Epiphany 6B Mark 1:40-45
Today's sermon grows out of the Old Testament lesson about Namaan the Syrian who had leprosy. In Namaan's encounter with the prophet Elisha, Namaan was healed by God of his leprosy after he washed in the Jordan River seven times. In the gospel lesson for today, we hear of Jesus healing the leper. These two stories are the basis of the sermon for today.
All of us human beings wrestle with our diseases. We ponder the mysterious causes and miraculous cures of diseases, especially diseases which may be part of our personal lives.
Disease is part of every single person's life on the planet Earth, and disease is also part of every single person seated in this sanctuary today.
As human beings, we are keenly aware of our genetic predispostion to certain diseases. If our father died of a heart attack or a series of strokes, we are aware that we may have a genetic dispostion to heart problems. If our mother died of cancer, we are fearful that we may have a genetic dispositon to that insideous disease.
As human beings, we are also aware of the specific diseases of our generation in history. Every century and every decade and every culture has particular diseases that people fear more than other diseases.
For example, the worst time in the history of the human race was the fourteenth
century. It was the bubonic plague. One out of four people on this earth died in that century – one out of four of the population. – 60 million people – 25 per cent of the population were wiped out in the fourteenth century due to the bubonic plague.. That was the worst century of human history.
And since then it has been the yellow fever, malaria, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and the list goes on and on..
Every generation has its own set of diseases that it fears. Much more recently, in my childhood, it was polio – back in the 50’s. Almost all of us who are adults here remember those haunting images of paralyzed children in their wheel chairs. We remember the March of Dimes, Sister Kenny, and the final breakthrough of the Salk vaccine,.with a sigh of relief. The fears of polio have now subsided, except the lingering scars. There are people in our congregation who walk around with us, people who have been crippled by polio.
But the 1950s passed and then came the 1960s, 70’s and 80’s. There was a new generation of people and new diseases to fear. No longer was it malaria. No longer was it polio. No longer was it diphtheria. It was cancer and heart attacks.
Cancer was and still is highly publicized. One of the astronauts said that he would rather die in a space capsule rather than of cancer. For him, cancer is so much more insidious and therefore he is so much more afraid of it. There are still so many of our friends who are living and dying with cancer. There are still so many of our church members who are fighting cancer and receiving chemo therapy and raditation treatments.
Today, people of our generation are also more aware of and afraid of heart attacks. There is a growing awareness of the pressures that we modern human beings live under. Our hearts often do not survive under the pressure cooker environment of the modern rat race. so many, many of our friends are having trouble with their hearts. Of course, we Americans eat way too much fatty food and this contributes to our coronary problems.
That was 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, but then it was quickly the 1990s. There is a new generation of people and a new generation of diseases. The name of the disease is AIDS, and now we find that recently in Seattle, 400 people have died of AIDS and that within four years, there will be 4,000 people who are going to die of AIDS in the Seattle area. It is growing in epidemic proportions and if you talk to young people today, they will talk to you about the disease that they fear, and it is the fear of AIDS.
The World Health Organiation tells us that 38,000,000 people are infected with the HIV virus today, and that AIDs is spreading in Japan, China and Asia. AIDS is no longer called an epidemic but a pandemic.
That was yesterday. Today, in the twenty-first century, the newest disease on the horizon is the avian flu. We are being warned that millions of people could die of bird flu, even with the advent of modern medicines and modern vaccines. We are told that there are not nearly enough vaccinines. We are being warned that the inevitable avian flu epidemic could be worse than the AIDS epidemic and is even a possible threat to civilization as we know it.
In other words, we as humans share a common humanity in that all of us are afraid of diseases. We are uneasy about our genetic predispositon to diseases and also afraid of the diseases of our particular cultural and decade.
The disease that people were afraid of in the first century was not malaria, not diphtheria, and not scarlet fever. It was not heart attacks, not cancer nor AIDS. The disease that created the greatest fear in the first century was leprosy. People were afraid of leprosy like our culture is afraid of cancer, heart attacks, AIDS and the avian flu. .
And for good reason. If and when you contacted leprosy – a very contagious disease – and it was very difficult to get rid of. You were separated from the rest of society. Separated from you husband, your wife, your children. You were segregated from everyone. That would have been awful.
You also had to dress in old rags so others could see you and to avoid your breath. You would get rid of the nice clothing that you would normally wear. You had to walk around in drab clothing, old rags, torn in front and you covered up your mouth (like this) so nobody would be contaminated by your breathing.
