Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sermon: When the Community Is Broken

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 15, 2015, Lent 4B
2 Kings 5:1-14; Mark 1:40-45

When the Community Is Broken

April Riley.  Betty Squires.  Dominic Bruzzese.  Dub Geiger.  Barbara Griseck.  Dorothy Nevill.  Dick Ramer.  Annette McGee. 
When a pastor looks at a Prayer List like this (and this is only the beginning, as you well know), and then looks at the healing stories from both Old and New Testaments upon which he has committed himself to preach the coming Sunday, said preacher feels a bit like an idiot.  Particularly this is so when said preacher remembers that if he’d simply stuck with the lectionary’s appointed readings for the day, he could be preaching on John 3:16.  (On the other hand, attempting to preach on such an extremely familiar verse has its own plethora of pitfalls, so perhaps that would not be so much easier.) 
The persistence of illness and injury among our number, as with any church, makes preaching on a healing story a difficult and sometimes painful challenge.  Still, there is something in this particular story, brief though it may be, that we as would-be followers of Christ must struggle with and ultimately take into our own lives.  It’s too important to bury on the Sixth Sunday of Epiphany, a Sunday that doesn’t even happen when (like this lectionary cycle) Easter falls early enough in the year that the approach of Lent truncates the season of Epiphany after only five Sundays. 
Since it’s been over a month ago that we were last in this first chapter of Mark’s gospel, it might be a good idea to refresh our collective memory on how this chapter has proceeded so far.  John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, where Jesus came to be baptized by him, and as he came up out of the water Jesus saw “the heavens torn apart” (v.10) and the Spirit coming upon him like a dove, with a heavenly voice saying “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”.  (v.11)  Immediately Jesus was driven into the wilderness to face temptation, after which he returned preaching the core message, his thesis statement, the good news of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (v.15).  He calls his first handful of disciples, casts out an unclean spirit while teaching in the synagogue, and heals Simon’s mother-in-law, which leads to large crowds of would-be patients seeking healing.  From this place Jesus, after going off to “a deserted place” to pray, gathers his disciples and heads out into the neighboring towns of Galilee, with the intention of engaging on a preaching and teaching tour.  That’s where Jesus is at the end of verse 39. 
Given that background, verse 40 almost seems like an interruption in the story rather than its continuation.  Mark doesn’t make it entirely clear whether this leper appears in the middle of this preaching tour or not; it doesn’t seem to be in a public place like the previous casting out of the unclean spirit, and it’s not even clear whether his disciples are present to witness the incident.   It could have almost been dropped into any section of the gospel without its point being particularly damaged in any way.
But here it is, and an unusual story it is.  The reading from 2 Kings reminds us of another somewhat familiar story of a man being healed of leprosy.  It’s a different story of course; the leprosy victim is not an anonymous stranger, but a powerful and famous general from another land, one that threatens Israel with its might.  The agent of healing is not even present in the story; the prophet Elisha sends out a messenger to give Naaman instructions on how to have his affliction cured.  The prophet is certainly obedient to God’s command, but you might say he’s not all that emotionally involved.
Aside from leprosy being involved, this account from Mark seems totally different.  The leprosy victim is quite anonymous, and seems almost to think that the healer he has approached will refuse to heal him – “if you choose,” he says.  And Jesus’s reaction is anything but detached. 
The Bible translation you read probably says something along the lines of “moved with pity” or “moved with compassion” in describing Jesus’s reaction to the leprosy victim.  Many of the manuscripts and fragments that contain this passage use that word (or the Greek version of it), and it is perfectly logical and believable to think of Jesus being moved – moved all the way down to his deepest parts, it says – this way.
But there are other fragments or manuscripts, of equal antiquity and credibility, that have another word instead of “compassion” or “pity.”  Jesus was moved, they say, with anger.
Anger?  Since when does Jesus get angry?  Of course, those who remember last week’s sermon remember another occasion, much later in Jesus’s ministry, when amidst the commotion and noise of Temple commerce Jesus started flipping over the tables and loosing potential sacrificial animals and “teaching” about the Temple as a “house of prayer for all nations” being turned into a “den of robbers.”  In that case, Jesus was angry at a system in which The Way Things Are became an impediment to the worship of God and prayer, instead of its aid. 
Even though that’s a later story, it might just help us make sense of this story too.  You see, in Jesus’s time leprosy was at least as powerful a social stigma as it was a disease.  It wouldn’t necessarily kill you, but it would, could, and did bring an emphatic end to your public life.
You could neither be touched nor touch another person.  You could not enter a city or town.  You could not be around other people.  If you were walking on a road and saw other people ahead of you, you were required to cry out “unclean! unclean!” in order to warn those people to stay clear of you.  And obviously, forget about making a sacrifice or praying in the Temple; the only possible reason you could think of going near the Temple was to approach a priest to have him confirm that you were healed, to be declared legally and ritually clean.
So the man who approached Jesus was about as alone, isolated, and cast out as a person could be in Jewish society of the time.  Even to approach Jesus was a violation.  And there were possible consequences for Jesus, too; he himself could be rendered ritually unclean if this person came in contact with him.  There’s a lot at stake here, folks.
So we could argue that, as in the later incident in the Temple, Jesus is again angry at a system that cuts people off, leaving them isolated from community in this case with no hope of restoration, leaving them governed by the fear and ignorance of others rather than allowing for any hope of healing or restoration.  Given what we know of Jesus, that makes sense. 
