When I chose the text for this week on July 1, I did not know what God had planned for me, the saying goes, “Sometimes your plans don’t work out because God has better ones.” I did not expect for the past week to make my Top Ten list of “hardest weeks ever.” I did not expect to find myself early on Saturday morning finishing this sermon in the hospital seated next to one of my favorite people in this world. I am a hospice chaplain and a healing touch practitioner, when we are training to become chaplains they tell us you can be either the “walking wounded” or “the wounded healer.” This week I have been both. I believe I understand existential suffering and then God shows me more suffering. But God also shows me the healing. The gospel of Mark calls to me as a healer, it calls to me as a professional who sees much suffering, it calls to me as a member of society who gets overwhelmed by the injustice I see. It calls to me as a Christian, who has personal afflictions, who is always in need of healing.

The passages from 2 Kings and the first chapter of Mark are about breaking down barriers, suffering, faith, and healing. None of us like to suffer, we live in a country where the majority of our beliefs about suffering and healing reside in a medical model. Healing occurs on the operating table, through an IV line, and relief from suffering comes in the form of a prescription bottle. Some believe suffering is a choice, I do not believe this to be true. Physical, emotional, mental and spiritual suffering are excruciatingly painful and rarely do those suffering feel they are making a choice. My calling is to minister to patients and their loved ones who are suffering, who have been told there is nothing left for the medical community to do, they have been told, “You are terminal.”

In our readings today, we have two men who are suffering from leprosy and have essentially been told they are “terminal.” Leprosy was and continues to be highly contagious and those who do not receive treatment usually end up with disfigurations, blindness and eventual death. God had given the Israelites very specific instructions on how to deal with leprosy and other skin infections (Leviticus 13). Anyone suspected of having this disease had to go to a priest for examination (Leviticus 13:2-3). From Leviticus 13:45-46, If found to be infected, “the leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of their head hang loose, and they shall cover their upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ They shall live alone. Their dwelling shall be outside the camp”. The leper then was considered unclean—physically and spiritually. Incurable, many believed God inflicted the curse of leprosy upon people for the sins they committed. A leper wasn’t allowed to come within six feet of any other human, including their own family. The disease was considered so revolting that the leper wasn’t permitted to come within 150 feet of anyone when the wind was blowing. Lepers lived in a community with other lepers until they either got better or died. The lepers suffered not only physically, but socially and spiritually.

The stories of Namaan and the leper remind me of what happened in our lifetime with the discovery of HIV and AIDS. Those diagnosed were treated like lepers, considered unclean, contaminated, unfit for socializing with the larger society. In the mid 1980s with the discovery of AIDS, it largely affected gay men, IV street drug users and men and women on the continent of Africa. AIDS became a platform for many with strong convictions against homosexualilty to focus on how God was punishing them for their sin by killing them. Like Namaan and the leper, the men with AIDS suffered under the glare of political, religious and social critique. In the late 1980s, men in the United States military diagnosed with AIDS were made to live in the “HIV hotel” or “leper colony” as they were called to isolate them from the other troops. As recently as 2 years ago when I was a chaplain resident at a local hospital, I had a nurse whisper to me before I went in to see a patient, “be careful, he has AIDS.” Nothing I was going to do with this patient was going to infect me with HIV, what the nurse was doing was attempting to stigmatize the patient and make him less than. What the nurse said offended me and I went in to see my patient even more compassionate than normal because I knew he was facing discrimination when he was most vulnerable.

When women and children began to be diagnosed with HIV the critiques began to soften, but just a bit. It wasn’t until two incredibly high profile women began to literally touch those afflicted with AIDS did our perception of this devastating disease change. I will not go so far as to equate these two women to Jesus, but they both had angelic qualities, fearlessness and like Jesus, gathered the children to them and suffered the scrutiny of others for doing so. If you are at least 40 years old, you know these two women were Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. Like me, you may have images in your heart of these two women holding, caressing, even kissing men, women and children diagnosed and dying with AIDS. These women were proclaiming freely the love and compassion they had for those who were suffering.

