A sermon by Greg Ledbetter | February 15, 2009 | Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
Scripture: 2 Kings 5:1-14 and Mark 1:40-55
A couple of years ago, I did a rather odd thing. I strapped a folding chair to the back of my motor scooter, grabbed a Bible and a few books and rode on the back roads to Orinda where I drove part way up Happy Valley road. I parked, and then set up my chair on the side of the road and began to read while traffic whizzed by. After a while, police officers in cars and on motorcycles began patrolling up and down the road, clearing motorists and other obstacles out of the way. And not long after that, preceded and followed by dozens of support vehicles and sponsors' cars and a cavalry of motorcycle cops, there came a brief blur of bicyclists careening down the road twice as fast as I ridden up it on my motor scooter. In about five seconds, the blur of speeding cyclists was past as well as my reason for sitting alongside a busy country road.
I was, that day, witness to one of the first "Tours of California" … an American bicycle road race that is growing in popularity and significance every year. Yesterday, the 2009 Amgen Tour of California kicked off in Sacramento. And while every year's race is interesting, what makes this year's race particularly interesting are some of the racers who are participating. Lance Armstrong is back from retirement. He's the winningest rider ever of the Tour de France, having beaten testicular cancer. His "Live Strong" foundation and the little wrist bands are a testimony to his strength and his determination that he would live through his medical challenges. But he's also had to beat something else—and it's something that a number of other riders in this year's race have had to beat, as well.
In this year's race are a surprisingly large number of riders who have been accused and, in some instances, caught using performance enhancing substances or practices. Some, like Lance Armstrong, have been accused of cheating, but the accusations never proved. Others have been accused and caught, like Floyd Landis and Ivan Basso. They're also in this year's race. All of this has cast a huge cloud over the otherwise wonderful sport of cycling and it has made onetime stars into pariahs and virtual lepers and onetime "princes" of the sport who now are scorned by sponsors and former teammates and their once adoring public. In particular, 2006 Tour de France winner, Floyd Landis, is now considered by many a pathetic figure, a laughingstock, stripped of his title and, like O.J. Simpson, forever in search of proof that will vindicate his not very believable claims. It will be interesting to see if Floyd can ever get rid of his "leper's bell" … the sense that he is "unclean" and to be avoided at all costs.
As with many things, the story is new, but the reality behind the story is very old. Societies and cultures and mores and religions creating boundaries that determine who's in and who's out, who's clean and who's impure, who's welcome and who's not. It's one of the ways that order is maintained in different settings. If you break certain rules, or behave in certain ways, or innocently embody certain feared diseases, you could lose the right to exist within your own community.
Two people in today's scripture readings exemplify this difficult reality. Naaman is the famous and courageous commander of his king's army, but that lofty position doesn't spare him the indignity of having a debilitating and disfiguring disease. His proved courage in battle is no match for the quiet efficiency of his disease. And in today's Gospel reading, an unnamed leper—because isn't "leper" all you need to know about someone in that pitiable state?—an unnamed leper approaches Jesus and requests healing. And we can be reasonably certain that Mark shapes and tells his story of the leper's healing with the story of Naaman and his healing in mind.
The story of Naaman's healing is a fascinating one for a host of reasons. It's not told about a lowly, cast-off soul seeking healing, it's about a man very close to the very seat of power. But the agents of healing in this story, by contrast, are the least of the least … the one who tells Naaman of the possible source of healing is a Hebrew slave girl who serves Naaman's wife … and the one who calls Naaman back to bathe in the Jordan is a servant. Perhaps even more than Elisha, the prophet, these insignificant, unnamed marginal figures are the agents of God who heals Naaman. And Elisha the prophet can't even bother to show up and meet Naaman, but offers his prescription of healing through his own servant. Everyone's got servants! And his prescription for healing is the oddest of all: wash seven times in the Jordan … and call me in the morning. Healing through marginal figures and marginal practices.
You know, someone has noted that CEO's—you know now there's a new developing class of pariah's and lepers who should probably wear leper's bells. But someone has noted that CEO's have begun to hang out with the lowest level employees, asking questions of those at the bottom who are the closest to the action. Maybe they've been reading First Kings and the story of Naaman.
In any event, for Mark, as he writes his gospel, the story of Naaman's healing is very compelling, very interesting, because the gospel he writes has a lot to do with people on the bottom and at the fringes of society receiving inordinate attention from Jesus. And ultimately they behaved more like disciples than Jesus' own followers.
Mark's gospel, as you may remember, is a bit like a race, especially a sprint … We'll recall that there's no birth narrative. Just God's man standing over his starting blocks, chomping at the bit, ready to get sprinting to Jerusalem and the cross. And before chapter one is even over, Mark has established Jesus' identity as the "Son of God" and as one who heals, preaches, exorcises, and teaches with authority in and out of the synagogue." In one chapter, Jesus has performed three healings and become a magnet for those who are sick and tired of being sick and tired, and he's already put a couple of shots over the bow of the religious establishment.