Of course, we moderns would never do such a thing.  We would never turn others into pariahs, cut off from society and community because of illness.  After all, there was never any stigma against victims of AIDS in this country, right?  No hysteria driven by fear and ignorance, no societal condemnation, none of that, right?  No hysteria over the ebola virus, locking people up as virtual prisoners because they had been doctors trying to exterminate the disease. 
Oh, wait, those both happened, didn’t they?
So, I suppose we aren’t really in that much of a position to judge, are we?  There’s always some big scary disease somebody can convince us we have to treat as cause for expulsion or exclusion.  We are no less hasty to turn into frightened, angry people ready to throw others out at even the slightest hint of disease. 
In terms of systems of behavior, laws and customs that cut off the vulnerable and weak from society, this is another situation that could be read as provoking Jesus’s anger.  And given what we know of Jesus, this kind of anger would make sense as well. 
I can’t help but think, though, that there’s something else that Jesus might be angry about as well.  Remember that this story is happening very early in Jesus’s public ministry.  The way Mark tells it, it’s happening virtually immediately after that eventful day of Jesus’s public debut – the casting out of an unclean spirit in the synagogue at Capernaum, the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, the numerous people of Capernaum who crowded around to be healed thereafter.  A lot of human brokenness in one day.  And then, just as Jesus is leading his disciples off to the Galilean countryside to get back to preaching and teaching, another broken body appears.  Another soul whose physical illness had led to isolation and exclusion. 
Here, whether we read our text as pointing to Jesus’s compassion or anger, here is another clue to understanding what Jesus seeks: wholeness, completeness, fullness.  Anything that breaks that wholeness or completeness or fullness moves Jesus, agitates him, “churns up his insides” as my mother would have said.  Again, I don’t think we have to stretch too far to understand.  How many of us are even now experiencing the feeling of frustration, exasperation, or even anger at the many of our church family who are facing illness or physical brokenness right now? 
Three years ago this August I was diagnosed with rectal cancer.  I had just finished my second summer of seminary language school, getting ready to start my second full year of study.  Even though no doctor associated with my treatment ever suggested this diagnosis was in any way terminal – it was caught early, it wasn’t too aggressive, it was easily operable and treatable – don’t for a second think I didn’t have my share of anger, anxiety, depression, and frustration.  Really, God? Here I’ve walked away from a career I loved to do this crazy seminary thing and pursue being a pastor, and this is what I get to deal with?  Oh, yes, I was angry. 
I was also worried about being cut off from a community I had found at seminary, much to my surprise.  Although it’s true that seminaries now welcome many more “second-career” or other older students (right, Dorothy?), it was still true that a majority of my classmates were an awful lot younger than I, the age of people who would have been my students just a year before.  And yet, in this case, those “kids” stepped up and didn’t let me get cut off from community.  I wasn’t left in isolation.  This is what the church does when it’s working the way it’s supposed to; we step in and care for those felled by illness.  We draw them in.  We don’t let them slip through the cracks.  We take turns carrying one another.  We don’t resort to fear or ignorance.  We continue to love and care for our sisters and brothers in need.
But there is one more thing.  I kind of wish there wasn’t but there is.
Jesus, moved by compassion or anger or maybe even both, reaches out and touches the leper, heals him, and sends him off – practically barking at him to go present himself to the priest to be declared clean.  He does so with one word of warning; “See that you say nothing to anyone” (v. 44).
It’s part of that confusing thing scholars call the “Messianic secret,” a repeated pattern in Mark in which Jesus repeatedly orders those he has healed not to talk about it.  There are possible theological reasons for it (if you want to know more you can join us for the Lenten reading group next week), but some scholars also suggest a very practical reason; the more word got out about Jesus’s healings, the harder it was for Jesus to be about the work of preaching and teaching.  And sure enough, exactly that thing happens here.  Ignoring Jesus’s warning, the man goes off and blabs to everyone and anyone, and Jesus couldn’t even go into towns anymore without being mobbed, and even staying out in the countryside he and his disciples were swarmed by multitudes. 
Alyce McKenzie, professor of preaching and worship at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, describes the failing this way:
To be a disciple in Mark's gospel is to "follow" Jesus (akoloutheo). This is not just a spatial following, but is, rather, a technical term for discipleship. The healed and exorcized are to "follow" Jesus as a mark of their full restoration (Thurston, 11). The leper accepts his cleansing but fails to accept his commissioning. He confused bragging about his blessing with living out the good news of sacrificial love for others in imitation of Jesus Christ.
If we're going to truly have a blessed day, it will necessarily involve being a blessing to others.[1]

If we’ve been blessed, if we’ve known healing in our own lives, it’s our vocation – our calling – our responsibility to live out that healing in ministering to those who are bound by illness or brokenness.  Yes, we rejoice, but not to the point of failing to live out our discipleship in our community and in the world.  You’ve probably heard the saying “blessed to be a blessing”; this – reaching out in compassion and community and love – is how it works.
For restoration, for fellowship, and for discipleship, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “O For A Thousand Tongues” (466), “O Lamb of God Most Holy” (82), “When We Are Living” (400)

[1] Alyce McKenzie, “Blessed to Be a Blessing: Reflections on Mark 1:40-45,” Patheos Preachers “Edgy Exegesis” 12 February 2012, found at

Credit: 2/6/12

No comments:

Post a Comment