Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
We have been reading,
pretty much the entire month of January, the first chapter of Mark's
gospel. It is so loaded with so much. We've already seen a couple of
healing stories, and now we come to the third healing story. Now, if you
were paying attention from the Old Testament reading from 2 Kings,
you'll recognize why these two selections are paired together:
A leper came to
him begging him, and kneeling he said to him,
‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41Moved
with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and
touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be
made clean!’ 42Immediately the leprosy left him,
and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning
him he sent him away at once, 44saying 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.’ 45But 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.
I would invite you this morning, as
we reflect on this text, to reflect with me and for a moment on the role
of faith and the choices we make in healthcare, especially of those
choices we make for others.
What has been in the news this last week -- it began with the Susan B.
Komen Foundation (being a man, I didn't pay that much attention to these
things, I didn't realize it was the largest foundation in the country
for breast-cancer research). They made their announcement that they were
no longer going to provide funding to Planned Parenthood for breast
exam's, and there was a furor over it. And immediately there was all
kinds of speculation that the official reason that they gave was not the
real reason, that it was really motivated by religious or political
reasons. And sure enough, after all the furor, they reversed themselves,
a vice-president resigned, and it was revealed that she was the one that
was pushing for it, primarily for those very reasons, including her
objections to the involvement of Planned Parenthood in abortion
services, even though the money given to Planned Parenthood was strictly
for breast exams. But still, they wanted a clean break.
Well, so it turns out that when Komen made their initial announcement of
what the official reason was for defunding Planned Parenthood, they
should have simply said, to quote Senator Jon Kyl from Arizona (when
also making up facts about Planned Parenthood): "Not intended to be a
factual statement" :).
Then after that little debacle, President Obama was feeling left out. So
he had to get into it, and the administration announced new rules for
coverage of birth control that would require certain religious
institutions (and particularly Catholic hospitals and universities that
the administration did not consider to be a religious organization under
the definition, and therefore they were going to have to play by the
same rules as everyone else) and would have to cover women who chose
certain birth control medications, to cover that in their insurance
policies. Well, a big furor over that. And like Komen, the
administration reversed itself and came up with a compromise.
And then finally, we saw in our local news the case announced yesterday
in the Register Guard of the two parents who are being charged with
manslaughter because of their teenage son who was ill and they chose not
to seek any medical treatment for him, and instead chose to rely on
faith and prayer. And tragically he died, when he had a very curable
So here's the question I invite you
to ponder as we examine the text: what is the role of faith in the
choices that we make regarding healthcare?
And here's the principle for which I want to argue: that our faith calls
us to choose compassion as the overriding guiding principle in those
choices that we make as it impacts the lives of others.
So, to ask the old question 'What would Jesus Do?', is to ask: "What
would compassion do?".
The story here in Mark's Gospel of the leper, I think illustrates this
principle quite clearly and powerfully. It seems especially fitting as
we prepare for our observance of the Week of Compassion next week, to
reflect on this text. Week of Compassion, of course, that program that
responds to humanitarian needs around the world.
Now the context for this story, I think, is very well-known. It's rooted
in the social conventions surrounding leprosy. Leprosy in ancient times
covered a broad range of skin diseases. They could be things that were
curable, or not. They could be things that were contagious, or not. But
because of the lack of understanding of the transmission of disease in
that time, anyone with leprosy was an isolated, quarantined, and in some
cases forced to live in a leper colony if the disease did not go away on
its own. And furthermore, it was widely held that leprosy was a sign of
punishment from God, of some displeasure, some sin. And so leprosy was
not only a physical disease, it also carried with it an enormous social
stigma. It was the Scarlet Letter of ancient times, inflicted by God. A
sign of great shame.
And so the primary concern of this leper is not his skin ailment. His
primary concern is that he has been judged by society as being unclean
and therefore cannot participate and in the normalcy of social
interactions. He's an untouchable. He's a social outcast. He's of the
lowest of the social outcasts. And so his request of Jesus is not just
to heal him, it is to cleanse him. That is, to restore him to an
accepted and welcome status within society.
So, note that his statement 'if you choose, you can cleanse me', is not
just an expression of confidence in the ability of Jesus, it reflects
his recognition that Jesus might as well not choose to do so. Because
that has been his experience of how people respond. You know, you walk
to the other side of the street, you look the other way, right? How many
of us come to the street corner with a person with a sign, all of a
sudden think of something else we have to do -- adjust the radio, etc.
