Revd Ray Williamson
15th February 2009, Epiphany 6
Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30 page 249; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45
This morning we have heard just six verses of Mark's gospel. Last Sunday, the gospel passage concluded, Jesus went through Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons. That was a statement about Jesus' programme — ending the first summary section of Mark's gospel. It recapitulates the main theme Mark has outlined: that Jesus went about announcing the good news that the reign of God was at hand and calling people to prepare. Jesus' mission is to show us who God is and what God is like, and what life under the reign of God is like. So, he also went about healing many who were sick — touching them to life — beginning with Peter's mother-in-law. Then in the stories that follow, Mark shows us how Jesus continued to do this, but also, in doing it, how he 'touched' — showed up for what it was — the prevailing social and religious order of Jewish Palestine and the ideology of those who controlled it. Today, we have the first of these stories — the healing of a leper, which was also an attack on the purity code of that society. As he challenged the social power and exclusiveness of the ruling groups, Jesus was simultaneously introducing an alternative based on inclusiveness.
An ecumenical group was travelling through India looking at some of the projects supported by the CB. They went to grass-roots community projects: one was a lepers' colony where leprosy is treated and rehabilitation offered. One of the people in the group was a hand surgeon, and as he went around he couldn't help noticing the lepers' hands, disfigured and misshapen, fingers missing, scarred and diseased. When he talked with some of them he saw that they hid their hands, behind their backs, wrapped in their sleeves, ashamed. The doctor talked with them about Jesus' hands — how Jesus' hands were carpenter's hands, big and rough and scarred from work, and how Jesus used his hands to heal people, to touch the blind on their eyes, the deaf on their ears. And he touched leper! And the doctor reminded them that Jesus' hands in the end were stretched on a cross and nails were driven through them, and he explained from his surgeon's knowledge how crippling and disfiguring that was. Indeed, even in the glory of the resurrection Jesus' hands still bore the marks of crucifixion and suffering and disfigurement. Then, as the doctor looked around, he saw the lepers bringing out their hands — not hiding them anymore, not needing to hide them anymore.
That is a powerful story of wonderful ministry — a ministry of healing, of people being 'touched' to life.
This morning, as we hear the gospel story of a leper being 'touched to life', we are deeply aware of the many families and communities needing to be 'touched' back to life after the terrible disasters of these past couple of weeks. The floods in N. Qld, of course have been bad enough; but it is the Victorian bush fires that dominate our thoughts and prayers.
This past week, as we have watched images of raging fire and burnt out forests and towns, and grieving people, everyone has been deeply moved by the horror, the loss, the grief. The Primate of the Anglican Church here in Australia, Archbishop Philip Aspinall, has written a letter telling of his visit to the areas devastated by the fires and he writes, "The scale of these fires and the destruction they have wrought is difficult to comprehend. The human toll, in terms of lives lost and families torn apart, is enormous and the cost to communities, already struggling with drought and economic pressures, will be very high". People speak in superlatives of horror to describe what has happened and the TV coverage has brought the reality of pain and loss into our homes. It is quite something to see our political leaders weep alongside fire survivors and people's relatives and friends. Julia Gillard, in her speech to parliament, said, "The 7th February 2009 will be remembered as one of the darkest days in Australia's peacetime history. A tragedy beyond belief, beyond precedent and really beyond words! It will be remembered as a day when fires raged across the state, from Horsham in the west, Bendigo and Beechworth in the north and in an arc of destruction from West Gippsland to Kinglake and Kilmore. It will be remembered as a day of tragedy, courage and sheer luck".
No doubt, for people living here it has brought back memories of 2003 and revived feelings of the tension and the fear felt then —and the grief. These things remain with us for a long time.
Alongside the loss and devastation in Victoria have been the firemen and women, and the SES and Rural Fire volunteers and their work in appalling conditions. Then there have been all the people trying to help with the basics of life. And we've heard stories of enormous courage and kindness. The outpouring of sympathy from the rest of the Australian population — people's generosity and their expressions of support, of solidarity, have been huge, and survivors speak of their appreciation and the sense they have that they are not alone and forgotten in their pain. One farmer commented that it's turned a tragic disaster into something that can be managed.
