2 Kings 5:1-19, Mark 1:40-45
History doesn’t look well on the man Jesus cured of leprosy since he disobeyed Jesus’ orders to tell no one who healed him. Yet I’m sure Jesus understood his wayward enthusiasm, for his ministry of miraculous healing was a clear sign that the realm of heaven was at hand in the world.
When the disciples of John the Baptist inquired as to whether Jesus was the Messiah for whom they had long waited, Jesus instructed them to tell John what they have heard and seen, “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear. The dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11: 4-6)
Jesus must have understood that the enthusiasm of the leper could not be so contained as to follow the procedures of a society that had no dealings with him and treated him as a filthy outcast. Why should he now seek their acceptance and blessing of its priests when they had nothing to do with his healing? Someone quite extraordinarily, who went against the grain of social norms to commune with the unclean, who had the compassion to understand and heal his affliction, this is the one about whom others needed to know. This was his good news, his gospel, which could not be muffled or confined. Like the disciples of John, the leper had to tell what he had heard and seen and felt.
I’m reminded of a story about a pastor who went to a hospital to visit a very sick parishioner. He found her lying in bed gasping for breath and asked if she wanted him to pray for her. She grabbed him by the clerical collar and said, “I want you to pray for God to make me well.” The pastor gulped. Clearly this woman was not going to recover. She was dying. Still he offered what he thought would be acceptable. He prayed, “God, if it be your will, restore your servant to health. However, let us accept your will, so that whatever she receives, she will know that you are always with her. When the prayer ended, the woman’s eyes flashed open. She sat up and startled the pastor by throwing her legs over the side of the bed. She stood up and stretched out her arms. She turned to the astonished pastor and said, “I feel better. I feel a great deal better. In fact, I feel like I’ve been healed!” With that, she walked out of the room and headed down the hall toward the nurse’s station shouting, “I’m healed, I’m healed!” The pastor was overwhelmed. He literally staggered out of the room, went down the stairs, out the hospital door and into the parking lot. He stood at his car still dazed, and before opening the door with trembling hands, he looked up toward heaven and said, “Don’t you ever do that to me again.”
What God had done was catch him off guard with a miracle. His problem was that his heart was not in his prayer. He could not imagine the possibility that God’s will may, in fact, be the same as his parishioner. But far worse than this was the fact that he had lost faith in the belief that with “God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26) until the moment of this miracle when both he and his parishioner were healed. Their witness to God’s healing presence could not be muffled or confined. It had to be shared, and their good news was that God’s will and realm were alive, embodied and revealed.
Unfortunately, this is not the enthusiasm typically associated with the mainline church, which has become, to many observers, the “sideline church”. The reason, I believe, is very similar to the situation of the pastor I mentioned, for like him, our hearts are not in our words of faith or prayer. We’re not quite sure what we truly believe anymore because we’re often cautious about sharing religious or theological beliefs, even within our own church, fearing they might offend others who believe differently. This is not to say that we don’t experience wonderful, life-changing encounters with God’s healing presence, but when we do, we’re not sure how to share them in a world that looks suspiciously on matters unseen and spiritual.
In many ways our situation is also similar to that of Naaman who, once healed of his leprosy, was convinced that the God of Israel was the God of all the earth. However, he was equally convinced that if he worshiped this God openly, in defiance of the religious tradition and culture of his land, his life would be endangered and worth little. So he apologizes to the prophet Elisha that his worship of God must be in secret. And readers of this story are left wondering whatever happened to Naaman, the man of divided and conflicted loyalties. We wonder because his story is so like ours.
We are caught with Naaman in the dilemma of how to live as people of faith in a land whose people and way of life feel increasingly distant and foreign to us. This is not to say that America is hostile to Christians or people of other faith traditions. Quite the contrary, it is because America has grown gradually tolerant of a variety of faith traditions that the church, especially the Protestant church, feels threatened by the fact that it is no longer sought after as the most important representative of American spirituality. Yet we have only ourselves to blame since for many years we have declined the divine call to be actively engaged in the affairs of state and the affairs of the world. We have, instead, shielded our beliefs in vaults of private, personal piety that have rendered us ineffective in thinking, speaking and acting with a common, corporate sense of who we are and where we should be going as a people of God and body of Christ. Because we as Christians have not actively, lovingly and courageously engaged each another in dialogue about faith and issues of ethical and moral importance affecting our lives as citizens of this nation and world, we are a house and body severely divided with little worth to the affairs of life beyond our borders.
