How far are you willing to go?, 6 Epiphany (B) – 2012

February 12, 2012

2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45

What would you be willing to do if your life depended on it?

How far would you be willing to go to save yourself?

We can never know what we would do when faced with those sorts of life-or-death choices until the moment comes for us to make such a weighty decision. Yet, there are ways in which small, seemingly easy requests can contain more than meets the eye.

In our reading from Second Kings, the commander of the Aramaean army is afflicted with leprosy. Just before our reading, Naaman learns from an Israeli servant girl that he might find healing through a prophet in her home country. The girl knows of Elisha, the great miracle-working man of God, and she holds out the hope of healing if Naaman will travel to the Israel to find this prophet.

Aram is modern-day Syria. The first wrinkle in this plan is that in Naaman’s day, as today, Syria and Israel were not on the best of terms. Far from being even Facebook friends, much less genuine allies, the two nations had in recent memory fought a pitched battle at Ramoth-Gilead in which Naaman led the Syrian troops to victory. War was the norm at this point in Israel’s history. Elisha’s time in Israel was characterized with only brief periods of peace in the midst of ongoing fights with neighboring countries, including Aram. Beyond those larger battles, Aram was conducting continual raids into Israel, which is how Namaan’s wife came to have an Israeli girl working for her.

Yet despite this, Naaman decided to heed the words of his servant, which shows how desperate he was to find healing. He still had to convince two kings to go along with the plan. The king of Aram dispatches a diplomat to go with Naaman to their enemy, bearing gifts for the king of Israel. This is seen as inciting war, which could well have been the motive for the Aramaean king. Either way, God has another plan. Elisha reaches out to his king with a solution: send the leper to me. Once Naaman arrives at the prophet’s house, Elisha sends a messenger and asks him to wash himself and be made clean.

That is all. One simple thing: wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River and you will be cleansed. For Naaman, who has negotiated with kings and traveled a great distance in search of healing, this might seem easy enough. Yet, the prophet’s prescription is problematic. The servant doesn’t quite grasp that Namaan has been asked to do something very difficult.

If Elisha is right, then this Syrian military commander, who has led his troops into both pitched battles and smaller raids against Israel, will have to acknowledge that his healing could come in Israel, but not in Aram. While he was willing to allow that Israel might have a prophet connected to God like no other, admitting that Israel was uniquely blessed by God was a lot to ask.

At the same time, if Elisha is wrong, then this military leader will be publicly embarrassed by abasing himself in a ritual anyone could have known would never work. Already, Elisha has dishonored him by sending a messenger rather than coming out to meet the great man face to face. Then he was told to wash in the river. Everyone knows that river water cannot wash away leprosy. If it could, Naaman would not have traveled to see the man of God. Elisha’s simple request requires great risk. Naaman could have traveled all this distance to be made a fool.

In facing one easily understood request that is decidedly difficult to fulfill, Naaman is far from alone in scripture. In fact, God has a knack for asking the one simple thing that costs so much.

Adam and Eve could eat of any tree in the Garden of Eden, save one. As far as we can tell from Genesis, the only food they ever ate was forbidden fruit.

The prophet Jonah was given a message from God to cry out repentance. The only problem was he was to call on Israel’s great enemy Assyria to repent. For Jonah, this was too much, as it risked the salvation of the enemy. Jonah preferred traveling to the ends of the earth and even being thrown into the sea in the midst of a storm to doing the one simple thing God asked.

Jesus told the rich man that all he had to do was sell everything, give it to the poor, and he could follow. Then he asked the man who only wanted to bury his father to leave that task to others.

Throughout scripture, God asks us to let go of the one thing holding us back. For Naaman, he was asked to let go of nationalistic pride and bathe in the Jordan. For each person, the simple thing God asks is the hardest to accept. We are taught to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Whatever it is that holds us back from this is what we are asked to offer to God.

Jesus called us to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. These twin commands contain all that is expected of us. They are stunningly simple requests that are very difficult to follow. For at some point, there will come the rub. Actually living into that love will demand something we don’t quite want to give.

We may have to forgive someone who has hurt us deeply. We might have to trust God with our finances by actually giving back from all we have been given through our first fruits rather than what’s left. We might have to stand on the side of justice when it could cost our standing in the community or our job.

