Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, Sunday, February 12, 2012
2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Mark 1:40-45
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Lutheran seminary students are required to spend at least one summer working as a chaplain in a hospital or nursing home as part of our training. This program, called Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE, combines practical hands-on work, group study, and one-on-one mentorship, and one of my classmates who had been in the Army called it “boot camp for pastors.”
I did my CPE at Oregon State Hospital. It’s the mental facility where they filmed “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
There were strict rules for all employees and volunteers at the hospital. One of them was that we could not tell anyone the names of the patients we worked with. If we saw them out on the street, after they left, we could not make contact. Unless they came up to us, we could not acknowledge that we knew them, and unless they brought it up, we could not say where we knew them from. Not if anybody might be able to hear us. This rule was supposed to protect the patients from people knowing they spent time in a mental hospital.
You see, there’s a stigma about mental illness. It’s embarrassing. It’s unpleasant. If you are known to have a mental illness, people will look at you differently, and you will likely be discriminated against … particularly if your illness is severe enough that you end up in the hospital. “Can’t he control it?” you hear people say. Or “Can’t she just snap out of it?” “Why can’t they act normally?” Mental illness is a hard thing, a difficult thing to deal with that can split families and ruin lives. There are no easy cures or answers why some people have it and others don’t. So people ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist, and in the process they ignore the people who suffer from mental illness. There is a divide between the world and those who suffer from these devastating conditions, and it can be as wide as the Grand Canyon. The mentally ill are often treated like lepers.
What the Bible calls “leprosy” included a lot more than just Hansen’s Disease, which is what we call it today. Leprosy included everything from true leprosy to bad psoriasis to severe acne. Leprosy was a terrible thing in the ancient world. If you were a leper, you were an outcast. You could not associate with healthy people. You could not work to earn your daily bread, but had to beg. Your own family would probably cast you out. You could not go to the Temple to worship God and participate in the community of believers. And you were often told their affliction was a punishment for the sins they had committed, so it was your own fault.
We hear this, and we think, “How horrible! How primitive, how superstitious and cruel, to blame people for things that aren’t their fault and isolate them from the support they need to live and thrive!” When the truth is, we do the same thing. But instead of penalizing people with incurable diseases that are visible on their skin, we do it to people whose wounds are in their hearts and minds.
Besides the stigma, there’s another similarity between mental illness now and leprosy then. It’s that both conditions were or are, by and large, incurable. If you were a leper in Jesus’ day, unless you were extremely lucky and your “leprosy” was only a bad case of acne, you would have it for your entire life. It was never going to go away. Likewise, if you have clinical depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or any other mental illness, you will struggle with it for the rest of your life. Some people are lucky enough that they can function on their own, with or without medication. Some people will be in and out of mental hospitals, as their condition ebbs and flows. And some of the people I worked with that summer at Oregon State Hospital will never be functional enough to leave the hospital, even with the best treatment possible.
During the summer I worked there, one of the stories of Jesus healing people came up as the appointed Gospel lesson for one Sunday. One of my fellow students preached on it, and as we discussed that sermon Monday morning the Chaplain was very critical. “Does Jesus heal?” he asked. “Of course!” we replied. “How can you possibly say that?” he said. “You’ve been here a month. How can you possibly believe that? None of the patients at this hospital will ever be free of their illness. Many of them will only leave the hospital for their graves.” After twenty years of being a chaplain in prisons and hospitals, the chaplain had seen too much brokenness, pain, and suffering to believe that God could heal people. He believed in emotional and spiritual healing—Jesus as Comforter—and social healing—Jesus the Good Shepherd welcoming people back into the flock—but not physical healing.
It can be hard to argue with his reasoning. I know people who have been healed, who beat the doctors’ expectations, and I believe that Christ was working there, but for each story of hope there are many stories of pain and suffering. There are so many people in the world who are faithful followers of God who will never receive healing in this life. Those with mental illnesses, who struggle with addiction, with AIDS, Multiple Sclerosis, Lou Gherig’s Disease, a whole host of other devastating conditions will struggle with their conditions for the rest of their lives.
And then we come to a text like today’s Gospel. Leprosy, the most dread disease of that day, healed with a touch! Jesus, in one move, cured both the leper’s physical ailment and reunited him with the community that had turned its back on him. And it makes me wonder why. Why that leper, and not others? How many lepers were there in Judea in Jesus day who weren’t that lucky? What about the people here, now, today? What about the people who are dying as we speak? Is the chaplain right? If Jesus is a healer, why isn’t he healing more people?
I don’t know. People have been wondering why God allows pain and suffering since the first people existed. C.S. Lewis called it “The Problem of Pain.” My professors at seminary had a fancy Greek word for it, “theodicy.” There have been a lot of theories, but there is no definitive answer.
What I do know, absolutely for certain, is that God is a healer, and God will heal all suffering and brokenness, whether now or when Christ comes again. For some, that healing comes in this life. For others, it will not come until the Resurrection. We pray that healing comes soon, but it whether it comes now or later it will come.
And those who suffer are not alone. Even when society turns its back, Jesus Christ is with the outcast, the leper, the unclean, the mentally ill, with all those who suffer. Even when society turns its back, Jesus does not. Our Lord spent his ministry with those pushed to the margins by their community: lepers, tax collectors, sinners. Even when we would rather ignore the unpleasant reality of illness, Christ meets it head on. Jesus Christ has suffered himself; he knows what we go through and will not abandon us. We may not see the signs of Christ’s presence—when things are hardest, our pain can blind us to the support God is giving us. There are times we feel utterly alone, and yet later, can look back later and see Christ with us. We as Christians are invited to participate in this reality, by providing support in tangible ways, and serving as Christ’s hands and feet in the world. We may not be able to cure illness with a touch, but we can support and nourish and love, and create an environment which supports healing. Christ does not call us to sympathize with those who suffer from afar, to shake our heads and murmur how terrible it is. Christ calls us to join him in his healing work.
I believe that there are miracles of healing. I have seen them and I have heard others tell their stories, some in this very congregation. Some are physical: deadly diseases cured. Other healings are spiritual, not physical, when someone receives the strength to carry on, or a broken relationship is restored. But no matter what form the healing takes, no matter when it happens, Jesus Christ is there.