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The sermon for week February 12, 2012

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I CHOOSE, Mark 1:40-45

The gospel reading this morning comes from the book of Mark, chapter one. The Gospel of Mark is the oldest of the four gospels and when Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels they had the Gospel of Mark as a reference. The book of Mark is also the shortest of the gospels. Everything is crunched together in just a few words, and no where is this more evident than in chapter one where in the space of just a few verses we meet John the Baptist, Jesus is baptized, wrestles with temptation in the wilderness, calls his disciples and performs three miracles. It is those miracles I want to focus upon this morning, especially the third one, which we read this morning.

Let us pray: God, give us open and inquisitive minds as we consider the words read this morning and their possible claim upon our lives. Amen.

In the first miracle, Jesus goes to the synagogue and there he is confronted by a man who has what the Bible calls an “unclean spirit.” The man verbally assaults Jesus and says, “What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?” The us is not the people but the unclean spirits, the demons, the advance of evil, the invisible, what Paul calls, the principalities and powers, that reck havoc.

Jesus, with what the Bible calls “authority,” rebukes the unclean spirit and calls him out of the man, freeing the man of this malevolent spirit.

What must be understood in reading these stories, especially the miracle stories, is that often the author uses them to point beyond the miracle to some greater reality, and thus it is probable this is what Mark is doing in the first three miracles of Jesus in chapter one. He is laying a foundation for everything that is to follow. In this first miracle Mark is showing us Jesus‘ authority over what sometimes seems the cosmic power of evil. It is in our time expressed in the faith of the confessing church in Germany and men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who would not submit to the authority of Hitler during WWII, but as David to Goliath, was not cowered by the vast power of the third reich, but in the name of Jesus, stood up against it.

The second miracle took place in the home of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, a dangerous condition in the ancient world. Jesus goes to the room, takes her hand, lifts her up, and the fever left her. The message of Jesus is not confined to the spirit world or things spiritual. That God loves us means not just that our spirits are saved, but that that love extends to all things physical. It is the “Ode to Joy,” of Beethoven, the brother sun and sister moon of St. Francis, and the passionate, physical love affair in the book, Song of Solomon.

God cares for what our eyes see, and out of that faith and miracle of healing, we not only pray, spirit led, but work, physically, for the greening of the earth and the healing of those not only sick in spirit but sick and wounded in body.

So, in the early goings on of the gospel, the stage is set. Mark is telling us, pay attention to Jesus. Jesus is telling us something about God. He is revealing a reality that has a power to heal our brokenness. His message may seem simple and tied to particulars but it is universal and cosmic in its scope. He may seem bound by time, a time that will last only three years for Jesus, but in that span, is revealed the eternal.

Then, we come to the third miracle. What more is left to be said? Why another miracle? The answer is, we begin to see how these miracles are to be lived out in our every day lives, the practical application, and it starts with our sense of community and how in every choice we make, we have the power to either affect a miracle as Jesus did or not.

Let’s look at the third miracle. As always it seems simple enough. It is about a leper and belonging. It is about isolation and community. It is about the choice of who is in and who is out.

To understand this story we have to look more closely at the leper and what it meant to be a leper in Jesus’ day.

I have read horrific details of what leprosy could do to people. Limbs might fall off, bodies could be disfigured to the point of unrecognizability, a person could experience the loss of an eyeball or ear and in the end sanity could be lost. There were three majority types of leprosy in the period of the New Testament, but there were also other skin conditions that were classified under leprosy, remembering there was not the sophistication of diagnosis as was later developed in the modern era of medicine. Psoriasis and other skin irritations were all lumped together under the category of leprosy, meaning they suffered the same fate.

We don’t know which of these skin conditions the man had. To me, however, the issue is not the severity of his illness or even if today we would classify his illness as leprosy. In truth, the issue in this incident, is not the illness. Remember Jesus has already cured someone with a physical illness. We are looking for something different here, another realm over which Jesus is demonstrating his authority and one which tells us something about what Jesus expects of us as follows, as ones who affirm the truth of God’s love as revealed in Jesus in all things spiritual and physical.

The clue, I believe, is in the judgment or sentence imposed on all those who had leprosy or were suspected of having leprosy. They were banished from the community. They were condemned as outcasts. They were considered unclean, unfit, untouchable. They were made to be outsiders, could not live in the village or town and if someone drew near to them they were to shout, “unclean,” “unclean” to warn the person approaching. They were not only banished but had to enforce their own banishment.

The realm Jesus is confronting in the story of the leper is not the physical or the spiritual, but the social. Jesus is confronting the sociological dimension of our culture and he is asserting his authority over it.

