II Kings 5:1-14; Mark 1:40-45
Naaman is a commander of the army of Aram and “a great man”. There is just one thing. Naaman has leprosy. There is no cure in Aram for his disease. It is a little Israelite servant, taken captive by the Arameans, who knows that there is a prophet in Samaria who can cure incurable leprosy. So it is that the great Naaman arrives before the king of Israel with a bucket load of cash - ten talents of silver and six thousand shekels of gold - as well as ten of the best designer suits in exchange for the medical treatment that he cannot receive in Aram. The king of Israel has no idea what he is talking about and assumes it is a diplomatic ploy, an attempt to pick a fight with his government. Hearing of the king’s distress, the prophet Elisha sends word that Naaman should be sent to him. So it is that Naaman arrives with his retinue of horses and chariots, a great man with great power but with no cure. Elisha does not even bother to come out to meet the great man. He sends a messenger who tells Naaman “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” It is roughly the equivalent of saying “Take two aspirins and call me in the morning.” Naaman is not impressed. He expects better treatment after travelling all this way at such great expense. Doesn’t Elisha realize that Naaman is “a great man”? He deserves personal treatment. He expects Elisha to wave his hand over the spot and cure the leprosy himself. Besides, the rivers of Damascus are much more impressive than Israel’s piddly Jordan river. If it is a case of washing in a river he can do this at home. But before Naaman can head for home in disgust his advisors suggest a sober second thought. What is the harm in following this doctor’s orders? If Elisha had advised a difficult course of chemotherapy, wouldn’t he have obliged? Just because it seems so simple doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a try. At this Naaman immerses himself seven times in the Jordan as prescribed and he is healed - his skin is as smooth as a baby’s behind. Naaman is cured, healed, restored. It is a miracle. There is no explanation. There is only wonder and amazement and awe. Naaman wants to pay for services rendered. But Elisha will not accept the cash. The cure is the gift of God. Naaman returns home praising the God of Israel for the rest of his life.
A leper comes to Jesus. This is a no-name leper, a generic leper, a marginalized and ignored leper who comes begging on bended knee, saying: “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus does not send him to the river. Jesus stretches out his hand and touches this no-name leper. Jesus risks becoming a leper himself, risks being one with the unclean, unwashed, unwelcome. Jesus says “I do choose. Be made clean!” The cure is immediate. The leper is clean. The leprosy is gone. Jesus gives a stern warning that this healed leper not say a word to anyone other than the priests who are charged with confirming that he is cured, clean, acceptable again in worship and in the community. But the stern warning does no good. This no-name nobody cannot help but tell everyone he meets about the miracle powers of Jesus. The word spreads like wild fire so that Jesus can no longer enter a village but must stay out in the countryside because the crowds are so masive.
Two lepers seeking a cure. One is an outsider with an in. He has made a name for himself and has connections. The other is an insider who is on the outs. His lowly status leaves him nameless and pushed to the edges of civilized society. Both receive the cure that they seek. The great man must first be humbled. A lowly slave from puny Israel sends him searching for the cure. He nonetheless imagines that the cure must rest with the powerful and prestigious. But the palace proves to be a dead-end. His healing is provided by a prophet who does not even lay eyes on him but whose assistant sends the great man to a humbling sevenfold bath in the muddy Jordan. Naaman goes on a pilgrimage from greatness to weakness, frm strong man to patient. All the money in the world cannot pay for his healing. It will be a gift, no charge. Naaman’s greatness will have nothing to do with his cure. And the no-name leper’s social location on the bottom rung will not stop Jesus from making contact. From his knees he has confidence in Jesus’ power: “If you choose, you can make me clean.” His cure is free, a free gift from God’s anointed.
The two lepers share one thing in common: their leprosy. In their stories leprosy is a physical disease and more. It is also a social disease, a disease with great spiritual power. Every culture and generation has such illnesses - TB, cancer, AIDS. These physical ailments carry with them a stigma, a power that isolates the sufferer. Leprosy was a dreaded illness. When the doctor confirmed the diagnosis it meant being shunned from the community, judged impure and socially unacceptable. The Bible imagines that leprosy is a metaphor for all manner of diseases and malfunctions. Perhaps you recognize the diagnosis. Perhaps you are self-diagnosed or perhaps a parent or a spouse or a sibling or a colleague has spoken the dreaded word: “leper”. Perhaps it has never been said out loud but instead implied, hinted, spoken in so many words. An addiction, a compulsion that has power over you can be a lot like leprosy. Being convicted of a crime, being an ex-con can be a lot like leprosy. A marriage that is hard or on the brink or that has failed can be a lot like leprosy. A broken relationship with a child or a parent or a friend can be a lot like leprosy. Financial trouble, debt, bad investments can be a lot like leprosy. Feeling like you are a fraud, a phony, a hypocrite can be a lot like leprosy. Living comfortably in a world of hunger, homelessness and need can be a lot like leprosy. To be a leper is to know what it is to be unclean, unwelcome, unfit, incurable.
