A Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Steven L. Thomason at St. Paul’s Episcopal
Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on February 12,
The Scripture Texts for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany Year B are:
[Mark 1:40-45 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.]
Have you ever been to the hospital to visit a friend or family member who has developed an infection requiring them to be on isolation? The interventions that sometimes require wearing gloves, or bulky paper gowns, or even masks, are designed to prevent the spread of the infection by staff and visitors who might serve as vectors of the disease, but these interventions also present a challenge to the ever-present goal of offering tender, compassionate care to the patient. Human touch is so important in the course of serving those in need.
Sometimes the fear of the disease can escalate to a point that the care risks becoming impersonal or void of touch altogether. In all health care facilities, there are levels of precaution based on the kind of infectious agent involved so that the steps taken are appropriate for that bacteria or strain of virus. So a staph infection in a skin wound would require contact isolation—gloves and good handwashing, but rarely more, since the only way for another person to contract the infection would be to come in contact with an open wound and transfer the bacteria to an open wound in their own skin. Gloves and good handwashing are sufficient in most cases.
But our fears of contagions can go viral themselves. I remember in the hospice home, a place known for its tender care, when we would admit a person with some infection that required some precautions, there would usually be one or two staff members (an aide or a nurse) who would be so anxious about the proverbial “staph” infection and its dreaded moniker as the “flesh-eating” bacteria ready to strike out at casual passers-by, that their irrational fear would lead them to go overboard in precautions, gowning and donning mask, creating a coat of armor that rendered them less than effective in delivering the compassionate care for which hospice is renowned. It was a relatively rare incident, and one that was easily dispatched with a little education, but it always highlighted for me just how easily we can fall into tedious practices that have the unintentional consequence of alienating someone who needs us. Our fear separates us from the very care and compassion we are called to share.
Such was the dilemma for Jesus and others who might have wanted to engage a person with a skin condition, but to do so required an abrogation of the rules of conduct established in that time and in that culture. The leprosy so named in the gospels was not the specific disease we know by that name today, also known as Hansen’s disease, and is exceedingly rare in our society. No, leprosy was really a general term to connote any affliction of the skin that caused it to appear abnormal, or broken, and therefore potentially infectious. So common conditions such as eczema and psoriasis—absolutely non-infectious, but nevertheless angry in their manifestation—were included in the code that declared their victims as unclean, and therefore untouchable.
It sounds harsh and unnecessary, but it was part of their own “contact isolation” practices that largely correspond to our modern notions of gowning and gloving. The difference is that, in our time, physicians and epidemiologists are set apart to develop and enforce our rules grounded in science; in Jesus’ time, it was the duty of the priests to enforce the “law,” which were grounded in religious mores, and unfortunately such laws had become the means by which certain people were relegated to being outsiders. And someone who touched such an outsider was rendered unclean as well.
So it is a moment of truth for Jesus when this leper comes to him and declares that if Jesus chooses, he could heal him. At one level, such acts were contributing to Jesus’ notoriety, which he did not desire, and he surely knew that to touch this man would render him unclean. Indeed, he was forced to go into the countryside, because he would not be welcome in the towns with this stigma of soiled skin in his own right, having touched and healed the man.
But at another level, the man’s petition presented Jesus with a greater challenge—one that struck more deeply in regards to who he was and what he was working for. We are told that Jesus was “moved with pity,” although that translation does not convey the full meaning of the Greek verb used by the gospel writer. Splagchnizomai literally means to be moved in one’s bowels—to feel a gut-wrenching compassion for the one who is suffering. The bowels were thought to be the seat of love and compassion, and so Jesus is moved by more than pity; he is moved to the point of taking on the suffering of his condition with the man. Recall that the word “compassion” literally means to “suffer with.”
So often, I think, we are prone to hearing the gospels stories from the point of view of those characters who interact with Jesus. That way, he can speak to us, he can touch us, he can inspire us. That is a worthwhile approach, to be sure, but I wonder how the gospels also invite us to step into Jesus’ shoes, and see what he sees, behave as if we are truly one body with him, as though he might dwell in us and we in him. Isn’t that what “taking up one’s cross” and “dying to self” is about?
My wife shared an excerpt this past week from a book she is reading, Cynthia Bourgeault’s book on Contemplative Prayer, which I think offers wisdom and insight into this paradoxical life to which we are called. Bourgeault writes:
“[Jesus’] idea of ‘dying to self’ was not through inner renunciation and guarding the purity of his being, but through radically squandering everything he had and was. In life, he horrified the prim and proper by dining with tax collectors and prostitutes, by telling parables about extravagant generosity, by giving his approval to acts of costly and apparently pointless sacrifice such as the woman who broke open the alabaster jar to anoint him with precious oil; by teaching always and everywhere, ‘lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth.’…
But he went his way, giving himself fully into life and death, losing himself, squandering himself, ‘gambling away every goft God bestows.’ It is not asceticism but tantra—love utterly poured out, [or to use Shakespeare’s words,] ‘consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by’ … [it is such radical love] that opens the gate to the Kingdom of Heaven. This is what Jesus taught and this is what he walked.”[i]
Are you willing to love so recklessly that compassion wrenches your gut until that which you thought was true dies, and the real truth overwhelms you, fills your heart, brimful and broken, too? In that moment, you will give yourself over to the radical promise of God’s gift of YOU, just as Jesus did, fully into life and death, paradox that it is, and love is utterly poured out.
Now I am a physician and a priest, so I will tell you wear the gloves when you are supposed to, but do not let your heart be muted by such precautions. You have much to give, if you choose.
It was the Sufi mystic Rumi, whose poetry often contains the antidote for our proclivities to fear and immobilization and distance from one another, who wrote about this fullness of life:
Love is reckless, not reason.
Reason seeks a profit,
Love come on strong, consuming herself,
Yet in the midst of suffering
Love proceeds like a millstone,
Hard-surfaced and straight-forward.
Having died to self-interest,
She risks everything and asks for nothing.
Love gambles away every gift God bestows…[ii]
With this final line from Rumi as inspiration, Bourgeault concludes her thesis this way: “The most daring gamble of Jesus’ trajectory of pure love may just be to show us that self-emptying is not the means to something else; the act is itself the full expression of its meaning…the integral wholeness of Love manifested in the particularity of a human heart.”[iii]
You have such a heart, bursting with goodness and love, gifts given by God for your use, as you will. But beware, such gifts when nourished will not be isolated; no, your gifts of goodness and love are dying to be squandered in lavish compassion bestowed on those whose lives will be made better for your having touched them.
And so the petition is directed to us from one who is broken, hurting, in need of such a touch. Will we, like Jesus, respond recklessly in love and say “I do choose?”