Matthew 8:1-4 (or Mark 1:40-4)
When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
It was during Lent of last year that many aspects of our country shut down in response to the coronavirus COVID-19. We went from in-person worship one week to online worship the next. During those first few weeks, we had no idea what to expect or how long the shut-down would last, but it felt appropriate that this happened during the church season of Lent, with its traditional journey through the wilderness. I remember seeing a Meme on Facebook that said, “This Lent is the Lentiest Lent I ever Lented!” I have felt that way, at times, for the entire past year. So, frankly, I was not looking forward to Lent this year. I even posted the question in one of my clergy circles, asking if anybody else just wanted to skip it this year. I received a few polite lectures in response to what was seen as my poorly imagined understanding of Lent, but lots of clergy expressed similar feelings. Do we really need Lent this year? Can’t we just skip over it? Or skip to the good stuff for once? Ultimately we agreed that we need to name Lent, just as we need to name reality.
When the Spiritual Life & Worship team met to discuss the season, we agreed that we didn’t want anything that seemed too depressing, but we also didn’t want something that ignored the pain of the last year. We ended up choosing this Holy Vessels theme, which is a wonderful package program that gives us lots of visual images, original music, and liturgy. As I dug into it, I liked it even more. Over the course of Lent we will name our brokenness and our need for healing. We will give attention each week to a different kind of health need—physical, communal, mental, intellectual, and environmental health.
All that sounded great until I sat down this week to prepare my sermon. The theme package doesn’t provide sermons, of course, and I realized (a little too late, perhaps) that the scripture for this week is a difficult one during a pandemic.
You may remember the line from my reading earlier. The person with leprosy comes to Jesus and says, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” It is an astounding statement of faith. Not “could you maybe” or “do you think you might” or even “well it’s worth a shot; what do I have to lose.” The man says, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” And Jesus says, “I do choose,” and the man is healed.
It’s a beautiful story, but we’re in a global pandemic, and as of Friday, 494,000 people in the United States have died from the virus. That’s nearly half a million people, and how many of them do you think had someone praying for them to live? Did God choose not to make them well? About 77.5 million people have caught it and (so far) have survived. Did God choose to heal them, but not the others? Statistics alone would tell us that there were “good people” who “deserved to live” in both groups.
Healing stories are always problematic because we know of people who weren’t healed, at least not in the physical sense. Did God choose not to heal my cousin, who died at the age of 38, leaving three young children without a mother? Did God choose not to heal your loved one, who died too soon? How do we keep believing in a God, how do we keep worshiping a God, who would choose to do such a thing? Or to use the traditional wording: why does a loving God let bad things happen to good people?
There are many theories, of course. Some people believe that bad things happen as punishment from God. This theology is particularly popular with TV preachers. So if you weren’t healed, then clearly you did something wrong. Other people say there are reasons that God chooses to heal some people and not others, and that maybe we’ll understand eventually; or maybe we’ll understand when we get to heaven; or maybe we’ll never understand but just trust that God had reasons. Some people say that God simply chooses not to intervene in human lives. God could, but that’s just not how God work or what God does. Or maybe God chooses to intervene in large things, but not individual things. Others say that God chose to give us free will, with the result that God can’t intervene without limiting our choices. Still others say that God wants to intervene because God is all-loving, but can’t intervene because God is not all-powerful. And finally, some say that the question itself doesn’t make sense because God is not an entity that could do such things. God is not an entity but an energy, a life force, a spirit, or a collective conscience.
It has been said that much of religion is to address people’s questions of why, particularly why bad things happen to good people. I find it interesting to note that in some cultures years ago, including in the Bible, people were more concerned with the opposite question: why good things happen to bad people.
They knew that bad things happened: life was hard and short, and childbirth was often deadly, and most diseases had no cures. They didn’t understand the prosperity of the wicked, but everyone understood suffering. Now we avoid suffering at all costs, and we don’t understand it when it comes. We want to know why, and too often there are no easy answers. Or we have intellectual answers, answers that make sense to us in the light of day, but that fail miserably in the face of real human tragedy. We do not understand, and our hearts break with the weight of the why.
So we are still left with the question we started with: what are we to do with this story of healing? Whatever your theology about why some people get sick and are healed and others get sick and die, for a moment let’s separate that huge God question from the Jesus question in this text. The man says, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” It’s important to note that this word “clean” does not mean merely “well.” Clean meant ritually clean. I’m sure you remember that any skin condition could cause the person to be removed from society and community. Someone who was “unclean” could not enter the temple and could not be in relationship with others. So the man’s request to Jesus is not just to heal his skin condition, but to make him whole by bringing him back into community. And Jesus says, “I do choose.”
I do choose. I think this story—and most if not all of the healing stories—tells us that God’s desire for us is wholeness. We don’t always have it and we don’t always get it but wholeness is God’s desire for us. But what is wholeness? What does it mean to be whole? It doesn’t mean to be perfect or to be back to normal. Years ago my father fell and tore his rotator cuff. He had shoulder replacement surgery and it went well and he has full range of motion in that arm, which is wonderful because it’s his dominant arm. Then my father tore his other rotator cuff, and it was so bad they had to do a reverse shoulder replacement, which is much harder surgery. In spite of doing his physical therapy faithfully, this recovery did not go well. His muscles seized up, his collar bone broke, and his full range of motion will never return. At age 82 he’s not overly concerned about it—the main thing he had to do is switch to a left-handed fishing reel. Was he healed? No. Is he whole? Yes . . . because wholeness is not perfection. Disability theologians have taught us this as well. A person’s disability does not prevent them from being whole. Someone with a disability is not “less than” simply because their body doesn’t match the norm.
We also need to remember that wholeness does not mean “back to normal.” In the beginning of this pandemic we talked a lot about when we would get back to normal. And yes, there are certain aspects of normality that we do long for. Personally, I really miss eating in restaurants! I would like to go back to that normal, please! And I would like to go back to worshiping and singing together. And I would really like to go back to hugs. But in what ways do we want to create a new normal? What if we come out of this with greater respect for grocery baggers and cashiers, for teachers and administrators, as we recognize who the essential workers really are? What if we come out of this with a greater understanding of the immense pressures on doctors and health policy makers? What if we come out of this with a new awareness of our connectedness, and how we all share the same air? That would be a good new normal, a good way to be whole.
Wholeness is God’s desire for us. The man in our story said to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” And Jesus said, “I do choose,” and the man was made whole.
Fans of the TV show Grey’s Anatomy will remember a powerful scene from Season 2 where Meredith Grey declares her love for Derek Shepherd with these words:
“Derek, I love you, in a really, really big – pretend to like your taste in music, let you eat the last piece of cheesecake, hold a radio over my head outside your window –unfortunate way that makes me hate you, love you. So pick me. Choose me. Love me.”
Many of us can feel that scene because we have been in similar positions, either specifically or generally, where we have begged someone to love us. The good news is: we don’t have to beg God. We don’t have to plead for God to love us. God just does. And part of that love is wanting us to be whole—not healed, necessarily, but whole. God says “I do choose.” What do you choose?
I’m going to ask you some questions, and even though I won’t be able to hear your answers, I invite you to answer out loud anyway with the words of Jesus, I do choose.
Do you choose to see and acknowledge your own woundedness?
Do you choose to let go of perfectionism?
Do you choose to love yourself into healing?
Do you choose to seek your own wholeness?
Do you choose to seek the wholeness of others?
Do you choose to work toward systems that promote the wholeness of all?
We choose together. We are one in Christ’s healing love. Amen.