Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 15, 2012

2012.02.12 “In a Lonely Place” – Mark 1: 40 – 45

Central United Methodist Church

“In a Lonely Place”

Pastor David L. Haley

Mark 1: 40 – 45

February 12th, 2012


          “A leper came to Jesus, begging on his knees, “If you want to, you can cleanse me.”

          Deeply moved, Jesus put out his hand, touched him, and said, “I want to. Be clean.” Then and there the leprosy was gone, his skin smooth and healthy. Jesus dismissed him with strict orders: “Say nothing to anyone. Take the offering for cleansing that Moses prescribed and present yourself to the priest. This will validate your healing to the people.” But as soon as the man was out of earshot, he told everyone he met what had happened, spreading the news all over town. So Jesus kept to out-of-the-way places, no longer able to move freely in and out of the city. But people found him, and came from all over.” – Mark 1: 40 – 45, The Message


         Over the years, some of my most haunting experiences have been my visits to the lonely places of life.

         Sometimes, such lonely places are actual places: hospital rooms, waiting rooms, psychiatric wards, care centers, or hospices, where time passes slowly. Through the years, when a family member might be in intensive care or in surgery, I would enter a waiting room looking for the family, dressed in a sport coat and tie, to find all eyes fixed on me, fearful of what news I might bring.  

         If you’ve experienced it, you will know that such places are even more haunting at night. The daytime bustle of the hospital is gone and the hallways and waiting rooms are empty, except for those who wait and worry. At such times, the supportive companionship of pastors or friends can form bonds beyond words.

         Sometimes the lonely places of our lives are not actual places, but places of the spirit. Lonely and alone, we may feel like no one knows or understands what we’re going through. The title of Millete’s offertory today may characterize the way we feel: “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See.” Those who live in this lonely place are not only those who suffer from disease, but those who take care of them, with no small sacrifice or suffering on their part.  That too, can be a lonely experience.

         It is, as a person lying in a hospital bed once said to me, that “three in the morning” feeling. He said, “Where is a pastor when you need one, at three in the morning?” Because I’ve experienced “three in the morning” emergencies, I knew what he meant. It’s a lonely place to be. Some of us sitting here today live in such lonely places; if not us, we have family or friends who do.

         Thus, we may hear with great sensitivity today the story of the leper who comes to Jesus seeking healing. It is the story of a person both literally and figuratively in a lonely place.  For those of us who live in such a place, the story raises questions, but more importantly, conveys a comforting message: the attitude and action of God toward those who suffer.

Indeed, all of today’s texts – the story of Naaman in 2 Kings, the prayer of Psalm 30, and this story from Mark – struggle with that which we still struggle with, the threat posed by illness to the wholeness we seek, and believe God desires for us.

         As we hear these stories, remember that, in the ancient world, there were no hospitals, medical insurance, or disability pay. Sick people were either cared for at home or ended up on the streets. Disease, deformity, and death were highly visible, a common sight in everyday life. You didn’t have to visit the sick, you had to step over them, because they were everywhere. Even lepers, required by law to live outside the city limits, were not shut away, such that as travelers ventured outside their village, they were set upon by lepers bearing begging bowls, announcing their presence with ringing bells.

         This is in contrast to our society, where we isolate the ill in hospitals and institutions. Sometimes this is for good reason, such as contagion or efficiency. But sometimes you have to wonder if it’s not to keep sick folks out of the sight of healthy folks; to spare us the sights, sounds, and smells of disease. In our society, the sicker you are, the more isolated you become, winding up in a lonely place.

         Of course, because we are all susceptible to disease and accident, it’s not possible to isolate ourselves from it, should we even want to.  For example, last Wednesday I was at the Leaning Tower Y. I had just done some weightlifting and swam a few laps, and was feeling pretty good. Here came a man, slowly pushing his walker with great effort, one foot not working very well, my guess, post-stroke.  Even when we take good health for granted, we are reminded of our human frailty, by simply looking around.

         Once Jesus began healing the disease and deformed, he was surrounded, becoming a one-man emergency room. No matter how much he implored the person healed to keep quiet, word got out, such that the diseased and crippled packed the courtyards of homes where he was staying and the streets of the towns he visited. Soon the crowds were so great that he could only deal with them in the countryside. If there was any humor in it at all, I found this cartoon depicting it.

         So it was while Jesus was in the countryside, a leper approached. 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 were not just physical, but social outcasts as well. They could no longer sit at the family table, engage in society or attend synagogue.  Even to touch them accidentally was a violation of the holiness code; if you touched them, now you were unclean as well.

When we hear such a story, we might scorn their primitive beliefs, until we get sick and find that there are still stigmas attached to disease. Whether you are obese or disabled or cancerous or HIV positive or mentally ill, there are plenty of people – including some Christians – ready to point the finger at you and tell you somehow it’s your fault, attaching a social and spiritual stigma almost as great as this leper.

