Inspired: Fish Stories
The Bible is full of stories that are too good to be true, almost-but-not-quite-believable stories of miraculous, mysterious events. Rachel Held Evans calls these “fish stories.” It’s like when a fisherman brags about catching a 10-pound bass when it was probably only 3 pounds. The experience, the excitement of the moment warranted a 10-pound description. In the Bible there are lots of these miracle stories that include fish: feeding the 5000 with just a few loaves and a couple of fish. The disciples casting their nets to the other side of the boat and hauling in enough fish to break the nets. Jonah being swallowed and then coughed up by a big fish. But today I’m telling a fish story about a leper, healed by the simple touch of Jesus. It’s a miracle story. And whatever lies and fabrications it may contain, the story is truer for their inclusion.
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Perhaps you have seen the movie Big Fish. The narrator begins the movie with this statement: “This is a Southern story, full of lies and fabrications, but truer for their inclusion.” There are occasions in life when the experience we have with another human being or with God is so extravagant, so bold, so precious that we have to use exaggerated language to talk about it truly. The Bible is full of stories that are too good to be true, almost-but-not-quite-believable stories of miraculous, mysterious events.
Rachel Held Evans calls these “fish stories.” It’s like when a fisherman brags about catching a 10-pound bass when it was probably only 3 pounds. The experience, the excitement of the moment warranted a 10-pound description. In the Bible there are lots of these miracle stories that include fish: feeding the 5000 with just a few loaves and a couple of fish. The disciples casting their nets to the other side of the boat and hauling in enough fish to break the nets. Jonah being swallowed and then coughed up by a big fish. But today I’m telling a fish story about a leper, healed by the simple touch of Jesus. It’s a miracle story. And whatever lies and fabrications it may contain, the story is truer for their inclusion.
In his book A New Harmony, John Philip Newell tells how his family lived in an old house that had a big walled-in garden in Portsmouth, England. The garden was a place of sanctuary, a green space, surrounded by the hard concrete of the crowded city. Each morning he awoke to the sounds of mourning doves cooing at the top of the chimney.
One day as he worked at his desk he became aware of a sound of struggle in the chimney. But he was busy writing, not to be distracted, so he ignored it. The sound came closer and closer until he knew he had to do something…he “was moved with pity.” He kneeled down in front of the fireplace, which had been sealed off, and began to pull out the pieces of 40-year-old newspaper. Eventually he was able to put his hand up into the flue and felt the bird. The bird became “entirely still, frozen with fear.” He drew her out of the chimney and into the open fireplace and there she sat in his hands, one of the beautiful white mourning doves he heard each morning.
But now she was covered with soot and traumatized with fear. He took her out into the garden and set her high on a wall, but still she sat, stunned. He went back to work and then returned an hour later to find the dove still there in a state of shock. But this time when he approached her, she flew, and as she flew, the soot fell off. And in the midday sun she became again, the beautiful bird she was, an image of beauty and freedom.
Newell writes that he was haunted for days by that dove, not the memory of her stuck in the chimney, but the image of her sitting frozen on the wall…technically free, but not yet truly liberated until she chose to fly again.
Like the dove trapped in a chimney, the leper in Mark’s gospel was also trapped…trapped in a social/religious culture that shunned and even feared him. In the first century they didn’t know that leprosy, or Hanson’s disease, is caused by a bacterial infection. They didn’t know that, so they came up with another cause: sin. Someone who had leprosy was thought to be so sinful that they had no place in the community.
This man in our story was cast out; isolated even to the extent that touching him meant your own exclusion from the community. The leper was trapped and alone and helpless, until Jesus reached out and touched him. And by that touch, the leper was healed. Jesus did choose to make him ritually clean so he could re-enter society.
But I imagine him to be much like the dove that sat high atop the garden wall after being released from the chimney. The dove sat there for quite some time until finally choosing to shake off the dust and fly free. I think the leper also had to choose how to respond to the healing touch of Jesus. He chose to ignore the instructions Jesus gave him to stay silent and to go get permission from the priest to be reinstated into society. He did neither.
So why did he do that? Why did he ignore Jesus’ stern warning to tell no one? And why didn’t he go to the priest to prove he was healed? And why not do what was required by law and make some kind of sacrifice of thanksgiving for his recovery? If he had done those things he would have been restored to his place in the community. This healed leper could have gone back home—back to the way it was, but he didn’t do any of those things.
Here’s what I think. I think the leper was so transformed by the healing touch of Jesus that he chose to shake off the guilt and shame that had been imposed on him. He chose to shake off the anger and disappointment he felt by being ostracized and isolated. He chose to find his own voice and be liberated. I imagine he was so joyful that it just spilled over onto the people he came into contact with. I think healing that liberates us is a joyful thing, so joyful that we are compelled to share it with others.
It seems obvious that he didn’t want to go back to the way it was. He wanted to live the rest of his life in a new way. When Jesus chose to reach out and touch him, the leper experienced God, perhaps for the first time, as a God of grace and love, not judgement and exclusion. So why would he want to go back and get permission from the priest to be reinstated into a system that would exclude others, just the way he had been excluded?
So where did he go? Did he live the rest of his life in religious isolation? I want to believe that this healed leper found others just like him. I can imagine there were others who had a healing, life giving experience with Jesus…like the hemorrhaging woman, or the woman at the well, or Zacchaeus, or blind Bartimaeus. Can’t you imagine that there were a lot of people way back then who were healed by the touch of Jesus, the kind of touch that says I see you. I know you. I love you.
I want to believe all those people came together in a new community, one that was bursting with divine energy and powerful love. I bet it was a community that exuded joy. I want to believe that healed leper formed a new and different community that was a foretaste of the Reign of God. It was a community that welcomed all people, loved all people, celebrated all people.
I want to believe the people experienced belonging in that different community. They became so joyful and empowered, they began to share life-giving love with everyone else because they just couldn’t help it. They became a people of healing that touched others, bringing both justice and joy.
Church historian Diana Butler Bass wrote a book called Christianity After Religion. She made reference to a poll that was taken in 1999 and again in 2009 that asked people whether they would describe themselves as
Spiritual but not Religious
Religious but not Spiritual
Spiritual and Religious
I would have expected the poll to indicate that people describe themselves more and more as “spiritual but not religious.” What she found was that people are more and more describing themselves as “spiritual AND religious.” In fact, this category grew from 6% of the respondents to 48%, the largest percentage of all respondents.
Here’s the thing: the leper had a spiritual experience with Jesus that transformed his understanding of God. After that, he couldn’t go back to his old religious institution. I imagine he formed a new community. I hope he did.
But what about people in 2019? We know people today who are done with religious institutions, believing that their questions and doubts would not be welcome, believing that religious people are hypocrites and dogmatic. We know lots of folks who have suffered religious abuse. And we know plenty of parents who are afraid the church might teach their children that God is to be feared. Maybe people in 2019 who feel these things will form their own religious community to replace a church they don’t trust and don’t resonate with. Maybe.
But I pray someone will invite them to Northaven because I believe this is a place where questions are welcome; and the Spirit has room to dance in our midst; and Christ can reach out and touch our hearts in transforming ways. At its best, I understand this to be a community that is both deeply spiritual in ways that are liberating and also firmly grounded in a religious tradition that is rooted in an ancient story that begins with Genesis and continues today. This is a place that, at its best, exudes justice and joy.
Hymn writer Shirley Erena Murray wrote the anthem For Everyone Born. The chorus ends with these words: “God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy.” May it be so.