Sunday, February 15, 2015

Have You Ever Felt Unwelcome in Church?

“A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” (Mark 1:40)

Imagine a time in your life that you felt marginalized, unwanted, rejected or unwelcomed.  It truly is a horrible feeling.  Now think about a time when you perhaps made someone feel marginalized, unwanted, rejected or unwelcomed.  This is the underlying theme of today’s gospel.  The prevailing attitude, law in fact, during Jesus’ time was to marginalize lepers.  They were cast out of towns, relegated to living by themselves or in leper colonies, and no one was allowed to touch them lest they become unclean.  Thankfully Jesus comes to turn around a law that had been written during the time of Moses and embrace those that were called unclean.  Notice the details that St. Mark spells out in the gospel.  The leper kneels before the Lord.  He begs him for healing.  Jesus, moved with pity, acknowledges the leper (this in and of itself was big), grants his request, stretches out his hand, touches him, and heals him/makes him clean. 

Now here is what strikes me about today’s gospel.  After this healing, Jesus had to retreat to deserted places because he could not enter towns openly.  The Lord, who according to the law was made unclean by simply touching the leper, retreats to the very places where lepers were relegated.  Jesus truly becomes like us in all things but sin.  He himself is marginalized, and he will soon be rejected.  So this is where Jesus dwells:  with those who feel unwanted or unloved, with the sick and the outcast, with the poor and downtrodden.  This is where we truly encounter Jesus, and today’s readings are a challenge for us to enter the fast approaching season of Lent with two attitudes:  1) Have I contributed to marginalizing a brother or a sister especially here in church?  2) What leprosy do I have that needs to be made clean? I’ll back to the first question in a second, but look inside your heart and ask yourself as you begin Lent what inside you is unclean.  If you look at the details of this gospel that I went through earlier (kneeling, begging, touching, healing), it is so close to what we experience in confession.  When was the last time you made a good confession?

To return to the first question I asked if we have marginalized others, this is critical as we examine our attitudes both as Christians and as a community of faith.  Who are we to look down on others who may be different than us, sicker than us, poorer than us, or think differently than us?  So many people have come back home to the Church after being away for many years because someone whether a priest or a layperson made them feel unwelcome.  If this happened to you, I apologize in the name of the Church.  If I personally made you feel unwelcomed or marginalized by something I said or did as a priest, I apologize as well.  The urgency of preaching the Good News does not afford us the luxury of excluding people from our Church.  I am not talking here about reception of Holy Communion (that’s another homily for another day).  I’m talking about the initial encounter of an individual with Jesus Christ, for when any individual steps into any church, particularly ours, they must encounter Jesus Christ in each of you!  They must feel loved.  They must feel welcomed.  And they must never be looked down upon.  All of us, including myself, must take a good hard look in the mirror this Lent and ask ourselves if we are pushing anyone away from Church with our attitudes or actions.  The doors of the Church are always open.  You don’t need a special code or password to get in.   All are welcomed in this holy place.

Pope Francis talked about this in his homily this morning and I want to share with you the last paragraph of what he said:

…as we look to Jesus and our Mother Mary, I urge you to serve…Jesus crucified in every person who is emarginated, for whatever reason; to see the Lord in every excluded person who is hungry, thirsty, naked; to see the Lord present even in those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith; to see the Lord who is imprisoned, sick, unemployed, persecuted; to see the Lord in the leper – whether in body or soul - who encounters discrimination!  We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized!  May we always have before us the image of Saint Francis, who was unafraid to embrace the leper and to accept every kind of outcast.  Truly the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is found and revealed! (Homily of Pope Francis, 2/15/15)

That last sentence from the Holy Father is pure spiritual brilliance.  Our proclamation of the gospel can only be effective, can only be credible if we reach out to the marginalized.  Again, we do not have the luxury to look down our noses at anyone, to exclude anyone, to call anyone “unclean.”  People stop coming to church when they feel marginalized.  We must change our hearts, get rid of our own leprosy first, then we must rediscover this Gospel of the marginalized.  We must search out the lost, bring them home, and let them encounter this living Christ.  Then He will take care of the rest.  May no one ever feel unloved or unwelcomed in the house of the Lord.