To practice the faith that is in us, there will come points where even a simple request will seem like too much. At each of those points along the way, we have to decide whether to be faithful even when it costs. The path deeper and deeper into the heart of God means stepping out to do the simple things God asks that cost more than we are first willing to give. This is the way of healing and wholeness.

How far are you willing to go?

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia.

It begins in our hearts, 6 Epiphany (B) – 2009

February 15, 2009

2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45

“O how I love Jesus, O how I love Jesus, O how I love Jesus … Because he first loved me.”

These words from Hymn 95 in our Lift Every Voice and Sing hymnal come to mind as we think about the amazing miracles of Christ. Today’s story, about the healing of a leper, reminds us of why we love Jesus, why we’re so moved by who he was and what he did – why his story is the focus around which we have built our religious and spiritual lives. Jesus must have been an incredible person – courageous, compassionate, committed. And we love him because he loved us first.

To understand what this story really says about not only how great Jesus is, but about how much he loves us, we have to talk about leprosy and about the cultural norms of those times. The term “leprosy” in the Bible was used to name a number of different skin diseases. And according to the religious law of the Jewish people, a person with any one of these so-called leprous diseases was considered unclean, untouchable, unwanted.

Here’s how the code of Leviticus puts it:

“The person with the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He shall live alone, his dwelling place shall be outside the community.”

Leviticus also tells us that anyone who touched a person with leprosy was considered unclean. Being unclean meant being removed from the community, barred from the Temple, and an elaborate and potentially expensive series of rituals and sacrifices was required to be made clean again.

Now, not only was the person with leprosy considered unclean, but the disease was also seen as a sign of God’s punishment. Moses conveys these words to the people in Deuteronomy 28:

“If you will not obey the Lord your God then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you: the Lord will afflict you with boils, scurvy and itch, of which you cannot be healed; the Lord will strike you with grievous boils from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head.”

People with skin diseases were society’s rejects – shunned and cast out, stigmatized with the mark of God’s punishment, abnormal, unacceptable, unclean. From the “festering boils” of the sixth plague in Egypt to the “loathsome sores” endured by Job, burning itch and open lesions were taken as signs that an angry God wasn’t kidding around.

In our reading from the second book of Kings this morning, we hear the story of the great warrior, Naaman, who suffered from leprosy. And in the story, Elisha, the legendary prophet and holy man, heals Naaman. We should note that immediately prior to this healing, in the previous chapter of the second book of Kings, Elisha restores to life a young boy who has died. And he does so by lying on top of the boy, putting his lips on the boy’s lips and his hands on the boys hands. But following the religious law of the day, Elisha wants no part of Naaman’s leprosy, no physical contact with the afflicted hero. Instead, he sends him to wash himself in the river, preferring to let the water do the dangerous work of healing.

We must keep these social mores in mind as background for what Jesus does when he encounters the leper. “If you choose,” the man says in the Gospel of Mark, “you can make me clean.”

This unclean man, cast out, probably rejected from healing by the priest, comes to Jesus in faith, asking to be healed. And Jesus, we are told by the evangelist, is moved with pity. So moved, in fact, that he stretches out his hand and touches the man, proclaiming, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Only by understanding the place of leprosy in the minds of the people can we grasp what a courageous and compassionate action this is. Jesus, moved with pity, stretches out his hand and touches the leper. In doing so, he ignores an entire category of religious law and social acceptability. He overthrows generations of commonly held beliefs about people who’d been rejected and cast out. He touches the man, and instead of becoming unclean himself, he heals the leper. Jesus, in an act of mercy and grace, takes away the leprosy and thereby restores the man physically, socially, and religiously to the community.

That’s why we love Jesus – because of the breadth of his love for us. Jesus did this amazing thing at great personal risk. He knew, from the start, that his message of repentance and of love as the underpinning for all the commandments would invite a lot of enemies, would invite a lot of resistance. Healing a leper by touching him, declaring him clean, which only the priest was supposed to do, could get Jesus into a lot of trouble. In fact, Jesus instructed the healed man not to tell anyone. And when the man disobeyed, Jesus had to go into hiding, at least for a little while. But here in the first chapter of the first gospel, at the very beginning of his public ministry, we see that Jesus had come to challenge the customs of the day with his boundless love for humanity.

