Feb. 12, 2012 Epiphany 6 “I Am Willing – Be Clean”

We’ve been doing quite a bit of talking lately about reaching out to our neighbors, trying to share our faith with the people we live with or shop with or work with or attend meetings with. And I know I’ve mentioned before, the best and most natural way for us to share our faith with others is just to share our story – or actually, our stories. Some of us have an experience we can point to when God somehow entered our lives, when the course of our life, that had gone terribly wrong, was changed by grace, suddenly in one dramatic moment, or gradually over a long period of time. Others of us have just quietly grown into our faith from the time we were children, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a story too.

In fact, we all have many stories, because God didn’t just wind our Christian lives up like a clockwork mouse and let us run – he is there for us and with us every day. In all those moments of our lives when all we can pray is “help” or “I can’t do this” or “Why me” Jesus is there, listening, coming alongside us, touching our lives in a multitude of ways. And he has a way of bringing us in contact with other people whose lives have come to those same breaking points, who have cried out with those same cries of desperation — and then, because of those trials he has brought us through we have comfort to offer them – In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul put it like this: God, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, comforts us in all our afflictions, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

Experience, especially common experiences – the kind of experiences one parent can share with another parent, or a person who has gone through a terrible illness or a divorce with someone who has also suffered in that same way – are one of the best ways to make a human connection, so that when we share the difference God has made in our life, another person can more clearly see the God that lives in us. And through us, through hearing our story, they can be drawn a little nearer to knowing him themselves.  We all see God best through our own human experience because that’s the only way we have of knowing anything.

And that’s why, when God wanted us to know who he is, he chose to reveal himself through stories. And not strange mystical stories about unearthly beings, like some religions have. The Bible is full of stories about very real people, people who make the same mistakes we do, people who feel joy and anger and sorrow and pain just like us – people who suffer from illness and loneliness and fear, like the leper who cried out to Jesus in the gospel reading today.

When I hear about the lepers in the Bible, I think my first reaction is to be glad people in the “real” world don’t get leprosy any more. Of course, that’s not even true –in third-world countries like India, there are still leper colonies, but it isn’t something most of us have to worry about. The Bible uses the term leprosy for a whole range of skin ailments, ranging from disfiguring but fairly harmless diseases like psoriasis to true leprosy. But when a person was found to have one of these illnesses in those days there was no way to be sure which disease it was, so the fear that they felt would have been the same – something like what we feel when we hear the word cancer, I think., but perhaps even more frightening.

So even though that particular disease is not something we are familiar with, this man has a lot to share with us as we look at his experience – what kinds of suffering and fears he was living with, and what happened when he met Jesus. A lot happened to this man when he was found to have leprosy. In many ways, it would have been a kind of living death. He was cut off at once from everyone he knew, from all his family and all his friends, and forced to live away from all society. Lepers had to dress so that anyone that saw them would know at once to avoid them – they had to wear torn clothing and cover their mouths and cry out “unclean” if they saw anyone approaching. The only way they could survive was to camp on the outskirts of towns or villages and hope for charity, or at least to find enough refuse to stay alive. And staying alive was only a stopgap measure anyway, because there was no cure for leprosy. All they had to look forward to was a gradual death as their body rotted away, bit by bit.

When you hear this poor man’s story, does it make you think of any people you know whose lives are something like his. Do you know anyone who lives in isolation – whether of their own choosing, or because they just seem to have been left behind? There are people in nursing homes or prisons whose whole life seems to consist in waiting for the end, and whose family and friends seem to have forgotten all about them. But there are many other people whose lives are like that in less obvious or less dramatic ways – people who have suffered so many discouragements or made so many bad choices that they’ve driven away the people that might have helped them, people who have put up so many walls around themselves that they might as well live in isolation. So many people are living the life of the leper in the story.

They need to hear his story, because it didn’t end there. Whether it was because he was desperate, or because he was braver than most, when this man heard that Jesus was coming he did what no leper was ever supposed to do – he came right up to Jesus, and falling on his knees before him he begged Jesus to help him. The remarkable thing about this man, is that he doesn’t seem to have had any doubt that Jesus was able to cure him. “If you are willing,” he said to Jesus, “you can make me clean.” I know you are able to change my life, to save me from this living death, but I’m asking you this – do you want to? Do you care about me?

And Jesus’s response was to be as reckless as the man himself. If the leper was breaking Jewish law by approaching Jesus, Jesus was breaking the law even more when he reached out and touched the man. Touching an unclean person, according to the law, made the one who touched them unclean. But it didn’t work that way this time. When Jesus touched the man, instead of Jesus becoming Unclean, the man became clean. It was wonderfully, joyfully, entirely the opposite of what anyone might have expected.  Mark tells us it happened immediately. At once, it was like someone had pressed the reset button – the man’s  pain was gone, his skin was free of all ulcerations and infections, he was clean and well again at the touch of Jesus’s hand. Not just because he could – but because he wanted to. “I am willing – I do care,” Jesus said to him, “Be clean.”

I think that many people who are skeptical of healing prayer are skeptical for the same reason as the leper. They might be able to believe that God can heal someone – most of us have heard of people who have been healed through prayer. But it is often much harder to believe that God wants to heal us – wants to heal ME, cares about plain old me, enough to heal me. There are no guarantees that every time we pray for healing there will be a miraculous event. But the story of the leper tells us this – that God does care, he is willing, he hears our plea when we cry out to him, and if he hears us, we can be sure he will answer us.

Fr. Nigel Mumford often says that when we pray for healing there is not always a cure, but there is always healing. And that might seem like a cop-out. Well, yes, you still have cancer, we can say, but I bet God was healing some deep hurt inside you that you didn’t know about. But that’s only a cop-out if we believe that we always know exactly what we need. It only seems like a cop-out until you actually come and kneel before Jesus – because the more you know him, the more you learn that only he knows the full extent of your need. The truth is that our hurts and diseases go far deeper than the things we can find with a stethoscope or a CATscan, and the deadliest of our illnesses are the ones only God can heal. If you have lived with Jesus for any time, you know that’s true.

Through Mark’s gospel, the man who was a leper still shares his good news with us. His story encourages us to come boldly and to seek healing from the one who is always willing to reach out and touch us in our need. And as we come to God, day by day, with our big needs and our small needs, we in turn will have our own stories to share with others. We can comfort the people we meet with the comfort with which we have been comforted, so that they can come to know for themselves that Jesus is always willing to hear and always willing to heal.

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