Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Coming Clean

Christ Healing a Leper, Rembrandt, 1657-60

2 Kings 5: 1-14; Mark 1: 40-45
****** Congregational Church
February 15, 2009

In the United States between 1976 and 2006 there were 7,166 cases of Hansen’s disease or as it is more commonly known—leprosy. India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal and Brazil have the highest outbreaks. In 2006 the World Health Organization registered a total of 259,017 new cases worldwide but this represents a drastic reduction from the 500,000 to 700,000 cases reported each year for the past 13 years. However, there are millions of people that, though they have been cured, still suffer from physical disabilities and social injustice.

Of course it is the shame attached to Hansen’s that keeps the disease from being eradicated, among other factors. There is still the belief that one’s bad behavior is somehow responsible, especially in third-world countries. Many do not seek treatment because of fear, ignorance or social stigma. Those with Hansen’s are still shunned from community not only because of fear of contracting the disease but also because of the victim’s supposed lack of morals. Despite our post-modern world, sickness and sin still walk very much hand in hand on this earth.

But we all know from experience that when it comes to sickness, it doesn’t matter who you are. The greatest and least and everyone in between will get sick at some point in their lifetime. It’s the last thing we want to think about: the weakness of our bodies. And Naaman is no exception.

We read that Naaman is the commander of the army of the king of Aram, what would be Syria, that he was a great man, in high favor with his master, that the Lord had given him victory. Yes, it reads that the Lord had given Aram, a foreign nation, victory over Israel. Sin and defeat in battle also went hand in hand.

So we have this mighty warrior, this great man. Yet we can hear the “but…” coming: he suffered from leprosy. The word ‘leprosy’ is used in the Bible to convey any number of skin diseases. It was thought that any imperfection in the body was due to one’s sin and thus, one was considered unclean by the Levitical code of purity. In truth, having a skin disease was the equivalent of saying that one was covered by one’s sin. The psalmist speaks of his face being covered in shame, of his sin being ever before him. Though Naaman was a great man, he had been brought low by this leprosy and needed help in his suffering.

He receives help from the unlikeliest source: his wife’s servant girl, who was taken from Israel in a military raid. Naaman is to go the prophet Elisha who will heal him. To his credit, Naaman heeds this advice, even though it comes from a girl who is a servant and a foreigner. Status and station in society are observed in this communication: the servant girls tells Naaman’s wife, she in turn speaks with her husband; Naaman then goes to the king of Aram who then writes a letter of introduction to the king of Israel.

Now here’s where everyone’s egos start getting involved. First off, Naaman brings a treasure trove of gifts, presumably not only for the king of Israel but also for the prophet Elisha. Second, assuming that he is expected to cure Naaman, the king of Israel thinks this foreign king is trying to pick a fight with him. And third, none of this transpires the way Naaman thought it would, that he, being a great man, arriving with his chariot and horses, would be greeted by this great prophet, who would then show forth the great power of God in this great healing. Instead he receives a message from Elisha via a messenger, another servant, to wash in the Jordan, which was like a creek compared to the great rivers of Damascus. All of these unrealistic expectations are a recipe for conflict. Naaman just wanted to be healed; now everyone is ready for a fight.

Then the voice of reason and wisdom enters in from yet another unlikely source, from Naaman’s own servant. Notice that it is the servants, those in a weak position, that bring wise counsel and the key to salvation and healing. Naaman then washes and his skin becomes like that of a young boy, reminding us of Jesus’ instruction that if we want to enter the kingdom of God, we must become like a child, like one who is willing to trust, to put one’s life into the hands of another.

In the gospel reading in Mark we have one who is precisely that: one who is willing to trust, to put his life into the hands of another. “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Here is one who has been reduced in every way. Because of his leprosy, he has lost everything. He could not worship in the temple. He could not live with his family or in his village. He had to beg for everything. He had no dignity, no identity except for his disease.