Now, the story of the healing of the leper is wonderful not only for what we learn about Jesus, but also for the example set by the man who is healed. His openness to Christ’s healing touch, his desire and confidence, provide a model for us. Because we all have leprosy. Some people suffer from modern-day equivalents – AIDS, drug addiction, homelessness, mental illness – conditions that put them on the margins of society. But we all have something; we all have those places in our lives where we feel disconnected, rejected, alone. We all may have those times when we feel ashamed or unclean, perhaps even as though we are being punished by God. We don’t necessarily have outward signs of it, such as boils and scurvy, but we carry around those boils and open wounds in our souls: old hurts, private fears, anxiety, anger, loneliness. These are the leprous tumors disfiguring the tender flesh of our inner being.

Can we be made well? Can we let Jesus stretch out his courageous and compassionate hand to touch us, even in those secret places we don’t want God to see?

Our healing, our cleansing, begins in our life of prayer, where we must be willing to try to show God everything. The leper in the story is our example. Outwardly bearing a shameful disease, he nonetheless goes to Jesus in faith, begging him and keeling down before him, saying, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”

Like the man, we have nothing to hide from God. When we present ourselves to Jesus in faith, the Lord will also respond to the leprosy of our souls with the same grace and generosity which he shows to the man in the story. We can pray for mercy, showing those open wounds and allowing ourselves to accept God’s forgiveness. We can pray for strength, exposing our boils and our itch and allowing ourselves to receive Jesus’ healing touch.

If we can approach God in that open, humble, yet confident and faithful way, the Lord will help us to know that we are clean, restored, forgiven and beloved. Then we may recognize in our hearts the joy of today’s psalmist: “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.”

From the sense of healing and trust in God’s presence that we find in our spiritual lives, we move out to the community – to the world around us. And there, we reach across the leprous barriers of our modern world, the dislocation of our daily lives, putting aside fear and prejudice to reach out with courage and compassion to touch our sisters and brothers. In other words, we have to be Christ for each other, and we have to pray for the grace to let others be Christ for us.

Forgiveness. Compassion. Love. It begins in our hearts, in our own spiritual lives, and moves out to the world around us. We love Jesus because he first loved us – boils and all. And in loving us, he gives us power to do the work. He taught us what we need to know to be his disciples, giving us the example of his limitless love.

As Hymn 95 says of his holy name: “It tells of one whose loving heart can feel my deepest woe, who in each sorrow bears a part, that none can bear below. O how I love Jesus, because he first loved me.”

Praise be to God for both inviting us to come forward and show our true selves, and for healing us and sending us out to our sisters and brothers with the power of his Spirit.

 

— The Rev. Timothy Crellin is vicar of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Boston and founder of the B-SAFE program, which serves more than 500 children and teens in Boston every summer, and the St. Stephen’s after-school program, which serves more than 125 young people every afternoon. He lives in Jamaica Plain with his wife  and 7-year-old son.

I am here in Jesus’ name, 6 Epiphany (B) – 2006

February 12, 2006

2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, I Corinthians 9:24-27, Mark 1:40-45 

Conflict comes in the religious community as well as in the secular world! We have all heard of the inevitable collision between two ships on the sea traveling the same course toward each other. There is no time to change direction.

So it is in our gospel lesson for today. Jesus’ action in showing compassion to an “outsider” and healing the leper puts him in great conflict with the ruling priests of the temple and the commandments of Moses. His authority threatens the legitimacy of the scribes, and his concern for human need tears at the traditions of the established church.

As with most conflicts, it happens very innocently. Jesus takes compassion on a leper and does what would have been a no-no in his time: he touches the diseased man. Many of the scribes were already unhappy with “this preacher” who seemed to be challenging the roots of their orthodox faith. This act of inappropriate behavior seemed to be the last straw. Leprosy was probably the most hopeless disease in those early days of Jesus. Not much different than the stigma AIDS has in our society today. Lepers were so grotesque, respectable society labeled them contagious and sent them into exile. It was even customary for a leper entering a community to cry out, “Unclean, unclean,” where he walked. Lepers were condemned to die in isolation.

