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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 2/15

More than one person has said to me, “When I get to heaven (then maybe there’s a slight hedge, if I get to heaven), when I get to heaven I’m going to show God a cancer cell and ask Why?”  It’s not an uncommon sentiment, a question posed by people who have cancer or people who know and love someone who has cancer or has died of cancer and that’s pretty much all of us; there’s righteous anger and indignation at what seems to be unfair.  The question comes up relative to illness, it also comes up relative to natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes and tsunamis as people ask “Why, God?  How could you let this happen?” 

          Asking such questions is understandable and as I’ve said before, it’s OK.  It’s part of an honest faith journey. Answering such questions adequately though is difficult and probably no one answer is completely adequate.  One of the speakers at the conference I was at in St. Paul a few weeks ago had what I think is an interesting take on such questions though, one that while not answering all the questions, I think is helpful; let me briefly try to summarize what he said. 

The first chapter of Genesis gives us an account of creation, a creation which God ultimately calls good.  From the beginning though it has been a creation that contains elements of chaos.  From the beginning it has been a creation in which God allows freedom, freedom for things to happen; in other words God doesn’t intervene and control everything, not that such intervention is not possible, but it’s not the normal order of things.  That means everything is not neat and tidy; there is a wildness and strangeness about the world that can and does cause things to get messy.  As a result of that, suffering is not just possible, it is probable and that in turn means that human beings have to struggle with it.  Yet this is the creation, chaos and all, that God has called good, not perfect, but good, good perhaps in part because it is in the chaotic, messy parts of life that human beings can best become what they are called to be. 

          My guess is that there is not one of us here today that hasn’t experienced this “becoming what we are called to be” in ourselves or in others as we face life’s messiness; perhaps it’s remarkable courage and faith on the part of someone who is suffering, courage and faith which becomes an inspirational witness for many.  Or perhaps it’s remarkable acts of compassion and caring by caregivers and those who respond in times of crisis.  We’ve seen it on a large scale in events like 9/11 and Katrina, but the same kind of thing goes on in homes and hospitals and nursing homes all the time.  People respond in ways that maybe they didn’t think they could, demonstrating the same kind of compassion that Jesus modeled quite regularly, people becoming the people God calls them to be in response to the messiness of life.

          I think it’s an interesting theory.  It doesn’t explain everything or end all the “Why” questions; as I said, no explanation of evil and suffering does.  It doesn’t ease the pain of one who suffers or cure the hurt of those who have lost loved ones.  But I do think it’s more useful than just longing for a world where nothing ever goes wrong, no one gets sick, no one dies, storms never occur or if, when any of that stuff does happen, God always jumps in to fix it.  You don’t have to go too far with the “world where nothing goes wrong” scenario to see that it has nothing to do with how we experience the world or even with anything we can really imagine.  It may not even be a world we would want to live in.

          In today’s gospel, the text says in verse 41 that in responding to the leper Jesus was moved with pity.  If you read this from your Bible though you would find that there is a footnote that says, “other ancient authorities read anger rather than pity.”  That means that among the earliest copies of Mark there are a fair number that have Jesus motivated here not by pity but by anger and if we go with that wording, the question becomes, what was he angry at?

          Was it the same kind of righteous anger at the presence and unfairness of disease that those who want to question God about cancer ask?  It could be; it would get back to the fully human/fully divine thing about Jesus that we struggle to understand but it could be that in his humanity, Jesus was troubled and angry by the suffering caused by disease.

          That’s a possibility, but I think it’s more likely that Jesus, understanding that disease was part of creation, was angry at the response to disease, a response that resulted in demonizing and excluding a group of people simply because they were sick.  He was angry at the walls that resulted from someone being different, walls which, to be fair, were built by well meaning religious people trying to honor the clean/unclean codes of the Old Testament; they thought they were doing the right thing by excluding those thought to be unclean.  Jesus though, approached things differently.  He quite consistently challenged those codes of holiness; it’s one of the things that got him in trouble.

          He challenged the codes because the kingdom Jesus proclaimed included those thought to be unclean and unwelcome.  I think it’s most likely that his anger in this story was at the injustice he saw as a result of the old codes, particularly because it was injustice done in the name of religion.  His response to the leper though, indicates that in him, in Jesus, those old laws of exclusion, laws of clean and unclean were no longer in effect because what did he do?   He reached out and touched the leper which according to the code would have immediately made Jesus himself unclean.  But Jesus touched the man before he healed him and the sequence is significant because by touching him Jesus symbolically welcomed him as part of the community, part of the kingdom.  He didn’t heal him first and then say, “Now you meet my standards; now you’re good enough; welcome back.”  He touched him and welcomed him first.

          Disease is part of our world.  What we call natural disasters are part of our world.  People who are different are part of our world.  Yet they all are part of the creation that God has called good.  You can ask God why these things are part of creation and that’s OK; sometimes we have to ask.  Still, while the why questions are OK, it may be more important to ask how we respond when we’re confronted with these elements of disorder in the world.

          As I said, often it’s the disorder that brings out the best in us and helps us to be who we are created to be and that happens in a multitude of ways.  But sometimes it is the opposite and disorder brings out our less than admirable characteristics; for example some people find it very difficult to be around someone who is very ill, especially when it’s someone they knew when they were active and vital so they stop visiting.  Usually though this isn’t a clean/unclean holiness shunning kind of thing, more just a level of discomfort where the person who doesn’t respond and visit feels bad about not being able to get past this intrusion of disorder.  

More significant in the context of today’s gospel is when we don’t do very well with those who are different and that can implicate all of us because for most of us some differences we can handle and accept, but others we can’t.  When we see how Jesus responded to those who were considered unclean and different though, we should call ourselves to account.  Jesus did not introduce a new set of holiness codes even though the church and society sometimes want you to think that he did.  But we are not the keepers of today’s holiness codes because…Jesus touched the leper.  Still, there are those individuals and churches, often, not always but often well meaning individuals and churches who seem to make exclusion a primary order of business despite the fact that Jesus quite consistently crossed whatever boundaries were placed before him; he reached out and touched the leper.

We might sometimes think we’d like that neat, tidy creation where nobody is different, nothing goes wrong, there’s no upsetting chaos and disorder or if there is God fixes it.  That’s not the creation we’ve got though.  Instead, we’ve got a creation that in its messiness gives us opportunities to be who we are called to be.  When you’re presented with those opportunities, remember that Jesus didn’t just heal the leper, he didn’t just fix him…he touched him first.


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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