6th Sunday after Epiphany
February 12, 2012
Steve Hoffard – Zion Stratford
I Do Choose
According to the church calendar, we are still in the season after Epiphany. This relatively short season between Christmas and Lent is the season where the churches deal with Jesus identity. The word epiphany means manifestation and in our readings and many of our sermons, Jesus manifests [or reveals] himself as God.
It is tempting to fluff off today’s gospel reading as just another in a series of healing stories in Mark’s account, a trinity of faith healings to prove that Jesus is divine, the son of God. Two weeks ago we read of the demonized man in the synagogue and how Jesus healed him by commanding the demon leave him. Last Sunday Jesus healed Simon Peter’s fevered mother-in-law by taking her by the hand and lifting her up. Today we hear of the unclean leper miraculously healed just because he asked. We could stand back and say, “Yup there you go, Jesus is the son of God, or at the very least a really good faith healer. But there has to be more for us in these stories or the gospel writer wouldn’t have given us details to each one. The lectionary writers wouldn’t have spread them out over more than one Sunday.
To fail to dig into these stories is to fail to discover who Jesus as the son of God truly is. It is one thing to claim that Jesus “is” the Son of God, but quite another to discover what that means. To discover who Jesus is, is to discover who God is. When we discover God, we discover what God wants for us as the church and for us as God’s children. So let’s go a little deeper. What is different about today’s story?
To discover the richness of today’s story we need to compare it to the first two. The first healing occurs in the synagogue, a place of worship and the communal center of a Jewish community, a man suddenly in the midst of their community is overcome by an unclean spirit and needs healing. Jesus sharply reprimands the spirit, ordering it silent and out of the man. In the second story the healing takes place in the home of Simon and Andrew, surrounded by their closest friends and family. Simon’s mother is in bed with a fever and they tell Jesus about her. Jesus comes, takes her by the hand, and lifts her up. She is again able to serve.
The first story could be giving us instruction on how to restore members in our faith communities to wholeness. The second how to renew those we are closest to in our personal and private spaces. If this is the case, what can we glean from today’s story?
First of all let’s look at the location. If we go back a couple of verses we hear Jesus say, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” So now we have Jesus out in the world. He has left his home, and he has left the local area. He has a message for the wider community.
It is while Jesus is out in the neighbouring towns that a leper comes to him begging. He drops to his knees at the foot of Jesus and says, “If you choose, you can make me clean!” You know we can’t help but think, “wow” news of Jesus power must really be getting around. Here is some poor leper who has likely heard rumours of this miracle worker. He might even be thinking [at least in the rational part of his brain] that these stories are all likely hocus pocus nonsense. But really what has he got to lose? So he holds on to this little last bit of hope. Hope that he can be healed. This is what the leper looks like on the surface, but a first century audience would read a lot more into this character.
I don’t think most of us, today, can fully understand what the physical and mental state of the leper in today’s gospel story might have been. We can find some clue though, by looking to the laws concerning Leprosy found in Leviticus.
The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Lev 13:45-46)
After reading that I can’t help but wonder if the physical part of the disease wasn’t the least painful part. One with leprosy in Jesus’ day was completed ostracized. Banished from the rest of society, forced to live alone outside beyond the walls of the city. Made to dwell in the place where garbage was burnt, and sewage was directed. When a “normal” person approached, they had to shout a warning, “Unclean!” while keeping their mouth covered to prevent spreading the disease. How long before someone in this condition would see themselves as the very excrement they were forced to live in. Their self-image so broken that they consider themselves as unworthy of love or companionship. “Normal” society could avoid seeing, hearing, or touching someone they considered unclean. A sense of being different – different in an inferior way – was a natural result.
Now picture someone like this breaking all laws and approaching Jesus, begging Jesus, dropping to his knees at the feet of Jesus and in total helpless desperation saying, “If you choose, you can make me clean”.
Now what happens next is what I think is the most important part of the story, and it is so easy to miss it because something is lost in the translation. Next in the translation, we use the NRSV, the text says, Jesus is moved with pity. The NIV translators use “filled with compassion” and the New Jerusalem bible says “feeling sorry for him” the root of the Greek word used actually means “to be angry”. What the original text tries to identify in Jesus is a profound intense emotional response. A reaction that causes someone to leap into action on behalf of others. Jesus does more than have pity on the man. His compassion compels him to reach across the boundary of disease to touch an untouchable, violating Jewish law, and in the process making himself an untouchable—ritually unclean. Instead of confirming the man’s exclusion by shunning him, Jesus reaches out and draws him in. He shatters the traditional boundaries of purity and in the process rewrites the book on the nature of God’s beloved community. [i]
This story helps reveals who Jesus is. And through the witness of Jesus we are better able to understand God. God is revealed [in the words of Kelly Fryer[ii]] as the one who is on a mission to love and bless and save the whole world. God loves and cares about us. God loves and cares about our congregations . . . and our synods . . . and our seminaries . . . and our denomination. But God doesn’t call us together to be the church for our own sake. God’s eyes are fixed on the world! God loves the world. God loved it enough to send Jesus. God created it! And it is a good, good world. But it is broken. And God will not stop until it is whole again. When the leper says, “If you choose you can make me clean”. Jesus reaches out, touches him, looks him straight in the eye and says, “I do choose!”
And do you know that you and I are invited to be a part of this? Kelly Fryer writes,
God is on this amazing mission to love and bless and save the world. And God calls me—and you—to be part of that adventure. I know it sounds weird, but for some reason, God wants our help. God loves us! And God wants our lives to make a difference. God wants our lives to mean something. So we have been hired for the job—to be part of what God is up to in the world, to witness and serve and love and give ourselves away. We are God’s partners in mission. That is our job, and God wants to put us to work. [iii]
So we are called to be part of God’s mission. I think a good way to start this job is to be honest and admit to God and ourselves those who we have labelled as the unclean. Jesus is recorded as commanding us to love our neighbors and when asked who is our neighbor, he responds by saying your neighbor is the one for whom you have the deepest prejudice.
Who is it in our current context that we have the deepest prejudice for? Who have we labelled as untouchable? Is it those who require social assistance; do we label them lazy? Is it those who suffer mental illness; do we label them crazy? Is it those with a sexual attraction different from ours; do we label them an abomination? Is it the homeless, the old, the young, the Muslim, the Jew? Who is it that you will not touch? Honestly exam and learn from that.
We learn from this story that there is no one that Jesus will not touch. Jesus chooses to touch and heal because to Jesus each one of God’s children matters. Each one of us is a beloved and beautiful child of God. Each one of us is unique and precious. The good news of this story is that you matter to God. No matter who you are, no matter what you have done or left undone, when you say to Jesus, “If you choose you can make me clean”. Jesus, reaches out across all boundaries, touches you and says, “I do choose!”