Sermon, Year B, Epiphany 6, February 12, 2012
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber Focus Scripture: Mark 1:40-45
We have reached the end of the first Chapter of Mark, which is a very full and busy chapter. You can get a full recap of the immense amount of things that have happened in this chapter if you look at last week’s sermon, which is available on our website. I gave a recap of all the activity and busy-ness that is contained in this chapter. The last half of this chapter, after Jesus is baptized and calls his disciples, is this series of three healing stories. The one we read last week, the week before, and then today. There is an interesting evolution in these stories that I think is intentional on the part of whoever wrote this Gospel. Jesus’ first healing took place in the synagogue, where by the power of word he calls out an unclean spirit from a man. From the synagogue, they go to Simon’s house and there his mother-in-law has a fever. Jesus reaches out to her, takes her hand, pulls her out of the bed and her fever goes away. After that, Jesus goes into the countryside to preach. His mission is to proclaim the message to all Galilee. While in the countryside, he encounters this man who has leprosy. So Jesus begins in the religious space, the synagogue. From there, he moves into the private space, the home. From the private, he moves into the public space. The city, then the countryside, and even a wilderness space. Providing healing and cleansing of the body. Providing restoration of body, yes, but more importantly providing restoration of wholeness. Of soul and people’s place in community. By declaring them to be clean, he is declaring them fit to be in right relationship with God and with their community.
Jesus is leading the people, and us as readers, through an evolutionary change in thought to say that God is present in the holy places, but also present in the private places: our homes, our hearts, our minds. The private places of our personal struggles and personal demons. The things that we struggle with that we don’t tell anyone about. Things that are so private that no one knows. God is present there as well. God is present in the public places. Not just here in the church, or our homes, but the public places. Our malls, schools, offices, factories, parks, capital buildings and courthouses. And God is present in the desolate areas, the wilderness areas. Especially even in those places.
Jesus makes his way to the wilderness, to the desolate and the countryside. The places of our most private struggles and deepest suffering. Then Jesus becomes unable to leave that place. He takes the place of the leper in this story. Because that’s what Jesus does. That’s who Jesus is. He stands in the wilderness. In our hospitals and prisons, stands with the mentally ill and social refuse, the sick and suffering. Jesus stands where there is urban decay and gang warfare. Jesus is with the lonely and excluded. Jesus is present even in inter-church squabbles such as what is happening at Grace, or even the greater squabbles between the anti-science churches and those churches that are okay with science. He stands in midst of it and says, “I am here” and “This struggle, this uncleanness that you have, is not what was intended for you. It is not God’s plan for you.” And Jesus offers healing and restoration.
The leper comes and says, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus chooses to do so. He reaches out and touches the man. With Simon’s mother-in-law he reaches out and takes her hand and lifts her up. With the leper, Jesus touches him. This was an awful thing at the time, to touch a leper. It was considered incredibly dangerous and made one ritually unclean and impure. Jesus touches the man and makes him clean in this physical and intimate moment. Then Jesus gives a stern warning: “Tell no one!” Jesus says that a number of times through the gospels after he’s healed someone or done something incredibly that you would think he would want other people to know about. “Tell no one! But go show yourself to the priests and offer for cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” There was in the law a sacrifice required after one is made clean again. But I don’t think Jesus is just telling the man to go and obey the law now that he is clean. I think there may have been some anger here, or sarcasm toward the priests on Jesus’ part. “Go and tell the high and mighty priests who could do nothing for you except to tell you that you have to leave the community, exile yourself in the wilderness because you are unclean; go tell these priests who could do nothing for you except to make you an outcast so they didn’t have to be near you and none of the other decent people have to be near you; go show them you are clean and that you do have a right to be in the community. That you are one of God’s children. That you are part of God’s kingdom. Go stick it in their face a bit and claim you rightful place as part of God’s community.”
But the man does not obey! He starts proclaiming freely and spreading the word. Simon’s mother-in-law became the first deacon, the one who serves within the community, and this man is the first evangelist in the Gospel of Mark. he immediately goes and proclaims what has happened to him. He tells his story. You can see how easy it is to be an evangelist. It doesn’t have to be a scary word to be an evangelist. It just means to tell your story. To tell people about what you have experienced and invite them to come and share in that with you. Simple things. To say, “My church is so much fun. Can I invite you to join in that?” “My church is so caring. May I invite you to join us for worship so you can experience the love I experience?” “My kids have learned so much. I invite yours to join us in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School.” “Our music is so good and uplifting. You would love it. Can I pick you up Sunday morning and bring you in?” It’s as simple as that. Not very difficult. But it does require some vulnerability in that you talk about your experience. But it doesn’t require that you “prove” why they ought to go, or threaten them with judgment, or quote scripture at them. Speak to them what you have experienced, much like you would recommend a movie, book or restaurant that you found particularly good or meaningful. Invite someone to come share in whatever it is you experience here so that others may know it.
This man Jesus healed does that. He goes out and proclaims what has happened to him. And word gets around so that Jesus can no longer enter the city. But crowds come out to him. People go where he is. The text is unclear as to exactly what has happened here; why Jesus can’t go to the city. I don’t think it’s because there are too many people when Jesus goes into the city. I think word got around that Jesus touched this man, so now the community knows that Jesus is unclean because he’s touched a leper. Being unclean, he’s not allowed in the city. Lepers were not allowed in the city. This is a sacramental and sacrificial moment when Jesus touches the man. Jesus heals the leper of his uncleanness by taking it upon himself. The man gets to go back to the city, but now Jesus cannot. “I will take the burden of your uncleanness so that you may be free.” Jesus takes the man’s place, and Jesus has to stay out in the wilderness. Because that’s who Jesus is. But people go to him. The text says, “People came to him from every quarter.”
And maybe this is just me in the way I interpret the actions of the people, but I imagine that the people who go out to Jesus are the ones who are saying to the religious authorities “Your doctrine, your dogma, your literalist interpretation of the law, your obsession with cleanness and uncleanness, your need to build barriers that exclude that make an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group, your need for religious purity, is not helpful. It’s not helping us at all. In fact, it’s harmful. It does more hurt than it helps, and it seems the only people it actually does help are—you! You who are at the top.” That’s one of the reasons our tradition in the UCC and other Protestant traditions have no doctrine, creeds, or tests of faith. One of the reasons why we’re open and affirming. Why we’re okay with science and speak out against those who would have us believe that we can’t accept reality, or that we can’t go to heaven if we use contraception, or can’t go to heaven if we listen to rock and roll, dance, or play cards or whatever or all these restrictions that people like to come up with. Or that we could be doing something bad by having Jewish music in worship. we say ‘no’ to all of that, and say ‘yes’ to that which is helpful, loving, good, and which includes. Jesus is in the holy places, the private places, the public places (including our laboratories and research centers!) looking not to condemn or find fault, or look for new ways to exclude or tell people why they’re wrong, but Jesus is there to heal. to bring wholeness. To bring life into those places. And by healing, to expand the circle of inclusion, and eliminate the barriers that separate us. Jesus is there looking for new ways to include and to make the kingdom of God a reality here on earth and in our lives. “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.”
Let us pray: Jesus, thank you for your healing presence that restores wholeness of life and calls into community regardless of who we are or where we are on our journey. May the Spirit of love continue to fill this congregation and grow ever larger. May it fill our hearts and continue to grow ever larger until it moves into the wilderness areas and touches with your gospel there. Amen.
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