Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
February 12, 2012
Since we have declared this day to be “Bring Your Skates to Worship Sunday,” I’d like to begin my sermon with a short ice skating story.
Before I was married, I lived for 5 years in New Town. During the winters – as I do now – I loved to get out on a patch of ice and skate whenever the opportunity presented itself. I skated a lot on the lake, which was very close to my trailer out in the country. I skated on an outdoor rink they had in town. And whenever I traveled to Minot for some reason, I’d pack my skates and hockey stick and find a rink to play around on.
One winter I had a friend stay with me for several months. He was from Sweden and was doing some research for his graduate studies. Being a true Swede, he had skated a lot as a kid and loved it. We found a pair of old skates for him, but they weren’t very good. One day we were in Minot and I suggested that he buy himself a new pair of skates (since he no longer had a pair at home that fit him). We looked around in a sporting goods store; but he felt the skates were a little expensive. He needed to think about it a while. So we went to some other stores to pick up some things we needed.
Soon it was time for us to leave. I asked him, “What about the skates then?” He shook his head and said, “I’m not a kid anymore. My skating days are pretty much behind me. I don’t think I can justify spending that kind of money on skates at this point in my life.” To that I quickly replied, “What do you mean? Don’t you plan on teaching your kids how to skate?! Don’t you plan to get out there and skate and play hockey with them?”
I will never forget his reaction to those questions. As my words sunk in, I saw his expression first soften with thoughtfulness, then harden with conviction. Without saying a word, he spun around on his heels and walked directly to the sporting goods store. He bought the skates.
It was a powerful surge of emotion – springing from his love for a child he did not yet have – that spurred his action. What a delightful thing to behold!
We see the same sort of thing happen in today’s Gospel lesson. There Mark describes for us an encounter between Jesus and a leper. The life of a leper in Jesus’ day was a relentless nightmare. The ravages of the disease were bad enough; but leprosy in Biblical times also turned a person into a despised and feared outcast.
They were legally required to isolate themselves from the rest of the community. Friends and family would generally reject them. To make their pain even worse, the prevailing belief was that God caused their terrible disease. In other words, it was believed lepers deserved their suffering.
Leprosy meant a life of physical disfigurement, emotional pain, social isolation, and a sense or feeling of god-forsakenness.
When the leper confronts Jesus with his physical affliction, he falls on his knees in desperation and cries out to Jesus for help. With great hope, he declares: “If you choose, you can make me clean.”
The Gospel-writer Mark, who always seems to give just the barest description possible of things, then takes time to identify Jesus’ inner emotional reaction to the leper. “Moved with pity…” is the opening phrase of verse 41.
“Moved with pity….” That brief phrase makes for an interesting study in the original Greek language. It is the Greek verb σπλαγχνίζομαι (splanxnidzomai), which means, literally, “to be moved in the intestines.” How about that?! It means to feel a twisting in the gut… in other words, to be deeply and powerfully affected. That is the feeling experienced by Jesus when he is confronted by the leper.
Mark wants us to know where Jesus’ action comes from. He wants us to know that it springs from a powerful source. Love cannot see human suffering like that without the heart rising up in violent protest.
That opening phrase of verse 41 identifies love as the force behind Jesus’ reaction. Love also drives the rest of the passage. Jesus heals the leper… because of love. He sends him to the priests so that he once again might know the joy of life with friends and family and community. That is love.
Jesus orders the healed man to be quiet about what happened so that he, Jesus, can be free to go around and teach and heal other people. When that doesn’t happen and Jesus is unable to freely move around the crowded towns, he goes out into the country so that people can come to him and he can continue to teach them about and show them God’s love.
Love shapes Jesus’ action. It shapes Jesus’ ministry. Love powers his life, his death and his resurrection.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that love seeks us out. Love nourishes and heals our lives and holds our whole being together.
Love is a power that moves things, changes things. It draws us from despair and hurt toward hope and healing. It compels us to care for and serve one another. It is, quite simply, a power unlike anything in this world.
If we think of love as merely an emotion, we misunderstand the power of God. Love is an eternal, creative force that breaks into our finite, broken world and works the will of God. For sure, it gives rise to powerful emotions, but that’s just a sort of thrilling side effect of the fundamental force that gives life and strength to any and all of God’s creatures.
“Let us love one another,” it says in the first letter of John. “Because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him…. If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:7-9, 12)
In his ministry… his words and actions… his death and resurrection, Jesus shows us that if we want to know what the power of God looks like, feels like… how it works… we need to look for and learn about love.
Christ shows us the power of God’s love for us. We see it in his compassion and care for those who are weak, sick or outcast. We see it in the physical, emotional and social healing that occurs as he tends to them. We see it as he tried to show the privileged and powerful the way to humility and service.
We hear it in his parables and preaching. He commands us to love one another. He directs us to let the love of God claim us and live through us to touch and strengthen the lives of others.
We see God’s love in Christ who offers himself on the cross to reach and heal a broken world that cannot save itself. And God’s love is the power that opens the tomb, bringing forth resurrection and then giving it as a gift to us.
As people of God, we proclaim that there is a power present and on the move in this world. Its source lies outside this world in the mysterious being of God. Its purpose in being here is to nourish, strengthen and heal all of God’s creation… including you.
That power stirred in my Swedish friend when he thought of his children years before they were even born. It stirred in Christ when he encountered the Galilean leper in today’s Gospel. It stirs in God today, as we gather together for worship and offer to God the pain we carry and the struggles we face.
And like he said to the leper, Christ says to each of you: “I do choose. Be made clean.”
Let yourself be claimed by the power of God’s eternal love. Let it heal you and hold your whole being together. Let it transform you and strengthen you for a life of care and service. Let it stir in you and lead you to a future of hope.