A sermon by Senior Minister John B. McCall, February 15, 2009
Wild fires in Australia; deaths in Gaza; retail sales in the basement; job losses not just “out there” affecting strangers, but right here among us, right now. I’ve talked with several people this week who feel like little yellow ducks in a shooting gallery pulled across the stage and trying to keep our heads down.
Still, we push on, doing everything we can to get life back in balance – back the way we loved it before everything fell apart. You’d think we’d learn that being “in control” is just an illusion. Oh, sure – we can make some things go our way. But the real secret of life is learning to adapt to those things that happen to us. Those of you who know how to set your sails in both calm air and raging storms have found the secret.
Scripture reminds us that we’re frail and vulnerable in these human bodies. “We have this treasure in earthen vessels,” says Paul. Age and illness, accident and death, all will have their way with us. That’s why Jesus, as the channel of God’s healing, is such an important expression of the Good News.
Today’s Gospel reading from Mark continues the series of stories of how Jesus helped heal those who are broken in some way: two weeks ago it was the man possessed with an unclean spirit; last week it was Simon Peter’s mother-in-law; this morning we hear the account of a person with leprosy.
In our vocabulary each of these healings is a miracle. Each defies our explanations. Yet in each case we remember healing is all about connecting with God. That’s always true. Again and again, the Gospels tell us, Jesus stepped close to those in need. He touched them. He closed the circle between their need, their prayers, and God’s will.
In today’s few verses we read about the man with leprosy who was brazen enough to break the taboos. The law in Leviticus required that those who were unclean stay out of town, stay off the road, and cry out a warning to anyone who might wander too near.
Leviticus was in the business of distinguishing between those who were holy and those who were outcasts. Lepers were just one group among many who were forced to the edges by the Levitical law.
Everyone knew you don’t touch a leper. Jesus knew it. But he did it anyway. The man begged him for healing, saying “If you’re willing to do this I know you’re able.” And Jesus responded. “I’m willing and able! Be Clean!”
We don’t see leprosy much any more. But there are lots of others who feel unclean. The most obvious made be HIV/AIDS. But, true, too If you’re an immigrant in native dress on the streets of Portland, an addict, a single mother on welfare. Even being divorced may make you unclean in others’ eyes. I’ll never forget that some on the search committee here, twenty years ago, had to debate whether I was a viable candidate for senior minister because Andrea and I had both been through divorce. I contended then, as now, that my having experienced that brokenness and the wonderful healing that followed has made me better able to serve.
Even in the church, of all places, we’ve fallen short of being the kind of healing, redeeming community we intend to be. Even the church can be guilty of love at arm’s length; or responding to pain with a sermon rather than an embrace.
But not Jesus. He got close to people. He heard their cries. He closed the gap. He reclaimed many whom society had cast aside. He returned them to places of value; to their families and their labors. He reached out and he touched in ways that healed and empowered and made people new.
Jesus knew that he wasn’t the healer; but he became the man in the middle, the compassionate Christ, through whom God could heal. And remember, healing means restoring us to wholeness – easing the pain of those losses and burdens that threaten to overwhelm us.
Now I can’t pretend to tell you why some who pray for healing remain broken in body and spirit. I can’t tell you why miracles happen when all the odds say “no” and God says “yes.”
I don’t believe that God sits in judgment and evaluates your prayers or your faith, saying “that’s a 6.3″… “that’s a 9.9!” If healing were only a matter of finding the right words to soften God’s hard heart to do our bidding, we’d have found the formula a long time ago.
And I don’t think God plays along with the game by which we say “O God, if there really is a God, heal me and then I’ll believe in you!”
No; healing moves in the other direction. Spiritual healing is first, and sometimes physical healing follows. Whether I like it or not, my physical body is not God’s primary concern. My soul is.
When and if I can align my will with God’s will, I know I move to a deeper, more faithful place where I want nothing but to know and do what God wants.
I say this based on the two places in the Gospel that teach us most clearly about Jesus’ view of prayer. First is the Lord’s Prayer, filled with simplicity and wisdom, within which Jesus teaches us to say: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Your will be done – the most fundamental and arguably the hardest expression for any of us.
Jesus’ other teaching about prayer wasn’t addressed to the disciples, but to God alone: in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed, Jesus offered what we may call the perfect prayer: “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.”
When the spirit is strong and whole, the body often follows. The healthiest among us are those who live with the grace of knowing God in all of their lives – the best and the worst.
We admire people who respond to a grim medical diagnosis by gritting their teeth and declaring that they’re going to fight. That type of courage and determination is remarkable. But don’t overlook the grace of those who have always tried to live in connection with God and who offer the simple prayer: “not what I want but what you want.”
The God we see in scripture is a creator, a father, a mother, a lover-into-being. Here is God who feels such compassion for us as to come in Jesus to share our suffering before relieving it. How could we imagine that God seeks our destruction, or delights in our pain, or lies in wait to catch us in our sins? Rather, God is always seeking a path toward healing, wholeness, reconciliation and peace.
Scripture and experience also testify that God is at work in our individual lives and in the world. Our fate is not sealed, our destiny is not predetermined. No; our ultimate destiny is a work in progress as we dance with the Holy and seek the will of God in all our lives.
Some of us are struggling with lonely places – places of illness and dis-ease. Most of us are feeling the anxiety that comes from the world’s pain: the struggles of our economy, the threat to our environment, and reluctance of the world’s people to work together for common good.
We can’t make everything fit our plans, even by fervent prayer.
We have to live with the uncertainties, and endure the suffering that flesh is heir to.
But we can begin up close and personal, faithfully seeking God’s will in our lives, reaching across the divisions and reaching to the outcast.
Like Jesus, we can faithfully try to attune our spirits to God’s, and never lose hope. It’s certainly no wonder that this nameless man, so long ago – who lived with a terrible illness of body and spirit – just couldn’t keep quiet when Jesus touched him so God’s healing power could cure him.