That is a sign of how people can be 'touched' back to life. But we also know, of course, that for many the grief will be there for the rest of their lives. And there are the questions that also remain. As the headline in one newspaper put it yesterday: "The nation is mourning and searching for answers. How do we make sense of losing so many good people, of so much devastation?"
Leprosy, and all the skin diseases covered by the word in the ancient world, was a devastating disease. In the gospel passage, we heard a record of one of Jesus' encounters with a leper, and in the First Reading we heard a parallel story from the Elisha cycle in 2 Kings. In the Jewish approach to leprosy, it wasn't just the physical disease that you had to contend with, the anxiety, the loss of physical well-being and possible death, it was the fact that leprosy made you ritually unclean - diseased and unclean! - and as a quarantine, leprosy sufferers were forced to live on the margins of society, cut off from life in community, from family and friends and from worship, unable to approach people, unable to touch and be touched for fear of passing on the contagion.
In defiance of that law, the man in the gospel approaches Jesus and falls on his knees. You get a sense of his desperation, but also of a faith that's prepared to break through barriers, like the woman with the haemorrhage later in the gospel. This man believes that Jesus has the power to make him clean — a power the biblical tradition says only God has. The story of Naaman reminds us of that.
The relationship between God and human suffering is a hard question that theologians and the ordinary among us have argued about for ever. The issues are huge and answers often are crass, sometimes misleading, sometimes plain wrong and hurtful. While differing opinions argue, human hearts break.
Some years ago, J. B. Phillips wrote a book with the title,Your God is too Small, and in it he analysed society's misconceptions about what Christians believe about God. He came to the conclusion that for many people God had become remote and ridiculous, irrelevant to the misery of the world as we experience it. People's understanding of Christian faith had become a cheap parody of the real thing, and that's still the case in the minds of many.
But that is not the God we find revealed in Jesus Christ in the gospel passage today. We see God present in Jesus not distant from human suffering but bound up with it, reaching out to touch and heal. In response to the leprous man's statement, 'If you choose you can make me clean', Mark tells us Jesus is moved with pity and responds, 'I do choose. Be made clean'. And Jesus reaches out his hand and touches the man's leprous skin in total contradiction of the law, and the man is healed. Jesus' reaching out, Jesus' touch makes the man clean from being unclean. Instead of the contagion of uncleanness passing from the leprous man to Jesus, Jesus' cleanness, Jesus' holiness passes to the man. He is restored to life in community from his exclusion and the community becomes that little bit more an authentic expression of the inclusive reign of God.
God as we know God in Jesus is not remote from suffering but is a power of healing and love that reaches out to heal and restore. Suffering takes us to the edge of life and the fringes of community, but there we may experience the tenderness and compassion of God, and Christ's touch that can heal our spirits if not always in our bodies. The Ecumenical Disabilities Network of the WCC makes the distinction between cure and healing and its members who suffer from every kind of disability from cerebral palsy to quadriplegia to mental illness argue that cure is not always necessary or particularly important, but healing is everything and that at the heart of healing is the recognition of people's humanity and their acceptance and full participation in community — as they are able. They make the point that every one of Jesus' miracles, at its heart, is a miracle of healing in this sense.
Today's story of Jesus reaching out to touch the leper symbolises God in Jesus reaching out to touch the whole human race, diseased, disfigured, disabled. No one is excluded.. When we read the whole gospel we realise the story has a double ending. Jesus' opponents finally kill him, because he touched lepers and many others to life, and because he touched people's precious power and showed it up for what it was. Then God touched Jesus into life: not even the violence of our human hatred, blindness and exclusion can turn away the love of God. Jesus was the hand of God placed on a world God would not give up. We who read this story of the leper, and who know that Jesus has touched us, are invited to continue his mission — to touch the world with life — through our gifts, our words, our work, and our prayer.