For those who can catch the import of Jesus' final healing, it is as though Jesus has said to the religious authorities: "Bring it on!" Now there's a phrase that can get you in trouble. When you say it, you'd better be sure you really mean it. When Jesus orders the healed leper to return to the priests to show himself and make his offering—and make his testimony before a hostile audience, he is, in effect, throwing down the gauntlet.
There's more emotion and energy in this little story than meets the eye. We've always read and understood that Jesus healed the leper because, as Mark tells us, he was "moved with pity". This is how we read it in the New Revised Standard Version of our Bible. But earlier manuscripts than the ones used in this translation say that Jesus was moved with anger. There is a growing consensus that while Jesus likely felt pity for the leper, he was especially moved by his anger at his own religious tradition that had pushed the man away from his family, away from his community, away from the practice of his faith.
And if the prophet Elisha heals from afar through a servant, Jesus demonstrates how it really is when God's healing energies are set loose: He breaks the purity laws by touching the leper with his hand. The gulf has been bridged, the law broken, and in one moment of healing, almost as though his leprosy no longer mattered, the man is restored to all of the things he had lost. He is now "legit" … he's legitimately "cured" so that he can show the priest, make his offering and be restored to his faith and the purity laws that had once excluded him.
If this was a movie, you'd be saying to the man … "You're so close … come on … get over to the synagogue and you can have what you've been deprived of for so long." And Jesus sternly orders the man to do this. But he doesn't. Something even larger than his own personal healing has been revealed to him … given to him. Better than Jesus' disciples ever do in Mark's gospel, he sees and understands the healing power of God that is in Jesus and he can't simply keep this enormously good news to himself. He becomes the first evangelist of God's presence and power at work in Jesus. At the end of the gospel, some of Jesus' disciples are ordered to speak, but remain silent. The healed leper is ordered to remain silent, but nothing can silence one who has truly witnessed in his own being the good news of God's coming reign.
At some point in the hearing of these two stories of the power of God being set free in healing ways, the listener is bound to say: "Hey preacher, I'll have what he's having. Where I can get me some of that healing magic? Better yet, just heal me."
At some point we come up against an unavoidable observation. To whatever extent God's healing mercies resulted in literal "cures" in so-called "Biblical times", it's not greatly evident that God "cures" at all today … or at least in ways that are predicable or provable. Every single person in this room at this moment can think of a beloved one for whom we would love to be a humble servant bringing to our beloved delivery from their dreaded condition. "I don't know if you still work this way," we might begin our prayer to God, "but if you do, can you let my loved one be healed?"
I sat between two respected colleagues this week. One said emphatically: "God always heals." The other added: "But healing is not always curing."
As a pastor, I don't carry around with me in my mental satchel of stories any stories of miraculous "cures"—that is instances where an observable ailment was immediately and magically removed. This is not to say that I think I know all there is to know about the mystery of God and how God is real among us. It is not to say that I wish to attempt to place limits on the powers that brought life and breath to us each. It is to say that whatever else the stories of healing from the Bible have to tell us, it is less about the inexplicable, nearly magical cures themselves, than it is about the enormous mercy of the God who loves us and who calls us into communities of love and justice and support.
Now I know that sounds like a lot of 21st century sensibilities being laid on top of texts and cultures and practices that are thousands of years old, but I think a re-reading of the miracle stories of the old and new testaments will reveal that at the root of things, the miracles are nearly always about God and God's merciful activity among us and about the communities of compassion and Shalom that are meant to model on earth the divine realities of God's heaven—God's community.
As soon as this service of worship concludes, I will travel to San Francisco to be with a beloved member of our community—all members of this community, by the way, are beloved. This member is lying in a hospital bed and is dealing with new diagnoses that are very serious, potentially deadly and not easily treated and certainly not easily cured. And at her bedside and in our conversation and in our prayers, I will not speak lightly and easily in language that leads any of us in that room to think that I can call down from heaven curative powers for what afflicts her. But I can and will speak authentically of God's healing presence that is gently and powerfully present to her in her time of need. I will represent this community of faith and hope and love to her and in that place we will all of us, if not exactly physically present, be together as one body of Christ—wounded and healing. And who knows how God's gentle and powerful presence and the presence of her own faith community gathered round will interact with her own body's powers of healing against the very real disease that afflicts her. Will she be cured? I have no idea. Will she be healed—that is, will she discover a wholeness of person and hope and faith in midst of her serious medical challenges? I pray to God that she will.
Healing in any context, ancient or modern, is the restoration of the community of love and support that is essential to be human and whole, and it is the liberation from anything that would attempt to bind or limit it, the great tender, loving mercies of our God.
And so I pray also for your healing … and mine. That we may know fully the blessings of this community of faith, hope and love. And that we know past any need for cures or immortality, the great, tender, loving and eternal mercies of our God who is the God of all mercies, the God of all people, the God of Shalom.
The Compassionate Community of God with us.