Epiphany 6B, 2012

Sunday, February 12, 2012 BCP lectionary

Her name was Susan. She’d left home and college in Ohio to move to Minnesota and marry “an artist”: a man twice her age, twice divorced, with a history of joblessness and alcoholism. It went swimmingly for the first few months and then when the routine settled in, he began drinking again. That’s when the abuse started. She thought, as many think, that a child would help. 9 months later she gave birth, alone in the hospital, to a baby girl. She was more alone than not over the next year, and that wasn’t all bad, since when he came home he took advantage of her and hurt her. She cobbled together odd jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. She thought she would survive.

But one day, her daughter wouldn’t nurse from her right breast. The left side was fine. This went on for a month and she took her daughter to pediatricians and clinics and they couldn’t find anything wrong. Finally she went to the doctor herself.

Fourth stage breast cancer.

She left Minnesota and moved back in with her parents. She went to the Cleveland Clinic and they tried one treatment after another. They ran out of options. Finally they told her that the last recourse was to do a complete bone marrow transfusion. It would require complete isolation for months in the hospital. She prayed about it with her parents. Their assistance was critical. The church rotated bringing food and making sure her parents had all the support they needed in the caring for the granddaughter. The rector of the first parish where I served and I visited her every other day. I remember having to scrub in and the isolation suit I had to wear to be near her. I remember her crying once and I asked her if she was in pain. She said what was worse than the pain was how utterly alone she felt. That is the feeling that Naaman and the leper in the gospel must have felt. Utterly alone.

We live in a highly medical culture, a culture that tends to see illness as the presence of a disease. In our quest for control and perfection, we want to be able to identify a “bad spot” in someone’s body or mind so we can cut it out or cure it. But sickness and suffering are usually much more complex than that. How illness manifests itself depends on many factors, some historical and some relational. Just like salvation, suffering is personal; it has to do with the meaning that an illness (and a treatment) holds—for this person. A key ingredient of suffering and illness that we’re beginning to rediscover is how a person’s whole world changes with the onset or protracted nature of certain problems. That is critical to understand in hearing today’s gospel.

From a medical perspective, when Jesus heals the leper today, He’s simply ‘the great physician’ who breaks into our lives and miraculously removes the bad spot—in this case leprosy—in order to return a person to health… Of course, the healing was a compassionate act that freed a man from his disease—and at this level we can compare contemporary medicine to Jesus’ action. But there’s more to it; Jesus doesn’t stop at merely curing. The man’s illness didn’t just make him sick, it made him “unclean;” as a pariah, he was unable to participate in life. By touching him, Jesus doesn’t merely cure the man’s sickness; He heals him as He enters into and transforms the man’s stigma and social isolation. By ignoring the social exclusion of those whom society had marginalized, Jesus shifts the margins: those previously marginalized people come to form the heart of God’s Kingdom. When Jesus enters into a relationship with the marginalized and shares in their ‘social death,’ He initiates a whole cloth process of healing for people like this man with leprosy. Because of Jesus they become full persons and are reintegrated into the community. And when they reenter the community, the community is transformed.

Diseases still marginalize people today. Last night two people felt under the weather and they didn’t feel they could come to the new-comer dinner. Imagine that condition, first not being voluntary and then extending over a period of years. People with mental health problems are alienated, stigmatized, often friendless, and, interestingly, often prevented from expressing their spirituality. They’re often not welcomed in churches. Bipolar disorders, alcoholism, AIDS, leprosy:  someone with the flu or the measles is tolerated if we know they’re not contagious. But a person with a diagnosis often loses their identity because people associate them with their illness: we have a tendency to label. We see them, even their spiritual experiences, through the lens of our cultural assumptions about their illness. Couple that with the fact that many mental health professionals exclude spiritual expression as pathological and so they actively seek to disengage spirituality from the therapeutic process and we not only isolate people, we actually encourage their dis-integration.

In the midst of this chaos that sickness brings on, our parish can become a place of healing. Besides praying with and for people, we can stand with people who’ve been isolated from others by mental or physical diseases. Forming friendships with people who are marginalized and different isn’t easy (e.g., the children from St Jude’s). Yet, if we can be a community where there is a ‘safe space’ for them to develop such friendships, even if these friendships are fleeting, then we will have moved towards faithfulness and Christ-likeness.

Naaman was a powerful man who suffered from leprosy; through his healing he came to joyful faith in God. The leper in the gospel was made clean and was able to rejoin society. Some say that he is the same Simon the Leper of Bethany who will host Jesus at a dinner in Mark 14. My friend Susan was healed of her breast cancer. She celebrated 20 years of being cancer free a while back; and she remembers how her parish swept her and her family up in their collective embrace and cared for her. But what she remembers most is how she was visited and helped through the awful isolation. She experienced true healing in the communion of the Body of Christ.

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