Saturday, February 11, 2012
Healing? What is it? Sermon for Epiphany 6b
Again today we hear readings that have to do with healings and faith. We have heard these stories of Jesus’ healing throughout Epiphany. They are important stories in Mark because he is trying to address the issue of miracle workers in his time following the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Everyone wants a miracle worker when times get bad. We want someone to come in a clean up the mess we are in.
Jesus was a miracle worker, but he was much more than that and that is what Mark was trying to convey. But first we must deal with the story from 2nd Kings for the story in Mark to mean much.
In Jesus’ day, people knew their Bible stories. The miracles of the prophets were as much a part of their lives as football scores or the latest happenings on Survivor for us. And this story of Naaman’s comeuppance was a great story to tell after dinner to remind people of how good it was to be an Israelite. Israel was a small country in the shadow of Aram (now Syria). The king of Israel was a vassal of the king of Aram and Naaman, the Syrian joint chief of staff, comes to the king of Israel to visit Elisha the hot dog prophet in this backwater of a country—this was not a mere run down to the local faith healer. It was a state visit from the big dogs! And what does Naaman want? He wants to be healed of his leprosy—a disease that cannot be healed.
Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house and the prophet doesn’t even come out to meet him. Elisha is not moved by the panoply of Naaman’s retinue. He sends Naaman to wash in the Jordan. Now I can assure you, the river Jordan, as rivers go, is not remarkable. It is about like the Red River last summer.
Naaman is expecting great ceremony to his healing. He is expecting something grand and remarkable and he is told by a servant to go dip himself in the river Jordan 7 times? He is angered with this dismissal of his position. His arrogance is enough to almost forgo the healing. But his servants are those who get him to do what the Holy Man has said. And of course he is healed. (It would be interesting to meditate on the interplay of the great and the small in this passage but that is another sermon)
This story had been told for centuries as a sign that their little country was blessed by God with prophets and holy men and women even when they were not a great nation. They were God’s people. It was their versions of God bless America. It was their way of showing that their God not only the best god in the world, God was the only God. It was NOT the prophet who healed Naaman. It was God, the Holy One of Israel.
When the first century Christians hear the story of Jesus healing the leper, the story of Naaman comes to mind. It is supposed to. But there is much that is different because Mark is trying to show that Jesus is different from Elisha. He is not merely a prophet. The leper comes to Jesus humbly. He kneels before Jesus—the image of a supplicant as one would offer a sacrifice to God. The leper acknowledges Jesus’ ability to heal. And Jesus is moved by the leper’s plight. Jesus heals—a sign of the Messiah. Jesus is not trading on panoply or magic acts like the ubiquitous miracle workers of his day. He is filled with the compassion of the leper’s life.
Mark is telling a different story than Naaman and Elisha. He is trying to show that Jesus is the Messiah, the God-made-man. He is trying to show that with Jesus the world has changed. He is trying to tell a story that it is with Jesus that God is healing even when it doesn’t look like it. It is in their compassion and love for one another. Jesus does not draw attention to himself. He tells the leper to show himself to the priests of the temple so that he can offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving and honor the Name of God.
And even though the Temple is gone, even though there is nowhere in Mark’s day to offer to God the sacrifices that once were at the center of Judaic faith, the need for offering the sacrifice of thanksgiving was there in the community of the faithful, in their lives together and the practice of their faith.
We have been studying the Gospel of Mark on Wed. mornings and the discussions we have had are rich. One of our members brought up that the stories of Jesus healing often serve to disappoint and hurt those who are NOT cured by their faith. It is an important observation because I believe that the Church has often implied that if we only pray hard enough or are faithful enough we should be healed and if we aren’t, we are somehow defective.
That is NOT the message of Jesus. And that SHOULDN’T be the message of the Church. We need to be about recognizing what healing is:
Healing is not mere physical wholeness. In the stories about Jesus, Mark makes the healing stories quite visual. Withered hands are fixed, the lame can walk, the schizophrenic is made of right-mind, and the epileptic is given control of his body. For millennia we have seen only physical healing as the sign of God’s goodness. And even today there is still a willingness to see illness or physical disability as curse or of the failure of faith rather than seeing people as differently ‘able’. I had a blind colleague in seminary that had more pastoral ability in his little finger than any of the rest of us simply because his gifts of sensitivity were heightened by his “disability”. On Amy’s and my continuing ed. trip last week, the leader of the program has two autistic children: One who is in a joint PhD. program of MIT and Harvard in Bio-Physics but who can’t find herself around the grocery store and 20 year old son who is non-verbal but is incredibly talented with computers and assists her with running the most sought-out website of interdenominational sermon helps in the English speaking world. And we all know of the wisdom of Helen Keller whose loss of sight and hearing allowed her to think and articulate the joy of compassion for the rest of us.
All too often we do not regard such people as “healed” yet it is in their “disability” they are made proclaimers of the goodness of God. It isn’t in the miracle itself that God is seen. It is in the love and compassion of Jesus’ healing. The word translated ‘pity’ in this passage is a word that really means ‘gut wrenching’. Jesus’ experience of the leper’s pain is what brings forth the healing. It was not just in the spectacular that Jesus was known as the Son of God; it was in his compassion that we know of Jesus’ godliness. And it is in our compassion for one another that we touch the godliness of the Incarnation.
Whoever tells you that Scripture should not be ‘interpreted’ just doesn’t know their Bible or their history. Jesus was a miracle worker, a preacher and a prophet whose purpose was to show people how to live lives worthy of the God of their ancestors. He was a sign of God’s compassionate presence in the world. But Mark used the stories of Jesus’ miracles as ways of reinterpreting the Jesus story to help the people of his day deal with the destruction of the Temple by focusing the ancient faith on the person of Jesus. And it has been the job of people throughout the centuries to re-interpret these stories in the light of what is going on in their lives.
We are called to reinterpret these miracles in this post-9/11 era. We must be willing to hear the compassion that comes from our own experience of loss of security that can create healing for ourselves and those around us rather than becoming anxiety-driven suckers for whatever the world wants to sell us. We can have the grandiose expectations of Naaman or the humble cravings of the Markan leper. All God asks of us is to open to what healing means—it is about knowing God’s love for us no matter our physical or emotional state. Wholeness does not depend upon our physical state—it is a matter of how we walk with the Holy and the peace that it gives. Amen