Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 15, 2009

2009.02.15 “Reach Out and Touch”

Central United Methodist Church

“Reach Out and Touch”

Mark 1: 40 – 45

Pastor David L. Haley

February 15th, 2009

“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.” – Mark 1: 21 – 28


For some of us, there are Bible stories we have history with.  For me, Mark 1:40 – 45, Jesus’ healing of a leper, is such a story.

It was the summer of 1972 (I think), and I was working toward my major in Speech & Communications at Murray State University. In a summer intensive, I took a class called Dramatic Interpretation. I’ll never forget it because there were about 15 students in the class, and when the teacher, an older woman from Paris, Tennessee, found out that I was on my way to becoming a minister, she had me lead the class in an opening prayer, to my embarrassment. 

The point of the class was the use of drama in public speaking.  I took, as an example specific to my use, this story of Jesus’ healing of the leper.  When we read this story, we often blow through it, without “experiencing” it.

Remember that, in Biblical times, leprosy covered not just the disease we now call “Hansen’s disease”, but a broad range of skin ailments, most of which caused scarring and disfigurement. Even though they didn’t know the germ theory of disease, they knew it was contagious, and so lepers became not just physical, but social outcasts as well.  They had to wear a bell to signal their approach, that others might get out of the way. Not only was it dangerous to touch them, it was a violation of the social holiness code, so that not only were they unclean, if you touched them – even accidentally — you were now unclean also. Lepers lived in exile, cut off from human touch, from family, from human community, except for that of other lepers.

So imagine this leper’s approach to Jesus as Mark tells it:

“A leper came to him, begging, and kneeling, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”  Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I choose. Be clean.”  Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”

After that class, which sealed this story in my memory, little did I know how much this story would shape my life. 

Because, if I’ve had a second profession, it would be in the medical field. I started off that way in college – as pre-med – before switching to ministry (finishing with a minor in biology). I worked my way through college in an Emergency Room. Even after many years in ministry, after my daughter Melissa was born premature in 1986, I applied to medical school. They were impressed that I had learned Greek and Hebrew, but were more concerned about organic chemistry, of which I’d taken two years worth in a summer night course at DePaul. “Just a little more,” they said.  I realized that if I took them up on it, I’d be hearing “just a little more” for at least 6 years, and probably never see my family. So I did not pursue it.

What I did do, however, was bridge the two worlds of ministry and medicine by serving as a part-time chaplain at Swedish Covenant Hospital. Then, in 1990, when I moved to West Chicago, I did the same by serving as a fire and police chaplain, and became a certified paramedic, which I did for 14 years.

My point is, as a pastor, as a chaplain, as a paramedic, I’ve had plenty of occasion to deal with and reflect upon the divide symbolized in this story, between Jesus and the leper, between sufferers and healers, and between illness and wellness, as well as how we as Christians are called to bridge that divide by reaching out to those who suffer.

But it’s not just me; this story of Jesus’ healing of the leper speaks to all of us, because at one time or another, we find ourselves on one or the other side of this divide, either as a “sufferer” or as one who seeks to be a “healer.” Thus it not only provides us with an opportunity to reflect upon “illness” and “wellness”, but as to how we can be an agent of healing in the lives of others.

Indeed, as you heard, with the exception of the reading from Corinthians, all of today’s texts – the story of Naaman the leper, Psalm 30, and this story from Mark – all struggle with something we still struggle with, the threat posed by illness to the wholeness we believe God desires for us.

The first thing I want to note is what you have likely learned, how vast the difference is between “illness” and “wellness.”  If you have ever really sick, especially with a life-threatening illness, if there is anything you learn, it is how much we take for granted our health.  Though I’ve not yet faced a life-threatening illness, I’ve had a few wake-up calls, definitely in seeing what can happen in a moment’s notice.  Let me say it again:  we are not thankful enough for life and good health.

