My Grandpa Hanf was a short, stocky, kind and sweet man that gave me many gifts, including my name, Karl, a love to tell stories without too much concern whether anyone is interested in hearing them, and a decadent taste for cigars. Whenever I smoke a stogie, the pungent smell reminds me of his home. I don’t however suck and chew on the last inch for a day as he used to do. For the first twenty five years of my life my Grandpa was alive but never healthy. My dad told me that his father was vibrant at one time. He used to play baseball in several leagues at once in Toledo in the thirties and forties, and wrestled with his much taller brothers in law at German beer soaked family parties. The stories my dad tells are always at odds with how I remember Grandpa Hanf.
He had lost an eye in an industrial accident in the fifties. This changed his life causing him to lose his job as a tool and die maker and maybe a little bit of his purpose. It was not uncommon for his eye to be out when we visited, resting his socket he would say. A rock had lodged in his leg when he was lawn mowing, causing a blockage in his veins that made it painful for him to walk. A lifetime of smoking by he and my grandma made both of them susceptible to every chest cold that was making the rounds. Feeling under the weather, he often stayed indoors and listened to the Tigers on the radio. In his last years, he used a wheelchair to get around the house because his ulcerated leg hurt so badly. My other Grandpa, who lived across the street from Grandpa Hanf in Toledo, was a noticeable contrast in health even though he was almost fifteen years older. It is likely this contrast has influenced my perception unfairly, that Grandpa Hanf’s life was limited and not full and whole.
Illness can do this to us, limit our lives. Peter’s mother in law could not do what she likely felt she should be doing and needed to be doing, serving her son in law and his very important friends. They were in her house. Her honor was reliant on her being a good host, yet there she lie in her bed, too weak to even offer Peter and Jesus water to drink. When she was healed of whatever illness had befallen her, she got up and got to work, restored to the life that her sickness had denied her.
Illness indeed limits our life. It kept the leper from a life in community, that most of us take for granted. In the days of Jesus, leprosy could indicate anything from eczema to a dangerous and contagious disease where your skin literally peeled off like a snake. If a priest determined someone had leprosy they were deemed ritually unclean and a hazard to faithful followers of God. They were forced to live outside their villages, wear rags as a sign of their disease and warn people with a shout that they should not come any closer. If they were healed, if the eczema cleared up let’s say, they couldn’t move back to their home inside the village until a priest declared them clean. Often the priest wouldn’t do this until they spent a week in quarantine, carefully watched to make sure the skin problem didn’t return. It was truly horrible how they were treated. It was a bad thing to be deemed a leper, financially and emotionally.
Being sick isolates us, keeps us from the life that not only we long to live, but God longs for us to live. I think our illnesses are just as troubling to God as they are to us and the people who love us. Maybe this is a part of Jesus’ anger that Mark records in the healing of this leper. Today as in Jesus’ day, unnecessary hurdles are put on those who are sick, that make living life even more difficult. Costly medicine makes healing out of reach. Panic and fear in our communities force isolation, as in the AIDs epidemic in the 1980’s and more recently the hysteria over the Ebola virus. Our busy lives cause us to forget those who are sick. Or, overwrought friends and family are more like wardens than nurses, not allowing their sick friend to do anything, even though they are able. When we are ill, our world can get very small.
When and if we are healed, we make a return to life and purpose difficult for each other. Our institutions and communities including our church fail to make it easier for those physically impaired to navigate our world. This keeps people in isolation. The company where my grandfather worked fired him after he lost his eye on their machines, because they would not accommodate his handicap. Our examples are just as troublesome as a bureaucratic priest in the first century making you jump through hoops before you can get the all clear. Jesus’ frustration with the leper might have been a sign of God’s frustration with us. God can heal our illnesses, but cannot force us to love those who are ill or whose illness are healed.
My Grandpa Hanf has been gone for over twenty five years and I can’t ask him whether his myriad of illnesses made him feel isolated, alone and blocked from living life wholly and fully. If he were alive, I am not sure what his answer would be. He may call me a knuckle head and tell me all the ways he had engaged in the world and served that I had not known. I know there are many in our congregation that are remarkable servants even while they are ill. Margaret has chronic illnesses from a weak immune system and yet puts in hours every week as the Director of HEART Food Pantry. Hal suffers from painful arthritis, yet comes in every Wednesday night to wash our dishes after Messiah Night. Meg has been battling cancer for over a year and yet on top of teaching all day, runs our large Altar Guild at night and weekends. Many seem able to give 110% even when they feel far from 100%.
If Grandpa Hanf had been healed he would have had a greater chance to live out the mission and purpose that God put him on this earth to accomplish. I have seen many people at Messiah even use their journey from illness to wholeness to help others. Stephanie and Rob, found each other after difficult divorces and are now talking about starting a small group focused on marriage. Ben and Paul experienced the depths of pain and loss that addictions can bring us. They have been healed and dedicate their lives now to helping others who are addicted find health. Lois and Cindy have known deep grief. They created a small group to serve and be served by others who know grief. Two of the people in that small group, Richard and Julie, found each other after their loss, and will be married in two weeks here at Messiah. Thousands of women in Columbus every year, many from our church, put on pink in May and run or walk in the race for the cure, announcing not just that they have survived breast cancer, but that they are committed that their healing bring healing for someone else.
Our call as church, is that no one lives like the leper in this story. We must break down the isolation that confines those who are sick. We will visit the sick, include them and celebrate the gifts they are able to give even in their illness. We will make our community open and accessible and not let our irrational fears cloud our judgment. We will invite them into our village, and love them as a brother or sister. This is what God wants.
Our call as church is that when any of us are healed, like Peter’s mother in law, we will encourage and enable each other to get up and return fully to the life of purpose God hopes. We are healed for much more than to fill some bucket list of adventures crammed into a short period of time because now we suddenly get what has always been obvious, life is short. Nor are we healed to continue life in isolation, on the outside looking in. We are healed to become the person God needs in this broken world to bring real healing to others. We are healed to love God and neighbor, using the gifts God has given us. Amen