Yet what did Jesus do when the leper spoke to him and said, “If you choose, you can make me clean”? This is the ultimate test of the personal relationship Jesus has with those in need. He will, through his ministry, meet the full range of physical needs: blindness, blood disorders, epilepsy, palsy, paralysis, and even insanity. Jesus does the same today, when we, in our own struggles of pain and disease cry out in hope that we will be healed. We may not have leprosy, but in our mind and in our circumstances, we say through our faith process, “If you choose you can make me whole.”

Christians are a people of faith and hope and compassion. Jesus is the healer on his terms and in his good time. We may not understand the answers we get to our cry for help, but we can never doubt that, as a believer, Jesus is working in our life and through the gifts of others to touch us at whatever point of need will be best for us.

As with the leper, Jesus responds with the deepest of human feelings. As with us, he knows the full range of human emotion. He knows our joy, he feels our anger, he senses our disappointments, he experiences our laughter. He is with us in our impatience and endures our surprises; he celebrates our exhilaration and is saddened by our times of depression. Of all these feelings, compassion stands out as the deepest of all emotions and is the truest expression of the heart of Jesus. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, there is a rather large Christian congregation called “The Guts Church.” It gets its fair share of “jokes” because of its name. A friend told me that “guts,” in our modern vernacular, would translate into what the Greeks would have called compassion in the days of Jesus. Indeed this congregation is committed to serve the most needy, moist disenfranchised in the community with compassion.

When Jesus is moved with compassion, He feels so deeply the suffering of the leper that it is just as if He himself is suffering as a leper. Jesus was not moved with pity, sympathy, or empathy. Each are too superficial or condescending. Jesus saw the need of this individual – just as he sees the need of so many more – with a hand-on-hand, heart-for-heart, gut-for-gut reaction. He feels His way into the leper’s needs. Jesus goes beyond compassion: he reached out and touched the leper. He violated every medical warning and social taboo. By touching the leper Jesus lets the leper know that He will take his place not just as a man with a contagious disease but as one who is socially contaminated as well. When we read this story we can not help but feel how little we know of true compassion!

One of the great stories of compassion that has the mark of Jesus all over it involves an elderly crippled lady who lived in Missouri during World War II. She spent most days lying on a day bed, knitting socks and other garments for her church’s thrift shop. Her husband was a small-town newspaper publisher, and he came home one day and told her that the son of a friend of theirs had been killed on the battlefields of Europe. She asked him, “What can I do for his mother? I pray for the soldiers, but I want to do more.” His response was, “Lou, you have a compassionate spirit. Write his mother a note and let her know how much you love her and that her son is in the arms of Jesus.” She did just that. For the next three years she wrote more than 300 notes to mothers who had sons killed in the war. She showed her compassion by touching the lives of hurting people. She was a servant of the grace of Jesus.

We can do no less. We can be the hands that touch a wounded soul. We can express the words that soothe a wounded spirit. We can be the arms that hold and hug a person who may be dying. We can be the friend who sits and listens and loves another because we see a special child of God in need.

We all have choices to make. Jesus had a choice to make. He could conform to the status quo of the temple or risk limiting his ministry by provoking the opposition. Later in Mark’s gospel it is said of Jesus, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” What a cost for compassion! Jesus has to give up his ministry in the city temple for the sake of a single soul. It became necessary for people to come looking for Jesus in out-of-the-way places like deserts, tiny villages, and along the seashores. Yet they came in thousands to hear his message and to find healing of body, mind, and spirit.

The leper, although instructed by Jesus to tell no one, went out and proclaimed his healing freely to the world. This action escalated the conflict in Jesus’ life. The more he served his Father, the more he came in conflict with the authorities of the church and of all authority around him.

This conflict led Jesus to the cross where he showed compassion to those who drove nails into his feet. “They know not what they do,” he said of the soldiers. To the thief hanging at his side, Jesus said, “You shall be with me in paradise.”

When have we reached out in prayer, in a touch, in a word, in a still, small voice, and said to someone who is at the bottom of life, “I am here in Jesus’ name. How may I help you?” It is then we feel the grace of God and share the love of Jesus.

 

— Harry Denman is a layman currently residing with his wife in an independent retirement center in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. He is a communicant of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church and a former member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church. He writes meditations and sermons on his blog, LaymanAtWork.