[Photo Credit: asksistermarymartha.blogspot.com]
This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Dearborn Heights, Michigan and was focused upon Mark 1:40-45. The audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
This little story at the beginning of Mark’s gospel is completely shocking. And it’s more than shocking. It’s scandalous. This is how Jesus chooses to begin his ministry in Galilee. . .
When Mark starts his Gospel, he hits the ground running. There’s no birth story here. It’s almost like there’s no time for it. Mark starts out full speed ahead. And so much happens in this first chapter. It almost like Mark is capturing little snapshots and piecing them together for us in flashes, like some trailer for an action film. He strings these small stories together with words that become characteristic for him. This story – “and” — This story – “and” – This story. “And, and, and.” “Immediately” this. “Immediately” that. Mark uses the word “Immediately” over and over in his writing.
So much happens in this first chapter!
The Gospel of Mark starts out this way:
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Then we’re off.
John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, baptizing. Three verses about John baptizing Jesus. Immediately the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. Two verses about his temptation there. Jesus calls his first disciples. And Jesus stuns a synagogue of people when he casts out an unclean spirit from a man. “What is this?” they say. “A new teaching – with authority!” And immediately, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law from her fever right after they leave the synagogue. And then the whole city gathers around her door, asking Jesus to heal people of their diseases. And then Jesus goes on a preaching tour, doing the same type of work all around Galilee.
All of this is in one chapter! What’s going on here? Mark starts out building Jesus up in this amazing way. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” A baptism. Healing. New authority! A city at a door! Jesus’ reputation is building. . . and then, WHAT?
Jesus has an encounter with. . . a leper?
Wait a second. . .Mark, this is really where you want to throw this story in? Right here? Just when you were building up Jesus in every way? Really?
Now granted, Mark didn’t put chapter numbers and verses in his gospel. The early church eventually did that. But Mark puts this story right at the beginning – right after a huge string of stories that give Jesus an immense amount of credibility. And then, this story — this scandalous story.
A leper approaches Jesus and falls on his knees begging. This is scandalous in itself. A leper was someone who could have had a variety of skin diseases that were considered to be unclean by Levitical law. According to the law, people with leprous diseases were supposed to wear torn clothes, keep their hair disheveled, cover their upper lips and cry out everywhere, “Unclean! Unclean!” They had to announce their own condition everywhere. They were seen and known only through this label. Lepers were supposed to live alone, and they were supposed to stay outside the camp or city.
So what gave this leper the audacity to approach Jesus? Who did he think he was? Or maybe a better question is this: “Who did he think Jesus was?”
“If you choose, you can make me clean.”
Here was this outsider – an outcast – on his knees, kneeling and begging. He must have been trembling there, terrified. He had approached Jesus when he was supposed to remain as far as possible from him. And this was more than a simple break of the rules. He could defile Jesus! He was ritually unclean, and at any point, if he contacted Jesus, he would make Jesus unclean too. He could damage him. He could ruin an entire preaching tour.
But he had audacity because he had faith. He must have known that there was something different about Jesus. “If you choose, you can make me clean.”
And Jesus was different. He was moved with compassion. The word used in the Greek text says that his compassion was bodily. He was gut-wrenched about this. And perhaps he was angry about it too. Why did this man have to be constantly overlooked, living with continual stigma, isolated from his family – from the entire faith community – when he too was a Child of God?
Then Jesus does what is shocking. He does what is utterly scandalous. Willingly, he chooses to touch this man – this man with leprosy. “I do choose. Be made clean!” Jesus has broken the social custom of his day. He’s obliterated it. He’s touched the one who was labeled and stigmatized to be untouchable.
And there’s that word of Mark’s again: “Immediately,” the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. But things hadn’t returned to back to some simple state. In one touch, Jesus and this man with leprosy have exchanged places. The healed man goes into the open – into the city where he has been previously forbidden with new life and newfound freedom. And because he spreads the word about his new life, Jesus can no longer enter a town openly. He stays out in the desert places, and because of the word of this leper, people come to Jesus from every corner to join him there. Jesus is on the outside now, among desperate people. In one willful touch, Jesus has chosen to become a leper.
Who is this Jesus? Who is this One who goes against the social norms if it will restore people to true worth and dignity? Who is this Jesus that Mark is portraying – this One who goes on to do so many scandalous things in this Gospel – telling a paralyzed man that his sins have been forgiven, no matter the rage of the others who witness it? Who is this one that heals on the Sabbath – who time and time again, puts human need first? Who is this one who continues to be touched by the ritually unclean – a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years, longing to only touch his garment and be healed? Who is this Jesus who eats with tax collectors and sinners? Who is this Jesus who chooses common fishermen to follow him – who chooses 1st century women to be disciples? Who is this Jesus who says, “Let the children come to me?” Who is this one who is constantly, willfully choosing to break our every social custom to serve human need and dignity first? Jesus is one who transgresses what is expected. Jesus, who did not sin toward God, constantly moves against what our society tells us is the norm. Jesus is a healer. Jesus is a Transgressive Healer.
What would it take for us to do the same? What would we risk to become the healers we are? Here we are, together on a simple, routine Sunday. Some of us may be relatively new to this place. Others of us have known the members and friends of this congregation for decades. When we are gathered together on Sundays, we are often among the dearest people of our lives. Have you ever considered that friendship is a gift that can change the world? What happens when we show up in the lives of others to be with them in their darkest hours – to know their gifts and their beautiful qualities, yes – but also to know the most painful and difficult aspects of their lives? What happens? How does the human presence of friendship change the world?
And what happens when the love of friendship spreads beyond itself to include those who are on the margins of society?
What would happen if we did that? In light of this shocking story that we’ve heard today – in light of this scandalous and Transgressive Healer Jesus — may this be true: May the ‘yes’ between us say ‘yes’ to a world beyond us. May the ‘love’ between us say ‘love’ to a world beyond us.
We’re called to be healers. We are called to be healers in this world, not necessarily because there’s anything extraordinary about us, but because we belong to a Divine Healer of this world who enters our pain, suffering, and stigma. We follow a Divine Healer who is so very Human. He chooses our condition. And this is the One we follow.
Who are the lepers of our modern day culture? Who is being told day-in and day-out that they belong on the outside? Immigrants? Refugees? Undocumented workers? People who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer? People who don’t know where their next meal is coming from? People with a skin-color that society defines as unacceptable? People with terminal illnesses? People who live alone and who are desperately lonely? People with mental illnesses? People with stigmatizing disabilities? Children who are abused and neglected? Young people in the foster care system? Muslims who are feared and stereotyped in this country?
You are ministers, and Jesus Christ, the Transgressive Healer, dwells in you. May the ‘yes’ between us say ‘yes’ to a world beyond us. May the ‘love’ between us say ‘love’ to a world beyond us.
May your friendships invite you to live as the healers you are. Thanks be to God. Amen.
1 I am indebted to Rev. Dr. John Alsup, D. Thomason Professor of New Testament Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, for this observation.
2 I am indebted to Dr. David Hadley Jensen, Professor of Constructive Theology and Associate Dean at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He used this title for Jesus in Responsive Labor: A Theology of Work.
3 I was grateful to first hear this language in a wedding sermon given by the Rev. Ben Johnston-Krase, co-planter of Farm Church in Durham, North Carolina.