6th Sunday of Epiphany Mark 1 : 40 - 45
Now, I admit it, I have expressed a little skeptical of first century afflictions which, in Bible times, could only be explained as “demons,” but I, wholeheartedly, believe in the ministry of healing!
The story is told of an unusual event, witnessed by a number of people, some years ago… Everyone in a hospital was awaiting a visit from Pope John Paul II. A doctor with a handful of paperwork took a seat in a wheelchair and busied himself with his notes. The Pope swept in and blessed the doctor, who immediately stood up and walked forward to greet the Pontiff. And the devout, in the Pope’s entourage, crossed themselves and rolled their eyes upward…
The story of healing a leper is clearly relayed and plainly explained by Mark. A dis-eased man, considered to be “untouchable” in first century Palestine, approaches Jesus with the confidence that Jesus is able to cleanse him. Jesus touches the man, which is somewhat of
surprise, since there were strict rules against contact with lepers in those days. Then, He pronounces the man clean and orders him to do two things: first, be quiet about it and then, show himself to a priest so that he can return to full membership in the community.
Leprosy is a distant, but deadly disease for us moderns, but not so for the people of Jesus’ time. It was quite common, contagious in those days, an outbreak of the skin, and having it meant that you broke the Purity Code. The book of Leviticus spends a full two chapters teaching priests how to diagnose skin diseases and how to perform rites of purification so the afflicted may, once again, not only return to worship but reenter society, as well. If one was so unfortunate as to contract the dread skin disease, he/she was immediately shunned and cast aside. Lepers were kept at a distance, even made to wear a bell or, at very least, were required to announce to others in the area that they were approaching so the healthy could avoid them. Consequently, lepers were barred from involvement with any except their own.
It was a brave and extraordinary thing for the leper to call out to Jesus, to assert that Jesus may be able to make him clean and therefore, once again, enable him to become a part of the community. Mark wants us to remember the healing which took place was more than a just a miracle. Mark’s Jesus is not simply magical or mysterious but, instead, has power over everything in nature. The Jesus Mark wants us to know is always looking to restore social wholeness denied to any who come in contact with Him.
And such physical healing is only a small part of this story. Mark’s Jesus reminds us that true healing takes place when we move beyond the physical and personal, into mending any race, opportunity, or class barriers… and all economic, political or social boundaries. Mark’s Jesus envisions a whole, new world, not only the transformation of individual ills.
The Hebrew word for healing is shalem, which means “to be made whole or made complete again.” The healing of the leper is not merely a personal cleansing. Jesus is concerned with restoring him to wholeness. He instructs the healed man to go to the priests to be “declared” clean, so that he can return to community life as a fully restored participant.
Again, the healing of a leper is a multi-layered healing: physical, spiritual, emotional and communal. The human spirit of the one afflicted is liberated from bondage and set free in order that the man truly live again. Jesus' profound purpose was not just to offer cures for leprosy or other ailments, but to heal the whole of humanity, as individuals and as a society.
So, in some respect, we are all lepers. We all know what it means to stand at the gates, to view life from the outside looking in. Without community, we are, simply, avoided and/or deliberately ostracized. We isolate and are disengaged, dis-eased, alienated and separated.
We might have had an illness that distances us from others (or others from us), such as cancer where, quite often, people are intimidated by the side-effects of treatment or just afraid they might say or do something silly, embarrassing, or offensive… Or, perhaps we have gone through a life experience that puts us out of the circle of belonging; living with chronic pain or discovering we are single in a community of couples, losing a job, having a child whose needs are special, not being able to publicly speak or read as well as others, having to survive a profound disappointment in love or endure the profound emptiness of loss
To be a leper is, simply, knowing you are in need of the power and healing light of love in your life. To be a leper is knowing your life stands a chance of survival only if you are open to the grace of God and the mercy of others. To be a leper is, also, to be bold enough to reach toward restoration and to get help with wholeness; realizing that your own healing ability is not enough – you’ve got to reach out to friends, to family, practitioners and others.
