6th Sunday after Epiphany
February 12, 2012
Mark 1:40-45, 2 Kings 5:1-14
My recent bout with ‘frozen shoulder’ pain, has been an eye-opener. I knew that people who were very sick or in serious pain couldn’t concentrate on anything and were often even unable to really carry on a conversation. But knowing it and experiencing it are two different things. Pain and sickness jerk you right out of the stream of life and leave you stranded on edges all alone. It is isolating and depressing
In the ancient world, disease was mysterious. In Biblical literature disease was an affliction from God for your sins or the sins of your parents. Worst among those diseases were skin diseases for which there was no cure. You were removed from your home and family and consigned to the wilderness because you were dangerous. This morning we have two stories of the scourge of leprosy, and two stories of healing.
In the first story, healing was humbling for the great man, Naaman. High-rank in the Syrian government was no protection from the dreaded disease. Through the quiet intervention of a Jewish slave girl, Naaman arrives with pomp on the doorstep of the prophet Elisha, who doesn’t even deign to meet him in person, but sends a message to dip his diseased body in the muddy trickle of the Jordan river. Horrified, Naaman leaves in a huff, only to be persuaded by his servants to try it even though it sounds absurd. Doubtful but game, Naaman finds that the words of the prophet accomplish all that was promised, and he goes away restored to health, having witnessed the healing power of Elisha’s God.
Jesus’ story takes a completely different tack. Confronted with a leper kneeling at this feet begging for healing, Jesus could easily have commanded the leprosy to leave, healing with a word. But he doesn’t. He reaches out to touch this untouchable, diseased person who carries the seeds of death on his skin. Jesus risks both separation from society and the contraction of this horrible disease in touching this man.
Mark, the writer is giving us a clue to Jesus’ ministry beyond the healing of this man’s leprosy. In this first chapter, we have seen Jesus’ move into the public sphere to teach and preach: “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the good news.”
The good news for the earliest people in this Gospel is healing: the man in the synagogue is restored to life when a demon is cast out, Peter’s mother-in-law is restored to her position in the community when her fever is cast out, friends and neighbors find healing outside the front door of Peter’s house. This preacher’s teaching is to touch the lives of these people with restoration as a sign of the kingdom of God that he brings. And then with this leper, we see Jesus’ teaching moving from the church to the home to the widest of public spaces. Jesus is on the move. The whole world is waiting for the revealing of the kingdom of God, and Jesus’ work is to show that it has come now.
Jesus is not removed from the physical confrontation of illness, isolation, and contagion. In touching the sick and the possessed, he takes it upon himself, person to person. At the very beginning of his ministry, we see the path on which he will continue to walk. He will take on the sin and sorrow and evil of the whole world before his work is done, suffering in his own body to show that God’s love is so great nothing in heaven or earth can ever separate us from it. In his resurrection, we have the promise of life forever, of evil destroyed for good, and God’s presence with us without fail. It is purely a gift, you know. All that God has promised to us through Jesus is just a gift. We can’t earn it, we don’t deserve it, but it is ours all the same.
The thing that made me crazy when I went to the doctor for the excruciating pain in my shoulder is that after the X-rays assured him that there was no pinched nerve in my neck, he just wrote me a prescription for pain pills and told me to call him if I got worse. He never even touched my shoulder to see if he could feel what was causing the pain. I ended up with massage therapists who dug deep into my pain with healing hands, fighting with me to end the suffering and isolation which kept me from my normal life.
So I ask you: what is the touch that you have known from Jesus in your life? Is it the touch of a friend who consoles you in your loss? Is it the kiss of a loved one, easing your pain? It is the skilled hands of a healer, reaching into your suffering to relieve it? And then let me ask: what is the touch you have offered? How have you been the touch of Jesus to someone who needs to know that Jesus is there? I encourage you to remember those touches, those gifts of healing, and to see them for what they are, Jesus’ presence to love and heal. And I challenge you to see that Jesus is still present in the touch of those acts of care for our bodies as well as for our souls.