If you came to the synagogue for worship, there was a special room for you out there that was six by six by ten. There were little horizontal bars that you could peek through into the sanctuary so that you could see what was going on.
Lepers were gathered off in colonies by the side of the road in isolated groves. They were call “untouchable”. If a leper touched the garment of another person, that garment had to be burned. If a leper came into your house, that house had to be strictly cleaned.
And as they walked through the streets, the lepers would cry out, “Unclean. Unclean,” which was another way of saying, “Don’t touch me.” “Stay away from me.” People could get no closer than six feet on the upwind and eight feet on the down wind. Lepers were to be avoided.
As a foot note, it should be said that the leprosy that we think of today was not the leprosy of Biblical times. When you and I think of leprosy, we think of Hansen’s Disease, a virus discovered by Dr. Hansen in 1871. It is characterized by paralysis, the rotting of fingers and toes, a gradual disintegration of the fingers and toes, and limbs, hollowing of the face. It takes nineteen to thirty years to die and waste away from this disease. Hansen’s Disease is a very horrible nauseating disease and we have all seen gruesome pictures of it. It was rampant in Europe in the sixth and seventh centuries and again in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
For many Biblical scholars, the leprosy the Bible describes according is not primarily Hansen’s Disease, but rather Biblical leprosy was perhaps something similar to vitaligo or psoriasis. It was a skin disease. Today, it would be treated by a dermatologist. It is described in great detail in Leviticus 13 and 14 which doesn’t describe Hansen’s Disease at all. Biblical leprosy, something similar to vitaligo, is characterized with large white spots on the skin. The hair in the center of that white spot turns white. If you become sufficiently infected, it becomes raw pieces of skin. It can become very ugly, very painful. It is very difficult to get rid of as it becomes raw.
For the early Jews, leprosy was the most fearsome of diseases. Social ostracism was strong. Lepers would come down the street saying, “Unclean.” “Unclean.” “Unclean.”
Well, such a leper came to Jesus of Nazareth. A person can visualize the crowd as the leper came with rags over his mouth saying, “Unclean.” “Unclean.” The crowd saying, “get away, get away from us ”, “don’t you know your place”, “get away, get away”.
Well, one particular leper approached Jesus and the crowd scattered. And this leper came up to Jesus, and he knelt before him beseeching. - a continuous plea, begging him and saying, “Lord, if you will, if you will, you can make me clean.”
I guarantee you, sometime in your lifetime, you and I will come before God and beg for healing. We will beg for ourselves or our loved ones. Just like the leper. Your prayer, sometime in your life, will be: "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean of this disease." Yes, we will take turns praying the leper's prayer.
Jesus looked on the man with pity. When you and I get sick and come begging before God, the Lord God will look on us with pity.
And Jesus did what he wasn’t supposed to do. He reached over and touched – touched the leper. Yes, Jesus touched the untouchable. And Jesus touches our lives as well.
Jesus said to the leper, “I will heal you. Be clean.” And the man was cleansed. We too will experence God's healing during our lives.
Jesus told the man to go to the temple and there the priest would give him a certificate of health, thereby declaring him cured in accordance with the Levitical Law. Jesus then charged him to go and tell NOBODY. Don’t you tell anybody – but the leper couldn’t contain himself and went and told everybody. He shouted to the mountaintops that he had been healed. He told everybody.
Now what does this miracle story have to do with you and me? What does this story have to do with cancer? And heart attacks? And AIDS? What does it have to do with our most fearsome diseases of our decade and century? We live in the twenty-first century, with the finest hospitals in the world at our doorsteps. Most of us have health insurance, with doctors and nurses and medicines available to us. What does this story about Jesus healing the leper have to do with us some two thousand years later who live in a scentifiic, medically properous era of history?
First, this story motivates Christians of every century to be involved with healing ministries, with ministries of wellness.
In the story for today about Jesus healing the leper, this is but one of ten consecutive healing stories at the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark. In the Gospel of Mark, chapters one and two, right at the beginning of the gospel, there are ten consecutive healing miracles of Jesus. The disciples were then sent out to be healing disciples. And ever since, the church that belongs to Jesus Christ has been involved with healing ministries. Christians imitate Jesus who was and is the divine healer.
Let me explain myself. Last week, my wife and I were down at the state capitol of Washington, there in Olympia, our state capitol. We visited our domed capitol building. There in the foyer of the capitol were two large statues, some twelve feet high. One on the left and the other on the right as you entered the capitol building.