Miracle 28: Leper cured, Ian Pollock, 2000
Author José P. Ramirez Jr. in his latest book Squint: My Journey with Leprosy details his own experiences. He tells a story of when he first returned home for a visit during his treatment for Hansen’s disease. He was one of thirteen children and was concerned for his family, that by sharing meals together he might communicate his disease to them. Early on his first morning home he went into the kitchen and began sorting out dishes, glasses and utensils that he would use, marking them with tape. When his mother saw what he was doing, she became angry and broke the plates, telling him never to do that again, that he was no different than his brothers and sisters.

In other translations of this story from Mark we read that when Jesus was faced with this begging leprous man, that he was not moved by pity but by anger. In Middle Eastern traditions, both pity and anger are emotions that come from the gut. Being begged in public to heal an outcast, which would also make Jesus unclean and an outcast, got Jesus in the gut. Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me which emotion moved him, but that Jesus did choose to heal the man.

The verb ‘to choose’ or ‘to be willing’ in Greek is ‘thĕlō’, which means to delight in, to desire, intend, please, love. Jesus delights in healing this man, desires him to trust him. His intentions are to heal him, this man whose sin is ever before him. It pleases Jesus to heal this man who is covered in sin. It is the love of Jesus that compels him to touch this outsider, taking that social stigma upon himself.

It’s a very Jesus-y thing to do. We read countless stories of Jesus associating with sinners and outcasts, thieves and prostitutes, gluttons and drunks. Yet what if we substituted the word ‘Church’ for the characters of Naaman and the leprous man? If we believe that the Bible is still speaking fresh words of God, then what is the Spirit saying to the Church?

There was a great Church that suffered from a debilitating disease, one that covered the Body in shame. The great Church thought that the prophet, the leader, the minister would lay hands upon it, that the power of God would come down, that something great would happen. But it was the servants of the great Church, those in the weakest position, who had the wisdom for the great Church’s healing. Listening to the wisdom of the servants the great Church washed itself and became clean, like a child.

A Church with an unbearable disease, that had lost everything, came begging to Jesus and kneeling before him said, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus, moved in his gut with anger and pity, said, “I do choose. Be made clean.”

If we believe these stories to be true, then it is the Church that needs to be healed, both the whole community and the individuals that comprise it. We are a week and a half away from Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent and of our reckoning once again that we are indeed human, that we need help. I believe these readings from today’s lectionary are a way to get our hearts and minds jump started on that Lenten journey.

As much as the world needs to remove the discriminatory, hurtful word ‘leper’ from its lexicon, we the Church need to reclaim the word ‘sinner’. Sin also carries a huge stigma with it but that stigma, that shame, that fear also prevents us from asking for healing. We find it difficult to admit that we are weak, that sin has taken a hold of us, and that we have been brought low. We forget that it was for sinners not the righteous that Jesus came, freely sharing his life and his love.

One of the earliest prayers of the Church is also one of the simplest: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus did not blame those who were sick for their illness, even though sin and disease were thought to be one and the same. Instead, Jesus saw illness as an opportunity for healing, forgiveness, and restoration, rather than guilt, blame or judgment.

Jesus comes to us in our weakness and desires that we be honest and that we trust him, especially with our shame, our fear, and our sin. By healing us, Jesus invites us to be part of his ministry, reaching out to those outside the Church, taking on the social stigma of the poor, the mentally ill, those with disabilities, extending the hand of justice to those still outside the full life of the Church.

How willing are you to let yourselves and your lives be shaped and cleansed and remade so that you might be restored? What ministry of restoration does this church offer to the surrounding neighborhood and community? In what ways do you need to come clean with your past, your identity, and your expectations of what it means to be a church? What areas of church life do you have difficulty trusting with God? When have you experienced the healing hand of Jesus, freely proclaiming that good news?

Admitting we need help is the first step toward healing, both as a church and as individuals. Often it is our pride that gets in our way. We need to come clean with our sinful nature. But Jesus and his healing are waiting for us. We need only to choose to put our lives in his hands. How willing, how delighted are we to trust God?

May it be so. Amen.