February 15, 2009
SERMON OF FEBRUARY 15, 2009
M. Bruce McKay
Pilgrim - St. Luke’s United Church of Christ
“God’s Gutsy Healing”
2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; Mark 1:40-45
On the wall in my church office, beside the door, is a wooden crucifix. When he was in the 7th grade our son Luke went on a school trip to Quebec City and visited St. Ann deBeaupre – a large Catholic church.
What was remarkable about this church wasn’t its size or its beauty, but its altar. In addition to all the things you’d typically expect to see on the altar it was surrounded by crutches that people no longer needed. The church was known as a place where healing happened. Countless people who entered the church with the help of crutches left them at the altar and walked away, their broken bodies healed by the grace of God.
The crucifix comes from the gift shop at St. Ann deBeaupre and hangs in my office as a reminder of the grace of God’s healing.
Since doing a nephew’s wedding last summer in Lake Placid, I’m now reminded of something that happened the day before the wedding, whenever I look at this gift on my office wall.
It was after the rehearsal dinner and lots of people, mostly much younger than myself, were gathering at the cottage where the wedding party was staying. As I was going into the cottage, my brother in law, the groom’s father was just ahead of me. He’s been in a wheelchair for the last 10 years following back surgery that left him a paraplegic.
A relative of the bride came up beside me and started to explain how he was a born again Christian. He said, “Having faith is all that matters. As a pastor you know that. If the groom’s father had enough faith and called on Jesus to heal him, he could step out of the wheelchair right now.”
What I felt like saying to this guy can’t be repeated from a pulpit. What I did say was, “We see this very differently.” And I walked away, not wanting to create a scene while everyone else was celebrating.
I believe with all my heart that healing happens in people’s lives through the amazing grace of God’s Holy Spirit – the Spirit in which we all live and move and have our being.
I believe that there can be physical manifestations of this healing and that the crutches around the altar at St. Ann de Beaupre aren’t just a cruel hoax.
I also believe that healing often happens in our minds and spirits without curing the diseases or physical conditions that affect our bodies.
I believe that the healing of our bodies, minds and spirits is always a result of God’s grace.
And I believe that the grace of God’s healing continues to happen in our world and in our lives, as it happened in the lives of the two living with leprosy in today’s texts.
The words translated leprosy in both Hebrew and Greek refer to various skin diseases, but not to Hansen’s disease – what we know today as leprosy. While we can’t be sure exactly what type of skin disease Naaman and the leper in Mark suffered from, we know that it was visible, painful and something they wanted desperately to be healed.
We also know that the holiness code in the Hebrew Scriptures defines people who are suffering from leprosy and others diseases as “unclean.” Being religiously and ritually unclean meant that they were excluded from places of worship and ostracized from their families and their communities.
That’s why the leper who comes to Jesus falls on his knees and begs him to make him clean. He’s begging Jesus not just to clear up his skin but to restore the relationships that gave his life meaning and purpose. He’s begging Jesus to restore him to his family, his family of faith and to his community.
The leper is clear that he both wants and needs healing to happen in his life and that it can only happen through the grace of God that he somehow knows is present in the person at whose feet he falls.
Regardless of the physical condition of our bodies we all want and need healing to happen in our lives. We all want and need the healing wholeness of God’s love for our bodies, minds and spirits. So in that sense, that very real sense, we are all lepers. We are all people who need God’s healing in one form or another.
Sooner or later we all know what it’s like to be on our knees before the Lord desperate for the grace of God’s healing.
“If you choose, you can make me clean!” cried the leper.
You can heal my body and reconnect my being to other beings who give my life meaning and purpose! You can make me whole!
“Filled with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.”
The word in Greek translated compassion literally means guts. It’s “…one of the most crudely descriptive and interesting words in the New Testament.” (For this quote and information on this word in the NT see “Gutsy Love” by Dennis MacDonald in Preaching the Word in Sojo.net for 2/15/09)
It means the inward parts, bowels or viscera, especially the liver, heart and lungs. When the bowels of Judas gushed out at his death the word used for bowels is the same word translated in today’s text as compassion (Acts 1:18).
Now I’m not trying to either gross you out or teach biology in Greek. What I am trying to do is point out the deep emotion that led Jesus to stretch out his hand and touch the leper at his feet.
We say things like “I feel empty inside,” or “all that violence makes me sick to my stomach,” or “she has more guts than anyone I’ve ever known.”
Hearing the news of the plane crash in Clarence last Thursday night for the first time created in many of us a physical and emotional reaction – a visceral reaction to tragedy on our doorstep.
Talking with my mother on Friday morning she said, “My heart went right to my mouth when I heard the news.”
Hearing or seeing the news about those who died in Clarence last Thursday night may well have put a lump in our throat and tears in our eyes even if we didn’t know any of those who died. These lumps and tears are reminders that we are all connected to one another through the compassionate Spirit of God’s love.
Our word compassion literally means “to suffer with.” Whether we’re suffering with family members, friends or total strangers it’s compassion that reveals the source of our connectedness and the source of our healing.
There have been many, many layers of response to this week’s tragedy. From direct actions to personal prayers all are fed by the same source. All are expressions of compassion that are no less important and no less needed. All take us from feeling compassion in our guts to expressing it in our lives.
“Filled with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him…”
Jesus risked becoming unclean himself by touching someone who was considered to be untouchable. His suffering with the leper at his feet led him to extend a healing hand.
When someone in the Gospels has compassion it’s almost always Jesus. One exception is the father in the story of the Prodigal Son. When his son returned home, “his father saw him and was filled with compassion” (Luke 15:20). But he was not just moved to tears but to action as well.
