Sunday, February 12, 2012

Jesus and the Leper: A Narrative Sermon for February 12

Sermon Mark 1.40-45
“If you choose you can make me clean,” he used to pray these words, but that was back when he still had hope, back when he still prayed. Any hope of being healed, any hope of returning to society had left him long ago. He has been cast out and he lives on the scraps that others cast away. He lives life from a distance now, watching and listening but voiceless and nameless, a bitter ghost of who he once was. The priest’s declaration was final “you are unclean,” and with those words, words that never stop ringing in his ears, he was torn away from his family, his livelihood, his religion – everything that had made him human.

So he sits in the dark outside the city walls, listening to whispers of faraway conversations which float to him on the night air. Lately he’s been hearing a lot about a man from Nazareth, a man named Jesus. They say he can heal the sick and cast out demons. Could such things be true? He saw Jesus when he had entered the city. He had not looked powerful enough to cast out demons. The leper, bracing himself against the cold blackness of the night, laughs to himself, “I do not believe it. After all, nothing good come out of Nazareth.” And yet, inside of him something begins to stir, and as he falls into a restless sleep, he hears a small voice calling to him from far away, “If you choose, this man will make you clean.”

Did you know that hugs make you live longer? You only need a mere four hugs a day to reap the benefits, and you don’t need to get them from a person: you can hug your dog if you like, but contact with someone else that also wants to have contact with you is key. But what happens if you don’t get those hugs? Is the issue simply a matter of living a shorter life? Psychologists have actually done studies, not about hugs but about rejection. In one study people played a 5 minute computer game of ball toss. The person they were playing against would either be accepting by throwing them the ball or would ostracize the subject by keeping the ball away. What they found is that not much needs to happen to set a person on the path to despair and hostility. A mere 5 minutes of feeling rejected, by a complete stranger; that is all. Often worse than physical pain, the pain of rejection is very real. We are social animals; we need our flock to make us whole. But there are always outsiders, sheep that the rest of the flock have pushed out into the wilderness, into a solitary existence. A lone sheep will not survive, alone in the wilderness. But who will even notice that he is gone? Who will even care?

It is early morning and the leper opens his eyes as the sun peaks its head above the horizon, flooding the sky with shades of amber and violet. He can see a dark solitary figure walking on the road in front of him. Without really knowing why, the leper gets to his feet and moves closer, who is this person, wandering alone in such a deserted place? Something inside him tells him who the man is. His heart begins to race. All he can hear is the blood pounding through his head.
Before he has time to think, the leper runs. He runs so hard that in an instant he is breathless, and throwing himself at Jesus’ feet he practically screams, “If you choose you can make me clean!” Wet with tears the words tumble out of him, pleading and desperate. In response he hears Silence, perhaps the silence lasts only moments but for him centuries pass. Prostrate at Jesus’ feet the leper cannot bring himself to look up, he doesn’t dare, but in that moment of silence he becomes acutely, painfully aware of himself, his dirty tattered rags, the scent of rotting flesh that hangs in the air around him wherever he goes, his complete and utter brokenness, and in that moment he panics “what am I doing? Who am I that this man from Nazareth would do anything for me?" In that moment he decides to flee when suddenly he feels the warm touch of a hand on his cheek. He can’t remember the last time anyone has touched him. The leper lifts his head and looks into eyes the likes of which he has never seen before, eyes that are filled with compassion.

Jesus was moved with pity. That is what our English translation says. And while the sentiment is technically true, the true depth of what Mark is saying about Jesus is utterly lost. The word σπλαγχνισθεὶς is so much more than mere pity. The ancient Greek use of the word refers to the choicest inner parts of a sacrifice and can even refer to the sacrifice as a whole. The word we translate as ‘pity’ comes from the word for sacrifice. But σπλαγχνισθεὶς never meant just mere pity. The original word meant a force of emotion, compassionate mercy, a deep sorrow, a burning inside. Jesus burns with compassion and mercy for the leper. And in response to that burning Jesus touches him. We know of course that Jesus will not contract the man’s disease, we know there is no real danger there, but the disease is not really the point, with a single touch Jesus takes the ritual uncleanliness of the leper onto himself. And before long he will make that same sacrifice for everyone.

“If you choose, you can make me clean.” Behind Jesus rays of gold and yellow flare out across the sky as the sun breaks free of the horizon. When Jesus speaks there is no hesitation in his voice, “I do choose, be made clean.”
And he is made clean. He had not dared to believe, not really. But there he is, a clean man. Not just his body, but the bitterness, the despair, everything that being a leper had made him was gone.

He could have stayed there forever, kneeling at the feet of his savior. But the shepherd does not find the sheep and then stay in the wilderness, the sheep must return to the flock. Suddenly, the world starts moving again at whirlwind speeds. Jesus takes the man by his arm lifting him to his feet. “Go, Speak to no one,” Jesus says, “Show yourself to the priests,” “do as Moses commanded.” The miraculous moment has passed and he is being pushed back into the world.

The sun has conquered the sky and there is nothing but light when he makes his way back. Newly purified the man enters the city. He truly does mean to do as Jesus commanded him, but as he walks to the temple he realizes a song has been dancing around in the back of his mind, how long has that been there? He wonders.
“Praise ye the Lord” sang the voice in his head “He gathers the outcasts of Israel, he heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds” The man stops in his tracks, “why should I go to the priests?” He asks to no one in particular, “Who has need of Priests when you have looked into the eyes of God?”
He turns and heads to the center of town. I have to tell them, he thinks to himself, I have to tell all of them, “If you let him he will make you clean!”

This sermon was preached at the 5pm service at Saint Mary's Arlington, VA.

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