Making a difference up and down the line

(A sermon delivered at First Presbyterian Church of Morgantown, WV on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012.)

Scripture: 2 Kings 5:1-14; Mark 1:40-45

Good morning again, and thanks for the invitation to lead worship this morning.  I want to take a moment of personal privilege, if I may, to say how glad Margaret and I are to be a part of this family, and to thank you for welcoming us into the community. It’s not always the case – it may be fair to say it is almost never the case – that someone from “outside” gets assimilated so quickly into a long-standing institution.

I could tell you stories. But then you probably have your own from other places or times in your life.

Being an “outsider” is difficult, isn’t it? In today’s readings, that “outsideness” is represented by characters said to have leprosy – although leprosy as we know it, that is Hansen’s disease, probably didn’t even exist in Palestine in Old Testament or New Testament times.

Lepers were outsiders. They were not to be touched, but more than that, they were to separate themselves from all that they knew: family, friends, work – and very importantly for Jews – the synagogue. And by being separated, they were also being condemned to poverty and destitution.

They were alone. They were shunned. Our readings today, however, give us two very different lepers.

First there was Naaman.

Naaman is described as a successful warrior – “a great man and in high favor with his master.” It’s not clear whether he suffered from the skin disease here labeled leprosy from the beginning or rather – and this seems more likely – he was stricken by some skin condition after attaining his status.

But whatever the case, it is clear he is a man with friends and resources – or at least access to resources.

Our leper in Mark is a bit different. He is a nobody, we are not even given his name or told anything about him. Probably in this case, he has been a long-time sufferer and long ago been abandoned by society. He was so beaten down, he approached Jesus – as one translation has it – “begging on his knees.”

In the end, both are healed, but the stories are very different and perhaps teach us very different, if important and complementary, lessons.

Let’s first break down Naaman’s story.

Here is a connected, powerful man – albeit stricken with this disease that threatens to undermine all he has accomplished.

He is so desperate for a solution that he actually listens to his wife’s slave. “If only my Lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy,” she says.

He takes this news to the king, who gives him leave to head to Samaria to see this prophet and get cured.

But things get mixed up here. The slave girl says “the prophet who is in Samaria” can cure leprosy. The king and Naaman – both of whom are powerful leaders – naturally assume that this must be the king. Only the powerful could have this kind of ability, right?

The king gives Naaman a letter of introduction, plus “10 talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and 10 sets of garments” – enough in the estimation of one commentator to build a hospital.

When Naaman arrives at the king’s place, it becomes clear there’s been some kind of mistake. The king figures this must be some kind of trick to create a war, but Elisha hears about all the commotion and sends word, “just send him to me.”

So Naaman heads off to Elisha’s place, arriving in his usual splendor, and Elisha sends word out by a messenger, “Go jump in the Jordan River seven times.”

OK, now get this picture: Here is Naaman, all dressed up, in his caravan of horses and chariots, all the pomp and circumstance he’s used to and believes is due him. He arrives at the house of someone he’s never heard of, in an insignificant country.

And the fella doesn’t even come to the door?! He just sends out word to go dunk yourself in the river – and the Jordan River at that, that little narrow, muddy stream!

Humph! Naaman storms away complaining he had deserved a bigger, better reception! And a bigger, better cure!

“I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” he says. “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?”

Again, for the third time in this story, it’s the little known ones who save the day.

Naaman’s servants manage to reason with their boss. On come on, they say, if Elisha had told you to do something hard, you would have done it, right? So at least do this simple thing.

He consents, and lo and behold he is made clean – “with the flesh of a young boy.”

This entire story is very real, and modern, isn’t it? Whether we want to admit it or not, we are very willing to ascribe to others, to the important people, the ability to solve problems.

And, we want those solutions to be super, don’t we? How many times have we said something like, “that just seems too simple,” when an answer to our dilemma – whatever it may be – doesn’t require all manner of complicated actions?

