Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 15th February 2009
“A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Mark 1:40
It is ten years since I learned to swim. I never learned when I was young and, as I became older it became sort of embarrassing to admit that one could not swim. I had tried and failed so many times, I had given up. I didn’t want anyone else finding my efforts a cause for humour. I became resigned to being a poolside sitter, dabbling my feet in the water while others swam around.
Fear of failure inhibited me from any attempt at learning. Then one summer ten years ago, we rented an old farmhouse deep in the French countryside. There wasn’t much there, except a small garden and a swimming pool and there wasn’t much to do except to try and try again at the swimming. There was no-one to pass comment and I eventually managed a few strokes. I have never progressed much, and have never overcome my fear of putting my face in the water, but I am happy now to go to a swimming pool—the fear of failure is past.
I tell you this because I think a serious fear of failure would have been a major factor in the incident described in today’s Gospel reading.
It is very hard to think ourselves back into the minds of people in First Century Palestine, but we have to understand that their ways of thinking were ways that we now would find harsh and cruel.
There was belief in God, but not much real belief in a life after this one—perhaps, at best, a shadowy underworld existence. If God was offering no reward in the world to come, if he was going to be a just God, he had to make sure everyone received the rewards or punishments they were due before they died. If God did not reward or punish people for their good works or their wrongdoings, he would not have been seen as much of a God.
If this life was the time when God rewarded you or God punished you; then, if you were going through suffering, so the logic went, you or your parents must have done something wrong for which you were being punished. Some of us may know the story of the man born blind that is told in Saint John’s Gospel; if you remember the story, you will remember the question that was asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents?”
The attitude to the man with leprosy, who comes up to Jesus in this morning’s story, would have been shaped by the same way of thinking as the attitude towards the man born blind—if he was like this, it was because he was being punished for sin.
Leprosy was one of the most horrible illnesses that might be imagined and this man has not only to endure all the physical and practical problems, he had also to endure the treatment as a complete social outcast that came with the illness. People would have avoided him not simply because of the leprosy, which, with good reason, struck fear into people’s hearts, but also because he was under God’s punishment.
It is not possible for us to comprehend how this man must have felt—we cannot unknow the things we know about illnesses and how they arise. This man had perhaps resigned himself to the awful fate that awaited; he had perhaps resigned himself to living on the edge of society for the time that was left to him.
Then news of Jesus reaches this man—we are not told how, but the man is prepared to break the rules that forced people with leprosy to stay away from everyone else. He was prepared to risk the disapproval and the threats of those who believed he should not come near, He was prepared to risk ignominious failure and public humiliation.
His head would have told him that it was better to stay wherever it was that he found shelter, better not to risk the name-calling and the stone-throwing and the abuse he might encounter by going near other people. The fear of failure would tell him to do nothing.
His heart tells him that he must take this chance; no matter what others might say, he must overcome his fears and step forward and speak.
Where are we in our own faith? If you are like me, then fear of failure has probably become a major consideration. Over twenty odd years of parish ministry, so many things have gone wrong, have fallen apart, have not worked, have ended dismally, that even the first step towards doing anything has become difficult, has become a step that seems hardly worth taking because so much has failed before.
The man with leprosy has perhaps had a lifetime of dashed hopes, has every reason to think that there is no point, yet this chance comes along, and he takes it. He swallows his pride, he sets aside his fears, and he goes up to Jesus and his life is changed.
What does Jesus say to us? What does he question in our own faith? Have we the courage to set aside the fear of failure? Have we the courage to expect him to do something?