Jim Penczykowski’s Homily from February 12, 2012

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[A homily suggestion I heard many years ago was prepare with the Sacred Scripture in one hand and the New York Times in the other. In this case I also included the Wisconsin State Journal and Ched Myers commentary on Mark’s Gospel, Binding the Strong Man, Orbis Books, 1988.]

What did he know and when did he know it?

Seems stolen from the recent headlines reporting on Governor Walker’s recent problems with aides who campaigned while on the government clock.

It is rather a frequently asked question among scripture commentators about Jesus in Mark’s Gospel account. We are only about 600 words into Mark’s account of Good News when Jesus confronts the establishment that governs the day-to-day life of his society, and his fame or infamy spreads quickly among the 99% of his time and place.

Our leper in today’s passage “began to proclaim it freely and to spread the word” the very way in which the early church referred to its preaching about Jesus. [This is before the term “euangelion” (our “gospel”) was borrowed from the Roman imperial propaganda machine.]

What was the leper proclaiming freely?

On one level he was telling people that Jesus healed him of his leprosy.

On another level he was telling people that Jesus declared him clean, meaning that Jesus took upon himself the priestly task laid out in Leviticus to declare when someone was ritually pure again.

On another level he was telling people that Jesus had actually touched him, in defiance of the ritual purity laws, thus rendering Jesus unclean; in the second last verse we hear that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed outside in places where nobody lived (sounds like the life of a leper to me).

On yet another level he was telling people that the old purity laws had been turned on their heads. Instead of Jesus contracting the impurity by touching the leper, the leper was made clean by a touch from Jesus. This recalls last week’s passage in the synagogue at Capernaum, when people remarked that Jesus taught with authority.

Mark’s Christian Community was made up of primarily gentile converts, some of whom may have lived in Rome, but were expelled from Rome along with Jews during a persecution in the year 62. Mark announces “Good News” to a people living in the midst of societal chaos. Bandits and brigands roam freely in Galilee; the members of the priestly caste in Jerusalem are trying to co-opt the rebellious zealots, but are quite willing to collaborate with the Romans if it means they can keep their status. The Roman leaders deal harshly with every symbolic act of rebellion even if it is not overtly violent.

Where is the Good News?

The Good News is that Jesus really cares about one leper.

Where our passage says Jesus was moved with pity we could also substitute Jesus was moved with anger. The key to the translation for me is the “moved with” part of the phrase. This is not describing pity or anger in any abstract sense of the terms.

The original meaning was quite concrete and visceral. Jesus’ bowel was moved with pity or anger; Jesus’ guts were churned up with emotion.

This is not a Jesus who seems at all content and serene. [Think of the Warner Sallman image painted in 1940 and reproduced over 500 million times. That Jesus is posing for a Halo Shampoo ad.] This is a Jesus who is edgy and acutely aware of the power he is confronting and its potential for evil. This is a Jesus who knows he can attract a crowd in the city of Capernaum, but chooses to preach in the villages, at the margins of the power center. This is a Jesus who knows his message will liberate people, but also knows that some people will only take the part of the message that suits them.

The divine ordering of creation, “in the beginning” as we all know the Book of Genesis starts is replicated in the start of Mark’s account, “The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  There is a new order, a way out of the chaos that enslaves people’s bodies and spirits.

Think about the purity laws that crush people in our own society.

They are not laws written down in a modern day book of Leviticus; they are laws or systems that we ascribe to sometimes consciously, more often subconsciously.

Eligible Income Levels

  • Subsidized housing income levels are determined by annual gross income, qualifications in specific categories, and citizenship or immigration status. The specific categories include the elderly, disabled, and if the household qualifies as a family. HUD sets the moderate income level at a range of 80 to 120 percent of the local AMI. Low income levels range between 50 to 80 percent of the local AMI. Very low income levels are set under 50 percent of the local AMI.
  • Some of the effects from the establishment of income levels has been creation of federal law, programs dealing with various housing issues and state or local governments using the income levels as part of public assistance program guidelines. A US federal law dictates that a public housing agent (PHA) must use 75 percent of it’s available rental vouchers for applicants not exceeding 30 percent of their AMI; another federal law mandates that for a housing project to receive government funding it must provide for a certain percentage of units set aside for households within subsidized housing income levels. Various programs such as supportive housing, transitional housing and rent subsidies have risen to assist households that fall within these income levels; examples include Section 8, rental vouchers, tax credits and non-profit grants or loans.
  • A significant gap between eligible households and available rentals has become evident. A study published by the Urban Institute in 2005 reported that there were 23.6 million households (out of 110 million) which fell into the HUD subsidized housing income levels; only 23 percent of this number received assistance. Households with children comprised 12.3 million or 36 percent of the total number of families that are on one of the three income levels. The Recession of 2008-2009 caused wide-spread unemployment and housing loss which caused a spike in households falling below poverty levels. As of 2009 an accurate number of households within subsidized housing income limits had yet to be determined.

