February 12, 2012
“If you choose” by Rev. Stacy Swain
It is early in Jesus’ ministry but already he is causing quite a sensation. He is creating quite a stir. People are streaming in from the surrounding villages to see Jesus, some full of expectation, others full of skepticism. Some come with a bone deep need to be touched and healed, so painful is their alienation; but most come to take in the “show.”
New Testament scholar, Fred Craddock says that the crowd that surges around Jesus at this early stage of Jesus’ ministry is more of an audience than a congregation, more of a collection of the curious to be entertained than to disciples ready to participate in the mission of Jesus’ ministry.
And then as if on cue, a leper shows up. This leper is nameless, for this man’s identity has been erased by his illness. Leprosy is who he is. This bacterial skin disease that progresses slowly moving through the central nervous system and the skin tissue, twisting and distorting the body and face until, in its most extreme case, the person becomes unrecognizable. People in ancient times were terrified of leprosy not just for the physical suffering it caused, but because leprosy was also seen as an outward manifestation of a spiritual disease, the spreading corruption of sin.
I am reminded of how people with AIDS were seen in the early eighties. I was working at the Pine Street Inn, one of Boston’s largest shelters at the time when the first diagnoses of AIDS was made in the homeless community. We saw this sore covered, emaciated and twisted frame of the man and saw AIDS. And it scared us. I remember how we feared him. Not just the other homeless men and women staying at the shelter but us staff as well. I will never forget the image of him sitting by himself in the overly crowded lobby eating a plate of scrambled eggs at a table where no one else dared to sit.
We have come a long way in our understanding of HIV and for the most part our society has become more embracing of people with the disease — but not entirely. And I wonder who else are the lepers of today? Are they the depressed, the addicted, the poor, the homeless – those who we define not for who they are but for the condition they suffer. Or maybe they are the ones tucked out of sight at the Waban Health and Rehabilitation Center? I wonder.
But in the reading today, it is the leper, the one branded as “a corpse haunting the edges of the community he could no longer enter” comes to Jesus and says “If you choose, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40).
Now, what happens next is really interesting and unexpected, but is also easily lost in the translation of the text that we have. Our translation says that Jesus was “moved with pity,” but a textual note tells us that other ancient texts use the word anger, not pity here. “Jesus was moved with anger.”
Throughout Jesus ministry he will encounter people in need and will be moved with compassion, but this is clearly not such an encounter. Here the leper’s statement “If you choose, you can make me clean” engenders not compassion but anger. Why? And then after Jesus does heal the man, the text says he sternly warned him and sent him away. These phrases, scholarship tells us, are more like ones Jesus uses when speaking to demons not newly healed converts.
What is going on here?
Well one thing, I hear in this encounter is a set up. Jesus is being set up, tempted to perform, to demonstrate his power. For the words of the leper are strikingly similar to those Satan spoke to Jesus just a few weeks ago during Jesus’ time of temptation in the wilderness.
Satan tempts by trying to get Jesus to prove himself, to use the grace that God has given him as a proof of his own power and importance. “Show us how great you really are Jesus by doing these remarkable things, like turning this stone into bread. “ “If you really are the Son of God it will be easy for you. Come on let’s see it,” this is the temptation the Satan speaks.
Have you ever felt the whisper of this tempter in you as well? Have you ever found yourself wanting and perhaps even needing, for so great is your suffering, to put Jesus to the test? Have you found yourself asking Jesus to prove that he is who we hope he will be? As if to say, “If you are the Son of God, than take this suffering from me.” Is there something in us that demands that our experience of Jesus be the testing ground for the authenticity of who he really is, a proofing ground for his Holy power?
I know this is a very fine line, because God does want to hear what is on our hearts. In just a few minutes we will offer up heart-felt prayers for ourselves and others that is good. But it is crucial to remember that the starting place of prayer is an honest offering up of what is on our hearts. Prayer is not a challenge to God to prove to us something of God’s self or will. A heart-felt prayer for healing is very different than a testing prayer that says, “if you are really a good and loving God then heal me or this person.”
So, faced with this temptation that Jesus walked away from in the wilderness, why does he engage it now? Why does he heal this leper?
I think it is because there is not just a temptation there but a human being – a human being that is suffering not just from physical pain but also from and perhaps even more troubling to Jesus, is his social isolation and alienation. Here is a human being, a child of God who others have deemed unclean and therefore cast out from community.
