(Editor's note: Deacon Solomon delivered this homily at St. Peter's parish in Saratoga Springs, based on the Gospel of Mark 1:40-45.)

The beloved St. Francis of Assisi initially had an absolute disdain for lepers. He would go miles out of his way to avoid them. One day, Francis saw a leper approaching and started to turn away, but instead turned toward the leper, embraced and kissed him, and gave him some money.

Francis wrote in his journal: "When I became acquainted with the leper, that which was bitter to me became a source of spiritual sweetness for me."

In the Gospel, Jesus is "moved with pity" when He meets a leper. Scholars say "pity" is a poor translation: Jesus feels an intense pain in his gut not just because of the leper's disease, but for the inner pain the leper feels because he is ostracized from the community.

In the first century, leprosy and skin conditions were more than physical ailments. They were viewed as punishment from God for sin. Lepers represented all that was corrupt and unclean. They were outcasts to be avoided by anyone wanting to remain pure.

In our scientific age, it is tempting to look condescendingly at the ignorance of those first-century people. But, if we are honest, we must admit that we still exclude those who are different. We are still tempted to judge others by their appearance, clothing, material goods or social status. People with AIDs or HIV, the homeless, the poor and immigrants may experience the same social rejection and isolation as the lepers.

Our oldest daughter has intellectual disabilities. Like many people with disabilities, she has experienced the pain of separation from the mainstream of society. Attendance at special schools, camps and workplaces can create a chasm between people with disabilities and their peers -- a chasm which leaves them socially isolated.

There are those in our own Church who may experience this same isolation because of physical, racial and cultural differences. Most of us have, at one time, felt like the outsider: in a new job, a new school, a new church. We know what it feels like to be a fish out of water, judged by our appearance, our language or our values.

Jesus' healing is more profound than curing the leper's sores. Touching the leper, Jesus proclaims to him, and to the society that has victimized him, that God's kingdom excludes no one. Jesus sees beneath the leper's skin to what dwells deep within.

For Jesus, the leper is not a problem to be dealt with, but a beloved son of God. As the saying goes, "God does not make junk; God restores masterpieces."

The root of rejection of those who are different from us is fear. We fear those we do not know. The only remedy for fear is to encounter those who are different. In that encounter, we come to know them as human beings like us.

This is what Jesus does. He reaches out to the leper with compassion listens and offers help. It seems so simple, yet fear can paralyzes us and stop us from reaching out to others who are different, listening to their stories and getting to know them not as categories, but as human beings.

I recall a community meeting about a proposed community residence for people with disabilities. The room was filled with people upset that disabled people would be living in their neighborhood. They feared their way of life would be disrupted and property values would decrease.

In the middle of that very emotional meeting, a young bartender walked to the microphone. He told the crowd that he had just spent an hour talking with one of the women who would live in the proposed residence. He said she was one of the nicest people he had ever met and suggested that, if people just took a moment to meet her, they would discover that she would make one of the best neighbors they ever had.

After he left the room, there was complete silence. One by one, the crowd dispersed. That young man moved with compassion not only made a friend that day, but he also helped to welcome her home.

We who gather around this table with faith that the bread we share is the body of Jesus Christ are challenged to see that same Jesus Christ in the face of every person on this planet -- especially those whom society considers lepers!