Effects

Significance

Wherever there is stigma attached to one’s state of life, there is usually an unwritten purity law or code lurking in the background. If you cannot afford market-rate housing in this country you fall into this category. In 2005, three years before the great recession took its toll, 20% of all households in this country fell into the HUD eligible income levels, but less than 1/4th received housing assistance. No one knows the true numbers and percentages today, but I am certain the anecdotes we have heard about and read about would be backed by staggering statistical figures. Do we not feel sorry for people who need subsidized housing, until it happens to us or someone close to us. A purity code lurks here.

Recent item in the news: when the Chrysler corporation announced that the Belvedere, IL plant would start making vehicles again and it needed to hire 2,000 workers, so many people came to apply that they capped the recruitment process at 7,500 applicants. Do we attach a stigma to long-term unemployment, even in a deep recession?

One does not have to stretch too many years back to remember when the HIV/AIDS epidemic had us so scared that anyone who was a caregiver for someone suffering with the disease was considered a hero for living close to contagion.

Only 19 states in our country are left that do not require some type of voter ID at the polling place, a type of purity law at the level of civil religion in our country. Those who are more itinerant or who live at the margins of our society will rarely vote if they move so often that they cannot keep their legal identification up-to-date when the election cycle requires them to do so. Those voices will never find a receptive ear from elected officials because they do not count in the vote tally.

Criminal records are not all that unusual anymore. In fact, 6.5 percent of the U.S. population has a felony record, and one in 15 people have gone to prison at some point. How does an ex-convict ever re-establish his or her purity? Does anyone doubt that a purity law lurks here?

Mark challenges his community to believe the Good News, the victory of Jesus Christ, that in fact, Jesus Christ is the Good News; and he challenges them to spread the word.

Part of what we must do as believers in that victory is to challenge the purity codes and laws, any system that belittles others, that deprives another of dignity. Our actions may come in the form of direct action on behalf of others. Our actions may come in the form of advocating for others. Our actions may come in the form of civil disobedience. Our actions may come in the form of working within systems to make them more humane.

But here is the more daunting action for many of us. When we ourselves, or someone near and dear to us is living at the margins, and feeling the pain of not fitting into our societal expectations, we must tell that story to one another if we are to break the bonds of the purity laws that threaten to kill our spirit.

I will close this reflection with a quote that is an excellent example of a modern day prophet trying to break down a purity code. The author is a regular in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times, Charles M. Blow. The column, published in yesterday’s edition is entitled, “Real Men and Pink Suits”

In fact, a 2005 report entitled “From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America,” which was commissioned by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, found that a third of all teens said that they are often bullied, called names or harassed at their school because they are, or people think that they are, gay, lesbian or bisexual.We have created this culture, and we can undo it. Start with this fact: The truest measure of a man, indeed of a person, is not whom he lies down with but what he stands up for. If we must be judged, let it be in this way. And when we fall short, as we sometimes will, because humanity is fallible, let us greet each other with compassion and encouragement rather than ridicule and resentment.

Is this not how we greet each other in this assembly of believers?
Is this not how we are challenged to greet our neighbor tomorrow?

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

May our prayers rise to the heavens like incense.

For this assembly and all communities of faith throughout our world, that we will find our prophetic voices and challenge systems and laws that oppress the downtrodden. We pray …

For elected officials and all who exercise power and authority, that they be given the gifts of wisdom, good counsel, and fortitude. We pray …

For the homeless and those facing eviction or foreclosure, that they can maintain their dignity as they seek help from others. We pray …

For the Benedictine Women of Madison and all who model themselves on St. Scholastica, that they will love much and that their number will increase. We pray …

For what else shall we pray?

Please mention now those whose needs populate your hearts. For these all who are written in our book of intentions, we pray …

God of all compassion, stir us in the very core of our being so we may participate fully with you in recreating this earth which you loved into being. We ask this in Jesus’ name.

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