On the left was a magnificent statue of Mother Joseph, who was a Roman Catholic Mother Superior in the territory of Washington in the 1850s. She traveled the roads of western Washington and she established numerous hospitals, homes for the aged, and orphanages. Her papa was a carpenter and his daughter was a "tom boy" who learned carpentar skills. She learned to the skills which eventually she would use to build hospitals, orphanages and homes for the infirmed elderly. There are numerous Catholic hospitals in Western Washington because of the legacy of Mother Joseph who was a follower of Jesus Christ, the healer. When I was sick and almost died of endocarditus six years ago, I spent a good deal of time in St. Francis Hospital and St. Joseph's hospitals. Both hospitals are the legacy of Mother Joseph and the Catholic Church.
On the right side of the hallway of the entry to our capitol building is a statue of Marcus Whitman. His statue looks like a statue of Davey Crocket, the pioneer wearing his leathers. The statue of Marcus Whitman has a Bible in his right hand and a medical satchel in his left. Dr. Whitman was a pioneer medical missionary to the territory of Washington in the 1840s. He was killed by Indians in 1846 and someone decided to build a college in his honor at Walla Walla, Washington. Here in Washington, we know Whitman College.
As you entered the state capitol, there in the entry hallway, are none other than statues of Sister Joseph and Dr. Marcus Whitman, both medical missionaries. Both were followers of Jesus, the healer.
I ask you some questions.
How many Roman Catholic hospitals are there in the world? Not Protestant hospitals but just Roman Catholic hospitals. 5,500. Yes, 5,500.
How many Roman Catholic Homes for the Aged are there? Yes, 27,000.
How many Catholic leprosariums are there? Do any other groups build leprosariums to care to the lepers of the world? Lepers who suffer from the serious and devastating effects of Hansen's disease. There 798 Catholic leprosariums in the world! Why so many? Because so many people followed the example of Jesus caring for and healing lepers. Remember it: 798 leprosariams in our modern world today.
In our congregation, we have parish nurses. Doctors and nurses and other medical professionals are part of our parish life as they are part of congregations throughout the earth. We pray for the sick every Sunday during our prayes for the congregation and we have healing services.
The first ten stories in the Gospel of Mark are healing stories and those stories inspire Christians of every century and culture to be part of healing communities.
This story about Jesus healing the leper is his invitation for his disciples of all centuries to be involved in healing of diseases.
What else do we learn from this story from two thousand years ago?
The text says, "the leper came up to Jesus, fell on his knees, and begged, 'Lord, if you will, you can make me clean." I guarantee you, that will be the prayer of every single person here in this room sometime during our life here on earth. No one will be exempt. Each and every one of us will face serious illness. Each and every one of us will go to our doctors, nurses and hospitals and will use the best of medical resoruces. And each and every one of us will deeply pray and beg, "Jesus, if you will, you have the power to heal. My son, my daughter, my mom, my dad, my friend. Me. Please Lord, use your powers to make the medical treatments that I am receiving effective. In your name. Amen." Yes, we will all say that prayer with similar words. We will beg for healing, that the Lord God will bless the medical procedures we are receiving.
It is as if this beggar, this leper, this ostracized person, who thought that his disease was caused by his sin, or sin of his family, this leper had the right to come to God and beg, “Jesus, if you will, make me whole. Heal me.”
And we have the same right as the leper. That is, all of us have that right to go before our Heavenly Father, before our Father’s throne, and pray deeply to him, “God, if you will, please make me clean. I ask you. I beg of you.”
Focus on the word, “beseeching” or “begging.”
Many people ask the question, “Do I have the right to say, God, if it’s your will, do according to me as your will?” The leper went farther than that. He was very specific, pleading, “God, please heal me.” The leper did not say, “Lord, heal me or I won’t believe in you.” The leper didn’t say, “Lord, heal me or I am going to be angry with you the rest of my life.” The leper didn’t say, “Lord, I want my way, and if I don’t get my way I am going to be like a child throwing a tantrum.” No – just the opposite.
The leper was very humble and he came before Jesus and he said, “Please.” And we too have the same right as children of the Heavenly Father, always knowing that ultimately, we do not understand the mystery of God’s ways for us, knowing that the ways of God are far beyond our comprehension. Even so, we come before God, and say, “God, please heal me or my friend or my family member.
God wants us to do that, to come to the Lord in prayer for healing.