Incurable. Yes, this word has a familiar ring to it. Given the diagnosis that I received nine months ago it seemed a strange twist of fate, or was it providence, that placed these two stories of miracle cures as the lectionary readings that fall this year on my fifty-eighth birthday. In the past I have wondered how to preach such miraculous texts knowing that some in the congregation long to be cured of an incurable condition. This week I wondered how - and what - to preach to myself. I know something now that I did not know a year ago of what it means to be humbled, to be vulnerable, to be mortal. To be diagnosed with an incurable cancer is to move from the healthy side of the ledger to the side of the diseased and to know you will remain there for the rest of your life. It is to become a patient, literally, a sufferer. While cancer does not place you in the ranks of the untouchable or the outcast, it does change your identity, changes the way people view you and relate to you and think about you. And it changes the way you view yourself, your future and your life here and now.
Oddly, there is a healing that begins the moment that the doctor says the words that you were afraid to hear. It is not obvious at first because at first the shock and grief and fear take up all the room in your soul. But, as time passes, you begin to realize that the certainty of an ending brings with it a calming, a grounding, a peace that has been elusive til now. It is as if the humbling treatments, the chemotherapy, the weakness, the loss of hair, are like Naaman’s seven dunkings in the Jordan, seven drownings to his powerful self. Your identity is no longer that of the strong, capable one but now the humble, vulnerable human. I don’t quite know how to explain it. While others tell you that they are praying for a cure it feels as if Jesus is already reaching out and touching you, saying: “I do choose. Be made clean.” Old anxieties melt away. The path ahead is unclear and not without trouble. But the present has never been clearer, God has never been nearer and others have never been dearer. Easter breaks into the dark recesses of a Good Friday diagnosis, with hints of the healing that lies somehow, in some way in the days to come. This is what occurs when Elisha the prophet and Jesus the Messiah arrive on the scene. God’s kingdom comes near. God’s will for healing becomes clear. And the witnesses to God’s goodness can not keep quiet. That is what a church is. It is a witness to God’s goodness that can not keep quiet.
We will do well to remember this as we embark upon a conversation with our United Church neighbours in the year ahead. Next weekend our five congregations - University Hill, Knox, Trinity, Dunbar and West Point Grey - begin a series of hosted conversations in which we will talk together about perplexing questions that confront us. Along with the much of the church in North America it is evident that we are afflicted with a serious illness. Our congregations are shrinking, aging and struggling with issues of viability and sustainability. For a denomination formed with great optimism less than a century ago this is a humbling situation. In some ways our congregation has already lived a good way into this journey of loss, having sold its building and property thirty years ago. We bring a different perspective and story to the conversation. We have discovered a new way of life on the other side of the loss of our former identity. But we are not out of the woods yet. Our future is not certain. There is a form of leprosy which afflicts the church in North American culture, making Christians persona non grata to many of our neighbours. The healing of the church requires that it, like Naaman, be humbled. The healing of the church will not be of our own doing. We can not think our way to a cure. Brainstorming is not the answer. Problem solving won’t do it. Neither will a good marketing campaign. The healing comes when the church kneels before Jesus, saying: “If you choose, you can make us clean.” This is what I hope that our conversations lead to. I pray that our discussions invite into being a church that leans on Jesus, trusts in Jesus, waits upon Jesus to make it whole and alive and vital. Then the story we tell will not be about the church. Then it will not be about what a great place the church is or about what great people we are or about what innovative and caring programs we offer. Then our story will be all about God’s goodness - God’s goodness in Jesus Christ that carries all manner of lepers through death to life.
Because, of course, finally even the cured lepers die. Finally even all those who were miraculously healed die. At some point the miracles run out. At some point there are no more cures. At some point death wins, life ends and there is nothing that can be done. Except that we are not alone in this. Jesus also died. He was not spared death. There was no cure on this side of the cross. But there is a cure on the other side. On this side of death we are given a foretaste of the cure that awaits on the other side. The cure takes effect here and there, healing here one leper and there another, saving here one congregation and there another. These are kingdom signs, little miracles, hints of what is to come when God’s Easter power for newness heals the incurable cancers of violence and greed, fear and consumption that plague family, neighbourhood and nation. In the resurrection God’s energy for healing is revealed. In it we see that God’s intention for every leper - whether you or me, whether in here or out there - is wholeness, connection, health and love. That is why we worship on Sunday, the day of resurrection, the eighth day of creation, the day of healing and of tombs opened and of life rising from the dead. We worship on Sunday because so many of us know too much about Good Friday and live for too long waiting on Holy Saturday. We worship on Sunday to thank God for the healing we have received, for the healing we are receiving and for the healing we - with all God’s children - will yet receive. We are a little colony of lepers being healed by God’s goodness who can not keep quiet. Thank God. Thank God.