A SERMON BASED ON MARK 1:40-45 & 1 COR 9:24-27
“She came out … just in time to see her young son playing in the path of the gray, gaunt man who strode down the center of the well-worn road like a mechanical derelict. For an instant, her heart quailed. Then she jumped forward, gripped her son by the arm, snatched him out of harm’s way. The man went by without turning his head. As his back moved away from her, she hissed at it, “Go away! Get out of here! You ought to be ashamed.” Thomas’s stride went on, … but to himself he responded, “Ashamed? Ashamed?”
“He saw that the people he passed, the people who knew him, whose names and houses and handclasps were known to him – he saw that they stepped aside, gave him plenty of room. Some of them looked as if they were holding their breath. Women, who had at one time chosen to flirt, recoiled from him as if he were some minor horror or ghoul, and he felt a sudden treacherous pang of loss. His inner being collapsed, as it did every day.”
This is an account in the day of the life of a leper. Thomas is the lead character in Stephen R. Donaldson’s series, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and he is a fictional twentieth century leper – albeit one based on a real person’s experiences. When I read the series many years ago I remember thinking, “People don’t react that way anymore. The world is not that archaic.” But, perhaps it is.
Two of our passages contrast in a very telling way.
In the first story, Elisha responded in a very appropriate way to the advance of a leper – appropriate for his culture, anyway. Elisha did not come out to see the leper, but sent a messenger to tell Naaman how he could be healed. Elisha did not meet Naaman until afterwards – when his skin was as fresh as a child’s and he was disease free. When it was safe.
Contrast that with the way in which Jesus responded when the leper said faithfully, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus, being moved – moved, it says – reached out a hand and touched the leper and said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Jesus – intimate and tangible – touching the thoroughly unclean. Jesus was divine, but fully human, too – capable of pain and death as we obviously know already. Jesus was also capable of tiredness – the need for rest is what usually sent Jesus to Bethany to visit with Mary and Martha, who ministered to Jesus.
So, since Jesus was fully human, Jesus ran an extremely high risk in touching the man with leprosy – it was the most contagious disease in that time and place. Jesus not only could have contracted leprosy, but also passed it on to anyone else Jesus touched. Jesus healed in the name of God, but it nonetheless took faith on the part of Jesus to touch in the name of ministry – to touch the untouchable. Risky business this ministry of Jesus – dangerous stuff. And later, when Jesus teaches the disciples to heal, touch will be part of the risk they take, too.
Then, of course, we have our second reading – one in which Paul gives instruction in ministry. On the surface of it, there’s not much to tie these readings together. On the surface of it. If we dig a little deeper, we find the common ground.
First, let’s consider the leper in Mark. The man says to Jesus, “if you choose, I will be made well.” That is a profound statement of faith, which Jesus acknowledges by being moved. What moves Jesus? It isn’t that the leper is pathetic, or horribly deformed, or pleading for health. What moves Jesus is this person’s faith. “If you choose, it will be done,” the leper says. Clear and simple, the leper has faith that Jesus will heal – that wellness will prevail – and Jesus is emotionally moved by this.
Exactly that kind of faith is being discussed in I Corinthians. Paul is talking about preparation and persistence, and sticking to a goal as if we fully intend that goal be accomplished. Can we examine the leper, and ultimately ourselves, through the lens of 1 Corinthians? The outcast – the leper – approached Jesus to be healed, knowing that if Jesus chose to do so, he would be made well.
What kind of healing did the leper anticipate, though?
Did the leper know what wellness would look like?
Sometimes healing looks like a dignified death with the person being spiritually healed.
Sometimes, it looks like a disease going into remission. Jesus could have stopped the leprosy from doing any more damage. But this person’s body would still show scars, missing fingers and toes, and even a contorted face that would still make people back away. This person would still look unclean – for all intents and purposes, he might as well still have leprosy.
Sometimes healing looks like not just remission, but a complete physical restoration of health. Jesus could heal the leprosy completely, and send the man on his way looking healthy – at least physically – on the surface. What of the internal scars? The scars of being rejected, despised and outcast because of something this person had no control over. Left untreated, these emotional scars would prove to be almost as debilitating as the physical illness.
What we hope for is full resurrection from the illness – and what the leper hoped for was that Jesus would heal the whole person – body, mind and soul. We hope that when this leper is made clean – the resultant health and vitality went deep to all parts of his being.
When we decided that we were going to run the risk of seeking revitalization, what kind of wholeness did we anticipate? Was it to prepare for a dignified and jubilant end to the life of this church? Was it simply a stop to the decline that has been occurring all these years? A quick fix? Did we hope for that AND a cosmetic make-over – maybe just add some numbers in the pews to give the impression of health and vitality? Or, did we want the full body, mind and soul healing that only faith in God can provide? Did we want the church to be changed and enlivened to its core?
There is no shame in any of the choices, but faithfulness leads us to hope for either the first or the last.
Now, consider that when this leper approached Jesus, there were roadblocks. A person with leprosy, in that time, would expect to be rejected – to be pushed away if they dared approach a clean person, never mind a holy person. The fact that this person dared to approach means that the first obstacles were already overcome – the fear and expectation of failure.
The fear of failure is powerful. If the leper was afraid of failure, Jesus would never have laid eyes on him. Fear would have prevented any consideration of looking for new vitality and health, any possibility of even daring to dream of wellness. Fear would have said, “Look! You’ll be rejected and fail, and if that happens you will feel worse than you do now.” Don’t risk disappointment. Just don’t try in the first place. I’m going to guess that we also overcame that fear of failure.
The expectation of failure can be even more powerful, but in more subtle ways. Within weeks of my coming here, you probably heard that some folks were pessimistic about any possibility of our revitalizing the church. The truth is that if we expect to lose, the likelihood is that we will lose. Even positive results will not be enough. Any signs of recovery – subtle or profound – will not be recognized as signs. The expectation to lose becomes inseparable from the goal, and not failing becomes in some way unacceptable.
Can we see the Reign is upon us, but not yet realized?
Paul is talking about preparation and persistence in striving for faithful hope. When we do that, all the obstacles in the way become mere annoyances, not roadblocks. They are things to be worked through, not the cause for turning back.
It could be a lot of things. Maybe it’s because others would do things differently. Maybe, it’s because others think we should do things better. Maybe, it’s because we think we will attract the wrong kind of people. Then again, maybe it’s because we’re not as healthy as others think we should be. But, no matter the reason, we can accept that we view weakness more clearly than faith in God’s compassion and loving kindness.
That’s okay. We share in the lifelong process of being healed. Are we willing to give up on the race we started?
There’s a lot of beauty and faith remaining in this church, this part of the Body of Christ. In faith, we undertook a journey. When we keep putting one foot in front of the other – when we keep striving – that is being faithful.
What kind of healing do we hope for? What kind of healing will Christ provide? If healing comes, will it not come to all of us – as long as we trust in God and recognize each other as worthy of Christ’s healing? If we call it quits too early, will we experience the healing that Christ has in store for us? We accept the risk – we have to – no matter whether the resurrection looks like a healthy death or a healthy life.
Sermon written by Rev’s Andy Little and Jenna Zirbel.