A Place for You, Too

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
February 12, 2012

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Mark 1:40-45 

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 (NRSV).

For the past few Wednesday nights I’ve been finishing up my responsibilities in the dining hall and then going upstairs to a former Sunday school classroom that’s been converted into a makeshift television studio, so that I can be interviewed by some of our youth.  The questions that they ask are their own questions, and some of them are, well… interesting.  The ones from Cannon Bruce, for example, who wanted to know first of all where I keep my spare car key, and then secondly if I had anything of value in my car at that particular moment.  I think he was joking about that.  But then there were these questions from Darius Lacy, Ridge Christian, and Grayson Lawrence: “How long have you been a pastor?” “Is it hard to stand up in front of a group of people and preach?” and “What do you do to prepare for the sermon each week?”  I took those questions a little more seriously, and this is what I said:

I was ordained on October 26, 1986, which means that for more than twenty five years now, on an average of once or twice a week, I have prepared a sermon and stepped up to the pulpit to deliver it to a group of people who are gracious enough to sit there and listen to me for twenty minutes without interrupting.  That kind of thing seems rare in the world we live in, and I try to take the responsibility seriously.  One of my preaching professors used to say that for every minute you spend in the pulpit you should spend an hour in the study.  Sometimes that’s just impossible, but on a good week, if I get started early enough, that’s about what it takes.  I start with one of the four lectionary readings for the week and usually it’s the Gospel reading.  I read through it a half dozen times and jot down any questions I have.  I circle the verbs in the passage and underline the unusual words.  If it’s one of those narrative passages I sometimes try to put myself in the scene by wondering where it happened, and what time of day it was, and what the sounds and smells were like.

Eventually I take my long list of questions and go to the commentaries, looking for answers.  If I start with the commentaries I find answers to questions I never asked, but if I do it the other way around then my natural curiosity leads me to all sorts of interesting discoveries.  In today’s reading, for example, most of the old manuscripts say that when Jesus saw the leper he was “moved with pity,” but a few of them (and only a few) say he was “filled with rage.”  That sort of thing can keep you digging through the commentaries for days, wondering why anybody would say such a thing and what it could possibly mean.  But after I’ve done my homework I let things sit for a while just to see what will bubble up from all of that and often it’s on my day off, Thursday, when I’m not thinking about the sermon at all, that something will come to me—an “Aha!” moment when I begin to see how all of this might fit together.  On Friday afternoon I try to come up with some sort of outline and on Saturday I spend most of the day putting the sermon into words.    

As I said, I’ve been doing that for more than 25 years, and in that time there are very few passages in the Gospels I haven’t analyzed with that kind of intensity—reading through them over and over, writing down all the questions I have, looking up answers in the commentaries, translating the passage from Greek into English.  You would think that when I come to a passage like this one from Mark, which is only six verses long, and which I’ve preached at least eight times, I would have it down cold.  But here’s the thing about the Bible: there seems to be something new in there every time.  My wife, Christy, once asked her dad why he was always reading the Bible and he said, “You never finish reading this book.”  She didn’t understand it at the time.  She was just a little girl.  She thought it was some kind of magical book, a “Neverending Story” of some kind (either that or her dad was an incredibly slow reader!).  But he simply meant that even though the words on the page don’t change we change, our circumstances change.  You can read something one time and it means one thing, but when you come back to it three years later it means something else.  

And it’s not just the Bible that seems “fresh every morning,” it’s Jesus, too.  When I teach the Connections class I often tell our newcomers that Jesus still surprises me.  I’ll be reading along in the Gospels and suddenly he will do something or say something that catches me completely off guard, as if I had never read it before.  It’s embarrassing to admit it.  As I said, I’ve worked through this material countless times.  I should have memorized the Gospels by now.  And yet I can almost see Jesus wink at me sometimes, as if he were saying, “You didn’t see that one coming, did you?”  And that’s me—the guy who gets to spend twenty hours a week digging around in a single passage of Scripture.  It makes me wonder what it’s like for the casual Christian, the one who never gets much beyond John 3:16.  What does he know about Jesus?  Only this: that he died to save us from our sins, so that when we die we can have eternal life.  That’s a good thing to know about Jesus, it may be the most important thing, but there is so much more!  John’s Gospel alone has been described as “a pool in which a toddler can wade and an elephant can swim.”[i]  Add the other gospels, the epistles, the Psalms, and the Old Testament, and you’ve got a whole ocean of meaning and mystery, just waiting to be explored. I love to swim out into the deep water week after week and dive down into the depths, but even then I feel like I’ve only touched the surface. 

But I don’t think I’m alone in that. 

You’ve heard me quoting New Testament scholar N. T. Wright recently and that’s because I’ve been reading his new book called Simply Jesus.  On the back flap of the dust jacket it says that “Wright is the former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and one of the world’s leading Bible scholars…. For twenty years Wright taught New Testament studies at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford Universities.”  If anybody should know all there is to know about Jesus, at least all that can be gleaned from a close and careful reading of the New Testament, Wright is it.  And yet the subtitle of Simply Jesus is: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters.[ii] 

A new vision, as if Wright himself were seeing something about Jesus he hadn’t seen before.  And maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Wright, or maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Mark, but I’ve seen some things about Jesus I hadn’t seen before.  For example: in the sermon I preached a couple of weeks ago I talked about Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum and casting out an unclean spirit.  I don’t think I had considered before what message he might be preaching, but I don’t think I was wrong in suggesting that it was the same message Mark had mentioned earlier: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news!” (Mark 1:15).  I told you I liked Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase: “Time’s up; God’s kingdom is here!”  But N. T. Wright says that’s what Jesus was announcing: that wherever he was, whenever he walked into a room, the kingdom came.  And so the detail about casting out an unclean spirit is not an insignificant detail.  It means that when God is fully in charge, when his kingdom finally comes, any and all unclean spirits will be excluded. 

