Sunday 12 February 2012

The healing touch

Address given at Templederry and Killodiernan on Sunday 12th February 2012, the 2nd Before Lent, Year B (incorrectly using the readings for Proper 1!)

Leprosy is the link between the OT and NT readings we’ve just heard.
In the OT reading (2Kings 5:1-14), we are told about how Naaman, the commander of the Aramean army from what is now Syria, is cured of leprosy by following the Prophet Elisha’s instructions to bathe in the River Jordan. And Mark (1: 40-45) tells us how Jesus cured a man with leprosy who begged him to do so.

True leprosy, now properly called Hansen’s disease, is a dreadful illness. It’s a chronic bacterial disease of the peripheral nerves and respiratory tract. It causes skin lesions, loss of the sense of touch, and over many years progressive disfigurement and disability. Until the 1930s it was incurable, but happily the infection can now be easily cured by a cocktail of drugs, and the WHO is coordinating efforts to eliminate it altogether in the near future. But despite being cured of the infection 2 to 3 million people worldwide are still estimated to be permanently disabled by its long term effects. It is right for us to continue to support the charities that work to help them.

Before the development of modern medicine, Hansen’s disease was often confused with other skin diseases, such as psoriasis and ringworm. They were all lumped together as leprosy, and sufferers – called lepers - were greatly feared, because leprosy was believed, incorrectly, to be highly contagious.

In Jesus’s time, religious law decreed that lepers were ritually unclean, and anything or anybody they touched also became unclean, so people avoided any contact with them. Theirs was a cruel fate. They were forced to live away from villages and towns with other lepers, and were obliged to warn other people of their presence by crying out ‘Unclean, unclean!’ If ever someone was cured – and real leprosy was incurable, so it must have been some other skin disease – the leper would have to go to be examined by a priest and take part in a complicated ritual involving animal sacrifices, as described in the book of Leviticus. Only then would the former leper be allowed back into Israelite society.

But leprosy is not what either reading is really about, I think.
The story of Naaman is surely not about his leprosy, but about how pride must be overcome before a person can find favour in the sight of God. It was only when Naaman could put aside his pride in his own greatness, and his pride in his own country, that he could be made clean by obeying the Prophet Elisha’s instructions. How greatful he must have been to his servants for encouraging him do so when he was stamping off in a a huff!

And Mark’s story is about Jesus, and about how Jesus responds to those in trouble who come to him – the leprosy is purely incidental. Let's look at it a bit more closely.

The leper comes to Jesus and begs him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean’.
And how does Jesus respond? Jesus is ‘moved with pity’, we are told. ‘Moved with pity’ does not really capture the strength of the original Greek, which literally translated means ‘gut-wrenched’. Jesus was gut-wrenched by the leper's plight.

Then ‘Jesus stretch(es) out his hand and touch(es) him’. Those who saw it, or heard about it later, would have found this extraordinary, quite scandalous – a deliberate breach of the purity laws by a man who called himself a preacher. The leper was unclean, cursed by God perhaps. By touching him Jesus was making himself unclean. And those who associated with him risked becoming unclean themselves. Yet, ‘moved with pity’, Jesus does not hesitate. He reaches out his hand to this suffering human being and touches him – something, perhaps, which the leper had not experienced since his disease was first detected, perhaps years before. In this very human gesture Jesus makes manifest the love that he knows his Father in heaven has for all his children.

And this touch is a healing touch. ‘I do choose’, says Jesus, ‘Be made clean!’ And the leprosy leaves the man.

This little tale shows us, I believe, how we too can receive healing from Jesus when we are in trouble. When we are in trouble we can feel shunned by society, cut off perhaps from friends and family, by their anger, fear or embarrassment because of what has happened. But if we come to Jesus in prayer and ask him, he has the power through his Father in heaven to reach out with a loving touch to heal us, as he healed the leper. He may not choose to heal us physically – miraculous healing is very rare these days – but he will surely choose to heal us spiritually, to give us the strength to bear the trouble, whatever it is.

And the tale also shows us how we should behave when we encounter those in trouble who seek our help. Jesus did not shun the leper, and we who bear Christ’s name should model ourselves on him. When those who are shunned in our society come to us for help, we must reach out to them with a loving touch, like Jesus. And that includes those whose circumstances horrify us, for instance AIDS victims, drug addicts, sex abusers, prostitutes - as well as the plain feckless.

Jesus sternly warns the newly cleansed leper not to tell other people what has happened.
‘See that you say nothing to anyone’
, he says, ‘but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’

Why should Jesus want to keep his healing miracle secret? Perhaps he foresees that news of the miracle will make him a celebrity, and get in the way of his ministry. For that is just what happens: the former leper ignores Jesus’s warning; he tells everyone who will listen and crowds flock to see Jesus, ‘so that (he) could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed in the country.’

