The preacher was telling the story of the plight of those in biblical times who suffered from leprosy. They were social outcasts and had to live in leper colonies and if they ventured out, they had to call before them to warn all around the “Unclean! Unclean!” You see leprosy was highly contagious, even to the point that the clothes lepers worn was burned instead of recycled or given away. The leper was “Unclean!” in every way, to the point he could only live and interact with other lepers. No wonder “to be treated like a leper” means to be ostracized or rejected.
But is “unclean” really real? Can a person be “unclean?” Can a practice or behavior be “unclean?”
Look at our lesson today in Romans 14:9-18:
BRETHREN, to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written. “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So each of us shall give account of himself to God. Then let us no more pass judgment on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; he who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.
St. Paul is attempting to get these Roman Christians to understand their fundamental purpose in being Church together is to remove “stumbling blocks” out of the way of everyone to grow in the faith, to become by grace what Christ is by nature. This fundamental purpose of “others” focused instead of “me” focus has, at it’s heart, the powerful message of the Christian Faith: Nothing (and no one) is “unclean” in and of itself!
Think about this for a moment. God created the world and looked at His creation and said “This is good.” All of His creation, including all the people, are good. Creation is good. Period. Full stop. End of discussion.
So, where does all this sin, death, and spiritual illness come from? Simply from the misuse of good things and good gifts. You see, the Christian message is that all creation is a gift of God to us for our benefit and our life. But we humans, gripped by the disease of the fear of death, misuse our freedom, misuse our talents, our desires, ourselves, and each other, and all these good things and gifts and talents and desires and companions become illness to us instead of the gifts they were made to be. Think of a hammer. This is a useful tool and very effective when used to build a house or repair a chair. But that same hammer can be used to harm another to the point of murder. It’s all in how you use the hammer.
So it is with the gifts of God in His creation and the gifts of God in the people He has given us. We can misuse these precious gifts and watch as they become enemies, addictions, and festering spiritual illness, or we can do as the Faith teaches us and gather all our gifts, our desires, and our loved ones and offer them up to God for His blessing, His “Eucharistic” blessing, and watch as God returns these gifts to us as what they were meant to be in the first place! And in so doing, we avoid judging our brother and placing a stumbling block in another’s journey toward their journey to God.
Today, your ability to see the “giftedness” of all that surrounds you, to see even your desires and passions as the “good” things they really are, will transform you from a “consumer” of the world to a true “steward” of the world. You will become one who refuses to judge another or to be a roadblock to another in their journey towards God. When you see all around you as gift, you will be Orthodox on Purpose!
P.S. Summer months are tough for parishes and non-profits. There’s even a name for it: The Summer Slump! Don’t make your home parish “sweat” this summer. Keep your stewardship up to date! God bless you!