If you’ve ever been strapped to a backboard or confined to a bed or entered a treatment facility or brought low by chest pains or chemo or isolated in intensive care, you know it is a time of crisis, where if you have any faith at all you cry out to God, like the Psalmist or this leper. As the British lexicologist Samuel Johnson once said in another context, “The notion that one is to be hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully.”

When our health goes, everything goes: not only our body but our mind, our emotions, our family, our relationships, all suffer.  That’s why they say that there’s no such think as a sick “person”: there’s a sick family, because one family member’s illness affects the entire family.

Indeed, when we hear this story about the leper, we might scorn their primitive beliefs regarding leprosy, until we get sick and find that there is still a stigma attached to disease, to disability, even gender, though all biological in nature.

For example, The New York Times has a section called “Patient Voices”: this week they had a piece on epilepsy: sufferers told what they suffered, not just medically, but from others.  One woman said she had been told, even though she is a Christian and attends church, that she is demon possessed. 

Indeed, whether you are obese or disabled or cancerous or HIV positive or gay, through no choice of your own, there are plenty of people – including Christians – ready to point the finger at you and tell you that somehow it’s your fault, attaching to you a social stigma almost as great as this leper.

In this context, that’s what is so moving – and so startling – about this story. It wasn’t just that Jesus listened to the leper’s plea and healed him; it was that – as the text makes clear – he touched him.  As the Reformer John Calvin said, “By His Word alone he might have healed the leper, but He applied . . . the touch of his hand, to express the feeling of compassion.” 

But was Jesus’ motive compassion, or anger? If you compare different translations, you’ll find there is a textual problem: depending on how one translates the Greek word, either Jesus was “moved with anger”, or he was “moved with compassion.”

In any case, the effect is the same. Perhaps Jesus was angry because the social holiness code had subverted the greater law of compassion. Sometimes, we need to be angry about the economic or social conditions that cause injustice, and not just keep treating the victims, but fix the system. The Church has often been good at treating the bodies that float down the river, not as good about going up the river to find out where the bodies are coming from. Sometimes we need to hand out sandwiches, sometimes we need to work for fair trade so people can feed their families. Sometimes we need to work at homeless shelters; sometimes we need to work for affordable housing so people of low income can afford to have a roof over their heads.

 Alternately, so great was Jesus’ compassion, he didn’t care what the consequences were: he touched the man to show this. Although in English we are forced to use a few more words, in Greek the request and reply are only two: The leper says, “If you are willing,” and Jesus replies, “Willing!”  The leper says, “You can make me clean,” and Jesus says “Cleansed!” 

When it says that Jesus cleansed the man, it doesn’t mean that he only “cured” him, it means he restored him into life in community.  Jesus didn’t just give him a cure; Jesus gave him back his voice and his dignity.

So here’s an important second thing to note, there is a difference between being “cured” and being “healed” or “made whole.”

Nobody – either medically or theologically – understands why some people are cured and some are not. Medically, the mystery of illness and wellness is so mysterious, so complex, even science cannot fully understand all that’s involved. Two people can have the same condition, get the same treatment, and some will get well, and some will not; some will live, and some will die. Did you know that in some illnesses, people who get placebos (pills with no medically active ingredient) instead of the indicated medicine, get well 30% to 40% of the time? Sometimes doctors are not sure if it is the medicine that affects the cure, or whether it just buys time for the body to heal itself. And sometimes, no matter what the medicine, or the treatment, or the attitude, there is no cure, and no healing and no reason, and we die.

Theologically, we do not understand why some people are cured and some are not.  Personally, I learned this lesson in neonatal ICU with my daughter. I’ve no doubt we were all praying equally hard for our children, but some of those babies got better, and some got worse, wound up with a shunt in their head, or even died. Could I say that God heard my prayers but not theirs?  And what would that say about God?  Or perhaps, as some would say, perhaps prayer had nothing to do with it at all, except in changing me.

