Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Leper's Prayer: Sermon on Mark 1:40-45

A leper* came to him begging him, and kneeling* he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity,* Jesus* stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy* left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus* could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. ~Mark 1:40-45

There are some things we need to get clear about lepers and leprosy if we’re going to talk about this passage. The term “leprosy” is used in scripture to describe a number of skin conditions, not just Hanson’s disease. But one thing unites all the conditions lumped under this name: they rendered a person ritually unclean, and as long as that person was afflicted, it put him outside the bounds of family, of friendships, of employment or labor, outside the bounds of society. To be a leper was to be an outcast, to be literally untouchable (for fear of transmitting both the disease and the ritual uncleanness). To be a leper was to be at the very bottom rung of the social ladder—in fact, lower than the bottom. Off the social ladder. Crawling around in the dirt beneath the social ladder, dependent on the pity of those who still had some kind of foothold for the barest essentials to sustain life. Here’s how outcast lepers were: they were required by the laws in Leviticus to act as a kind of public sign of their own pathetic condition. Here’s what it says:

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. Leviticus 13:45-46

We can’t exaggerate how bad it was. Exaggeration is not an option. It was that bad.

And there are some things we need to get clear about what ritual uncleanness means. It means, you cannot participate in the rituals of the community. It means, you cannot go into the Temple to worship or to ask the priests to offer sacrifices on your behalf. It means, you can neither participate in joyful festivals nor hope to have yourself cleansed of sinful behavior. If you are a leper, then you have no way to participate in the covenant community of God’s people. If you are a leper, your outcast state extends beyond people. You are cast out even from the presence of God.

And there are some things we should get clear about what’s going on in the gospel story at this point. It is still early in Mark’s gospel. Jesus is newly baptized and tested in the desert, his disciples are newly called, his message of Good News is newly preached, and the healings have just begun. A few people here and there have been healed, leading to crowds of people following Jesus, seeking him out and clamoring for their own cures.

And there are some things we should get clear about just what it is that Jesus is doing. There is a tension in the story so far between words and deeds. Over and over we hear of Jesus’ teaching, his authority. We hear from his own mouth, “Repent and believe the Good News.” And, “I’m going out to preach. That’s what I came to do.” When Jesus speaks, he emphasizes the importance of his words. But then there are the miracles. Casting out demons. Curing fevers and diseases, by the hundreds. For Jesus, word and deed are inextricably woven together… the words convince people of his authority, the deeds seal the deal. It’s both-and.

Now… what about this story? What about this leper? A leper comes to Jesus and again, both words and deeds are significant. The leper comes begging. The leper comes on his knees. His body language, his deeds, speak volumes. He is coming before the one he knows bears some kind of amazing power or gift for healing. When he speaks, his words confirm what he knows. He says, simply: “If you choose, you can make me clean.”

Now, hold on just a minute… I wish I could do one of those sound effects like a needle screeching off a record. Didn’t we just read in Leviticus that the proper words for a leper to say were, “Unclean, unclean”? This leper has broken the law. This leper has ignored the commandments of Holy Scripture. This leper has sensed somewhere in him that Jesus might be someone with whom he can get away with this behavior.

“If you choose, you can make me clean.” Well, of course, we know what Jesus will choose. Of course, Jesus will choose to make the man clean. Doesn’t God always answer our prayers for healing in the affirmative?

Here’s where this story, a vignette from Jesus’ life almost 2000 years old, comes screeching into the reality of our lives, our suffering, our need for healing. Here’s the hard truth: sometimes we experience healing, and we give God the glory. And sometimes we don’t experience healing, and we wonder why that is. And we don’t exactly blame God… well, maybe we do. Job did. It is a fairly natural jump to make, that if I am suffering, it may be because God wants me to suffer. I know I’ve made that leap myself. If Jesus has the amazing power and gift for healing, why don’t we all benefit from it? Is God selective about who will be healed? Is healing a kind of litmus test of our goodness? Or is it we who are selective about how we understand the work of God in the world? How should we pray? What should we pray for?

There are some things we should get clear. I believe it is the consistent witness of scripture that God wills good things for all of us. Life, and life abundant. Health. Wholeness. But, of course, since not all of us have that experience, since our pews and our homes and our neighborhoods are filled with folks who are suffering… whether from a physical ailment, or from an emotional one, whether from the devastating effects of the current economic crisis, or from the equally devastating effects of our own poor choices. God wills what is good for us. But what is good for us can be elusive.

This week I came across this list of paradoxes about suffering. Listen, and see if they make sense to you.

Suffering is NOT God's desire for us, nor a gift from God. The paradox is that suffering occurs in the process of this thing we call life.

Suffering is NOT given in order to teach us something. The paradox is that we can learn from suffering, and grow.