The late Bishop James Pike once said that the hour of Sunday worship “is the most segregated hour in American life.” But not only is the church still divided along racial lines, we are divided over our understanding of the Eucharist. We are divided over the ordination of women, gays and lesbians. We are divided over the interpretation of Scripture, and we are divided over the role of the church in the world. The church is divided and conflicted over so many things, is there any wonder why the world seldom consults us in matters involving its own divisions and conflicts, including the possibility of war with Iraq.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Martin Luther King, Jr. entitled “Bearing the Cross,” David Garrow states that what was first called the Southern Leadership Conference, an organization of black leaders united in their fight against discrimination throughout the South, became, at the insistence of Rev. King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, because “most of its participants and its potential popular base came from the black church.” Garrow goes on to say that Bayard Rustin, a Northern civil rights activist and close friend of King, tried to dissuade him from adding “Christian” to the title “arguing that the word would discourage nonreligious supporters of civil rights.” But King held firm. He realized that in a nation where Christianity was often associated and aligned with oppressive conditions of the status quo, and where even Christians often wondered what the church stood for, there needed to be another example and brighter light of the Christian faith embodied and revealed; of what the Word of God in Christ meant in the South and throughout the rest of the nation and world.
Truly when Church and other institutions of godly faith enter the affairs of the world, a new and vital dimension is added to the course and outcome these affairs. A recent article of “Christian Century Magazine” reported that: “Across the country faith-based community organizing is enabling people to confront issues of economic justice.” It further stated that, “Unlike almost every other justice movement, it is strongly multiethnic, injecting moral passion and religious tradition into public debate, but in a way that respects the nation’s cultural diversity.”
In Vermont the ecumenical community, inspired by cooperative efforts of the Episcopal Diocese and the Vermont Conference of the United Church of Christ, has entered the public effort to confront the evils of racism in the state through our churches, schools and communities. We have also joined forces with other denominations in an attempt to create a statewide coalition around specific priorities of economic and social justice. In our ecumenical and interfaith relations it becomes crucial that we not leave our beliefs and traditions behind, but bring them into these alliances for the purpose of discerning the ways in which God’s word and will are embodied and revealed through the faith and acts of all involved. In other words, our actions must always be based upon and flow from engaging dialogues and worship of faith in God so that all participants and observers may know that “with God all things are possible.”
A story is told of the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who, when he was eighty-eight years old, boarded a train. The conductor came for his ticket, but justice Holmes couldn’t find it and was noticeably upset. The conductor was considerate and said, “Don’t worry, Mr. Holmes, the railroad will be happy to trust you. If you find your ticket after you reach your destination, you can just mail it to us.” But the conductor’s kindness failed to put Justice Holmes at ease. Still upset, he said, “My dear man, my problem is not ‘Where is my ticket?’ but ‘Where am I going?’”
As Christians and members of the church, we should be regularly, actively, lovingly and courageously engaged in dialogue concerning a common corporate sense of who we are and where we’re going as a people of God and body of Christ so that we may not suffer Naaman’s dilemma. My offering to this dialogue comes in the form of millennial prophecy and messianic hope. The prophecy is millennial in scope because while the Protestant reformer Martin Luther believed that God was a “Mighty Fortress,” the church, along with the world in which it moves, are more akin to a mighty tortoise.
My prophecy is that, if we as a species survive the next thousand years, we will have evolved into an international federation of states governed by a world parliament, whose laws are premised upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights formed many centuries before by the United Nations. Hunger and poverty will have been abolished. And with the absence of major international conflict, greater attention, energy and resources will be devoted to medical, herbal and environmental research, and spiritual endeavors, contributing to a normal life span for every citizen of the planet of 150 years. It will not be a perfect world, and we will have learned from many centuries of tragic and fatal mistakes. But as a species we will have learned and come closer to the knowledge and will of God.
Both Christians and Jews share the belief and concept of a messianic return. Many believe this will be in the form of an anointed Savior and Shepherd of God, while others, like myself, believe that this return will not be in the form of one person, but rather a universal awakening to the presence, likeness and embodiment of God in each of us, which inspires us to achieve realm of justice and peace for all of us.
In closing, I’m reminded of a story about Charlie Chaplin. At the peak of his career, a Chaplin look-alike contest was held as a charity fund-raiser. Over a thousand people paid ten dollars each for the privilege of sitting in the audience and naming the winner of the contest. The contestants were all made up to look and act like the famous comedian, and each took a turn in performing Chaplin’s antics on the stage. Unknown to the audience was the fact that Chaplin himself was one of the contestants. And guess what? He came in fifth place.
The messianic age and community for which I strive, in which justice and peace for all will prevail in every heart, is one where the Messiah, like Chaplin, will not be recognized in any one person, but in the fundamental and divine likeness of all who embody and reveal the way of God. Amen.