At the end of Sunday’s sermon, the one about Jesus cleansing a leper, I referred to my tenth grade yearbook picture. Several people have asked to see it, and although it pains me to post it (I’ve saved it under the file name “Yikes!”) here it is, along with the last few paragraphs of the sermon. Be gentle.
Last week some of my old classmates from Sherman High School in Seth, West Virginia, caught up with me on Facebook. They were happy to find me. They didn’t know what had happened to me. And they have been very, very kind. But as I looked through some of the yearbook pictures they had posted on that site I began to realize why they hadn’t heard from me: those two years at Sherman were some of the most painful in my memory.
My dad, as I’ve told you, was a kind of missionary to the desperately poor in that county and I felt like a missionary kid. We lived in a house with no running water and no indoor plumbing, which meant that I went to school most days looking kind of rumpled and smelling sort of…unwashed. And I was a little kid! I went to high school a year early and didn’t get my growth spurt until two years later. I was about five feet two with teeth that seemed way too big for my mouth and the worst haircut I’ve ever had in my life. When I looked through those yearbook pictures I remembered those tall, handsome, confident boys, and those pretty, outgoing, giggly girls, and suddenly there I was, looking like a scared rabbit, trying to hide my face under my crooked bangs when the photographer took the picture.
When I look closely I can almost see the pain in those eyes.
But I would guess that I’m not the only one in this room who had that kind of experience in high school. In fact, there may be a third of you who don’t have your yearbook picture hanging on the wall at home. Those are such vulnerable years, and we feel so tender; one unkind word can cut us to the quick. “If you want to you can make me clean,” the leper says to Jesus, and maybe all he really means is, “If you want to you can save me from being a social outcast, you can bring me into the community, you can help me find a place.” And Jesus says, “I want to,” and then he reaches out and touches the leper. Who knows how long it had been since anyone offered to do that? But in that moment, in that action, his leprosy is cured. He is made clean. Jesus told him not to say anything about it but he couldn’t help himself.
It was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
Think about those people, not only in high school but in every church, who have trouble fitting in, who are almost terrified to visit a Sunday school class where everybody already knows everybody, and where there aren’t any available seats. Think about how hard it is for some people to walk up the front steps of this church for the first time, not knowing if they will be made to feel welcome or turned away at the door. Think about those people who have failed at life, who have lost a job, who have been divorced; people who are struggling hard and who need a home; people who have been pushed to the fringes of society because in one way or another they have become “unclean.” In this first chapter of his Gospel I think Mark is being very deliberate in showing us three different things that have no place in God’s kingdom: 1) evil, 2) illness, and 3) exclusion. Jesus takes his stand against all of these. He drives out the unclean spirits (vss. 21-28), he cures those who are sick (vss. 29-39), and he welcomes the outcasts (vss. 40-45). And when he does those things God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done,
On earth as it is in heaven.