unknown.

I remember being asked–early on in the crisis and for the first time - to visit a
man who was dying of full-blown AIDS. He was in a local hospital and was the
was a cousin of a friend.  All she told me was that at one time he wanted to be
a priest.  He may have spent some time in the seminary. Now, years later, he
wanted to see a priest.  

I have to tell you that I was nervous about the visit –wondering if I could
handle it, concerned I wouldn’t have the right words.

Stephen had developed an AIDS-related spin-off called Kaposi’s sarcoma.  
This pulpit can never be the place to describe what I saw. Kaposi’s sarcoma
takes your breath away. He was disfigured beyond recognition - and his eyes
were swollen shut.  He was now totally blind.  I’d never seen anything like it
before.

Before I could visit‘Stephen,’ his nurses– who really loved him - made me get
into something that looked like a space suit.  And that was for his protection.

We had a long, peaceful, wonderful visit- and then it came time to give him
the Sacrament of the Sick.

In those seconds before I did so, I knew in my heart that I couldn’t do it with
my space gloves or my space mask on.  

The Sacrament of the Sick calls for physical contact.  Flesh must meet flesh.  
You must lay your bare hands on the person’s head, no matter their
condition.  You anoint their hands with oil.

I knew I had to remove my gloves to make the proper spiritual contact.  Being
human demands it.  So I made sure the door was closed and took off my
gloves and my mask.

What flashed through my mind was the courage of some sisters and priests
we had read about at the time, religious who didn’t have their own families to
care for, who had offered their bodies for experimental HIV research, and how
I marveled at their courage.  They had done so much more than I!

With my own prayer for faith, and a lump in my throat, I began the prayers for
him, touching him, laying on hands, anointing him.  It brought him great peace
to receive the Sacraments.

A couple of days later, Stephen died, in a state of grace.

Times like those heighten our fears, yes, but they summon our courage as
well.  I understood leprosy in a new way.

***

We know that when the Son of God came into the world he moved like a
magnet toward the excluded.  He went out to meet the prostitutes, the
sinners, and all the sick.  He ate and drank with them.  More than anything
else it led to his undoing.

Jesus’ ministry was to everyone God loves –which means everyone.  It’s a
love so obvious this poor leper seeks him out.  

“If you wish, you can make me clean,” he says on his knees.

“I do will it.  Be made clean.”

The leprosy left him and so did the social exclusion.

We know if we are to be like Christ we must reach out to those who are
excluded.  We’ve heard that hundreds of times.


***

There’s a detail in this Gospel we shouldn’t overlook.

When the leper was healed Christ sent him to the Temple.  Christ wanted the
priests to know that it wasn’t by Jewish Law that the leper was healed but by
the miraculous grace of God.

Jesus instructed the now former leper, “Tell no one.”  He didn’t want the
crowds to think he was just a miracle worker. He’s the Messiah - that’s so
much more.  

But the man can’t help himself.  He tells everyone.  

The result is: Jesus can’t enter a town openly.  He remains in the desert.  And
he becomes a kind of leper!   Now he’s ostracized!  

He began his ministry in the desert-and now he’s back there.Not long after, he’
s exiled to the Cross.

The point?

When we befriend the friendless, we might become friendless.

As we care for the outcast, we may be cast out.  

There are always some who won’t understand.

We revere Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta for all she did for the poorest of
the poor.  Just don’t forget how some in the secular press dragged her down -
how some in other religious communities called her ministry “a waste.”  
There were even those who spit in her face.  

800 years ago Francis of Assisi made peace with God when he kissed a leper.
And he - who so dedicated himself to the poor - lost his family and many
friends.

The Son of God loved perfectly and died on the Cross - more for eating and
drinking with outcasts than any other reason.

If you serve the leper today -in whatever disguise he or she may come - you
may become one.  

Only through the grace of God will you survive: a grace sought humbly,
prayerfully-on your knees -like the leper who comes to Jesus on his knees.