Mark 1: 40-45 / Sixth Sunday after Epiphany / February 12, 2012 / Norman B. Bendroth
David had an ice cream shop and general store in Lincoln, NH. When a lot of jobs left that area, he decided to run for the town council to try to attract some industry back to the depressed ski town. To his amazement, an electronics firm relocated there. After having been there, they approached him about working for them: he was a native, he knew the folks and their ways, he could recommend who to hire; he’d be a great asset. He eventually worked his way up the ladder and over time traveled around the world for the company and ran the office in Hong Kong. “Not bad for a NH country bumpkin,” he told me when I met him in the hospital.
David was on dialysis and was in for some complications. He was a stout, cheerful man, full of optimism and grateful for his life. But then like a used car with over 250,000 miles on it, one thing after another began to break down. He finally had a heart attack the week before Christmas followed with numerous complications and had had it. His wife called me in a panic. “David refuses to go on dialysis,” she told me. “He said he just wants to die.” “Like it or not Miriam,” I said as pastorally as I could muster, “That’s his choice.” The conversation continued for a while and she asked me, “Would you talk to him?” Which really meant, would you talk him out of it?
I went to see David. He was so weak he could barely talk. He had an oxygen mask on. “So you want to call it quits, huh, David?” I asked him. He shook his head through the mask. “I don’t blame you and it’s no sin. You’ve fought the good fight. You’ve had a good life. But are you really sure you want to do this right now? It’s your choice, but I have to check, is there any unfinished business? Are there people you need to say good bye to? Would you be willing to hang on a little while longer for the sake of your family or are you just too tired?” He said he’d think about it. I prayed with him and went home.
On Christmas Eve I was standing in the back of the sanctuary waiting for the 7 o’clock service to begin when a lovely young woman came up to me and said, “Are you the pastor?” I said yes and she threw her arms around my neck. I thought to myself, I think this is a boundaries issue. When she let go, “Thank you for talking my grandpa into living.” David had decided to go through one last round of dialysis. I assured her it wasn’t me, but his decision and the help of God.
David made it through Christmas; he did the emotional and spiritual work he needed too, and died shortly thereafter with his family around him. David was healed even though he wasn’t cured. He left this world in serenity at peace with his family and with God.
The story in Mark today is a healing story, not just physical healing, but on several levels. A leper drops to his knees and implores Jesus to make him clean. In the Greek Jesus answers with two short, powerful words: Thelo. Katharistheti. The man said, “If you are willing,” and Jesus curtly replies, “Willing!” The man said, “You can make me clean,” and Jesus says “Cleansed!” And that’s all it took for this miracle to happen.
It’s a curious exchange in some ways. The man does not cry out for mercy the way some people do in the gospels. He does not directly ask Jesus to heal him. Indeed, his words to Jesus are neither plea nor question, neither imperative nor demand, but instead a simple conditional clause: If you are willing, you can heal. It’s similar to someone’s saying, “If you step on the gas pedal, the car will go faster.” Yes, true enough. A simple statement of “If . . . Then.”
But, of course, in this case these are the words of a desperate man so there was no mistaking that this was no idle request or casual observation of facts. “If you are willing . . .” We know what the leper meant—he was hoping like mad that Jesus would be willing. And Jesus response is equally weird, “Ready, Willing, and Able, Sir!” Yes, Jesus is willing. He’s even eager. And he is surely able. If there is one thing the gospels make clear, it is that whenever someone approached Jesus for healing or cleansing or for most anything else, Jesus was indeed willing to extend his hand and bring some shalom back into their chaotic and broken lives.
In fact, there is a sense in which all the goodness of the Gospel is contained in that little Greek word Jesus employed: Thelo! Willing! There’s more grace tucked in there than we may at first appreciate. Yes, God is willing to heal, to save. That’s why God sent Jesus into the world in the first place. Salvation is available. The resources are there. And God is willing—more than willing—to see the dream of our restoration realized.
That’s good to know because on any given Sunday I’ll bet any number of you come to church wondering if God is willing to help you. Is God there for you or not? Is God on your side or not? Of course, I can’t promise anyone instant healing or instant success. But this passage shows us Jesus’ willingness eagerly and happily to heal this leper. But as we all know, even though Jesus walked around his whole life long with that kind of willingness welling up within him, not everyone in Palestine was healed while Jesus was on the earth. Not every leper was cleansed, not every blind person could see again just because Jesus passed through a given town or village, not every person who died during Jesus’ ministry got raised back up but only a few that we know of.
And we can no more know the whys and wherefores of all that in Jesus’ day than we can know just why even today some prayers for healing in the church appear to get answered and others appear to go unanswered. Some cancer-stricken members of our congregation get better, others quickly die. Some rocky marriages get put back together and some end in bitter divorces that scar all kinds of people in the community.
We know God is willing to heal and to restore, but that willingness does not automatically translate into a world shot through with nothing but peace and happiness and shalom. These are mysteries of faith the depths of which the church has never finished plumbing even all these centuries later.
But what I can tell you on any given Sunday morning is that God is willing, God is on our side, God is ready and available. Even when we cannot know the ins and outs as to why specific people suffer in specific ways, what we can know is that none of that separates us from the love of our God in Christ. Willing? Yes, willing indeed! And in God’s good time, we will be healed.
Reynolds Price was a prolific and well-loved American writer and was the James B. Duke professor of English at Duke University. His career spanned over 40 years; 35 books, plays, poetry, and essays. He died on January 20, 2011. He developed spinal cancer in 1984. After having a 10-inch tumor removed, but before radiation, he had an honest-to-God dream vision. He tells about it in his book, “A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing.” He found himself on the shore asleep with the other disciples. Jesus appeared. He invited Reynolds to come into the waters of the lake. Waist deep, he recalled: “Jesus silently took up handfuls of water and poured them over my head and back till water ran down my puckered scar. Then he spoke once–”Your sins are forgiven”–and turned to shore again, done with me. I came on behind him, thinking in standard greedy fashion, It’s not my sins I’m worried about. So to Jesus’ receding back, I had the gall to say, “Am I also cured?” He turned to face me, no sign of a smile, and finally said two words–”That too.” Then Jesus turned and headed up the shore.
Price became a paraplegic after the surgery and radiation treatment and needed attendants around the clock. He wrote that there had been many surgeries since then, and there was disabling pain, but the cancer did not return. Eventually using biofeedback and deep hypnosis, he managed the pain to the point of making it disappear. “My life is more rewarding and productive than before that [baptism] in Galilee,” he said reflecting on his experience.
He didn’t fully understand what has happened to him, but he couldn’t deny it. It was in his memory indelibly, the unstinting mercy in Jesus’ face and in his eyes. In his book, he said, he now can understand the perennial appeal of Jesus’ words, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me. For I am lowly and meek in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”