Sunday, February 12, 2012

Unable to Keep the Secret

Mark 1:40-45
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
William G. Carter

A leper came to Jesus 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.

            About twenty years ago, I met some people with leprosy for the first and only time in my life. It was on the island of Molokai, in the state of Hawaii. There is a little community on the north shore of the island called Kalaupapa. It’s a quiet corner of paradise. But the quiet does not diminish its painful history.

            In 1866, the Hawaiian government established Kalaupapa as a leper colony. For over a hundred years, people who contracted that dreaded skin disease were sent there to die. Leprosy stirred up fear. Fear led to segregation. If the tell-tale spots appeared on a teenager’s arm or a woman’s leg, they were quickly banished to a two-mile-square peninsula bounded on three sides by the Pacific and with a sheer cliff on the fourth side.

Segregation led to indifference. In the early days, the lepers of Hawaii were put in metal cages and transported in the hold of a cargo ship. As time progressed, they were placed on mules and sent down a winding cliff side path. Nobody ever returned from the leper colony. If you contracted the disease, you were cut off from all your loved ones and sent into isolation. The only thing you had in common with your companions was your illness.  

            The National Park Service maintains the site today. There are just a handful of senior citizens there, most of them recovering from Hansen’s Disease, the modern name for leprosy. They are treated with a simple antibiotic as outpatients, and they lead normal lives in little bungalows by the sea. The people are free to leave the place where society once banished them. But they stay there for the most part, because it is the only home they know.

            It’s strange to hear of such places, where human beings were once sent to be forgotten. They were dismissed because of a virus that nobody understood. It was enough to terrify a family and frighten the neighbors. The victims of this illness were mandated by the scriptures to announce themselves: “I am a leper. I am unclean.” Every cautious person kept their distance.

            We don’t have many analogies for understanding this. If there is a disease that keeps somebody hidden, it is an embarrassment. The family will not talk about it. Circles of isolation form around a person who can only be categorized as a victim. He is a victim. She is a victim. Stay away. They have a disease.

            This doesn’t happen much in our experience, but it can happen. The call may come. A young woman is in the hospital. It is an area down the hall and around the bend. You must be buzzed inside. Once inside, you must take precautions. Under no circumstances shall you touch them. For no reason shall your visit be longer than a few minutes. I recall, years ago, going to visit such a person. We conversed by intercom through a thick wall. I offered to pray and she broke down and cried. That made two of us. Within a matter of weeks, the illness snatched her away.

            Illness can be a fearful thing. Remember that movie “Philadelphia” from some years ago? Tom Hanks played a talented young attorney named Andrew. He is diagnosed with AIDS. He doesn’t want anybody to know it. But the partners find out, and they fire him from the firm. It is an unjust dismissal, and Andrew wants to sue. No other attorney will take the case. One after another refuses. Finally Andrew drops by the shabby office of an ambulance-chaser who advertises on television. The attorney receives him, but will not shake his hand. He motions him to a chair and keeps his distance. Andrew pours out his story. When he stands to depart,  he sees a box of cigars on the edge of the desk. He reaches for one and says, “May I?” The attorney says, “Please help yourself.” After Andrew leaves, his attorney pushes the rest of the box into the garbage can.

            Disease destroys human community, especially if you do not know its source. In biblical times, a disease like leprosy could strike without warning. Nobody knew where it came from or how it might spread. They knew what it could do – they knew it could diminish the blood flow in your hands and feet. They knew it could create scar tissue that ruined your countenance. Such a disease was a fearsome business. There was no obvious cure, no obvious hope.

            My guide at Kalaupapa was a man named Hyman. He was diagnosed with leprosy when he was ten years old. The health officials removed him from his school. He was given no opportunity to get his belongings or say goodbye. Once a year, on his birthday, his mother would travel to the cliff on Molokai that overlooked the settlement. She would wave a large red towel, and Hyman would find a towel to wave and return the greeting. One year she did not appear; that is how he was notified of her death. It was his disease. His disease kept them separate.

            Now, we don’t know much about the man with leprosy who appears in our brief Bible story. We know a little. He is a beggar; that’s how he got his food. He is a kneeler; he has an appropriate reverence for Jesus. And he places the whole matter at Jesus’ feet. He says, “If you want to do something about this, you of all people can do something about this.” That’s what we know about the man with leprosy.

            We know a lot more about Jesus. For one thing, he was angry. Irritated. To translate one of the verbs from Greek, he was “brimming with indignation.” Something about the whole scene made him furious. We can’t really say what it is.

            One of the scholars (Ched Myers) has done a close reading of the text. He says there is the hint that the diseased man had already been to see the priest, that he had made the trek all the way down to Jerusalem, that he had gotten an audience with one of the holy men, that he had been refused and sent away. So here he is, denied the health care that his own scriptures promised, and all he can do in desperation is to throw himself at the feet of Jesus. Jesus sees all of this, and he “snorts with rage.”