In that sermon I quoted preaching professor David Lose, who talks about the times he has felt possessed by the unclean spirits of anger and jealousy, about how others are possessed by their addictions to drugs, alcohol, gambling, or pornography, about how some of us are possessed by the more “society approved” unclean spirits of workaholism, affluenza, and greed.  But in each and every case those things that keep us from being what God made us to be are not welcome in his Kingdom.  And so Jesus casts them out.  To quote David Lose, “[Jesus stands against] the forces of evil which would rob the children of God of all that God hopes and intends for them.”[iii]  I was telling someone about this at a conference last week and I said, “Really, when you think about how many people are afflicted by those kinds of unclean spirits—jealousy, anger, addiction—why, that could be as much as a third of the congregation I preach to on Sunday morning!  And this would be good news for them, the idea that Jesus doesn’t want them to be possessed by those spirits any longer, that he wants them to be set free.”

And then last week we looked at the next section of Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever and then works late into the night, healing all those sick people who gathered around the door.  I was making the case that when the Kingdom comes there won’t be any more sickness, and that Jesus—who brought in the Kingdom wherever he went—stood against every form of sickness and cast it out.  I made it a point to say that he didn’t heal everybody who was sick then or now.  His mission was not to cure every illness but to bring in the Kingdom, and whenever he healed someone it was a sign of how things would be when God finally got his way.  But I also made it a point to say that sickness is never the will of God.  As God’s agent on earth Jesus opposed it, and wherever he came up against it he cast it out.   As I told that same person last week, when you think about how many people are affected by sickness of one kind or another, it could be another third of the congregation.  And this would be good news for them: that God is not punishing them, that he’s not using sickness to test them or purify them.  Sickness is not his will for us, and when his kingdom comes, when his will is done, sickness will be no more.

And so we come to today’s passage, in which Jesus encounters a man who has leprosy.  At first glance it looks like just another case of sickness that needs to be cured.  But pay attention.  Mark says, “A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”  Notice that he didn’t say, “You can heal me or make me well”; he said, “You can make me clean.”  As I mentioned the last time I preached on this passage leprosy didn’t only make you sick, it made you unclean.  You couldn’t be around other people anymore.  You couldn’t go to the synagogue or to the marketplace.  You couldn’t hang out with your friends.  According to the 13th chapter of Leviticus anyone who was a leper was put out of the community.  They had to wear ragged clothes, and mess up their hair, and if anyone approached they were supposed to cover their mouths and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” to keep the other person from coming near, because you wouldn’t want anyone else to catch what you had.  The word we translate as “leprosy” in the Bible covered a wide range of skin diseases.  Some of them probably hurt and some of them probably didn’t.  But what must have hurt, every time, was becoming a social outcast.

Last week some of my old classmates from Sherman High School in Seth, West Virginia, caught up with me on Facebook.  They were happy to find me.  They didn’t know what had happened to me.  And they’ve been very kind.  But as I looked through some of the yearbook pictures they had posted on that site I began to realize why they hadn’t heard from me: those two years I was at Sherman were some of the most painful in my memory.  My dad, as I’ve told you, was a kind of missionary to the desperately poor in that county and I felt like a missionary kid.  We lived in a house with no running water, and no indoor plumbing, which meant that I went to school most days looking kind of rumpled and smelling sort of…unwashed.  And I was a little kid!  I went to high school a year early and didn’t get my growth spurt until two years later.  I was about five feet two with teeth that seemed way too big for my mouth and the worst haircut I’ve ever had in my life.  When I looked through those yearbook pictures I remembered those tall, handsome, confident boys, and those pretty, outgoing, giggly girls, and suddenly there I was, looking like a scared rabbit, trying to hide my face under those crooked bangs when the photographer took the picture.     

When I look closely I can almost see the pain in those eyes. 

But I would guess that I’m not the only one in this room who had that kind of experience in high school.  In fact, there may be a third of you who don’t have your yearbook picture hanging on the wall at home.  Those are such vulnerable years, and we feel so tender; one unkind word can cut us to the quick.  “If you want to you can make me clean,” the leper says to Jesus, and maybe all he really means is, “If you want to you can save me from being a social outcast, you can bring me into the community, you can help me find a place.”  And Jesus says, “I want to,” and then he reaches out and touches the leper.  Who knows how long it had been since anyone offered to do that?  But in that moment, in that action, the leper is cured.  He is made clean.  Jesus told him not to say anything about it but he couldn’t help himself.  It was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

Think about those people, not only in high school but in every church, who have trouble fitting in, who are almost terrified to visit a Sunday school class where everybody already knows everybody, and where there aren’t any available seats.  Think about how hard it is for some people to walk up the front steps of this church for the first time, not knowing if they will be made to feel welcome or turned away at the door.  Think about those people who have failed at life, who have failed at love; people who are struggling hard and who need a home; people who have been pushed to the margins of society because in one way or another they have become “unclean.” I think Mark is being very deliberate here in showing us three different things that have no place in God’s kingdom: 1) evil, 2) illness, and 3) exclusion.  And he is deliberate in showing us how Jesus takes his stand against all of these.  He drives out the unclean spirits, he cures those who are sick, and he welcomes the outcasts.  And when he does those things God’s kingdom comes, God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven. 

—Jim Somerville 2012

[i] Attributed to Leon Morris.

[ii]N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2011).

[iii] David Lose, Marbury E. Anderson Biblical Preaching Chair, Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota (on the Working Preacher web site: http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=550).


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