Saturday, February 14, 2009

Coming Clean - a sermon for Epiphany 6B

I’ve been praying hard this week for two different families. My friend, X whom I told you about last week, just had a baby boy on January 28. X you might remember, is a pastor down in South Carolina. Although his baby J seemed fine at birth, it turned out that he needed major heart surgery. J has come through his first surgery now, and seems to be on the road to recovery. I am sure there are hundreds of people praying for J and for his parents as they go through this ordeal. And in this case, the prayers seem to be “working” – the odds are good that after the surgery is complete, J will be able to lead a normal and long life.

I have also been praying for a family from my daughters’ elementary school. C is in my daughter Skye’s fourth grade class, and she has an older sister, a younger sister in first grade, and a three year old brother. Their father, D, found out about a week or so ago that he has cancer. Unfortunately, the cancer has already spread throughout his organs and into his brain – and it looks like it is inoperable and incurable. He has only months to live. Many people who know the family from our elementary school, their church, and in their neighborhood are praying. But the prognosis, while not absolutely predictable, is grim.

I was thinking of these two families as I read the Old Testament and Gospel passages today about two very different healings. What can these passages tell us about God’s power to heal? What does it mean to be healed, anyway? Why do some people receive miraculous “healings,” while others do not? What do we do when we do get healed? What do we do when we do not?

First, we have the passage from 2 Kings, the story of Naaman. Naaman is the commander of the army of Aram, or Syria, who has just defeated the Israelites. Naaman is pretty high up on the social ladder, which makes his leprosy less of a pariah like disease and more of just a very physically uncomfortable one.

In Biblical times, leprosy was the word for any number of skin diseases, not just the disease we envision today. But whatever disease Naaman had, it was certainly one that was very uncomfortable, even painful, and chronic – it had been bothering him for quite some time.

Naaman really isn’t sure what he can do to cure himself, but he is desperate enough to listen when a nameless slave girl – an Israelite who had been taken captive during the war – recommends a path to healing. Almost wistfully, the slave girl laments, “If only my master could meet the prophet of Samaria, he would be healed of his skin disease.”

Naaman wastes no time – he goes to his boss, the king of Aram, and asks him for help. And the king sends him off to Samaria – not to the prophet that Naaman is looking for, but to the king – king-to-king, power to power. The king of Israel is understandably upset to see Naaman, gifts in hand, ready to be healed. How is he supposed to heal Naaman? He’s no doctor! He bemoans his fate, wonders if the king of Aram is trying to start a war over this, or what.

Then Elisha shows up. Elisha is a prophet who was a protégé of the great Elijah – and he is ready to do God’s work. But he isn’t going to do it the way Naaman expects. In fact, he doesn’t even come out to greet Naaman. He just has his servants tell Naaman to go down to the Jordan, wash in it seven times, and he will be clean.

Naaman is understandably upset. The Jordan is kind of a muddy creek, especially in comparison to the Abana, a swift flowing and clean mountain stream. Why would washing in a muddy river do any good? But again, it is a servant who helps him out here, basically asking him what he has to lose. And after following Elisha’s instructions, he finds that his skin has become not only healed, but renewed, like the flesh of a young boy.

Naaman follows instructions – he listens to those he normally probably wouldn’t pay any attention to, those in a social class far below his own. And it works. He is no longer a leper. He has become clean – clean as a new baby. And, he in turn comes clean and recognizes who has healed him – not his boss the king, or the King of Israel, but God Godself, working through servants and through the prophet Elisha.

It seems to me that Naaman jumped through a lot of hoops to get what he was seeking – healing of an annoying, if not debilitating, disease. He was, by all accounts, desperate – desperate enough to travel to another country, desperate enough to bring riches beyond belief with him, and finally, desperate enough to listen to those he normally would have ignored, at best.

But what Naaman received was more than a physical healing. I imagine he looked at the servants in his life in a new way after this. I imagine he wasn’t so quick to label them as below him, not worthy. And I imagine he had a new respect for the prophets of Israel. And finally, from our last verse, I know that Naaman had a new relationship with God as a result of his healing.

What changed for Naaman, then, wasn’t just the texture of his skin but his circle of relationships. The same can be said of the leper in our Gospel story for today.

The leper in the story from Mark isn’t some big important general like Naaman. He doesn’t even have a name. He meets Jesus after Jesus has left the city, probably because he himself isn’t allowed to be in the company of others. He doesn’t doubt Jesus’ ability to heal him, but he does wonder if Jesus will choose to do so. And Jesus does. When the leprosy is gone, he returns to the city to tell everyone of his good fortune. He, too, “comes clean” to his friends, and presumably to the priest Jesus sent him to in the first place.

But he doesn’t follow instructions. Instead of keeping quiet as Jesus has sternly warned him to do, he goes and tells everyone what Jesus has done – how Jesus has healed him, how Jesus touched him and made him clean. Jesus, by touching a leper, is now himself unclean. And the former leper has become Jesus’ latest evangelist.

