By Rev. Scott Summerville
Mark 1: 40-45
A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him…
The city of Karbala al-Muqaddasah, one of the holiest cities of Islam, lies approximately sixty miles south of Baghdad. At this time of year Shiite Muslim pilgrims make pilgrimage along the roads to this ancient city, to the tomb of Husayn ibn ‘Ali, grandson of the Prophet . Tents are set up along the way for the pilgrims, where they can rest and be refreshed. It is the custom that there are tents for men and separate tents for women and children. On Thursday along the road to Karbala al-Muqaddasah, a woman of suspicious appearance was seen moving among the tents. When she was approached to be questioned, she stepped into one of the tents filled with women and children, and an instant later there was a dreadful explosion, and one hundred people were killed or maimed.
For several days this story has haunted my thoughts. How can such things be? What level of hatred must exist in human hearts to do such a thing? This was not an act of sudden rage. It was carefully and systematically planned, and there was no pity in the hearts of the planners – no pity for the victims – no pity for the woman chosen to do this dreadful thing. How can human beings descend to such a level of pitiless cruelty? Such calculated evil?
How can we human beings be capable of extraordinary acts of love and also capable of such extraordinary acts of hatred?
In a world where there is great cruelty and great suffering, how will we live our lives?
A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”
A leper experiences a double tragedy: physical deformities that result from a lack of nerve sensation and psychological trauma as a result of being ostracized from one’s family and society. In the Gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with a particular individual with leprosy, we see Jesus’ hands and we see Jesus’ heart.
Last week I gave a speech. As a matter of fact, they called it a keynote address. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I do know that was the first time in my life I’ve ever been asked to give a keynote address. I addressed the United Methodist New York Connecticut district leadership training up in Ridgefield Connecticut. I was asked to talk about the challenge of leadership in anxious times. In my address I shared something that I learned from Tom Porter, co-director of JustPeace, which is a United Methodist organization that works for peaceful and thoughtful resolution of conflict.
Tom Porter teaches that Jesus, when he was faced with the greatest challenge of his lifetime, when he was in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover and the authorities were out to get him, had three choices: he could do the thing which sensible people did at that time and still do; he could have run away to the hills to hide until danger subsided. He did not elect to do that.
He could have taken up the sword. That was what many Jews chose to do when they could tolerate Roman oppression no longer. The Zealots were a fraction among the Jews who took up the sword against the Romans. Jesus did not choose the sword, the path of violence.
He went not to the hills and not to the sword; he went to the table of the Lord’s Supper, where he broke bread with friend and enemy. There he prepared himself and he prepared his followers for his death.
When we are confronted with suffering, we have a range of choices. We can look away and deny or ignore the suffering of the world. Or we can convince ourselves that only some massive global change which is totally out of our control could bring about a remedy to human suffering. And so we excuse ourselves from any direct action, because of course what can one person do to change the world?
Or we can take a third way, as Jesus took a third way:
He did not hide from suffering or deny it. He did not say the suffering people he encountered, “Just wait – wait until the day of the Lord – wait for your reward in heaven….”
Again he took the middle way. He was affected by suffering. The suffering he encountered pained him. Pity is a form of inward pain. Out of that inward pain he did what he could do to respond to the suffering that came his way, to help the hurting people who reached out to him. To be realistic – even Jesus – with all the power of his words and the power of his touch – he scarcely made a dent in the suffering of humanity. But he left us a powerful witness and a model for what it is to be human in a world of suffering.
A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.
In January of 2004 a group of seminary students from Drew Theological School, Madison, New Jersey along with two professors went to Ghana on an educational trip. They visited a number of villages in rural northern Ghana.
One of the students, later said, ” This visit profoundly affected us as we observed living conditions which were at best minimal for survival. We felt driven and compelled to do something to bring Christ”s helping hands in the midst of this scenario of human oversight. Out of our discussions with some villagers we learnt that the nearest health facility to the Dagomba village and the adjacent communities was 350 miles away. Both the distance and the costs rendered it inaccessible and prohibitive to them. Once we returned home, we did a study on the health conditions in Northern Ghana, which led to some disturbing findings. We found that the high levels of diseases which so readily disabled and eradicated their people could easily be eliminated with proper education and basic health care. These include cerebra-spinal meningitis, measles, river blindness and diarrhea among others. Most of the children under five years suffer from malnutrition, which has a negative impact on their growth and development process. Approximately half of all deaths to children under five occur during the first year of life. We found that while the outlook in urban Ghana is improving, not so for the Northern rural section in Ghana where the under five-mortality rate is three times as high as in the capital region. These studies reinforced the notion that a health facility is the conduit through which we could best make a difference in the lives of these villagers for the better; hence the founding of Project Dorcas Ministries”.
These individuals embarked on a campaign to raise funds for a clinic. The chiefs of the Yippala village donated to this purpose 10 acres of land. The building of the clinic started in September 2007. This congregation made a significant contribution to the construction the clinic. Next week we will hear from Joseph Ewoodzie, who has been deeply involved in this project, and who is going to invite us and challenge us to take additional steps to help this dream come to full reality.
I have a friend who just returned from a trip to Ghana, where there has been a peaceful transfer of power through elections from one political party to another. This is a singular event in the history of Africa. He said that everywhere he went there was such extraordinary pride and joy in this accomplishment.
It is important to point out that the Dorcas Project is being done in partnership with the Government of Ghana. Because of the shortage of funds and personnel the government looks for partnerships with other organizations to bring services to underserved people. Once the Dorcas clinic is set up the government will be responsible for the personnel and equipment for its operation.
This is an example of how committed people, moved with pity by human suffering, working in collaboration with communities and governments, can magnify their personal compassion and participate in social change.
There are times when we are moved to pity and compassion and we must act as individuals in response to individuals whose needs have come before us. And there are times when we need to work as citizens to change the policies of governments, so that we as a society are doing all we can to alleviate the suffering of our fellow citizens. And there are some things we do together is a church that go beyond what any of us can do individually to express the love of Christ for humanity.
I want to share with you a letter that I received on February 1. This letter is written to me, but when you hear it, I think you really should hear this as being addressed to Asbury Church, to this congregation, because in my relationship with the person writing this letter I am simply your representative. The letter comes from a middle-age woman who has been homeless and unemployed. Through your contributions to the pastor’s discretionary fund she was able at a critical time this winter to have food and a roof over her head as she looked for work.
Dear Pastor Scott,
Thank you so very much for your help and understanding. As I write this I share some good news! I have two job offers, in writing or if I start work on Monday!!
I could not have done this without your kind help, allowing me to continue the “process,” having a warm, safe, appropriate place to work and eat. I am so grateful.
I will keep in touch.
In our time compassion is personal. It is how you and I interact with human beings as we go about our lives. And it is collective. It is how we as a church through the sharing of our resources and gifts and our institutional influence can address human suffering. And it is political. It is bearing witness in our society on behalf of those who are least able to raise their voices, out of compassion for the least of these our sisters and brothers, who have the least influence and power, and to have the greatest need.
In the Gospel today we see into Jesus’ heart. We see what lies in his heart. And we see his hands. We see and imagine this touch, even upon us. It is this heart and these hands that show us how we are to live.
Shalom, salaam, grace and peace to you.