What else do we hear in this text? At the very heart of the story for today, the Bible says “Jesus moved with PITY.” God, when the Lord sees us in our diseases, whether it be cancer, or heart attacks or AIDS, Our God is moved with pity. And although the culture may not be moved with pity, our God is always moved with pity, for ours is a God of healing and compassion. The Lord does not like disease in any form. Jesus is telling us that our God, the Lord, is a God of compassion and healing.
A phrase that grabs our imagination in the gospel story for today is “moved with pity.”
Deep down inside, when cancer, or heart attacks or AIDS, or any equivalent disease strikes, people often feel that God is punishing them. People think, “God is punishing our family.” Or “Why is God picking on us?” Or “God has deserted us.” Or “there is no God at all.”
But it’s just the opposite. In Jesus of Nazareth, we heard the words, “moved with pity.” God has not been moved by punishment, moved with desertion, moved with his non-existence. When God sees us with our diseases, God is always moved with pity. Ours is a God of mercy and healing.
It was never the will of God that we should suffer from diseases.
There is not one passage in the New Testament where it says that Jesus caused an illness. Not one passage.
In fact, it is just opposite. One time John the Baptist wanted to know if Jesus was really the Messiah, and Jesus said to him, “Well, John the Baptist, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, help and healing are in me.”
There is not one passage where it says that Jesus caused illnesses – it is just the opposite.
I will give you a thousand dollars if you can find one story in the New Testament where Jesus caused disease. But I won't need to give you a thousand dollars because you can't find a story.
The story of Jesus is the story of healing diseases, not causing diseases as punishment.
Stories about God causing disease are found in the Old Testament and Koran. That is why it is called the OLD Testament because it often has old ideas about God such as God causing illness and leprosy. Think of the story of Miriam in the Old Testament, Miriam the sister of Moses. As you that story, it is clear that God caused her leprosy, that God punished her by giving her leprosy. This is an Old Testament story, not a story from the life of Jesus.
When I got endocarditus six years ago, it wasn't God who gave me endocarditus in order to punish me for sins. Rather, it was God who gave me the hospitals, doctors and drugs to work for my health.
Some of you still live in the Old Testament, with the Old Testament view of illness, that the Lord God causes illness. Some of you refuse to let go of your Old Testament world view. You prefer the world of the Old Testament than than the heart, mind and actions of Jesus, the Son of God.
What causes disease in this world? Evil? The power of evil causes diseases. AND our own stupidity. If I go and work eighty hours a week and have a heart attack, that’s my own stupidity. If I go and spread pesticides over my orchard and I get cancer, that’s my own stupidity. If I work with asbestos, that is my own stupidity. There are diseases caused by the power of evil in this world, or our own stupidity.
A phrase of the gospel lesson that grabs our imagination is “moved with pity.” Jesus was not moved by punishment. Jesus is telling us that our God, the Lord, is a God of compassion, pity and healing.
What else do we hear in this gospel story for today? The story continues, "And Jesus touched him." Jesus touched the untouchable. Unheard of! Impossible! No way, Hose! You don't touch someone with leprosy and you don't touch someone with AIDS. Jesus did. Jesus reached across the cultural boundaries of his day and touched the man with leprosy.
I would like to talk about touching the untouchable – touching the cancer patient and touching the AIDS patient. Studies tell us that as person is dying of cancer, people gradually, as the disease progresses, do not want to touch the cancer patient. So there are studies of cancer patients who are in this hospital room, four doors away from the nurses’ station, and how the person gradually deteriorates from the disease, the nurses go into that room less and less and less – resistant and subconsciously afraid. Afraid of contamination? And when the nurses do come out, they often unconsciously wash their hands over and over and over again. Sociological studies tell us that when a person is in this situation and dying of cancer, they desperately need, more than anything else at that time, to be touched, hugged, kissed, embraced. It s what a dying person needs at that time
Within the life of our congregation, Don Binder is at home dying of cancer and he’s got two months to live, and so there is a group from our congregation going over there every day. From eight o’clock in the morning to one o’clock is one shift, and from one o’clock in the afternoon to six o’clock is a second shift. They’re there, people from our church helping Don every day - holding him, touching him, embracing Don. That’s the medicine that Don needs at this moment, to be touched. It’s what Jesus did.
Another example of crossing the boundaries and touching the untouchables has to do with people who are living and dying with AIDS. The disease called AIDS is for many, the new leprosy in modern America. What has become the untouchable of disease around the globe? AIDS.