         So when this leper comes to Jesus, begging on his knees to be healed, Jesus doesn’t respond in any of the ways we might expect.  He doesn’t say, “What have you done to cause this to happen?” or “What will you do with your life if I heal you?” or even “Back up, Jack, and keep your distance.” What he did was to reach out to touch him. Although in English we have to use 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!” 

        The message it conveys is this:  the actions of Jesus, acting on God’s behalf and in demonstration of God’s kingdom, demonstrate that God desires healing and wholeness for those who suffer, whether physically or mentally or emotionally or spiritually.  When you are in that lonely place, that’s a bedrock truth to know.

         But the inevitable question it raises is this: then why are those who suffer – why are we who suffer – not healed?  Why do some suffer so much, and others apparently not at all? Is it that God is capable of healing us, but will not; or would heal us, but – restrained by reality – cannot?  Or is there a third possibility, that God can and God will, but finally, our healing is in our hands and in the hands of those who care for us. After all, God didn’t invent penicillin, Sir Andrew Fleming did.     

        In truth, both medically and theologically, no one understands the mystery of human healing, why some are healed and some are not. The mystery of illness and wellness is so mysterious, so complex, that even our best science cannot yet determine all that’s involved. Two people can have the same condition, and receive the same treatment: some will get well, 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) get well 30% to 40% of the time?  And sometimes, no matter what the medicine, the treatment, or the attitude, there is no cure and no healing, and we die prematurely.  And, in any case, the last time I checked, the mortality rate is still 100% for every generation.

         Furthermore, in the larger context, healing and wholeness are not defined solely by physical capacity, or the condition of our bodies. After all, we are more than our bodies. As the French philosopher and theologian Teilhard de Chardin once observed, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

        Know who is one of the greatest sources of inspiration to me in our congregation? Katy Washington. Katy’s body is deformed and distorted; confined to her wheelchair. Yet I have never heard Katy complain about it.  Through the fairer months, because she lives in Highland Park, it takes Katy four buses and two trains — and all the wait time in between — to come to church. One Sunday she showed up soaking wet, because of a rainstorm that blew through while she was waiting for the train. She doesn’t come in these winter months because, understandably, in the cold, that would be brutal.  When I look at Katy, it makes me ashamed that I sometimes whine and complain. Though stuck with her disabled body, Katy is an inspiration to all of us.

        That’s why, though we may wise otherwise, it makes more sense not to talk about who gets healed and who doesn’t, as whether – regardless of our body’s condition – who – in this life – get made “whole.” And maybe, instead of “whole,” we should use the word “ripe.” After all, we’ve known teenagers who were “ripe” and seniors who were immature. What about us? Regardless of the age of our bodies, are we “ripe” yet, the kind of people God desires we should grow up to be, however long we live?

         Some of you knew Hazel Johnson, who died in January at the ripe old age of 104, just a month shy of her 105th birthday.  Hazel was active and alert right up to the end, a remarkable woman.  Although we won’t celebrate her memorial service until April 14th, I officiated at her graveside on January 19th.  Her daughter gave me one of Hazel favorite prayers; which I think is a good illustration of human “ripeness.”  Here it is:

         “Lord, keep me from the habit of thinking I must say something on every subject and on every occasion.

         Release me from craving to straighten out everybody’s affairs.

                 Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details, give me wings to get to the point.

                 I ask for grace enough to listen to the tales of others’ pains. Help me to endure them with patience. But seal my lips on my own aches and pains . . . they are increasing and my love of rehearsing them is becoming sweeter as the years go by.

                 Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally it is possible that I may be mistaken.

                 Keep me reasonably sweet; I do not want to be a saint . . . some of them are so hard to live with . . . but a sour old person is crowning works of the devil.

                 Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected people. And, give me, O Lord, the grace to tell them so.

                 Make me thoughtful, but not moody; helpful, but not bossy. With my vast store of wisdom, it seems a pity not to use it all . . . but Thou knowest, Lord, that I want a few friends at the end . . .


         The final irony of Jesus’ healing of the leper? After Jesus healed the leper, the leper could go back into society, but Jesus could not; now Jesus was confined to the lonely places. Partially, it might have been because in touching the leper to make him clean, he became unclean. Primarily, it was because the leper talked so much about who healed him, that the villages of Galilee were no longer big enough to hold all those who came seeking healing. So great was Jesus’ passion and love for God and others, that it would at last bring him to the ultimate lonely place, his death on the cross, abandoned by his friends, forsaken by God.

                 “Surely he has borne our infirmities
                          and carried our diseases;
                 yet we accounted him stricken,
                          struck down by God, and afflicted. 
                 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
                          crushed for our iniquities;
                 upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
                          and by his bruises we are healed.“ – Isaiah 53: 4 – 5 

         Do you find yourself in a lonely place?  According to the 1st chapter of Mark, Jesus is forming a new human community, the church, those on whom God’s love dwells. And the word is this: he’s beginning with outcasts: sinners and sufferers, the possessed and the diseased, widows and lepers, any and all of us who find ourselves in a lonely place in life.  Who wants to join?



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