Monday, February 13, 2012

Happy Twentieth Birthday, GW!

“If you choose, you can make me clean,” says the leper, and you can imagine that his heart is in his mouth.

“If you choose, you can make me clean,” says the leper, and what he’s asking Jesus to do is something that the priests have refused to do, what he’s asking Jesus to do is to declare him clean in the Levitical sense. What he’s asking Jesus to do is to restore him to his family, to restore him to his livelihood, to restore him to his community, to restore to him his dignity and his life.

“If you choose, you can declare me clean,” and his heart is pounding so hard that he knows that Jesus can hear it, and the blood is rushing to his head, and Jesus is looking at him, knowing how hard his heart is pounding, knowing how desperate he is to be restored, knowing how vile and how corrupt this system of purity has become, knowing, according to Ched Myers, who says that that’s the only way that Jesus’ anger makes sense here, that he’s been to the priests already, and that they’ve denied him his bill of health, his access to his family, to home, to livelihood, to everyone and everything that a person would want to live for, and as Jesus stands there looking at him, he is moved with anger at the systems that have cast this man out like so much garbage, Jesus is moved with anger, and he reaches out, and he knows as he reaches out that he is, by Jewish law, not allowed to touch the man, that in touching the man, he will be viewed as unclean, too, and he knows as he reaches out, that if he proclaims this man clean, that he will be overstepping his bounds, usurping the carefully guarded authority of the priests, who according to the Torah are the only ones who can declare a leper clean, even if the priest is an imbecile, the teachings say, it must be the priest that declares the leper clean, and Jesus, moved with anger, reaches out his hand and touches the man, and says to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

And immediately the man is made clean. At Jesus’ touch, at Jesus’ word, the man is proclaimed and made clean. But Jesus is still angry. In fact, Mark says that he snorts with indignation. Jesus is still angry at the systems that have oppressed this man for so long, and he says to man, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, show them what I’ve done, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a witness against them. They would not touch you, they would not proclaim you whole, they would not give you back your life. You go and tell them, you go and show them what I’ve done.”

Saul Alinsky, who is one of the most famous community organizers of all times, says in his book, Rules for Radicals, that the job of the organizer is to maneuver and bait the establishment so that it will publicly attack him as a ‘dangerous enemy.’ The word ‘enemy’ is sufficient to put the organizer on the side of the people, to identify him with the ‘Have-Nots…’

And then Jesus, because he himself was considered to be unclean after touching the man, and more importantly, because in taking a stab at the authorities of his day he had put himself in danger, could not go into a town openly, but had to stay out in the country, where people came to him, where the Have-Nots came to him from every quarter.

Jesus knew what he was getting into. “If you choose,” said the leper with his heart in his mouth, “if you choose…” and Jesus did choose. He chose, not just to heal the leper, which he could have done at a safe distance, as he did in the story in Luke, but to confront head on the purity laws, and thus, the keepers of the purity laws, the priests. He’s already confronted the scribes, and now he’s confronting the priests.

Twenty years ago a group of folks who had grown up under a different, but in some ways, similar, holiness code, and that’s the Southern Baptist holiness code, that can be summed up, perhaps, with this little rhyme:

Don’t smoke or drink or chew, or
hang with those who do…

…they had a vision of a place where people from all walks of life could come together on equal ground. They didn’t want another place where the haves would serve the have nots, no, they wanted a place where everyone would be served equally, and so they decided that everything would be free for everybody. They didn’t want a place where those with talent would perform for those without talent. No, they wanted a place where everyone could have a chance to shine, and so they decided to do an open mic.

They also decided to clap like crazy whenever anybody did anything, or maybe they didn’t decide it, but they sure did it, and people who never in a million years would have thought that they’d ever read a poem or sing a song found themselves up there on stage being treasured, being listened to, being loved.

They had this vision, and they made it work, and now it’s worked for 20 years. 20 years of faithfulness, 20 years of radical inclusivity, 20 years of making coffee and washing dishes, 20 years of waiting tables, 20 years of listening and performing, 20 years of pulling down the walls.

I remember our very first Urban Goatwalker Coffeehouse. Robert and I sat with a couple who was homeless, and the woman rubbed the tablecloth between her fingers and looked at the candle on the table and looked around the room and said, with reverence in her voice, this is really nice.

After all these years, I still feel the reverence of this place where people come together on equal ground, and find healing.

“If you choose, you can heal me,” says the man.

“If you choose,” says this broken, needy, desperate, heart in its mouth world, “you can heal me.” And you warm up the coffeepot and you pull out the tablecloths and you put on our aprons, and you do choose.

Thanks be to God.


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