Anything but look at that person. We choose to look the other way.
And the leper knows that Jesus could have just as easily 'drive' on by,
without even acknowledging his existence, because that's what most
people do. And I wonder: do you suppose it would make a difference, when
we have nothing else to share, if we would at least share a smile? Might
that help? Might it help us?
Now, Jesus, of course, does respond
-- the text says he's moved with pity. Or, if you're following your
footnotes, what does it say? I always love pointing these out, because
it adds so much richness to the text -- not all of the footnotes, but
this particular one. There's a little footnote that Jesus is moved by. .
. . . Anger!
Some of the texts say 'anger'. It turns out in this particular case that
it's one of those 50/50 choices that the folks that do textual
criticism, that deal with the words on the page, they can't make up
their mind -- is it 'compassion', or 'anger'? Could be either, not sure,
Well, that kind of changes the text a little bit, doesn't it, the
meaning. Is he angry at the leper, you know, this outcast, 'how dare he
interrupt me', is that it? Or, is he angry at the situation, that this
man should be an outcast?
I serve on the City of Eugene's new task force for the homeless, a bunch
of community people and agencies, public employees and the like, trying
to figure out (in the wake of Occupy Eugene) some new program to assist
the homeless. Let me tell you, I have heard many times this kind of
anger being expressed as people share their feelings about the
situation, about the lack of options for shelter for those living on the
That Jesus definitely is NOT angry at the leper, I think, is very
evident by what he does. What is that? He reaches out and he touches the
Now, if you were to write a screenplay about this particular scene, you
would put in here some instructions -- "audible gasp from the
bystanders", right? Because touching a leper was something you did not
do -- it makes one unclean. Jesus would have to go through all kinds of
purification rites now, to be accepted back into society.
And so that's why it's very interesting to compare this story from 2
Kings 5:1-14, with this Naaman, a foreigner, who wants to be healed of
leprosy, and he hears of this prophet, right? Notice what Elisha
does--Elisha doesn't touch him, Elisha doesn't even go to see him,
Elisha sends a servant with instructions (he's going to stay away, as
far as he can, but tell him what he needs to do). The rest of that story
is very fascinating, you might want to read that -- not now, some other
time :). About a servant that tries to profit off of this, and the
leprosy gets transferred from Naaman to the servant because he tries to
make money off of it, and for all of his descendents. Another
theological problem we won't get into this morning.
Steve Kohl, a retired Professor at
the University of Oregon in Japanese literature, participates in our
Thursday morning group but lives in Sweet Home, so he's not here in
worship very often. He was telling us a story from about 15 years ago in
Japan -- Japan has leprosy, modern-day leprosy, that has a real social
stigma around it. There was a particular piece of legislation that was
approved by the Legislature, and signed into law. As is frequently the
case, there was a signing ceremony. Many of the advocates themselves
with this disease were present at the ceremony. The Prime Minister, you
know, does his thing, and he goes to acknowledge the people present. In
Japan, how you greet someone is to bow, right:
Now, if that was all he had done, which was all that was expected that
he do, all would have been fine and good, and he could go off and do his
prime minister things. But he didn't. He bowed, and then he reached out
in the more Western tradition and shook the hands of each of those
Can you imagine the impact that had? I suspect that had more power and
meaning than the individual piece of legislation.
Anyone in the medical profession can tell you the importance of touch
for healing. Human touch carries enormous emotional significance, beyond
just that physical sensation. A handshake, a hand on the shoulder, a hug
when invited and welcomed and appropriate, can be tremendous medicine,
for all kinds of ills. By the same token, touch -- when uninvited and
unwelcome, or withheld -- can be very damaging to the well-being of the
So Jesus shows his sensitivity to the primary dis-ease of the leper by
touching him. Thereby ending his isolation and beginning his healing.
It's important here to recognize the difference between healing and
curing. Curing involves a change in the physical condition. Healing
involves a change in the social, the emotional, the psychological, the
And that's why a person who has a terminal illness may still speak of
being healed, because you can be whole even though your body may be
giving out on you. There's a difference.
To be healed is to be made whole. So that's the good news -- healing
healing is always possible for us.
