Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sermon: February 15

“Experience teaches that neither can we heal ourselves by will power alone, nor will God come and heal us without our active participation.” (Roberta Bondi)

Health is something we often take for granted until we become ill or have an accident, and we long for the days when we felt healthy. A few weeks ago, a quick change in direction caused my back to spasm and for the next few days, I had to nurse a sore back. In the grand scheme of things, that was not a big deal but I did long for the days when I didn’t have to worry about moving and could easily pick things up. When we no longer feel healthy, it is then we often pray to God, wanting God to restore our health.

We do this in simple ways like praying to God to give us the strength to get through the day pain free, for instance. We do this ritually when we come to this altar rail for the laying on of hands and anointing for healing. We do it for ourselves asking for God’s healing grace and we do it for others, in a kind of intense intercession on their behalf. We reach out to loved one and friends and give prayer shawls, a kind of prayer gift to embrace them as they seek healing in their lives.

As we sit with readings for this week that speak about biblical healing, we need to remember that we are talking more than just the lack of illness, and that being healthy means we need to take an active role.

As one author put it, “The word in Hebrew which refers to being healthy is shalem, which means to be whole, complete, or sound. The related term is more familiar to us: the noun shalom, "peace." Just as peace in Hebrew means more than the absence of war, so health means more than the absence of illness. In both cases, what is at issue is becoming whole, whether individually (in the case of health) or socially (in the case of peace).” (Bruce Chilton)

And how we become whole again is the focus of our readings from 2 Kings & the Gospel of Mark.

Naaman – the commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, though a mighty warrior, he suffered from leprosy.

I can picture Naaman quite proud of his name and his stature. He has quite a bit of power as commander of the army, but one thing he has that he doesn’t want is leprosy (remember Leprosy in the bible is not the same as we understand Leprosy today as Hanson’s disease). Then he hears from his wife about an Israelite slave girl, talk about the most powerless person around him, and she startles him with the revelation from the slave that a prophet in Samaria can cure him. Outrageous! Samaria! But…

He goes to his king who gives him permission to go and he even sends a letter to the King of Israel on his behalf. The King of Israel, though, is not impressed. He rends his garments and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me…” The King of Israel knows that he cannot bestow health on another, that is God’s domain, but like leaders of today, he sees this as a confrontation from the other king. Elisha, who is waiting in the wings, doesn’t and has Naaman come to him.

But, Elisha doesn’t go to him. He sends a messenger instead to Naaman who has his horses, his chariots, and his entourage with him. The messenger tells him to go wash in the Jordan, 7 times, and he will be made clean. Naaman was furious, felt disrespected because the prophet didn’t come out to see him, didn’t call upon God and didn’t do anything. The rivers back home are just as good as the Jordan! Impudence! But…

His servants approach him and remind him that if the prophet had given him a hard task to do, he would have done it. Why get upset about going to the Jordan to wash and get clean? And for the second time, Naaman listens to a servant, listens to the least in his presence, and he goes and does as Elisha had said. And lo and behold, he is made clean, his leprosy is gone! By listening to others and then going to the Prophet and then following through and washing in the Jordan, Naaman is healed, he is made whole. We do not know if he returned to the prophet or thanked God for the healing.

The leper Jesus healed did give thanks. This leper like Naaman sought out healing. He comes begging, kneeling to Jesus, he has heard of him.

“If you choose, you can make me clean…” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!"

And the leper was made clean, he asked for it and Jesus did it. Now by touching him, Jesus became ritually unclean but all of that is meaningless to Jesus because Jesus is not interested in ritual purity but helping make the leper, shalem, whole again so that he can be with his family. Jesus then tells him to go, show the priest, offer what Moses commanded regarding the cleansing as a testimony against them. You can sense the frustration of Jesus with a system that kept people apart rather than brining them back to wholeness and grace.

But it is the leper who came to Jesus wanting help who is made whole again by Jesus who desires that for everyone, which reminds me of a story about a couple…

"My husband and I can't say two words to each other without drawing blood," a woman cried to her therapist. "The second he walks through the door, we're at each other's throats. Deep down, I know the love's still there, but it seems hopelessly buried." The therapist listening to her intently; then he reached into his drawer, pulled out a bottle, and handed it to her. "This is special water, holy water from a sacred spring in India," the therapist explained. "For the next week, whenever your husband's about to enter the room, take a drink, hold your tongue and look into his eyes. After a couple of seconds, swallow it. You should notice an improvement in your interac­tions right away."

The woman went home and waited eagerly for her husband to return. When he walked in, she took a swig of the blessed water and silently held his gaze. He gave her a suspicious look, then grinned curiously. She swallowed the water and asked how his day went. Amazingly, they didn't argue. In fact, they had one of the warmest and loving conversations they had had in recent memory. The next night before he came to bed, she snuck another jolt of the powerful liquid, performing the same ritual. Suddenly, as if a veil was lifted, she saw him in a whole new light: she saw him as if it were the first time again; she saw the man she fell in love with. And, of course, the predictable fight never came.

The following week, the woman returned to her therapist, proclaiming that the treatment had healed her marriage and that she needed to get more of this miraculous water — and fast. The therapist smiled and revealed that the potent elixir was nothing but store-bought Mountain Spring water." [From "A Practice for Harmonious Communication" by Derek Rydall, Spirituality & Health, July/August 2005.]

It is not the "magical" water that makes the husband and wife reunite — it is the woman's desire to heal her relationship with her husband that brings about their reconciliation and helps make them whole again. The healing took place not through the water but her willingness to stop and look at her husband with new eyes, to put aside her urge to lash out and speak from the love they have in one another. That is healing, wholeness, shalem.

That is what Jesus invites us to do in our lives. Not only to the lepers in our world today who need healing and wholeness which we can by love and compassion provide, but in our own lives too and those too whom we are close. It is to look to God who wants us to be whole by our embracing of how God wants us to be, as God’s creation. May we seek to bring our needs and the world’s needs to this altar and ask for God’s healing, and find God’s shalem. Amen.

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