You might recognize the name of John Merrick, who died in London in 1890 at the age of only 26. He suffered from a disease called neurofibromatosis, which is a disease that caused him to be greatly disfigured, and gave him the unfortunate name of the elephant man. The story of his life was made into a movie in 1980, with John Hurt playing the part of Merrick.
Frederick Treves was senior surgeon and lecturer at the prestigious London Hospital. When Treves found Merrick, he was being used as a circus attraction. Because of the scorn and laughter of the circus patrons Merrick had withdrawn into himself to the point that when he was not on display, he wore a sack over his head to hide his appearance.
Imagine a world where people are not separated and shunned in such a way. Imagine a world where love, rather than hate rules. Imagine a world where the carefully constructed barriers that separate people were no longer in force. Imagine a world where doors are flung open in welcome and receiving as quickly and as readily as they were closed and locked.
Imagining such a world is based on Caring For One Another. We have, for several weeks now, been studying the theme of Life Lessons On Faith. We continue that theme this morning with Caring For One Another. This morning we commission fifteen people to the Stephen Ministry of this church, a new ministry that, after two and a half years of work and preparation, we are now at the point of launching. The Stephen Ministry is based upon one practice – caring. It is a ministry that trains and equips lay people to provide quality care for others. When you grieve, a Stephen Minister can provide care and encouragement. When you experience a time of difficulty, a Stephen Minister can provide comfort and support.
Our Scripture text for this morning comes from Mark’s gospel, chapter 1, verses 40-45 –
40 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
41 Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!”
42 Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.
43 Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning:
44 “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”
45 Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.
1. The Need for Care.
The need for care is so great everywhere we turn. The need for care is not just among the poorest of the poor. The need for care is not just among those who are without food and the most basic human necessities. The need for care is not just found in shantytowns or impoverished communities. The need for care is found in the most prosperous of neighborhoods and among the most successful and educated, because the need for care is everywhere.
I have said before, and will say again, that the lives of people whom we often envy are not always what they seem. The life that we wish we could have? It might be a life that is full of struggle, tragedy, and difficulty. The person that seems to have it all together, that seems the epitome of being happy and well adjusted? That person might be in such need of care that they are hanging on by a thread.
This leper is a kind of archetype for all people. In him is represented the whole of humanity – ill in some form. Ill with worry and anxiety, ill with loneliness, ill with despair, ill with the many troubles of life that come our way. And he comes to Jesus, begging for help, for healing, for care. Verse 1 makes it plain that the leper was very desperate, as Mark says he begged him on his knees.
The leper was unlike others because of his disease, but he was just like others as he was in the need for care. He was different in the way he went looking for care, because he came to Jesus, begging for help. Most of us are far less obvious about our need for care. Most of us would prefer to hide our need for care than to show our need and desperation so openly. We often buy into the mythology that we need to be strong, that we need to project an air of invulnerability, and that we are a person who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps. But inside, in our heart, in our soul, we are begging for care. Perhaps we are hoping someone will notice that we are struggling. Perhaps we send out signs and clues to the fact that we are in need, hoping someone will notice, but every person, at some point in life, needs to receive care. There is nothing wrong with admitting that we need help. There is nothing wrong with admitting that we have time of weakness and struggle.
But, as many people are not open about their need for care, they still need care nonetheless, which mean we have to tune our hearts and minds into the signals they send to us. Although many people will not be direct about their need for care, they say and do certain things in the hope that people will pick up on the message that they need care, so we must learn to listen with our hearts and minds as well as with our ears.
2. The Call to Care.
In one of my college classes I was very much in need of some extra credit (which was the case in many of my classes, unfortunately). I asked my professor if I could do work for extra credit and he told me that if I memorized ten verses of Scripture he would give me a point for each verse. Ten points was enough to make a difference in whether or not I passed the class, so I was glad to get to work memorizing (I suspect that he not only wanted to help me earn extra credit, but also thought the Scripture would so me some good). I don’t remember if he or I picked the passage, but it was Galatians 6:1-10 –
1 Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.
2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
3 If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.
4 Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else,
5 for each one should carry their own load.
6 Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.
7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.
8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Although it was a long time ago that I memorized those verses, they have stayed with me, especially verse 2 – Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ (the New American Standard Translation, which is the version I memorized).
Caring is one of the cornerstones of the Christian faith, and throughout the two millennia of our faith it is the call to care that has been the clarion call to follow the way of Jesus and care for others.
Listen to how Mark begins verse 2 – Jesus was indignant. Isn’t that an interesting editorial comment that Mark makes? Mark could have commented that Jesus was full of compassion for the leper. Mark could have commented that Jesus loved the leper and wanted to ease his burden. But he says that Jesus was indignant.
Why was Jesus indignant? Was he upset with the leper? Certainly not! I suspect that Jesus was indignant because of the way that the leper was treated. It was difficult enough that he was suffering from what was then a dreaded, incurable, deadly disease, but his situation was made worse by the way he was cut off from the rest of humanity. Lepers were forced to stay away from other people and whenever they came near others they were forced to loudly announce their presence so that other people could keep themselves at a safe distance. The separation from the rest of humanity would certainly have been a double blow to one in such dire need. But even worse was the fact that his being ostracized and outcast was religiously mandated. The need to remain ritually pure gave religious credence to cutting the man off from his friends, his family, and all others, and that was what made Jesus indignant. Instead of following a religious mandate to eradicate barriers between people there were walls of separation that were constructed and a man who was in dire need of care would not receive it. Instead, he would live the remainder of his life with contact only with others like him, and would die cut off and alone.
