Sunday, February 12, 2012

Epiphany 6B, 2012: Access to God

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

En el nombre del Dios, Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Our Scriptures today offer us two very different healing stories, both involving lepers. The interesting thing about leprosy is that, while it covers a wide range of physical ailments, it eventually leads to the same social consequence – exile. Once the disease progressed to a certain point, a priest would declare the person “unclean” at which point they were banished to a lonely existence outside the city limits, forced to immediately leave family, friends, and jobs, and forced to keep at least 50 paces (about 125 feet) away from everyone else.

Leprosy, like most other ailments and infirmities, was considered by most to be punishment for sin. Healing, therefore, required an offering for atonement. In our reading from 2 Kings, Naaman misunderstood this part about the offering.

Naaman, the great and mighty military commander, who is used to having and using power, is plagued by a nasty skin condition, which if it progresses, will change everything – he’ll be cast out, lose his position of power, and the Arameans will lose their military hero. Hearing about his condition, a young Israelite slave girl serving Naaman’s wife offers some advice: Why doesn’t Naaman go see the prophet of God in Samaria? He could cure him.

The picture here is an interesting one: Naaman, the icon of power finds his salvation in the faith of a slave girl, the icon of powerlessness. God often works that way.

So off Naaman goes to find this prophet, bringing his offering of expensive gifts and showing off his importance with military pageantry. But when Naaman arrives, Elisha doesn’t even deign to greet him, and Naaman is insulted. Worse yet, the prophet’s instruction to Naaman is simply that he wash in the River Jordan seven times.

‘That’s it? I came all this way to wash in the river? I could’ve done that at home! Our rivers are better!’ Now Naaman is really insulted, and he stomps off in a rage; his pride wounded and his expectation of a glorious homecoming following a miraculous cleansing – gone!

The story ends well though. Naaman finally submits, does as Elisha commanded, and he is healed. No pomp, no circumstance – just a cure, and a bit of embarrassment in front of his entourage.

The thing about healing, though, is that it is so much more than physical repair-work. It is always an act of reconciliation. It’s a restoration to wholeness of life and relationship. Sometimes, this includes the outward and visible healing of a physical ailment; sometimes not, but there is healing nonetheless, restoration in ways that may only be discernable to the person healed, or to those who know them well.

Like the story of Naaman, the gospel of Mark offers us a story about a leper who needs healing; only this leper is already living a lonely existence in exile. Somehow, this leper was so certain that his healing would be found in Jesus that he violates the law, approaching Jesus and kneels at his feet.

But the leper doesn’t ask for healing. From the depth of his faith, he informs Jesus that if it be his will, Jesus has the power to make him clean. The leper isn’t just seeking a cure for a skin rash. He’s asking Jesus to restore him to wholeness of life.

According to one commentator, The next ”verse presents… a difficult translation problem. Most manuscripts of this text say that Jesus was filled with pity or compassion (Greek: splanchistheis), but others [earlier ones] say that he was angry (Greek: orgistheis)… [which] could be the proper reading here.”

So let’s think about that for a minute… Clearly, Jesus’ response to the leper points to his compassion. But if, as the earlier manuscripts say, he was angry, why would that be? What would make him angry?

Well… what made Jesus angry at other times during his ministry? He was angry at the temple when he turned over the tables of the money changers – and that was because the poor were being exploited. The religious leaders had made the temple tax so high that the poor couldn’t afford to come worship God. And as I said last week, Julian of Norwich reminds us that “prayer is what unites a soul to God.” So Jesus gets angry when anyone restricts access to God from anyone else who desires it.

In violation of Mosaic Law, Jesus responds to the leper by touching him. In doing so, Jesus demonstrates that the kingdom of God had indeed come near, and it is a place where the exiled, the oppressed, the sinners, and the poor all have access to God and to wholeness – no matter how unclean, or how unworthy we deem them to be.

The text says, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. The Greek word translated as ‘touched’ also means ‘to enkindle,’ ‘to put fire to.’ Jesus, therefore, did so much more than touch the leper. By laying his hands on the exiled leper, Jesus joined himself to him and put his fire, his Spirit, into him. When Jesus joined himself to the leper, the leper was made clean, purged of the guilt of sin that held him bound and cleansed of the rash on his skin. No one could doubt his restoration, it was plain to see.

The same is true for us today. Today, we are the ones God is calling to be instruments of healing like Elisha was. And if we, like the leper, know absolutely that our healing and wholeness are found in Jesus, then we too will be joined to Jesus and receive the fire of his Spirit into us. Then we, like the healed leper, we will be compelled to share the good news that everyone has access to God through Jesus by whose Spirit we are forgiven, healed, and restored to wholeness of life.

Be "on fire" people of Redeemer. Open yourselves to Jesus, so that he might put his Spirit in you, so that you might be a light to shine in the darkness of the world.

You have been chosen. Do you trust that? Do you know as certainly as the leper did, that your restoration to wholeness is in Jesus Christ? Are you willing to kneel at his feet here today, and inform Jesus that you want what he has to give?

If you are, then let’s read together again our Collect for today.

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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