February 12, 2012 – 6 Epiphany B
2 Kings 5:1-15; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
They say you can tell a lot about a person when he is sick. For me, and maybe for you, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
I’m always shocked and irritated when I get sick. It’s like a personal insult. I think things like: I don’t have time for this. I’ve got too much to do. This isn’t right. What went wrong? How did this happen to me? And then I start looking for someone to blame: Who gave me this cold? Whose fault is it? All too often, in my approach to life, everything depends on my tank being full, on me being able to put forth the effort and devote the time to accomplishing something. That’s what really bothers me about sickness: it interferes with what I’m supposed to be doing. And those close to me will attest that the worst thing to do when I am sick is to ask me how I’m feeling. I don’t want to be reminded of it. I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to keep going as best I can and get over it. I’m sure you haven’t noticed it but I have a kind of obsessive compulsive outlook: people are supposed to work hard and there’s not much excuse for not doing that.
Another reason I don’t like sickness is that it’s a great equalizer and I don’t want to be made equal. Sickness takes away my advantages in life. For a while I’m paralyzed and can’t do anything and doing things is what separates me from others. Getting things done, accomplishing things, succeeding, checking things off the list – that’s what makes me feel good, that’s what makes me feel superior to others, that’s what makes me feel like I have some control in this world. And if you’re sick, none of that happens. There’s no long range plan: when you’re sick you live moment to moment. There’s no sense that I’m better than others by getting things done because I’m not able to get anything done. There’s no distraction of activity: you’re just stuck there, forced to rest and wait. It’s horrible. I don’t like sickness because it destroys my illusion. My illusion is that, if I try hard enough, anything can be done. My illusion is that I have no limits. My illusion is that only the weak and stupid suffer. My illusion is that, if I do well enough, life will be good. My illusion is that I am in control of my life.
But when I’m sick, I’m just like everybody else. I’m weak and stupid. I’m dependent. I’m temporary. I’m at the mercy of something else. I’m not in control. When I’m well, I’m all about justice: work hard and get rewarded. When I’m sick, I have to resort to mercy: just get me through this.
Two of our lessons today are about leprosy. What a lousy leper I would have made. Naaman, in the Old Testament lesson, has a pretty lousy attitude about his sickness too. He’s used to working hard and getting what he deserves. He’s a commander in the Syrian army and has lots of control. But he has leprosy, apparently a pretty mild case at this point, because leprosy was a horrible and progressive disease. In both the Old and New Testaments people are paranoid about leprosy, so threatening was the disease. If one had leprosy he had to announce his arrival in public by yelling, Unclean! Unclean! as he approached others. If fabric rotted, people thought that was leprosy. Even rotting wood was thought to be leprosy. Imagine that today: much of Cloverdale would be condemned!
Naaman has leprosy and hears about a possible means of healing. He’ll have to travel to Israel and meet Elisha the prophet but he’s willing to do that. Anything to avoid the furthering of this disease. Naaman has an obsessive compulsive streak too: he carries money and valuable garments with him so he can pay for the healing. He’s into justice not mercy, control not dependency. He’ll meet the great prophet, arrange for the healing, exchange goods, and get on with his life of success.
Elisha seems to know what an arrogant, self-centered man Naaman is because he doesn’t even go to the door to meet him. He sends his messengers and tells him to go wash in the river Jordan seven times. Well, that’s ridiculous to Naaman. First, he’s got plenty of better rivers in Syria. Second, it’s not flashy enough. He expected some great fanfare where Elisha would come out, wave his hand over Naaman and make him well all of a sudden. He expected an immediate and miraculous release and that’s not what is offered so he storms off. His servants have to chase him down and reason with him until he softens and goes to the Jordan, washes seven times, and is healed. Later he tries to pay Elisha for this healing but Elisha refuses. Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, tells Naaman he’ll take the money instead, and Gehazi is struck with leprosy as punishment. That’s a little warning for all of us who make payment and reward too important. Both Naaman and Gehazi have cheapened the way God works. Naaman is rescued from that and sees a new freedom. But Gehazi isn’t and he suffers under his own limitations of how God works.
A leper comes to Jesus, a man perhaps further along in the disease process and one who is apparently humbled by his infirmities. He kneels and asks for mercy. If you choose, you can make me clean. Jesus responds by saying that he does choose healing, here and always. I do choose; be made clean. The man is sent to the priest so that he may be readmitted to the community of faith. No leper could worship in the temple or synagogue and he needs to be reconnected with that community. Jesus doesn’t just heal him and send him on his way; he wants him to be thankful for the gift and continue his spiritual journey in the covenant. He doesn’t want him to be separate from others due to illness and he doesn’t want him to be separate from others in his outlook on life. He wants him to know an equality with others in the eyes of God.
Jesus tells him to be quiet about all this. And I think the reason is that Jesus knows how people can make the workings of God so very cheap. So easily we can turn God’s grace into something we think we can earn or pay for or deserve. So easily we can turn God’s grace into a wish machine – it all comes to be about us getting what we want out of life. We cheapen forgiveness and grace, salvation and healing. We cheapen God by approaching his grace as approval of us and our way of life. We take grace and make it about our actions and Jesus doesn’t want that. He wants us to live in mercy, receiving his gifts, using those gifts within the full community, valuing each member of the community as God’s beloved child.
You don’t have to go too far to realize the connection here between the lepers and us. Our condition of sin and failure, of bondage to oppression, of hunger for meaning in life, of being in exile from what we most want, is like being a leper. We are the leper.
To be healed of leprosy would have been like being raised from the dead and enabled to have a brand new chance at a life of freedom and connection with others. We are the leper who has been healed. We have been given that same gift of healing through the cross of Jesus Christ. We have been forgiven, set free, fed, nurtured, made whole. And now we can live into that gift. We must know the gift. We must wash and be made clean. We must recognize that we are put in community with others. We must know that we are loved.
If you have walked away from that gift, let me be a messenger which invites you to come back into the river of life. If you wonder about the will of God, let me remind you that God chooses for us to be made clean, God chooses for us to live with him and his children. You are made clean by Christ Jesus. Don’t cheapen that. Live your life in response to the love of God.