Suffering is NOT given to punish us. The paradox is that suffering sometimes comes as the result of poor choices we make.

Suffering is NOT given to teach others something. The paradox is that through suffering we can learn about faith, character, endurance, hope as well as weakness, struggle, humility.

Suffering does NOT occur because one's faith is weak. The paradox is that our faith may be strengthened by the journey through suffering.

God does NOT DEPEND on human suffering to achieve divine purposes. The paradox is that, sometimes, God's purposes are fulfilled through suffering.

Suffering is NOT always to be avoided at all costs. The paradox is that people sometimes choose suffering.

Suffering can sometimes destroy us. The paradox is that it can add meaning to our lives. [1]

Suffering. Not God’s will. But still a part of God’s world. That’s where we have to start, and that’s where we have to end. But what about our story? What about our leper?

“If you choose, you can make me clean.” The words the leper speaks to Jesus are a kind of model prayer. They come from a position of humility… the leper shows as well as tells this, this kneeling, begging leper. And so should all our prayers. We need to come to prayer with the knowledge that, in effect, we have no bargaining chips. There is nothing we can give to God that does not already belong to God. We have nothing with which to persuade God to give us what we want. We come to prayer empty, less than empty, with nothing but our deep longing.

And, even in this position of humility, the leper asks clearly for what he wants. He says, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Notice what he’s asking for: it’s easy to miss it. Folded into what he wants is healing from his skin condition, from his leprosy. But the way he expresses it—“If you choose, you can make me clean”—he is asking for restoration to the community, to family, to friends, to the worshipping congregation. By implication, he is asking for healing. But in actuality, he is asking not to be an outcast any longer.

We need to get some things clear about Jesus’ reaction, about what Jesus says and does, and even what Jesus feels. Our translation says, “Moved with pity.” But there is an equally valid reading that says, “Moved with anger.” Jesus is angry. Jesus, when confronted with someone whom the law has made an outcast, who is ostracized from home and family, from work and friendships, from the very presence of God… Jesus is angry. And Jesus’ spoken response is “I do choose.” God chooses, not only healing, but restoration to community. God chooses that there should be no outcasts.

And another thing we need to get clear: another issue of translation of this ancient text. Our version reads, “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” Dayenu, our Jewish friends sing each year at Passover, recounting one after another the astounding and mighty acts of God. Dayenu. “It would have been enough,” they sing. That’s how I feel about this moment in the story. It would have been enough if Jesus had touched the man… now Jesus is the law-breaker, ignoring the commands of Leviticus to impart healing to an outcast. It would have been enough. But the Greek word behind “touched,” really means so much more than that. It means “He fastened himself to him.” “He adhered to him.” “He clung to him.” Jesus doesn’t just give this man a little brush with his hand. He embraces him. And, as a wonderful colleague pointed out to me this week, it turns out Jesus’ cleanness, Jesus’ healing is far more contagious than the leper’s disease.

There are some things we need to get clear in our own minds, thing about outcasts and lepers. Who are our outcasts? Who do we not fully welcome into our community? Who do we look at and say, “The laws of Leviticus” (or Romans or the State of New York or the Presbyterian Church) “deny you full humanity, deny you full equality under the law.” Where do we exclude where Jesus includes? Where do we push away those to whom Jesus might well fasten himself, cling to? Who do we need to fully restore to community?

One more thing to get clear: the work of Jesus does not end with his healing. Jesus heals the leper, makes him clean again. But then he commissions the leper to do his part—to go to the priests, to give testimony to the inclusive healing of Jesus. The leper is commissioned to do his part, to give witness not just to his healing but to the astounding reversal that brings the outcasts home again, welcomes them in, restores them to community.

The healing of God does not end with our quietly rejoicing in it. It continues with our testimony, with our witness to the community that, whatever our state, whatever our condition, Jesus is in it with us. Jesus clings to us, embraces us. Jesus wills our healing, even when it is not apparent in the eyes of the world. God wills our welcome, even when, in the laws and statutes, we are outcasts. God calls us home, into community, into relationship, and that call persists through our unwillingness and the community’s unwillingness. God’s call persists, God’s healing embraces, God calls each and every one of us home. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[1] Canon Carl Siegel II


Rachel said...

(sometimes I really wish I were sitting in the pew, the needle scratching noise you must have made, I can almost hear it.)

Anonymous said...

And again I say amen.

Brought tears to my eyes. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for not signing above.

I will carry your words with me and they will rumble around within for a time.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for connecting the importance of our restoration into community, along with the commission including others through His love!

Peter said...

I found this by a google search. This really helped me understand the passage, as I'm fairly new. Am I to understand I randomly stumbled upon a Presbyterian minister from NY? I belong to a Pres. church in Albany! Thank you!

Magdalene6127 said...

Peter, yes you did. Here's my new blog: I'm glad you liked it!