Touching a leper in that context, then, was one of the most scandalous and unimaginable acts that Jesus could commit. Touching a leper violated every social, medical, and religious norm of the time, as it made one unclean and also susceptible to contracting the disease. None of this, it is very important to note, concerned Jesus. That Jesus actually touched someone who suffered from leprosy was an unbelievably powerful example of what he desires others to do, especially those who bear his name.
When Jesus healed the leper he ran into the fear and opposition that so many in his day exhibited towards people who suffered from the disease. Understandably, in a time when there was no cure, fear of contracting leprosy was very strong. But it wasn’t just fear, it was also a case of social and religious taboos, which should cause us to ask, What kind of social and religious taboos exist today that makes it difficult for some individuals or some groups of people to receive care? What can we do to help dismantle those taboos and the fear that comes from them?
In the early part of the 80s I made my first visit with an AIDS patient. Some of us are old enough to remember the fear that was so pervasive at that time, not only of the disease of AIDS, but also of the patients and even their families. Some people were not even comfortable speaking the name of the disease. I traveled to the hospital, entered the ICU unit, and some of the staff helped me to prepare for my visit. The patient was in an isolation unit in ICU, and the staff seemed very uneasy about any contact. I was required to be in a heat-to-toe covering before I could enter the room. I felt as though I was about to talk a spacewalk rather than enter a hospital room. The staff said very little as I was prepared, and no one mentioned the word “AIDS.” I have to admit, it was all a bit disconcerting, because of the context of fear, almost all of which we now know to be unfounded. It is a reminder, however, of the power of fear.
Caring, in the Christian commitment, does not recognize boundaries and it does not adhere to the tribalism so prevalent in our society that says I will care only for those who look like me, who think like me, who believe like me, who live where I live, and we are deemed worthy by me. Jesus rejected those boundaries and the pull to tribalism, and so should we.
3. The Cost of Care.
For almost two and a half years we have worked to bring the Stephen Ministry to fruition in our church. The effort began in February of 2015, when a small group of us traveled to Central Christian Church in Lexington to attend a presentation about Stephen Ministry. It was a presentation that impressed us for several reasons, one being the strong sense of ecumenism that existed. I have never in my life attended a meeting where so many different denominations were represented. At the beginning, the presenter asked for a show of hands when she asked which denominations were represented. It was a collection of Catholic, Baptist, Methodist Presbyterian, Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Nazarene, and others. Some of the groups would never be in the same room with some of the other groups (which is a sad commentary) but they came together for the common purpose of caring in the name of Christ. After attending the presentation we were convinced the Stephen Ministry would be a welcome addition to the life of our congregation.
Upon arriving at that decision we began the many steps that would bring us to the point of actually implementing the ministry. Beginning with the church leadership, we presented our belief that the Stephen Ministry would be helpful to our congregation and then, upon securing their support, began the process of enlisting someone who would attend one of the week-long training sessions. That person, Laine Kephart, spent an intense week in St. Louis being trained by the Stephen Ministry staff. After attending that training, Laine began training volunteers from our congregation. Last fall we began that training with about 24 people. Because of schedule conflicts and other matters, the group eventually settled at about 18 people, 15 of whom were commissioned today as Stephen Ministers. To be honest, I had hoped we would have 5 or 6 people take the training and perhaps 2 to 4 people would be commissioned as Stephen Ministers. That so many took the training and to have 15 commissioned as Stephen Ministers far exceeded my hopes and expectations.
Becoming a Stephen Minister requires a substantial commitment of time, and this is because we want people to have adequate training so they can provide the best care possible. Beginning last fall, we met every Thursday evening from 6:00 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. Aside from a break for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, we continued on until late March, for a total of 50 hours of training. In this day and age, when people have so many demands upon their time, it is amazing that so many spent so much time in weekly training sessions.
The work of caring is often unseen. While one of our most important ministries, the work of the Stephen Ministers will be largely unseen. We won’t know who is receiving care and who meets with whom, but as we move into the implementation of the ministry, you can be assured that they will be doing the important work for which they have been trained. It is not always easy to care for others. All of us have some measure of messiness in our lives. All of us have our faults and shortcomings and struggles. Sometimes, in spite of our need for care, we don’t respond well to offers of care, perhaps because we are afraid of others learning of our vulnerabilities or because we might be challenges to change. Through it all, however, the Stephen Ministers will be offering their care.
There is more to the story of John Merrick that I need now to share. Thankfully, his story had a much better ending than it had a beginning.
At the age of 22, Dr. Treves took Merrick into the hospital as a permanent resident, giving him a room of his own as a home, which provided him with one of two momentous events in his life. Entering his room at the hospital, he said in amazement, this is my home. This is my home. The second event was when a young lady entered his room, said hello, and shook his hand, causing him to sob uncontrollably. Aside from his mother, she was the first woman to ever smile at him, and to ever touch his hand.
From then on, his shyness was gone. He loved for his door to be open and people flocked to visit him. He had found a place of acceptance, where his appearance did not matter and his condition was inconsequential to others. Merrick was able to allow his intelligence, sensitivity, and imagination to flourish. He was very familiar with his Bible and his prayer book. Over and over he told Dr. Treves, I am happy every hour of the day.
Caring makes all the difference in the world. Care made all the difference in the world for the man with leprosy. Care made all the difference in the world for John Merrick. And you care can make all the difference in the world for someone.