But I prefer another explanation. Perhaps Jesus fears that the former leper may be stigmatised if his connection with Jesus is made widely known. For Jesus already knows that he will be a controversial figure – he has already shown he is prepared to break the law by touching a leper, and that will not be the end of it. So he advises the man he has cured to go quietly to the priest. If the priest hears Jesus was involved, he might withhold his declaration of cleanliness. And only the priest’s testimony will make other people believe the former leper is clean again.

We are not told what happened to him, but I wonder if the former leper lived to regret ignoring Jesus's warning.

So to finish, thanks be to God for the insights to be found in today’s readings from scripture!
Among them are these:
(1) We need to overcome our foolish pride before we can find favour in the sight of God.
(2) Jesus will reach out with his loving touch to heal us if we bring our troubles to him in prayer. And
(3) We should follow Jesus’s example by reaching out to others in trouble, no matter who they are.

Sunday 5 February 2012

God cares for us, his children!

Address given at Portumna, Eyrecourt and Banagher on Sunday 5th February 2012, 3rd Before Lent (Year B, Proper 0)

What beautiful poetry Isaiah (40:21-31) has given us in today’s Old Testament reading!
It is actually a fragment of a rather longer poem, which goes on for several chapters. The poet invokes the sense of how small and insignificant we humans are in the face of the immense universe around us, and in the face of its Creator.

It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
Hasn’t every one of us experienced this same sense of awe at our own smallness - for instance when we look out from a high place at a big view? For me it brings back the memory of standing on top of the hill above Black Head, looking out beyond Aran, out across the vast ocean - next parish Boston, as they say.

And it is not just you and me, the little people, who are as nothing.
The poet continues: It is he

who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
It is good, I think, for the powerful of this world to be reminded that they too are insignificant. And it is good for us to remember it too. We have no reason to fear princes and rulers, since they, like us, will wither and be carried away.

Then the poet invites us to look up at the stars, as today's psalm 147 echoes:

Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.
I am intrigued by this idea of numbering and naming stars. I think for the poet it must represent having power over them, in a magical kind of way.

Astronomers today, using ever more sensitive telescopes, survey the stars and register them in gigantic star catalogues, so that they can find any one of them again if they want to study it. And as astronomers first discovered more than 150 years ago, not far from here using the great telescope at Birr, we now know that there aren’t just stars out there, but a myriad of galaxies, each one consisting of more stars than we can see with the naked eye. If anything, we are even more insignificant than the poet could ever have imagined!

Astronomers will never catch them all. But if they could, that would not give them the power the poet ascribes to the Creator.

Faced with such a God, is it possible for any of us to feel anything but frank terror?
Yet the poet goes on to reassure us that God, YHWH in the original Hebrew, translated here as the LORD:

.. gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
The images are very powerful, aren’t they? Which one of us would not wish to ‘mount up with wings like an eagle’? I certainly would, particularly after watching the recent TV series on birds in flight. But it’s a big claim to make that such a mighty creator is concerned with the faint and the powerless. Why should we believe it? The answer, I suggest, lies in our shared experience of faith and the example of Jesus.

Jesus knew his Hebrew scriptures very well.
Quite likely he had this whole poem by heart. I feel sure that he felt the same awe we do when he contemplated the magnitude of creation and his own place in it. A little before our Gospel passage, Mark tells us that the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness where he was tempted for 40 days. I imagine Jesus, in the barren, rugged Judean uplands, looking up at the stars, filled with awe.

Perhaps part of his temptation concerned doubts about whether YHWH really cared for him, small as he was. If so, his faith was strengthened. He overcame these doubts, and went out to teach all who would listen that this mighty God cares for all his creatures, as a father does. And he taught us to pray to ‘Our Father in heaven’.

In today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 1:29-39) we heard that when Simon hunted for Jesus and found him praying in a deserted place, Jesus said: ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do’. What was this message? It was surely the message Mark has already summarised in these words (Mark 1:15): ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news’.

I like to think that the good news is that not only does God love us, but that he has given us the faith to believe that he does. We human beings seem to be primed to faith - it comes naturally to us. Even though we are faint and powerless we have been given the faith to believe in Isaiah’s caring God, who is the same loving Father that Jesus teaches us about.

It is because of this faith that we are enabled to be fearless, to act like true human beings made in God’s loving image, able to walk and not faint, able to run and not be weary, able to mount up with wings like eagles.

Thanks be to God for the faith that God cares for us, his children!