A Sermon on Mark 1:40-45
I imagine you are familiar with the saying: ‘there are two sides to every story.' With regards to Scripture, there are often at least two layers to every story and today's Gospel is a great example. On the surface we see a straightforward healing story. But when we shift our perspective we realize this passage actually reveals much about the characteristics of God through Jesus.
At face value we acknowledge the story of Jesus healing a Leper. Some can easily relate to this healing story, while others are left facing challenging questions.
I remember a few years ago, right before my mom and I were heading off to a ministry conference in Pennsylvania, she discovered a mysterious, painful mass growing within her. Since our reservations were already booked and paid for, and there was not much she could do in between doctor's appointments, we decided to still go to the conference.
During the conference there was a big healing service. Keep in mind, this was a non-denominational, thousands of people, hooting and hollering type of service. My mom was raised Catholic and I a cradle Episcopalian, and this was her first healing service. Needless to say, we were skeptical but definitely hopeful. Lo and behold after the service her pain had subsided, and when she went back to the doctor that week scans showed the mass had completely vanished!
I imagine you have heard similar stories of healing, and I know some of you have even shared with me your own modern day miracles. Oftentimes, hearing stories like this illicit an understandable degree of skepticism. Many people are struggling with the real threat of injury, illness, or cancer. We may continually pray and beg for healing, such as the leper did. Yet, more often than not, we do not get the physical healing that we prayed for. The disease doesn't disappear. And we are left wrestling with many questions:
Where is God in a world of struggle, pain, and suffering? Where is God amongst our cries for help and healing? And ultimately, how can we reconcile the Biblical accounts of healing, when they seem to contradict our own experiences?
Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest and spiritual author, says: to take a Biblical healing story at face value is to miss the point. "What's important is not the [healing] of the sick, but the deep compassion that moved Jesus" to heal in the first place. Now this takes us back to "every story has two sides," and ‘every Scripture passage has multiple layers.'
For example, have you ever seen these Gestalt pictures before?
From one perspective you may see a vase or candlestick, another two faces looking at each other; or here you may see a duck or a rabbit. What we see and focus on depends on our perspective, upon what we choose to see in the foreground verses the background. There is only one image, yet by a simple change of attitude we can see two different objects.
The same principle applies to our Gospel, at first glance we see a simple healing story. But once we change our perspective or attitude we are assured of God's abundant compassion and desire for reconciliation.
See, in today's Gospel translation (v. 41), the text reads that Jesus was "Moved with pity." But by looking at the Greek text, a more accurate translation may be "Compassion." Jesus, ‘moved with compassion, stretched out his hand and touched him". Compassion is the ability to experience another's pain, and have the desire to alleviate their suffering.
Jesus indeed knew the inner pain and suffering of the Leper. Jesus understood that a person with leprosy was seen as disease-ridden and subsequently isolated from the rest of the community. Knowing that this man's life was consumed with shameful isolation, Jesus was moved by compassion. He restored the man to wholeness and reconciled the man into the community.
Notice, that in touching the Leper Jesus breached social and religious boundaries, and created a role reversal. Jesus becomes "the unclean" taking the outcast place of the Leper, thereby restoring this man to wholeness and community.
In shifting our view of the text, we realize that this passage is not only a simple story of miraculous healing. It is also an assurance of God's abundant love and grace. Through Jesus, God goes beyond the walls of Israel in order to bring compassion to the suffering and reconciliation to the outcast. God can do the same for us.
At times we may feel that we are the outcasts, the marginalized, the isolated crying out for Jesus' healing. I assure you, God hears our prayers, both individually and as a community. Though we may not get the physical healing we pray for, God is still with us; and God is willing to go to the ends of the earth in order to show us the depth of his compassion.
The concept behind the Gestalt pictures can be applied not only to today's Gospel, but also to our life together as a congregation. It is easy at first glance—especially on annual meeting Sunday— to get hung up on the negative. When we only focus on our limitations as a congregation we lose sight of the whole picture. We need to shift our thinking so that God's grace moves to the foreground and our negativity retreats to the background.
With a simple change in our attitude we can change this seemingly chaotic rabbit into a refined duck. We can stop focusing on what once was and is no longer. Instead, let us focus on what is life giving and growing within our midst. God's Holy Spirit is alive and well in our community. God's compassion is reaching beyond our conflict, frustrations, and negativity. If only we choose to shift our attitude—to change our perspective and lift up the positive, lift up the miracles, the healings, the life giving aspects of our ministry together. Instead of focusing on our human failures, let us focus on and rejoice in God's abundant compassion and grace that is pouring upon us.
—The Rev. Jessica Knowles