Not that sometimes important people don’t have solutions. And sometimes solutions are complicated. But not always.

Keep that in mind as we turn to the leper in Mark’s Gospel.

Here, the diseased person is the antithesis of Naaman. Naaman was a powerful general, with all the trappings; our Markan leper has no name and comes to Jesus on his knees. I envision it almost like a cowed dog might waddle up to someone the dog hopes will be kind.

“If you choose,” the leper says, “you can make me clean.”

Jesus – moved either by pity or anger, depending on the translation – quickly answers the man’s request: “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Jesus puts no conditions on his actions, and only asks that the man be quiet about what has happened and that he just follow society’s rules about what to do when you’re cured of leprosy. (That involves, by the way, an intricate ritual with sacrifices of birds and lambs, bathing, shaving, anointing, tearing up your tent, all sorts of complicated – sound familiar – things laid out in Leviticus.)

But being quiet is just too much to ask of the healed leper. He shouts about his healing from the rooftops and Jesus is no longer an anonymous, itinerant preacher who can travel unencumbered. Instead he has to take to the true backroads to maneuver.

These five short verses carry so much:

  • The leper recognizes that his cure – read salvation – is Jesus’ choice, not his.
  • Jesus challenges conventions (touches the leper).
  • Jesus’ touch is all that it takes to heal.
  • Jesus sets the pattern of being a disciple: in the words of one commentary, “[C]aring for broken people must always be of higher priority than fear of breaking the law.” I would suggest that includes either secular or church law.
  • But even so the law is worth acknowledging (since Jesus tells the leper to follow Moses’ instructions for what to do if you’ve been healed of leprosy).
  • Because of the leper’s actions after healing – indeed his disobeying of Jesus’ instruction – Jesus’ ministry is expanded beyond a narrow area, either geographic or societal.
  • And, perhaps most related to today’s focus, the story is told by an anonymous, unknown outcast who has been healed. His testimony to the world changes everything. Quoting one commentator: “it is the proclamation that matters, not the kind of person who makes it.” Or put another way, you don’t have to be the preacher to preach.

A slave girl. A bunch of servants. A lone, but excited, voice. Each of them insignificant as far as society was concerned, but each with something important to contribute and each willing to speak up to be heard, to make a difference.

It kind of makes it hard, then, for us to sit back or keep quiet, doesn’t it?  At the same time, it makes it difficult to dismiss the words coming from the quote insignificant unquote.

One of the elements of Naaman’s story is that, in the end, he listened. The powerful, successful general listened to the slave girl, listened to his servants.

So there’s a lesson there for those who are leaders in their own arenas, to be open to hearing from all corners.

And one of the elements of the Mark story is that the beaten-down, ostracized leper had the courage to break out of the cultural – even legal – box in which he had been placed.

So there’s a lesson there for those who are lower down the ladder as well, a lesson to be willing to speak up.

The common thread in these stories is faith and sharing: the faith of the slave girl who believed “the prophet in Samaria” would be able to heal and the willingness to share it with those who she believed could benefit; the faith of the Markan leper who believed that, if he chose, Jesus could heal him, and when it happened, he was willing to share the news with the world.

Both of these people were outsiders – outside of society, outside of the culture. But they had a story to tell – a story that would make the life of the people around them better – and they had the faith to tell it, even if they were outsiders.

What gave them that faith, of course, was God.

The psalmist, in Psalm 30, talks about this kind of faith:

“I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up and did not let my foes rejoice over me,” the psalmist says. “O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.”

And later, “Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper! You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.

“O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”

It is God who protects us, who guides our feet while we run the race.

There may be difficult times – we can even argue with God, but in the end God turns our mourning into dancing.

Our response can be but one thing – to give thanks forever.

And part of giving thanks is to be willing to be used – whether we may think we are at the top of the food chain or the bottom, with God’s guidance, we can live and work and pray – and sing – anywhere, anytime.

To God alone be the glory.

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