Monday, September 23, 2013

Are You Willing? Youth Encounters with a Leper and Ordinary Opportunities to Love Your Neighbor

I am not willing to share a beverage with someone other than my wife and kids. This may have started as a kid and the visions of shards of whatever falling from my father's mustache into the preferred liquid to be consumed. Some call me a spit-phob as a result.

I am not willing to eat pickles. Actually, I take offense to the consumptive assumption that Americans prefer pickles on their chicken sandwich or burgers. Restaurants nationwide refuse to consider what the vinegar residue, i.e. pickle pee, does to the roll, waffle fries, and whatever else is on the purchased platter. Hint: ruined forever.

I am not willing to jeopardize the health and safety of my wife and kids.

I am not willing to text and drive.

I am certainly not willing to root for the New York Yankees regardless of who they play or if they are on my fantasy team.

And when I was in Honduras this past summer, when I looked over my shoulder and saw a teenage leper propped up against the wall of the cathedral as our youth were in conversation with some folks from the Micah Project, I was not the first to be willing to offer food and drink.

The high school youth were more willing than I. Actually, they were willing because one of the homeless youth, despite his lingering high from yellow glue, was more than willing to offer compassion and empathy.

I will never read Luke 5:12-16 the same again.


The story goes like this. A leper, accustomed to exclusion and isolation from people, community, religious hubs, and sacred practices, gets word about this Jesus whose message hinges on the marginalized and social outcastes. This religious teacher many called Messiah, went from town to town, village to village, and city to city breaking every social norm and religious taboo.

Would he be willing to outstretch his hand towards even a leper who had not known human contact and connection since his diagnosis?

Would the love of God, the kingdom of God, the dreams of God's healing from disease, oppression, exclusion, and constant rejection be extended to him?

"Jesus, if you are willing..."

"I am willing..."

Are we willing?

A large part of what it means to be called a disciple of Jesus is rooted in willingness. Willingness to follow. Willingness to try the impossible. Willingness to use your gifts, talents, resources, passions, and time for a greater cause than yourself. Willingness to fail. Willingness to love those the world has rejected. Willingness to have your eyes and ears opened to others the world has closed itself off to? Willingness to surrender all that you are to the dreams of God that are not only for you, but also and especially for the whole world.

Willingness to embrace the leper in your midst, and those just like him, whom Jesus considered on the A-list of his divine banquet.

But not all of us will have the chance to meet a leper like the one in Luke's narrative or our friend in the Honduras cathedral. This can easily become another means to dismiss these stories as though though they have nothing to say to us. But we encounter lepers every day.

Each day youth who walk into a school, which is more a less a village of teenagers, they encounter large numbers of their peers. And not everybody fits in; not everybody is welcome; not everybody feels as though they belong or they are valued by another.

There are lepers who sit in isolation from those who do belong, at those folding tables in the cafeteria. They may walk the hallways with head down, doubtful anyone is aware of their existence until they are bumped into by someone headed the opposite direction.

There are those who live across the street from all of us or a few houses down who do not fit the accepted image of cleanliness, lack the ideal body type, practice a stereotyped religious tradition, or have a history of struggles with mental health.

There are those who sit beside us on the train as we commute from the 'burbs to the city, others with whom we share an office or cubicle, and those we pass by on the streets as we walk from the train to that very office complex.

Are we willing to stretch out our hands of compassion in a way reflective of Jesus the Willing One?

We don't have to strive to be heroes. We just have to be willing.

"God's love for you and God's love for the larger world in need cannot be separated. God's longing to see you liberated for life tgar really is life can't be neatly pulled apart from God's longing to see the poor liberated for life that really is life. The two are inextricable. God's concern for the stuff of our lives, and God's concern for the lives of those who live on the margins, can never be neatly parsed...Can you see what great news it is that this serendipitous double liberation isn't something extra we do? We don't have to add lots more overwhelming activity to what we've already got going. Rasther, the regular stuff of our lives- the commute to work and the potlucks and home improvement projects and errans and play dates- are the exact places in which we express and experience God's love for a world in need."

---Margot Starbuck, Small Thing with Great Love: Adventures in Loving Your Neighbor

Are you willing... love your competitor on the local sports field? serve a meal to the new parents down the street? sit at that lunch table with those kids who eat alone? engage in a friendly conversation with the person one seat over on the train? invite the parent of the kids your kids are friends with to church on Sunday, or Wednesday, or any day?

...are you willing to go to Honduras, or Philly, or the borough down the road and learn about those who call the streets home and how you can be a part of their liberation?

Are we willing to see every day as an ordinary opportunity to outstretch our hands towards others and love our neighbor as ourself?

To follow Jesus is to be willing.

But this doesn't mean we have to eat pickles.

Thanks be to God.