Two men, two different stories of healing. Two different responses to being made clean. But in both cases, the healing of their disease changed their relationships with others. The leper in Mark, we can presume, now becomes a part of society once more, returns to his family, is no longer an outcast. And Naaman we can imagine, is now a follower of God, and more aware of others.

So what are these healing stories really trying to tell us? At face value, it might seem that being healed is just a matter of following the right formula, taking the right number of baths in the right river, or of begging Jesus for a cure. I have to tell you, sometimes I do wish it were that simple. I wish that if we just brought our cancer ridden friend to Jesus, and begged him, the cancer would be gone. Do you have people you wish that for as well?

Most of us here have lived long enough to know stories where prayers for healing have resulted in a miracle – children cured, successful one-in-a million chances for a surgery to work. Maybe you even know someone who had a cancer diagnosis, and that cancer disappeared.

But for all those stories, we know stories of those who were not physically cured. We know about mothers and fathers who didn’t get to raise their children to adulthood. We know of children who were in the wrong place at the wrong time and whose lives ended tragically and all too soon.

How do we as Christians put all of this together? How do we make sense of it all, especially after reading these stories today? I have to tell you, stories like these mystify me, and they anger me. As we said in our prayer of confession, it is stories like these that make us think that we can take the credit by praying to God for a cure, and we can blame God when it doesn’t work out.

I don’t think it is that simple. To understand what is going on here, we need to understand what healing meant in the time these stories were written. In Jesus’ time, there were many “healers” – people who went around the country giving people various prescriptions that may or may not have helped their physical diseases go away. With a limited understanding of illness and its effect on the human body, it was both easier and more difficult for those folk healers than it is for our modern health professionals to diagnose and treat illness.

Jesus, we all know, was more than a folk healer like these others. That may be part of why he told the leper not to tell anyone what he had done. Jesus was about more than physical healing. Jesus came to restore relationships, to renew faith, to show the world who God was.

So disease was different, and healings were different. If we hold these ideas in our minds as we look at these stories, what can we learn? Maybe more than “God heals those who ask for it” Maybe “God shows us, again and again, how God wants us to live” From Naaman, we learn that paying attention to those you might not even notice can lead you to a new way of life. From the leper in Mark, we learn that it is almost impossible to keep the Good News of Jesus Christ a secret. From both of these stories, we gain a new concept of community – a community where your former enemies, the ones who have conquered you in battle, become the ones in need of healing, and are healed by their interactions with you.

What is your “leprosy” – what is the disease you carry with you wherever you go? We all have something about us that we would rather not have, that we are afraid will alienate us from our friends and communities. This is the thing Jesus came to heal. Our separation, our inner wounds, our alienation from others – this is what the ancient disease called leprosy represented in Jesus’ day. Maybe it is a bodily disease you carry with you – a chronic illness like fibromyalgia, or Crohn’s disease, or AIDS. Let me assure you, I don’t believe it is wrong to ask God to heal you of such a disease. I don’t believe it is wrong for us all to pray that those who are sick in body, or in spirit, may once again become well.

But, like Naaman, we need to be aware that the answer to our prayers may be more than we are seeking. Frederick Beuchner, in his book Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, puts it this way:
What about when the boy is not healed? When, listened to or not listened to, the prayer goes unanswered? Who knows? Just keep praying, Jesus says. Remember the sleepy friend, the crooked judge. Even if the boy dies, keep on beating the path to God’s door, because the one thing you can be sure of is that down the path you beat with even your most half cocked and halting prayer the God you call upon will finally come, and even if he does not bring you the answer you want, he will bring you himself. And maybe at the secret heart of all our prayers that is what we are really praying for.

This idea, of “beating down the path to God’s door” gives us a sense of direction when we are in need of healing. When we literally do not know where to turn, we can turn to God. When we can do nothing else but pray, then that is exactly what we can do. We beat a path to God's door, with nothing more to offer than our miserable hurting selves. And the good news is that having arrived to God's door, the one thing we can be absolutely sure of is that God will take us in. God will accept us in the place where we are, with all of our doubts, with all of our desperate needs, with all of our sickness and sin. God will open the door. God will take us in. In from the cold and the dusty road, from the dirty water and the fear of disease. In to the good clean warmth of God's everlasting love. This is the gift of prayer. A gift to cleanse the body and the soul, to heal the broken heart, and to lift out spirits in love. A gift of healing that is available to us every minute of every day. Thanks be to God.



mompriest said...

If it were earlier I'd adapt some of my sermon to use that wonderful quote from Buechner...but then again I will preach on healing again in Lent, so I can save it for then...

really lovely sermon, thank you for sharing it.

Sally said...

I'll pray for J and famiuly- if they ever need someone to talk to whose been through the whole heart surgery thing with a baby I am here... still here 23 years later....

MumPastor said...

Thank you, Mompriest

MumPastor said...

Sally, thank you for your prayers for J. I really haven't connected with his dad, my high school buddy, personally yet, but thank you so much for your offer to share your experience, and so glad that 23 years later you and said baby are still here!