On this particular Sunday, now that we have elected new officers to church leadership and celebrated the commitment of the entire membership at the Annual Meeting, I wonder if this healing is not our primary calling: to be part of the life-liberating healing of all humanity and to become agents in lovingly restoring people to wholeness. Whether we can affect a transformation of individuals, rekindle hope within neighborhoods, or make a significant impact on the society as a whole… I believe, the church is called to be a healing community, a body of lepers: who have experienced God’s healing love – first hand – and are willing to share it – not ONLY within the walls of our fellowship, but beyond it, into the world, as well.
Within his popular textbook, The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb, Eric Law describes what it means to be a healing community in the world. And I have included an excerpt of his thesis on the back of the announcement insert which reminds us all about the radically “inclusive” nature of God’s love. “Every human person has worth as a special and unique creation made in God’s image…” For me, it is an admonition for the humiliation of those in power and an invitation to those without it. It highlights the “including” nature of God, as well as our desire as a community to restore a spirit of welcome to the entire Body of Christ.
We believe that the Body has suffered from the sin of exclusivity and that many persons: those in wheel chairs, the underemployed, the dis-orderly, people of different orientations, faiths, national origins or skin color, and all others who have felt shut out of a Gospel that has “claimed” wholeness and hospitality, but has been practiced as separation and denial.
To be a healing community means we know that it is God’s grace that liberates us all and that makes for restoration. And, to draw upon that grace, we have to recognize that love – and ONLY love – is all-powerful. St. Paul reminds us: without love, we are nothing. But, with love, we are ourselves (or can be) "Wounded Healers" – capable of loving God, as well as loving others without reserve; capable of continuing the healing ministry of Jesus who uniquely understood the incredible strength and indisputable value of unconditional love.
Medical doctor Bernie Siegel talks about this kind of wholeness in his inspirational book: Love, Medicine and Miracles. He writes, "I am completely convinced that unconditional love is the most powerful stimulant of the body. If I told my patients to raise the level of immune globulin or "killer" T-cells in their blood, no one would know how to do something as complex as that. But, if I can teach them to love themselves and others more fully, then big changes happen automatically. The unscientific (but undeniable) truth is: love heals!”
I believe in a ministry of healing. In these tough and exceedingly tenuous times, let us all commit to be a healing community – for ourselves, for each other, and for the good of the world – because love heals! I hope we can all recognize the strength and encouragement offered and transmitted in each one of our prayers. And, I hope we will begin or continue to practice such healing arts in Astoria: caring for one another, helping those who are weak (or in any kind of need) with loving kindness, and treating all others with dignity and respect.
I pray, too, that we will learn the lesson of the leper: that healing must occur on all levels to create real and genuine wholeness and restoration. We cannot be content with our own miraculous healing, but must go out to tell others and to heal what is broken in our world.
The leper went back home again from his healing and he could not be contained. He was beside himself with happiness. Instead of sackcloth and ashes, he put on shoes and went out dancing. Like the rains and fog of recent weeks have turned into sun which surprised us today; his weeping was over as soon as the dark night had passed. Then, he was able to rise with joy the very next, bright and hope-filled morning. And... he went out skipping and dancing in his neighborhood: grateful to be whole, grateful to be healed, happy to be alive and ecstatic to again become: welcome at synagogue, able to shop in the marketplace, to speak in polite company, engage with others and participate/contribute in the community.
Yes, in some sense, we are all lepers. And despite social norms, purity laws and personal biases to the contrary, we are surrounded by a world of lepers. Let us each strive to look for God’s healing love for ourselves and to bring God’s healing love to our family, friends, and neighbors; any whose deepest desire is to be transformed: for some esteem to return, for broad acceptance again, to rejoin the mainstream, and be restored to wholeness. Amen.