I was at a retreat with 25 of my colleagues from Oregon and Washington
engaging in theological reflection this past week. We all take turns
writing papers for this retreat, and then we sit around and we discuss
them. Now, if that sounds fun to you, get help :)
At any rate, we were discussing this
paper on the importance of ritual to help facilitate grief work. And the
question came up, you know funerals, memorial services and the like, to
help people deal with the death of a loved. The question came up: are
there times when we are called to disrupt, instead of to facilitate,
What? Gary Shoemaker, a colleague of Judy and I when we were in Seminary
with him down in California, now a Pastor up in Washington, shared this
story. He said he had a gay friend who died of AIDS. The family was of a
more conservative church where they held the service. In the course of
the service, a very well-meaning person got up and shared how this
friend on his death-bed repented of his sin. And everyone knew what he
meant -- yeah, hallelujah, praise Jesus, now he can go into heaven,
Gary couldn't stay silent. When his turn came to speak, he said he had
to disrupt the ritual. He shared that he knew his friend well enough
that he did not repent of being gay, that was part of who he was,
because he didn't need to. He was not very well-received. But Gary's
point was that we have an obligation to disrupt the rituals of society
when those rituals victimize people, as in this case.
The movie "The Help", up for best picture, great movie (go see it if you
haven't), a powerful story of rituals of the South that victimized women
of color. And what happens when someone tries to disrupt those rituals.
You see, the touch of Jesus doesn't just cure the leprosy, it does that,
but it also heals the leper. It restores him to wholeness by removing
the stigma and the shame -- even if he was not cured. He is now healed.
Jesus then instructs him to go to the religious authorities to have this
cure confirmed, which according to the law was required before a leper
could re-integrate into society now that he has been healed.
In other words, Jesus tells him to play by their rules, to stay within
the religious system. Only that's not what he does, is it? This gets
really tricky -- because the leper disobeys Jesus. Are we
supposed to hold that up as a model for us? He disobeys Jesus. He
doesn't go to the priest, he immediately goes and starts sharing with
everyone the good news. He re-integrates with society because he has
already been healed, see?
And by so doing, he actually honors Jesus as the higher authority, and
hence he doesn't need to go the priests.
Now, let's see: do I recall someone saying something about religious
authorities objecting to someone else's authority on matters of health
care? Oh yeah, it was me :) The United States conference of Catholic
Bishops are not happy with that compromise around birth control that
allows Catholic hospitals and Universities to avoid paying for birth
control medications chosen by their female employees. Evidently they
just don't want them to use the stuff.
E.J. Dionne, writing for the New York
Times (published in the Register Guard this week), who himself is a very
devout Catholic (he was the speaker a couple of years ago at Ecumenical
Ministries of Oregon's annual Collins lecture series) and Dionne got it
right, in nothing that the original policy of the Obama administration
failed to adequately take into account the nature of those Catholic
institutions and that under the First Amendment they are guaranteed
certain protections against the interference of government on matters of
doctrine. It is a First Amendment issue. Just as the bishops got it
wrong, on their objection to this compromise that will allow women to
have access that they can afford to birth control measures, by
purchasing it separately.
Now, any critique of the Catholic hierarchy is much better coming from a
fellow Catholic than from a Protestant minister, so it would be better
if I just kept my mouth shut. But. . . . :)
So, why, in this whole debate, has no one named the elephant in the
room: how is it that an elderly group of celibate men get to make the
decision for birth-control for young, sexually active women? There's a
disconnect here. I'm just asking.
If we have to make a choice between compassion for younger women, not
prepared for parenting or for another child in their family, and
religious authorities, let us err on the side of compassion.
If we have to make a choice between shelter for the homeless and
political authorities protecting tax breaks for the wealthy, let us err
on the side of compassion.
If we have to make a choice between shaking hands with someone off the
street or our own need for cleanliness, let us err on the side of
If we have to make a choice between affirming another person's humanity
and dignity, and our policies and procedures, let us err on the side of
If we have to make a choice between a latte to start our day and a small
sacrifice to save someone else's life, let us make the choice and err on
the side of compassion.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says "Be perfect as your father in
heaven is perfect", which seems about as likely for us as being born of
a virgin. Worked for Jesus, but you know. . . .
In Luke's version, same text, Luke 6, reads: "Be merciful (or in some
translations--be compassionate), as your father in heaven is
compassionate". Yeah, I think maybe I can do that one.
This is what Christian faith is about -- being guided by love and
compassion, because that is the way of God.
In our life, we have lots of choices. If we want to be like Jesus, may
we choose the compassionate one.
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