I recall a conversation with Oscar Ringdahl when he was caring for his wife in an Alzheimer's unit. One day, Oscar and I were leaning against the wall and watching a worker wax and shine the floors with a big floor shining machine. After a few moments of silence, Oscar said, "You can pay someone to wax and shine the floors but you cannot pay anyone to have a heart filled with love. To love, touch and care for my Cora."
A heart filled with the love of Christ touches persons who are sick and dying.
Mother Teresa became famous for her gentle touch of the beggars dying in the gutters of the streets of Calcutta.
Jesus touched the leper.
What else do we learn from this story?
Jesus told this leper not to go tell anybody about this healing. Right? DON’T TELL ANYBODY. But what did he do? The healed leper went and told everybody that the Lord had healed him of hs leprosy.
We often do the same. When we have lived through a disease, we often tell people that we receive good medical care and the treatments worked and that God healed me/us. That is the way it was with my life when I was so sick and almost died. I told folks how our parish nurse helped me, the doctors, the hospitals, the drugs and that God didn't want me yet and healed me and let me live a few more years on this earth. Thanks be to God. After a recovery for certain illness, we often praise God for giving us healing and prolonged life. We give both our doctors and our Lord God credit and appreciation for our healing. We tell others that God has really blessed us with the healing that we received.
As the years have gone by, I also now realize that some of the finest testimonies I have ever heard are not by people who have experienced healing but by people who have not. From my good friends who died of cancer such as Ray Osterloh, Bert and Nancy Welliver, and Virginia Tervo. As they died, these people all gave such powerful testimonies of how the Lord God had blessed them, was good to them. In other words, the Lord God had healed their hearts and spirits but not their physical bodies. Their testimonies were particularly powerful.
I remember one conversation with Ray Osterloh as he was dying in Providence Hospital, a hospital that Mother Joseph had founded more than a hundred years ago. I remember Ray saying from his hospital bed, "Ed, tell them." "What shall I tell them Ray?" "About Jesus. Tell them about Jesus and his gift of forgiveness and eternal life. That Jesus had been with me every day of my life and now for all eternity. Ed, tell them about Jesus."
The most powerful testimonies that I have heard were from people who were slowly dying .of a disease and STILL loved God.
I ask you the question, Why? Why is it that Jesus told the leper not to go and tell anybody? I think that one explanation is this: It is that Jesus didn’t want to be known as a walking hospital, and thereby having people following him for the wrong reasons. He knew that anybody would follow him temporarily if he were a bread king - if they were starving. He knew that anybody would temporarily follow a healer - while they were sick. And Jesus didn’t want to have people temporarily following him for the wrong reasons. That is - we don’t know if this leper actually became a disciple of Jesus. He was healed by Jesus, but that doesn’t mean that he actually became a follower of Jesus. Do you remember the one time Jesus healed the ten lepers? How many of them came back to say “Thank you”? One. Did the other nine disciples come back and say “Thank you”? Because they were healed, did that mean they became disciples of Jesus? No. We know very well that healings do not guarantee discipleship. The healing of a leper’s skin is no guarantee that God has healed the leper’s heart.
Now where were all of those countless people that Jesus healed earlier during his lifetime when he was betrayed, brought to trial and finally crucified? Where were all those people Jesus healed on Good Friday? Were all those people Jesus healed at the foot of the cross? No, only a few women were there and some of them may have been healed.
Jesus is seeking a deeper healing than the healing of the skin. Jesus wants to heal the heart. He wants to make us disciples. Many people are willing to have their skin transformed without their hearts being transformed. For example, a dermatologist once observed that his patients urgently wanted medicine that could put their skin to cure but they didn’t want to change their diet or way of life. They didn’t want to have their diet or life style changed which was a cause of many of their problems. What they wanted was their symptoms cured, not the causes. And so it is with many people with Jesus of Nazareth. They want the symptoms of their diseases treated, not the causes. They want their skins healed, but not their hearts. And Jesus primarily comes to heal the heart, so our heart loves God and walks in the way of Jesus.
One time a man had leprosy and leprosy was an ugly disease. That culture said that either he had sinned or his parents had sinned and such sins caused his leprosy. The leper was ostracized and the people knew that he was getting what he deserved. This leper came to Jesus because he knew the heart of God was in Jesus. And the leper said, “Jesus, I beg you, if you will, please make me clean.” And Jesus had pity on the man, reached over and touched the man. The crowd gasped. Jesus touched the man and healed him. He healed the leper’s heart as well and that leper told everyone about the healing powers of God and Jesus.
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