Text: Mark 1:40-45 [Sermon for Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, with commentary on the present abortion issue]
When Christians look at the many stories about Jesus in the Gospels, one of the questions they should ask themselves is, “What is unique about this story that moved the Holy Spirit and the Evangelist to preserve it in writing for posterity?” We know that some selection of stories was involved, since the last verse of the Gospel of John states, “There are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
The story reported in our Gospel lesson tells about a man who had leprosy. On his knees, the leper begged Jesus to heal him. Mark reports:
Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand, and touched the man, “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.
The result of this was that news about this healing spread like wildfire. Everyone wanted to see and touch Jesus, and if they were sick or disabled, to be healed.
There are many stories like this in the Gospels. What makes this one, and other stories about lepers, unique? Leprosy was not just an illness; and it was not just another illness that resulted in death. Leprosy was an illness that resulted in the victim being ostracized and cut-off from the rest of society. Lepers were worse off than poor widows and orphans, who at least enjoyed some protection from society. Lepers were in a social and economic class even below that of slaves. Lepers had nothing and little hope. They were the very “least” among the members of society in those days.
The fact that Jesus had compassion on the “least” members of society says something very powerful about Jesus and the Christians who followed him. Christians have always, in almost all of their national churches and denominations, demonstrated care for the poor, the sick, the maimed, the disabled, and the disadvantaged. Christians have sought out, helped, and defended the “least” members of society, not just members of their own churches.
In our own Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, we have a variety of national–and hundreds of local–social service agencies that help coordinate and provide care for the poor and disadvantaged in the USA. We support disaster relief work through “LCMS World Relief and Human Care,” both in this country and around the world. Here in Evansville, our Missouri Synod churches and lay people sponsor a Food Pantry at the Lutheran Community Outreach Center, which helps feed the poor. In these and many other ways, we continue to express the same compassion that moved Jesus to heal the leper.
Many people think that the Biblical warrant for such “social ministry” is Jesus’ prediction of his judgment of the sheep and goats, when he said, “Truly I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to the least of these My brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:31-46). But they really need to pay attention to the phrase the “least of these my brothers.” Jesus did not call everyone his “brother.” Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and mother” (Mark 3:33). Jesus said, “My mother and my brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).
How then should we understand this? In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus is saying that Christians must care for those true believers who are in dire need. They cannot forsake their brothers and sisters in the faith, when those persons come into severe hardship or persecution. Persecution means physical imprisonment, torture, or being run out of town. In Matthew 25, Jesus was setting up a type of insurance policy for persecuted believers. Jesus knew that when his faithful were persecuted, someone would have to come to their aid or they would die, and so he put all believers under obligation to care for them.
Does that mean, then, that believers may turn their backs on the rest of the world who don’t, or may not, believe in Jesus? No. Jesus had compassion on everyone, including his opponents and enemies. Remember what he said on the cross, “Father, forgive them!” If we claim the name of Christ in our title of “Christian,” then we too should show compassion, just as he did to the lepers who were the “least” members of his society.
How does all this affect you today? You always have the responsibility to care for those inside your circle of family, neighbors, congregational members, and friends, when they are in dire need. I hardly need to tell any of you about that; I know that you do that already. You always have the opportunity to help others in dire need outside of that circle, through your financial contributions to the church and to Christian “social ministries.” But this year, in 2012, you also have the opportunity to show compassion to the “least” members of our society by how you vote to protect Christian “social ministries.”
Here is an issue that will affect elections this year. This past week there was political uproar in Washington D.C. over a new law from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The law states that religious organizations must provide and pay for free birth control for all of their workers. This includes birth-control products, such as “Ella” and the “morning after pill” that can be used to induce the abortion of babies. The new law exempts only churches and other houses of worship. This means other religious organizations, including church-related universities, church-related hospitals, and church-related “social ministries” must comply with the new law.
Since the 1970s, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has passed resolutions at almost every national convention that clearly state that our church is opposed to “abortion-on-demand” in all of its forms, including “morning after” pills. We are against abortion-on-demand, because it is the unwarranted killing of the “least members of our society,” i.e., unborn babies. We stand with the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptists, and many other Protestants and religious groups in this position. We differ from the Catholics in that we accept birth control that is not abortive.
It is too early to tell where all this will end, politically or otherwise. It appears that, as the new law stands right now, it could force churches who oppose abortion in principle and practice to close-and-liquidate their universities, hospitals, and charities; or release them from church control. It could mean the closing or secularizing of all of our Concordia Universities, the Catholic universities like Notre Dame, and all of the Catholic hospitals-such as Saint Mary’s Hospital here in Evansville. It could also have the effect of wiping-out the largest and most effective institutions of Christian charity that aid the poor and disadvantaged, which have been part of a strong tradition in America since the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth Rock.
Jesus had compassion on the least members of his society. As his disciples, we want to follow his example. As his disciples, we will continue to care for and defend the least members of our society, so long as he gives us the strength and ability to do so. In Jesus’ name. Amen.