And so Jesus says “I do choose. Be made clean.” It was not really a choice after all, for the choice had already been made. It had been made in the beginning when the breath of God moved across the face of the deep and all that is was called into being, and blessed as good. And it was already made again when on that night the word became flesh and Jesus was born in that manger.
The crowd may be spectators to miracle, the significance they do not understand, the leper so angry and hurting for all he has suffered that he tempts Jesus, but all of that really does not matters.
What matters in this messy mix, is that Jesus is not distracted, sidelined or discouraged from who God has asked him of him. He is to be about helping people, as individuals and as community, to come to wholeness, and even more than that to undo the boundaries that keep some out in order to protect and maintain those that are on the inside.
For no doubt about it, individual lives are transformed by Jesus but I believe that what is at the heart of Jesus’ Messianic mission, at the heart of his life, death and resurrection is the transformation, the re- forming of how we are to be with each other and with God. Jesus is about corporate (as in all of us together) regeneration, not just personal healing.
For this reason, after Jesus heals the man Jesus sends him to the priests — for the priests were the ones who were charged with guarding the boundaries of community. With the swirl of chaos that living in Roman occupation brought, the priests were the ones that were charged to interpret and apply the holiness codes from the sacred texts of Leviticus that informed and governed the way that people were to live in order to keep chaos at bay and in order to preserve the sanctity of the people’s encounter with the holy. It was the holiness codes that stipulated that one with leprosy was to be put out for the chaos of his physical and spiritual condition was a threat to the balance and sanctity of the community.
We think of holiness codes as so outdated. Something interesting and to be thoughtfully considered, but surely not something that informs our lives now.
But I wonder. I wonder if this fear of chaos does not influence us still. For how comfortable are we with our own and each other’s suffering? Isn’t it hard it is to share our pain with each other? I wonder if there is still some of that residual thinking that somehow suffering it is a sign that we are flawed in some way. That there is something wrong with us. That we are unclean.
And so, to protect ourselves from the fear of being judged or excluded in some way, we keep silent. And in our silence we alienate ourselves all the more. And on the other side, how many of may know that another is hurting but we really don’t want to go there. For their pain scares us. We don’t really know what to say or what to do. And maybe we even have the sense that if we let ourselves get too close, their suffering will infect or contaminate us somehow. And so we keep our distance. Perhaps, a part of us thinks it really would be best if that person ate their scrambled eggs over there, at that table alone?
You know we read these ancient texts and after two thousand odd years of trying to live into the example of Jesus together, perhaps we have learned a thing or two, but in many ways the temptations and dangers remain.
It is easy to gather around Jesus because we think that maybe something spectacular will happen. Maybe all that these texts are saying is true and we show up because we may catch a glimpse of it for ourselves. And this is not the worst thing in the world really, God can work with this.
But what if we showed up not as spectators to miracles but because we were convinced that through God’s grace we could become miracles ourselves? What if we sat down at that table with the one who sat alone? What if we were the means through which those who felt isolated because of their pain and suffering where welcomed back into community? What if we were not audiences to what God is doing but a congregation (a coming together of people) through which God is enacting healing and wholeness and the reformation of God’s blessed creation? What would that feel like? What would that feel like?
Well, it may be like twenty or so of us traveling to Nicaragua so that we may give of ourselves and receive from others so that the boundaries of “us” and “them” may be blurred and we may discover our God given purpose for us all.
It may look like the face of Bret, as tears streamed down his face on Friday at the Waban Health and rehabilitation Center all of us shared in the bread and the cup, the communion of the love of God.
It may look like the meeting I had with you this week where we took time to think about how we can do what we want to do while at the same time making sure that our needs do not come at the expense of others.
I am so inspired and moved by you. For you seek not to be spectators but participants. Not an audience but a congregation, committed to engaging in the transformation not just of us alone, but of us together. This is why Jesus came. This is why he walk among us still, AMEN.
 Fred Craddock (Preaching Through the Christian Year B).
 Alan L. Gillen, Ed.D. Biblical Leprosy, Shedding light on the disease that shuns. June 10, 2007. http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v2/n3/the-disease-that-shuns
 (Preaching Through the Christian Year B).
 Sermon Seeds, Reflection: by Kathryn Matthews Huey. www.ucc.org