“Bring quickly the best rode and put it on him and put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feat and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate “ (Luke 15:22-23) He welcomed his son home as if he’d never left!
Another example of compassion in the Gospels is in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who, when he saw the man beaten along the Jericho road was filled with such compassion that he “went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own donkey (beast) and brought him to an inn and took care of him” (Luke 10:34+)
Healing happens when people are filled with compassion that compels action. ”Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”
God’s gutsy healing happens through the unexpected, unearned, and undeserved grace of God at work in the world through the compassion of Christ and all those who embody his compassion in their lives.
This brings us to the story of today’s second leper. Naaman was a successful commander in the army of the king of Aram, modern day Syria. He had it all – wealth, power and prestige. He had it all - except for one thing. “Though he was a mighty warrior he suffered from leprosy.” (Kings 5:1).
Again we’re reminded that we all need healing of one sort or another.
God uses unexpected people in this story to make healing happen in unexpected ways.
A girl captive from Israel was serving Naaman’s wife. She young prisoner of war she knew about the healing power of God in Elisha, a prophet back in Israel. Without her Naaman’s healing would not have happened.
When the king of Aram sends Naaman to the king of Israel with as much gold and silver as he can carry the king of Israel is in a panic because he thinks he’s the one who is supposed to do the healing and knows he can’t.
Elisha gets word of what’s happened and sends a messenger to his king. Without this messenger Naaman’s healing would not have happened.
When Naaman goes to Elisha’s house he receives instructions on what to do from another essential, yet unnamed messenger of Elisha.
When Naaman is ready to return to Aram in a rage because he thinks the rivers of his own country would work as well as the Jordan and because he’s furious with Elisha for not giving him proper respect, it’s his servants who say, “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more (then), when all he said to you was, `Wash, and be clean’?” (2 Kings 5:13)
“So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan…and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.” (2 Kings 5:14)
Without his servants Naaman’s healing would not have happened.
The essential actors in this story of God’s healing aren’t the kings or the army commander but the prophet, the servant of Naaman’s wife, the messengers of Elisha, and the servants of Naaman.
God can use anyone at any time to do God’s healing work in the world!
Alison De Forges was one of the 50 people killed in the crash in Clarence of Flight 3407. I ‘d gotten to know Alison in the early 1990’s when she was the Co-Chair of United Parents, a group of organized parents working to improve conditions in the Buffalo Public Schools.
Alison graduated with honors from Harvard in 3 years and had a PhD in African history from Yale. She was one of the founders of the Bennett Park Montessori School and was a passionate champion for the right of every child to receive a quality, public education.
As a senior advisor to Human Rights Watch she went into Rwanda after the genocide to help bring its perpetrators to justice.
Alison was an incredibly smart, humble, courageous woman, but I will remember her most for her compassion. Whenever I ran into her in recent years she would never fail to ask me about our sons – about where they were in school and how they were doing.
Alison’s compassion, her visceral, gutsy love, compelled her to be an instrument of God’s healing not just in the lives of individuals but in our life together in community with one another – here in Western New York and across the world in Africa.
Alison understood as well as anyone I’ve ever known that “justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public” (I May Not Get There with You, The True Martin Luther King, Jr., Michael Eric Dyson, p. 132)
Alison Des Forges was one of the more well known people killed last Thursday night. Many others were less well known but no less loved by their families, their friends and their God.
Healing happens in communities the same way it happens in individual lives - through the amazing grace of God’s compassion at work in human hearts.
Robert Coles was working with a fifth grade class in Lawrence, MA. The class included a mix of children from white, Latino and black working class families. He asked them to tell him about who they were – what mattered most to them and who shaped their lives the most. (The Spiritual Life of Children, Robert Coles, p. 308)
One of the students talked about his grandfather and how important it was to “march through life” in both good times and bad. (p. 316)
Another student responded, saying, “You can have the worst luck. But you mustn’t give up. My uncle had polio. He’s in a wheelchair for life. But does he give up? No….He tries to be useful. He gets around. He’s good with kids. They’ve got him working, and he’ll give his shirt to you, if you need something from him and he has it. You talk about `marching though life.’ He can’t walk but he’s `marching.’ He says God has been good to him! My mom says, `Can you imagine it – your uncle saying that!’ You see it’s all in what you decide to do with yourself.”
Healing is all about what we decide to do with ourself and what we allow God to do with us.
We aren’t always cured of our diseases – no matter what they may be.
We aren’t always spared tragedies – no matter what they may be.
But we are always held in the hands of God’s compassionate, healing love – a love that is always able to work through us bringing healing to our own lives and the lives of others.
St. Ann deBeaupre is a place where people experience the grace of
God’s gutsy healing.
My prayer is that here too is a place where healing happens.
We don’t have crutches hanging beside our altar but I’ve seen the grace of God’s gutsy healing in many of your lives in my time as your pastor.
I’ve seen people leave their brokenness and despair at this altar and leave here blessed by the amazing grace of God’s wholeness and hope!
I’ve seen people leave their cynicism and sadness at this altar and leave here clothed with commitment and with joy!
I’ve seen people leave their bitterness and animosity at this altar and leave here with the courage and compassion of Jesus through which the grace of God’s healing happens in our lives - in our life together - and in our world!
“Through many dangers, toils, and snares, we have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home!”
Jesus Cleanses a Leper
A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him,” If you choose, you can make me clean.”
Filled with compassion (NIV), Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.
After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.