That’s why, sometimes it makes more sense not to talk about who gets cured and who doesn’t, but the difference between being “cured” and being “healed.”  We’ve all known people who have been “cured” but not healed, and we have also known those who will never be cured, but in their lives, have been “healed.”

And what does it mean to talk about “wholeness”, when, by the nature of being human, we are all in the process of deterioration?  Therefore if we are going to seek “wholeness”, we’ve obviously got to do it in some sense other than physical. Even as our bodies are falling apart, we seek “wholeness” – that which the Bible describes as salvation – not only in body, but in mind, in spirit, in relationship, with others and with God.

The final point that I’d like to make is that in addition to what the text tells us about the difference between illness and wellness, and the difference between being “cured” and being “healed,” it calls us all to be healers: to reach out across the divides that separate us, and touch those who suffer.

The best healers, as the late Henri Nouwen put it, are “wounded” healers. If you feel apprehension when you’re in an ambulance with crushing chest pain and the paramedic is the age of your son or you mistake your nurse for a “candy-striper” or your doctor looks like he’s in high school, such apprehension might be well-founded. As we’ve all likely discovered, the most compassionate and caring healers are those who have experienced something of what you’re going through: doctors who have faced cancer or heart disease or taken care of their aged parents suffering from Alzheimer’s. The point is, learn to use the “weak” points of your life, the places where you have been broken and made strong, to reach out and help others.

So be courageous and compassionate and aggressive to reach out across the divide to touch those who suffer, but also be humble: none of us fully understands what someone is going through, until – in some analogous way – we have been there.

Here’s an example: this week I discovered a new blog on the Washington Post, in their “On Faith” section, entitled, “Faith and Healing.” It is by the Rev. Anne C. Brower, M.D., also an Episcopal priest. She is now Senior Chaplain and Director of the Healing Ministry at the Washington National Cathedral.  Rev. Dr. Brower says of herself:

“I am a breast cancer survivor. One might say that I am cured, but my body is not the same body it was before my breast cancer was discovered.

Because of the radiation I received to cure the breast cancer, I developed atrial fibrillation. When I have bronchitis, I always have it on the left side, where I received my radiation. I now have paresthesias in my left arm from the radiation. My scars take on pain when the barometer drops. Therefore, I am a survivor of breast cancer, but I am not cured.

And yet I know that I did experience healing.

. . . I believe ‘cure means returning your body to the same state it was in before disease attacked it. I as a doctor wish to cure you and you as a patient wished to be cured, but this doesn’t always happen. We all live with our diabetes, our arthritis, our low back pain, our heart disease, our cancer, our infections, our irritable bowel, etc.

When I trained as a physician, I learned the art of medicine: how to listen, how to touch, how to heal the whole. As medicine became more technical and therapeutic, I became an Episcopal priest in order to return to the art of healing the mind, body and soul. I was ordained in 2001.

In my posts, I hope to define and clarify healing as a way of life, the ways we have of healing, illustrated by true stories I have witnessed both as a physician and as a priest. Some areas I hope to write about are the efficacy of prayer, the power of touch, a discussion on faith, the need of community, the ancient sacrament of “the healing rite,” and creating sacred space.

Life is not about finding yourself; life is about creating yourself.  I hope this blog will enable this to happen.”

        Though Rev. Dr. Brower might be an extraordinary example, remember, in the intersection between body and soul, and illness and wellness, you do not have to be an M.D. or an M.Div. to reach out and touch: only a fellow sufferer along the way.  In that sense, we’ve all lepers here.

Writes Northwestern professor Garry Wills in his book, What Jesus Meant, “No outcasts were cast out far enough in Jesus’ world to make him shun them — not Roman collaborators, not lepers, not prostitutes, not the crazed, not the possessed. Are there people now who could possibly be outside his encompassing love?”

I think we know the answer.  Let us, like Jesus, reach out and touch.


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