“A Matter of Perspective”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
February 15, 2015
All of the gospels, each written under different circumstances and to different audiences attempt to tell in narrative form — to tell as a story – the proposition Paul had been writing about for close to two decades before, the proposition that through the death and resurrection of Jesus we too are made alive.
And if you were looking for a precis, an abstract of this truth, you could find in the first Chapter of Mark’s gospel. You don’t have to wait until Chapter 16 to learn about death and resurrection; right here in chapter one there is such a story. A man with leprosy comes to Jesus and he breaks all the rules; he doesn’t keep his distance and he doesn’t shout “Unclean, unclean” loudly before he approaches as the book of Leviticus requires. He simply comes near and kneels at Jesus’s feet. What’s he got to lose? He’s a good as dead. He cannot enter the synagogue to pray; he cannot enter his family’s home to eat, or sleep, or visit. He has become dead to society. But somehow he thinks Jesus can restore him to life.
“If you choose,” he says, “you can make me clean.” He doesn’t come demanding anything; he doesn’t have a laundry list of items he wants Jesus to take care of; he doesn’t have an agenda he thinks Jesus should adopt for the healing of the world. “If you choose,” he says. He knows it’s not his call; it’s Jesus’s call
And Jesus responds positively, “I do choose; be made clean.” Now the translation we’ve read today and several others as well say Jesus was moved with pity to cleanse this leper. But if you read down in the teeny tiny type at the bottom of the page in your bibles, you might see a note that says, “other ancient authorities read ‘anger’.” It changes the story to read “moved with anger, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.”
That reading raises interesting questions. Why would Jesus be angry? We know that he’s just left Capernaum, escaping from the crowds that were closing in on him after word had gotten out about his healing a demon possessed man in the synagogue and then healing Peter’s mother-in-law. Upon hearing this news, the crowds had grown, demanding Jesus’s time, attention, and healing. I suppose he could be angry that yet another person has tracked him down despite his attempts to avoid these kinds of encounter.
There are those who say that Jesus is angry because of what the system has done to this man, angry that he has been dehumanized and ostracized because of an illness, because of fear, because of social custom and religious laws. That would make his a righteous indignation, in the same vein as when later on he chastised the money changers in the temple and said they’d turned God’s house into a den of thieves.
That explanation seems more reasonable – to think of Jesus, not annoyed our irritated, but full of righteous indignation at the unfairness of life, at the prejudice this man has experienced through no fault of his own, to see Jesus’ hand outstretched to this outcast, to see the power of touch heal another person and restore him to his rightful place in a society that had turned its back on him. It feels right; it feels good, to hear Jesus issue what then could be seen as a challenge to the powers that be – go back to those priests, those authorities who told you that you weren’t good enough – and show them. Show them who you are; show them that you are whole; show them that you are healed. Show them that you are as good as they are. Make them acknowledge your common humanity.
It feels good; in fact there’s not much that feels better than righteous indignation. Righteous anger has taken on many abuses, many injustices, and has fired many hearts to go forth to do battle for what is right and true. I’ve done a little of that myself along the way, and I know that you have too. And one of the things I love best about this church is the courage that many of you have to speak out when you think something isn’t right in our community, and to get involved in working to change things for the better.
It says a lot about us, however, as we read the stories of scripture, to recognize whom we identify with in the story. It is so easy to identify with Jesus this morning, the one who crosses boundaries, touches the untouchable, and heals the wounds of the world. But then, it’s always easier to identify with the savior than with the saved. However, speaking for myself, I think maybe my proper place today is on my knees beside the leper. And I think the only way I can be a spokesperson for Christ, as that leper was after his healing, is for me to recognize my own need to be healed. And truthfully, all of us need that healing.
Let’s not kid ourselves. None of us makes it through life without being wounded, without knowing some kind of pain, isolation, or rejection; some kind of prejudice or oppression – subtle or not so subtle – being made to feel that we’re not quite good enough, or that we don’t quite measure up in some way. Even parents and grandparents from the most loving families do that with the best of intentions. Recently I read an article that suggested the quickest response to a child’s struggle on the soccer field, or in another area of endeavor, is to say “let me show you how to do it better next time.” But the best thing to say is “I love to watch you as you are playing the game.”
There are many ways in which our society, our culture, even our family or friends can make us feel “less than.” And we do the same thing, sometimes intentionally but mostly inadvertently, to others. Frederich Buechner has said, “In so many ways we move through our lives like lepers, the untouchable ones, the unclean ones, afraid to touch other people’s lives and let our lives be touched by other people, ashamed of ourselves, suspicious of others.”[i]
So what if we go back to this story and look at it from a different position — not from Jesus’ perspective, looking down at the leper and possessing the power to make a difference, but from the leper’s perspective, on our knees, looking up, powerless to effect change in our lives, saying to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” What if we could pray this prayer of relinquishment, not unlike what later Jesus himself will say on his knees to God, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
That’s a really difficult thing to do in today’s culture, more so than in Jesus’ time perhaps. We live in a democracy; we are not a defeated people living in an occupied country; we are powerful and we have choices. We are addicted to self-help, to thinking that we can engineer our own healing through our own power. We see weakness as failure and surrender as defeat. We admire independence and encourage it in our children. We have been taught “the Lord helps those who help themselves,” although that’s a Benjamin Franklin aphorism and not biblical. We want to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and press on.
But, truth be told, none of that really works very well for very long. It will get us just so far and no farther. There comes a time when all our influence and education, our wealth and job security, our popularity and acceptance among our friends and peers isn’t worth a hill of beans, as my mother used to say. And in these days and times that has to be something pretty drastic to shake our belief in our ability to fix and take care of things on our own. Usually, I think, it means coming in touch with our own mortality or experiencing the loss of a loved one. It means losing something that we thought was unmovable and indestructible. It means realizing that we don’t know it all, have it all, or can control it all, after all. Only then are we willing to surrender ourselves, sometimes kicking and screaming, to the One whom we can trust more than ourselves.[ii] And then in that place, feeling scared, powerless, helpless, unsure, unloved, alone – in that hopeless state, we can ask “if you choose, you can make me clean,” and hear the good news, “I do choose. Be made clean.”
Ironically, in touching the leper and cleansing him, Jesus became according to the custom of the day, unclean himself. In a sense he took the leper’s place. Mark says Jesus “could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country,” and the authorities began to take a much closer look at him, while the leper went back into the community and began to proclaim freely to everyone that he’d been healed.
Today’s story is a story of death and resurrection appropriate as we begin the season of Lent this coming Wednesday. It has the same meaning as when Paul says “I have been crucified with Christ,” or when he says “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” or that through Christ we have become “the righteousness of God.” Once we have been raised with Christ and by Christ, once we have been healed by the hand of the one who says to us, “I do choose; be made clean,” only then can we go out like the former leper did, only then do we have the proper credentials “to proclaim freely, and to spread the word,” to share the good news and in some sense to become the good news. Cleansed by the love of God working among us and within us, we can take on the powers and principalities, champion the cause of those yet bound, and express our righteous anger or indignation, because we ourselves, through the power and love of God, have been made right. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Frederich Buechner, “A Moment of Grace,” Thirty Good Minutes, Program #3601, October 4, 1992.
[ii] Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water, 21.