Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B - February 12, 2012 (Mark 1:40-45)

In life there are things we’ll touch and things we won’t…and sometimes things we must.

Several years ago, when Melinda and I were first married but didn’t have any children, our close friends asked us if we’d babysit their two kids—ages 4 and 20 months—while they went away for an interview at a congregation. We were happy to help them, and I was glad to spend some time getting to know the younger one, my godson. It didn’t occur to me until they showed up to drop them off with a diaper bag, that saying “yes” to this request was going to entail something I’d never done before: changing a diaper.

The total time they were with us was two days and two nights, and I prayed fervently that if James, my godson, had a “movement,” it would occur when Melinda was home on duty with me. But despite my fervent pleas, it still happened. First, I smelt it. Then, he began to complain about it. Melinda was still a good 6 hours from arriving home from work, so I figured I had to be the man with the plan. And if that diaper was going to get off his body, I was going to have to touch that diaper. So, I did, but I confess that once I touched the filled diaper (it was…shall we say?...still warm), I gagged immediately.  I think I gagged about 4 times in rapid succession, actually. I walked into the other room and gave myself a pep talk. Then I decided that it had to be done, and I needed to reach down and find whatever courage I could and get that dirty thing off him. I was the only option.

Jesus is confronted with a similar situation in this morning’s gospel text, but in his case, there doesn’t seem to be any balking, any gagging, and any reaching down into his soul for courage.  He’s Jesus.  He simply reaches out and touches the man, who knows Jesus is his only option. And the implications are much greater than touching a dirty diaper, too. Leprosy (and other skin diseases which were often lumped together under the same title) was considered the most debilitating and alienating of conditions.  People with a skin disease in those days, regardless of how transmissible it actually was, were themselves lumped together and forced to eke out a meager existence at the outermost margins of towns and villages, unable to approach anyone else without first yelling out, so that everyone could hear them, “I’m a leper! Leper, here!”

In the ancient hierarchical understanding of the way the human body was ordered, skin disorders were considered the worst kind of disorders to have. They affected one’s outward appearance, which was thought to be a reflection of what was inside. Grotesque, contorted features were thought to indicate a grotesque, contorted soul. On top of that, somewhat contradictorily, those with leprosy were thought to be highly contagious. Those determined unclean because of skin disorders had no hope of ever being assimilated into society again because no one would come near them, look at them, much less come into some kind of physical contact with them.  They were one of those things that must not be touched.

And that was precisely what I imagine sent this particular man over the edge, causing him to blab as much as he could about what had happened. It was one thing that he had been healed. It was another that Jesus had done it by reaching out and touching him. It was one thing that Jesus had removed a terrible affliction. It was another that Jesus had dignified the man by making physical contact with him. Jesus had not just cured him of a painful and incapacitating disease. He had somehow restored his humanity and restored him to his community.

The image on the front of our bulletin today shows Jesus almost embracing the man. Perhaps that’s what it was like—that particular posture does suggest compassion or pity—but from what I’ve read about leprosy in the ancient world, even a slight pat on the shoulder or a handshake with the infected man would have broken all kinds of boundaries. In one simple yet profound motion, Jesus demonstrates his willingness to “go the distance,” so to speak, to save this man and restore him to life. So, can we blame him for getting a little loud and excited about it? If a leper had been touched by someone, you can expect he’d want to announce it.

Christ Healing a Leper, Rembrandt (1657-60)
In fact, the man who is cured of his leprosy is just one voice in the mob of people who are spreading news about Jesus. Things, as far as that’s concerned, had gotten out of hand pretty quickly. Based on the kinds of things Jesus was doing, there was a growing awareness that God’s own special representative was on the scene. That is, the flurry of healing activity that begins Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s gospel would have left no doubt among most about Jesus’ power and authority. He teaches with conviction, he casts out demons, he raises the sick, and here, in a case that would have put an exclamation point on his special relationship to God—because only God was thought able to heal skin diseases—he cures someone of leprosy and instructs that person to present himself to the priests so that they may make full recognition of his healing. All in all, it is a systematic undoing of the forces that isolate and alienate humans from God and from one another. God’s kingdom has come near.

Yet these opening scenes are meant to establish more than just his identity and authority. They also indicate how Jesus will use this authority and what that kingdom will look like, and that is just as important. That’s why that touch, however slight it might have been, is so crucial. Jesus comes not to lord over creation as some sort of divine dictator. Nor will he somehow snap his holy fingers and magically erase creation’s pain like some kind of traveling faith healer. Rather, Jesus shows he is willing to “go the distance” in order to reach us where we are, to bridge whatever oceans are there that strand humankind from the wholeness God intends.

Jesus will use his identity as the Son of God to show us how human he is. He will use his authority as teacher and healer by humbling himself and putting himself at great risk in order to save us. And God’s kingdom will look like one where people are, one by one, rescued from the segregating forces of sin and put back into true communion with each other, even when that involves touching those we’ve determined “untouchable”—especially when that involves touching those we’ve determined “untouchable.”

