Relationships & Our Comfort Zones

Mark 1:40-45

February 15, 2015

If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain; If I can ease one life the aching, Or cool one pain, or help one fainting robin, unto his nest again, I shall not live in vain. The famous American poet Emily Dickinson once penned those words. But the truth is that I am not sure, based on her life story, that Dickinson ever really came to experience through the actions of another person those same words that she wrote.

Dickinson, who lived from 1830 until 1886, was a rather prolific writer and poet during her lifetime. On a regular basis, she shared her work with her family and her friends. But, Dickinson, who today would immediately be named among America’s best poets, only had 10 poems published during her lifetime and there is a possibility that she wasn’t even aware of this small accomplishment. For the truth is that by her middle years, Dickinson lived in almost total isolation from the rest of the world. We don’t know what lead to this but without question, hers was not the happiest of lives.

At the time of her death in 1886, her sister, whose name was Lavina discovered 40 hand bound volumes of her work which contained over 1,800 poems. Lavina had promised to burn these poems but in the end could not bring herself to do it. Instead she began to have the works published beginning with the first work in 1890 and ending with the last works of her sister being published in 1955. As a result, Emily Dickinson, much like Vincent Van Gogh in the world of art, only became revered, admired and celebrated for the person that she was or the gifts she clearly had been given after her life on this earth had come to an end.

Hearing that tragic story can quickly lead to our lamenting the fact that no one appreciated poor Emily Dickinson while she was alive. Without question, we can shake our head at how sad it was that this American treasure was never regarded as such during her own days or that no one gave her the affirmation she deserved. And, yet, what is infinitely more tragic is the fact that everyday, most all of us repeatedly fail to recognize, value and appreciate the wonderful gifts that so many people in our midst can also offer. Why? Generally speaking, it is because most of us, myself included, are unwilling to take the risk of truly trying to get to know a large number of the people who are a part of our every day lives.

Jesus was the ultimate risk taker when it came to relationships. He really refused to be boxed into only associating with or befriending people who were similar to him. In fact, if we read the gospels carefully what we discover is that one of the very clear, overarching themes was Jesus’ willingness to build friendships with almost anyone much to the chagrin of many of those among the religious establishment. In the gospels, we discover numerous stories about Jesus and tax collectors, Samaritans, gentiles and those who were both physically and mentally challenged. All of these were examples of people who lived in the margins of society and yet all of them found themselves worthy of Jesus’ love, attention and friendship.

One of the ultimate examples of Jesus’ care for the marginalized was his attention to lepers such as the one mentioned in our text for today. At the time, leprosy was both an incurable disease as well as very contagious. This made leprosy a very frightening possibility. Those with leprosy were excluded from normal life. They lived away from their families and from society. They were considered unclean and dangerous because of how easily the disease could spread. They were sort of the biblical version of someone with Ebola today. As a result, when a leper approached a populated area during Jesus’ day, they were to call out or ring a bell to alert those who were well of their presence. It was a way of giving a warning that they were approaching so that everyone else could clear out of the way.

Into the lonely existence of one such leper walked Jesus. The impression we get is that Jesus encountered him in the unpopulated area between Capernaum where he had been and the other communities of Galilee where he was going. Amazingly, not only does Jesus welcome the leper into his presence but he actually reaches out to touch him. Sure, this act was the way that physical healing began but it also served as the beginning of the healing of this man’s soul and psyche for leprosy and the exile that went with it was a debilitating as was the disease itself. This all meant that Jesus’ care was life changing – on all levels. In fact, what happened was so profound, that despite Jesus’ warning not to tell anyone, the man, in his joy went and told everyone.

Beyond the obvious way that this story once again gets at Jesus’ miraculous power as the son of God through his ability to heal the great illnesses of the day, the other profound word here from Jesus’ act is the very blunt reminder that being his follow ultimately demands a willingness to cross society’s imposed boundaries and to risk moving beyond the places where we feel comfortable. There really is a whole world out there that needs and deserves our care, love and concern.

There truly are countless Emily Dickinsons out there who have either cut themselves off from others or who have been cut off from the outer world who desperately need to hear that we care and that God cares. But, they will only learn about these truths if we risk getting to know them and if we like Jesus are willing to risk moving beyond our comfort zones in spite of the real and inherit risks that are most certainly involved in such work.

Back in 2011, Jennifer Holland, of National Geographic, had an unexpected New York Times bestseller. The book, which is more focused on conveying a message through pictures rather than through words, includes 50 stunning pictures of animals usually seen as predators, photographed together as companions. There is a picture of a gorilla and a kitten, a photo of a nearsighted deer and a poodle and the striking image of a leopard and a cow. The book has a wonderful title. It is called Unlikely Friendships.

In interviews, Holland has admitted that while we can guess, no one really knows what lead to these relationships. But, what can be said with more confidence is the effect that they have on people. As one person has said in commenting on the collection, “…people crave examples not just of cuteness, and not just of tolerance – but of true compassion and sharing.” (Barbara King in the Introduction to Unlikely Friendships, Jennifer S. Holland, Workman Publishing, 2011.) Interestingly enough, the book, at times connects verses from scripture to the pictures, including the words of Isaiah 11:6 concerning the future vision of the Kingdom of God where “the wolf and the lamb will live together; and the leopard and the goat will be at peace”.

Simply put, in the gospels and in our text for today, Jesus invites all of us to risk the possibility of unlikely friendships everyday. For again the suggestion of the gospels is that all people merit God’s love and our own. So too, Jesus seems to also suggest that a willingness to befriend unlikely people for the sake of the gospel will not only be good for those we reach out to but it will be good for us too.

After all, let us not forget the clear example of today. The only thing, the only thing that leads to any of us being accepted into God’s family is the willingness of God to love us in spite of ourselves and to wash us clean. Baptism reminds each and everyone one of us of God’s unlikely friendship with us!

One would think, that for us Baptists, who demand that this washing be of the whole body – from head to toe, would be the first, to join the leper, in rushing out to make sure that everyone and anyone has the chance to experience the loving embrace that we, who are just as unworthy, have received. Amen.