Consider for a moment what it is to be an outcast and I would say for the vast majority of us we do not have to consider it in the abstract because most of us at one point in our lives or another have experienced what it means to be an outcast.

A lot of us have this experience when we are students. We learn what it is to be on the outside. We never find the group where we fit or else we hide our true selves so as not to stand out so we can fit in. High school is cruel. Suicide is a leading cause of death among teen-agers. The recent focus on bullying is a prime example of our propensity to make a world of “us” and “them.” On the opposite extreme are the teen-agers who succumb to violence as a horrible expression of their isolation. In between are most of us who remember what it was like to feel left out and the desperation we sometimes felt to be liked.

The pain perhaps abates as we get older but there is still a terrible awareness of being in our being out, accepted or rejected, having the right stuff or being an outcast. I am becoming increasingly aware of this as I get older. There is a certain age bias that creeps into our thinking whether we recognize it our not. It is the same with gender and race and sexual orientation. It extends to the neighborhoods in which we live, the vehicles we drive and the schools we attend. Someone always ends up being the leper.

There are two aspects of the healing story of the leper that I want you to notice because both apply to our behavior as Christians and to what it means to be the church.

The first is how Jesus affected the healing. The Bible says, he touched the leper. He reached out and placed his hand upon him. Oh, the power of human touch. To shake someone’s hand, to place your hand upon someone’s shoulder, to embrace someone and hug someone is to say, you are in my world, you mean something to me, we are buddies, we are friends, we are insiders to one another, we are members of the same community, and sometimes it even says, I love you.

Before Jesus uttered the words, “Be made clean,” before the leper was healed, Jesus touched him. He touched him while he was still a leper. He touched him while he was still considered unclean.

Oh, to be touched while you are still thought of as untouchable, while you are still on the outside, while you are still looked upon with suspicion.

This is what Jesus gives you. He touches you before you have been made whole. Jesus doesn’t wait until you have been made perfect. Jesus doesn’t wait until you have turned your life around, or the norms of society have changed to include you. The touch of Jesus takes place no matter. It is redeeming. It is empowering. It is healing.

The healing of our life doesn’t precede God loving us but comes out of God’s Love for us. It is when we know we have been embraced by God which is what Jesus’ touch symbolizes that we begin to know ourselves as who we are, a whole person, created in the image of God. We meet Jesus as an outsider but what we discover is inside God’s Love there is no outside. There is only invitation and inclusion.

But I said there are two aspects to this miracle story that are important. There is the touch, and here is the second. It takes place before the touch and the miracle, but it is as important as the miracle because without it there would have been no miracle.

The leper stood before Jesus, then begging and kneeling he said to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Then Jesus, moved with pity, stretched out his hand and touched him and said, “I choose. Be made clean!” And immediately, the leprosy left him.

Here is the point: In every person that stands before you, you have a choice. You can greet that person or not. Whoever it is, friend or foe, like you or different from you, bullied by others or blamed by others, outside or insider, you have a choice. And let me tell you, when you lay aside your differences, when you bracket your bias, when you pray, “let the same Spirit be in me that was in Jesus Christ,” and you reach out your hand and touch that person, and whether it be a handshake or an embrace, a little miracle occurs, a bit of healing takes place and it will be, not just for the person you have greeted, but for yourself as well. All beginning in the words, “I choose.” That is what it is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. You choose to include. Your embrace circles the world. Your handshake is a bond in which you choose to welcome the person before you.

Now, I want to end with one word about what it means to be the church, illumined by this third miracle of Jesus in chapter one of Mark. I said the significance of this healing is that it showed Jesus authority over the social structures of our society. The hallmark is inclusiveness. The Kingdom of God for Jesus is one in which there are no barriers. The lamb lies down with the lion, the rich and poor feast together, the Jew and Gentile worship together, male and female serve together, the young and old, straight and gay, weak and powerful, pray together. Jesus embraced the leper, sat with the Samaritan woman at the well, called both tax collectors and fishermen to be his disciples.

Though we are not yet barrier free in our society and though divisions still exit between us in our country and in the world, inside the church we choose to express the inclusiveness of God’s Redeeming Love.

Christ has established the Church to be a microcosm on earth of God’s Kingdom in heaven. We incarnate and nurture the kind of acceptance Jesus gave the leper. Christ is the Head, and like Christ, for all who enter here, all who come regardless of their background, regardless of anything about them, we choose, like Christ to be the people of the outstretched hands welcoming them. This is who we are and what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ.

Let us pray: God, help us to remember all the times you have touched us in our life, the times You have made us feel included, and may we be the people who choose to be the same for others. Amen.

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