Yet we must resist making this story into a lesson about the virtues of human touch, however powerful it may be. Just this week our youngest daughter came down with an illness that, thank God, can easily be healed with a round of antibiotics. We knew once we got some of that medicine in her she’d feel so much better. But we also knew if we held her and rubbed her head she’d feel a lot better, too. It occurred to me someone would have to have a heart of stone to see her languishing on her bed in misery and not want to hug her, not to have compassion on her. However, it’s not entirely clear, at least in this instance, that Jesus was moved by pity or compassion. Some of the earliest sources of Mark’s gospel actually say, “Moved by anger, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the leper.” That may sound strange to us, even a little off-putting, but in a way, it makes perfect sense. It’s not the leper or the leper’s request that Jesus is angry with, but rather the condition that has afflicted him so, as well as the misused laws of religion that have banished him so harshly to the edges. Jesus’ touch is a rebuke of that condition and that banishment—almost like a slap in the devil’s face. Again, in this scenario, he shows he is willing to “go the distance” to restore this man to dignity.

Whatever his motivation—be it pity or anger and frustration—we are still left with the uncomfortable information at the end of this story that Jesus doesn’t want him talking about it, that Jesus wants it kept a secret. We are still left with the peculiar situation at the end of this account that Jesus can’t walk around openly anymore. A man who has already traveled such great distance in his opening hours of ministry is left somewhat isolated himself, stranded out in the country. After such remarkable displays of power and such daring examples of “going the distance,” why wouldn’t Jesus welcome this man’s praise and adoration? Isn’t that the point of the gospel, to share it with others?

Night at Golgotha, Vasily Vereshchagin
It is strongly suspected that the reason Jesus wants his disciples and others who have witnessed his love to remain silent about it is because at this point they have no idea yet just how far he’s going to go to save us and establish God’s kingdom. That is, when they see him, for example, touch the man with leprosy, they’ve gotten a big and important part of the picture of Jesus’ identity and mission.  But they still have no idea of the defining brushstroke, the one which will demonstrate the true depth of his love and compassion and anger at the powers of sin. Jesus bridges a great distance when he risks his own health and scorn from breaking religious and social taboo when he touches the leper, but it pales in comparison to the distance he’ll go on the cross. There he will die in order to bestow ultimate life. There he will fully define his identity and reveal his authority as one who suffers  in order that God may rescue all creation from sin and death. That is the picture he wants us to have in regards to who he truly is. That is the message we are to share with others and seek to embody as his people.  Spreading the word before that picture is fully composed risks finding a short cut to the great distance he means to travel.

A couple of years ago, a member of our congregation shared a story with me about her childhood in North Carolina during the Great Depression. Her father owned a small store in Charlotte that was not too far from the airport. Those were the days of segregation, when black Americans were not permitted to eat in most restaurants or eat with whites, which meant that most of the employees on the runway at the airport had nowhere to eat or even buy a meal. Moved somewhat by the potential to increase his business but no doubt also by compassion for them and maybe even a little anger at that system, this man began driving his truck out to edge of the terminal where they worked to sell them some food. In the winter, his wife would cook hot soup, and he’d load that, too, in big pots in the back of the truck,  drive out to the edge of the runway, and ladle it out to them. The men were deeply appreciative of his efforts.

But then came plans to expand the airport’s service, which meant a longer runway and more construction. Apparently not caring (or knowing) about the plight of the black employees, the airport cut off his access to the workers in order to achieve the airport expansion. When he protested, they demanded that he drive an alternate route around the perimeter of the airport each day to reach them. He told them his soup would be stone cold by the time he got there. Persistent in arguing his case to the authorities and in presenting the need of the segregated workers, they finally agreed to close down the runway for a few minutes each day at lunchtime and halt all airplane traffic so his little truck could serve soup. Unable to figure out how they’d achieve the necessary communication to set that up, it was decided that his daughter, our member, Martha Gladfelter, would run across the runway every day and up the air traffic control tower to tell the controllers to stop the planes. When he was finished, his truck safely off the runway, she’d scurry down and return.

Across the runway and up the tower so a segregated population could be served: I think that’s symbolic of the kind of effort Jesus would like from his church, followers who know and begin to understand the risky efforts Jesus has gone to for us. Aware of the human pain that still strands so many, outraged by injustice and all that cuts us off, and choosing, like Jesus, to go the distance.  That may mean reaching out to the sick infant on the sofa, the refugee in the camp, the sixth-grader being bullied, the person feeling trapped by mental illness--indeed, all those who must be touched, so that all will know Jesus is on the scene.

Yes, the Lord of life is risen and on the scene.  He has arrived, I tell you, and is out in the country here, healing and working.  We know this because we, too, have been restored to life.  We find ourselves compelled to tell others. 
And, considering that great distance, can they really blame us when we do?

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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