Jesus and Elisha flat out cured the lepers. Yet, we often confuse curing with healing. Healing occurs on many levels. Curing is only one part of healing. “To heal” comes from the the Old English word, haelen, which means “to make whole.” Our words for health and holiness are also derived from this same root word. For some of us, healing does mean a cure to our suffering, for some healing means an alleviation of some of our suffering and for many healing is God helping us find a way to live with the suffering. However, for most of us, when we suffer over an extended period of time, relief becomes our sole desire. We all can be humbled in our suffering like Namaan. He was so desperate for relief he humbled himself by listening to the prophet tell him to go bathe in the Jordan River not once, but seven times. He was not happy with this prescription, he was hoping for a magician-like waving of the hands and to bathe in waters cleaner than the muddy and polluted Jordan river. How many times have we been humbled when we thought we had the cure for our ailing, we had a plan and yet, God asked us to repeatedly bathe in dirty, nasty water for a cure, it doesn’t even make sense, and yet God knows our plans.

I feel drawn to heal those who have been told there is no bathing which will save you, to assist them in making sense of the end of their lives to pull meaning out of their suffering, to give them the faith of a mustard seed, to help them find the rainbow and for those who are ready, walk them home to their Creator. Even with the most faithful, I have seen struggle at the end of life for those who still do not believe they have been forgiven, they did not believe they could proclaim freely that Jesus had healed them.

Many of us have events in our lives or pieces of us which either truly cast us out from society or we choose to remove ourselves from society because of perceived stigma because of our invisible scarlet letters: cancer, divorce, depression, infidelity, auto immune diseases, termination of a pregnancy, bulimia, and unfortunately the church has not always been the most like Jesus. The church has been judgmental, accusatory, excluding, directly pointing out the perceived sin in our lives. I wanted to parallel the Biblical text of the lepers with the modern story of AIDS, I wanted us to all see how our communities want to continue to isolate those who we believe are diseased, contaminated, sinful and less than us. We separate ourselves from people who make us uncomfortable with ourselves. Those who may be differently abled, homeless, addicted, the slow to learn, the social misfit, the immigrant, the one who has a different skin color than us. There are denominations, individual churches and popular ministers who are doing the opposite of telling us to “proclaim it freely.” They are either shaming us, telling us to be quiet, or telling us by their sermons that we are not wanted in their pews.

The good news this morning is Jesus did more than heal in this story, he showed us how to stand up for what is right. By the time we get to the end of the first chapter of Mark, we already know Jesus performs miracles. Jesus was probably moved by pity for the man, but we also suspect that he was also motivated partially by anger at a social system that demonized and excluded an entire group of human beings. At the time he healed the leper, Jesus was not joyful, but was described as being angry literally “snorting with indignation.” Jesus sends him back to the priests for ritual cleaning and gives the leper the orders “See that you say nothing to anyone! Rather go back and show yourself to the priest and make the offering prescribed by Moses for your cleansing as a witness against them.”(Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, p. 358, 361) The cleansed leper’s task is not to publicize a miracle but to help confront a system of social injustice. Told to be silent by Jesus, the leper does the opposite and proclaims freely what has happened to him because of Jesus. He sends the healed man back to demonstrate that cleanliness happens by having a relationship with Jesus and not adhering to Levitical law. What in your life has been healed miraculously? Remembering I am not talking about a cure, but where have you been broken and now feel whole and holiness? What has been ailing you and given you the faith and strength to proclaim freely what God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit has done? Like Jesus, where are you seeing injustice that makes you indignant and want to seek healing for others?

These are the hard questions we are seeking to answer, seeking to proclaim freely, seeking to proclaim in Jesus name, Amen.

Jill Joyner
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, GA
July 15, 2018