            So when Jesus heals the man, he does so as a judgment on a religious system that is spiritually bankrupt. The leaders profess to love God and love neighbor, but the truth is, they ignore God and push away neighbor. It’s as if, in the parlance of our own day, the religious establishment shrugs them off and says, “You’re on your own, so handle your own medical care.”

And Jesus will not let this stand. He heals the man with the disease and says, “Go back down there to Jerusalem, show yourself to that priest, and demand that he restores you to complete fellowship.” Why? Jesus says, “Let this be your testimony to them.” So we know that Jesus is angry.

            But we know something else about him. We know that Jesus wanted the man to be well. He said as much: “I choose for you to be clean.” Whatever stain this suffering has caused you, it is my intent to take it away. Just as Jesus went into the synagogue to straighten out a twisted man, just as Jesus went into a home to lift a women out of her migraine, he goes into the open field to cure a person with a dreaded disease. “It is my choice,” he declares, “to make you well.” With that, Jesus touches him.

            Now just a second. Do you know what that means? Certainly it means that the man is healed. His rash disappears. He can feel the blood flowing in his fingers and toes. His skin begins to glisten. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to restrain him from going to find that priest, presenting himself healthy and clean, and hearing the word that he is completely restored to God and his community. It means that.

            But it also means that, in healing the dirty man by touching him, Jesus becomes dirty himself. Whatever impurity is implied in that man’s skin disease has now contaminated Jesus. And this is his choice. “I choose this,” said Jesus, and he touches the skin of the leper. The diseased man becomes well; Jesus takes the disease upon himself.

            That, you see, is why everybody starts talking. That is why the buzz starts about Jesus. “He touches the leper.” The man with the pure power of God to heal steps over the barrier of an impure disease. Jesus destroys the ancient rules about clean and dirty. He sends the healed man back to the officials in Jerusalem – but the man has no need to go, because it isn’t necessary in his mind to play the old games about “clean” and “dirty” when Jesus himself will not stick to the rules. Jesus wants the man to stick to the rules of Leviticus, but he himself is really stepping around them.

            Meanwhile the healed man can’t keep his trap shut. And do you know what he is saying? He is saying, “The Man of God is here and he is going to get dirty, just like the rest of us. He is going to take all our filth upon himself – and then take it away.” And everybody starts talking about this. They have a contaminated Savior. They have a strong servant of God who will not leave them alone. Jesus breaks through the barriers to reach them and heal them. And even though he is dirty, more and more people start looking for him. They want to find a Savior like him.

            It was the Lutheran writer Walt Wangerin who wrote an imaginative story about this. He told of a young man, handsome and strong, six-feet-four with arms like tree limbs. This man pulled an old cart filled with new clothing. “Give me your rags,” he cried. “New rags for old.” Walt followed him through the city.  The Ragman took a stained handkerchief from a grieving woman, offering a bright linen cloth in return – and then he began to weep.

            He took the bloody bandage from a wounded girl and traded it for a bright yellow bonnet. She sat up strong. He carried her bandage and began to bleed himself. He took the shirt of a man who lost his arm, and gave a new jacket and a new arm, while the Ragman bore the wound. One person after another, he took their broken rags and replaced them with new clothes. “This Ragman is my Christ,” said Walt.

            And that’s who we discover in our brief Bible story from Mark. Jesus is the Strong Man of God and he comes to get dirty, just like the rest of us. It is exactly as the prophet declared:

He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised,
and we held him of no account.
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 53:3-5)

            No wonder everybody was talking. No wonder that the people around Jesus were unable to keep the secret. He went to them, as they are. He refused to let illness and disgrace to separate anybody from the love of God.

            And you know something? If we reach out like our Jesus, people are going to talk about us, too. They are going to notice that Christ doesn’t spend all his time in church. He goes out to where the people are, particularly the people who need him most. And he makes it crystal clear that they washed completely clean in his incredible mercy.

            Remember that place I mentioned, Kalaupapa? They are still talking about a priest who went to the leper colony. His name was Damien deVuyster, and, by accounts, he was a cranky man. Like Jesus, he had a dark temper, particularly when he noticed some form of injustice. He was assigned to serve the little Roman Catholic flock in Kalaupapa, prompting a number of his colleagues in Belgium to wonder who he had annoyed to get that assignment.

            But he did his job. He tended to the peoples’ needs. He dressed their sores, dug their graves, and He organized the community to build a chapel. For sixteen years, he led the worship services. Each mass, he stood to announce, “In the love of Jesus Christ, God loves you lepers!” Then one day, he stepped into a hot bath tub and did not feel the temperature. He had contracted the same disease by living among the people. So he doubled his efforts to build more homes for the residents, to feed more hungry people, to share the scriptures with more people. And on Sunday he stood to announce, “In the love of Jesus Christ, God loves us lepers.”

            For this reason, just a couple of years ago, the Christian church declared him to be a saint. Saint Damien, the Christian who reached out to the lepers and became one, too. Just like Jesus.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved.

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