The Sixth Sunday of Epiphany
15 February 2009
A Sermon Preached by Ms Anne Lane Witt, Seminarian
O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
2 Kings 5:1-15ab
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Psalm 42 or 42:1-7
Oh Lord, uphold thou me that I may uplift thee. AMEN.
How do we deal with messy situations? What is our human response, and what is our call?
Today’s readings from 2nd Kings and The Gospel According to Mark both deal with leprosy, a subject which is inclined to make people squirm. To be fair, the leprosy mentioned in these lessons is not what we imagine today; instead it was a skin disorder of unknown determination, potentially vitiligo or eczema. The hair and skin were of mixed color, going against laws of purity.
Whatever it was, a person who was deemed to be “leprous” was ritually unclean. No medical answer was sought; instead, the person was required to leave the community and live alone. He or she was required to wear torn clothing and have “disheveled” hair. A cry of “Unclean, unclean” was to come from the person’s lips. If the leper saw another person, a distance of 50 paces was to be maintained.
Above all else, the afflicted person was seen as having committed some sin, for which the disease was a punishment.
The person was afflicted and alienated. I can only imagine how desperately a person would be longing for human contact and a sense of normalcy. The afflicted person was treated as less than human.
There was hope: a priest could declare the person clean once more. A series of sin and guilt offerings would be made to obey the ritual laws. After this process, the person was restored to life among the community.
Our reading from Mark falls in a section of healing stories. After calling the first few of his disciples, Jesus performs two exorcisms and heals Peter’s mother in law before meeting a leper in Galilee. Jesus’ reputation as a healer and teacher is being established in these stories, but our Gospel reading shows Jesus as more than just an authority: he is also full of compassion.
The leper in Mark’s Gospel approaches Jesus, violating the distance he is to maintain and the unclean nature he is to profess, but this is done in humility, on his knees. He knows that Jesus has the capability to make him clean, to restore him to life in community, if it is Jesus’ will. He comes in the posture of prayer to ask for God’s mercy.
How many times had this man hoped to be declared clean again? How much was he craving human contact? How many times had he been disappointed after raising his hopes? He has been living as an outcast and is risking a tremendous amount by approaching Jesus.
Jesus is “moved with pity.” (Mk 1:41) The Greek word (splanchistheis) for this goes beyond compassion; it is a word that tells us that Jesus’ response comes from his core. To put it bluntly, it is a gut reaction. Jesus physically feels compassion for the leper.
Out of his mercy, Jesus wills that the leper be healed and touches him.
His words alone could have healed this man, yet Jesus physically expresses his care for him through his touch.(1) It is through the Incarnation that this was possible.
As the rector said last week, in the Incarnation, God has united himself with humanity, reconciling us with him. God has made all things new again, including this leper who was seen to be unholy and less than human.
The isolation seen in this story is acute. Mark’s gospel shows isolation in many of its healing narratives, a condition which Jesus relieves. The healing allows those who have been cast out in some form to be reintegrated into community.
As is seen in the church today, there is no substitute for personal contact. We see this with the laying on of hands during the anointing of oil. The power of and call to human interaction are parts of seeing the incarnational element in each of us, even though we might at times be going against societal norms.
We are called to be with one another in this human life.
Over the past few months, I have been blessed to work with an amazing woman named Dorothy at the Saint Martin’s clothing closet at school. Dorothy is a joyous woman and full of the Holy Spirit. She takes the work of the clothing ministry very seriously, looking at each guest as a child of God who happens to have fallen upon hard times. She sees their humanity and respects their dignity.
Dorothy makes sure that the guests get the clothing they need, engaging in conversation to find out each one’s story. She remembers everyone, asking for reports on the interviews they had or whether or not they have called their mothers. She enjoys a cup of coffee with the guests and volunteers for fellowship and warmth.
Most strikingly, Dorothy is always ready with a hug or to hold someone’s hand. Where others would shy away from contact, she runs towards it headlong. This is her heartfelt response to those in need, part of her calling in the world.
Jesus’ healing of the leper provides a glimpse of what life will be like in the kingdom of God as well as an example to follow as we proceed on our journeys. Mark’s Gospel reminds us that we are all created in the image of God and are in need of human relationships. With this responsibility comes the innate capability to be with one another.
©2009 Anne Lane Witt