Homily for the 6th Sunday of Epiphany 2009
2 Kings 5:1-14 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said.
And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes 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.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “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! 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?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
Psalm 30 I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me. O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit. Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.” By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed. To you, O LORD, I cried, and to the LORD I made supplication: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? 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.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
Mark 1:40-45 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to 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!” 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.
“Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to [the leper] ‘… be made clean!’”
From ancient times, lepers were banished from the community and sent off to fend for themselves. For Jesus to have ignored that boundary and invited contact with a leper was a shocking, frightening and radical act. We still use the word leper to refer to social outcasts. Through history, fear of leprosy continued, and yet there were always individuals who reached out and extended the love of God through the barriers of fear and ignorance. St. Francis of Assisi for instance, as a way of demonstrating his trust in God, and as a way of sharing the love of God he had discovered, apparently planted a kiss on the face of a leper he encountered out in the countryside.
In the 19th Century a Belgian priest by the name of Father Damien went to Molokai (Hawaiian Islands) to begin a ministry to the people who were exiled there because they had leprosy. Fr Damien was 33 when he began his work, and he eventually died himself of the disease at the age of 49. To recognize the faithfulness of this man, the Roman Catholic Church intends to canonize him this year (2009) and apparently he will be designated as the patron saint of people with leprosy. Interestingly, Fr Damien has been claimed by HIV and AIDS groups as an unofficial patron saint of their organizations, and a number of Damien centres have been established around the world, serving, as Damien did, the needs of those whose disease has isolated and diminished them.
Wouldn’t it be great if we had the power to put a hand on someone and heal them! Imagine being able to put the “touch” on some drug dealer or an obnoxious colleague, and instantly turn them into something else! That is the magic of fairy tales, and such power, fairy tales warn us, if most often abused in any case. I do want to believe in the possibility of instant cures, and don’t want to cast aspersions on the miraculous work of Elisha and Jesus as agents of God. But having suffered with the incurable disease of asthma almost all my life, I know you have to reconcile yourself to other outcomes and other ways in which healing and transformation may work.
Fr Damien brought no cure to the lepers of Molokai, no miraculous transformation. He was a very fallible human being, whose faults are as well documented as his virtues. But his arrival and work there had a transforming effect on the community. Apparently, the simple fact that someone cared about them enough to be among them – to be one of them – inspired them to become a better community, and to abandon some of the criminal and immoral ways they had adopted. Isn’t that the Christian story in a nutshell?
David Richo, who is a psychologist and spiritual teacher as well as a best-selling author, points to five essential qualities that a person needs to develop into a healthy adult: attention, affection, acceptance, appreciation, allowing. The transformation created by Fr Damien’s ministry among the lepers of Molokai was based on simply being there, at great risk to himself, when virtually everyone else had shunned them and forgotten about them; it was accomplished by proclaiming God’s love by his actions, as well as by his affirming and accepting words, and the sense of hope and purpose he brought. By entering into community and communion with them, he enabled them to see themselves as a gift to each other, not just a bunch of rejects and victims. He encouraged them to see that they too had a purpose. His presence had a ripple effect. It’s interesting that the example of Fr Damien was a powerful inspiration to Mahatma Gandhi in his campaigns to bring liberation to India. People like that also create healing by inspiring others. Obviously, Gandhi in turn became a powerful example and inspiration himself.
There is a mandate, a challenge, and a precedent in the Gospel, to bring healing and reconciliation to people’s lives, to be agents of transformation, to work toward a vision of wholeness of life. To become a healer is to recognize that the love of God is about taking the risk of reaching through the barriers and fears. I believe that every time we reach out to touch someone’s life, some degree of healing happens. No doubt it would quickly go to our heads if we were able to do the magic wand thing, so the kind of healing power given to most of us works much slower but is very powerful nevertheless.
Many, if not most, people want to believe that healing is possible. It’s amazing how much healing practices have come back into practice – Reiki, healing touch, laying on of hands, energy work, the work of medical intuitives, and a huge variety of therapeutic spa treatments from massage to pedicures to seaweed wraps. They promise restoration of body, mind and soul, and people believe it. Books like The Secret urge people to believe they can shape the universe.
As St. Paul tries to point out in today’s Epistle, our physical well-being is only part of the picture. He uses the body as a metaphor to speak of spiritual athleticism. For Paul, the body is meant to be subject to the spirit of a person. The spiritual side is what is most significant about us, and our body needs to be disciplined and subjugated to serve the purposes of the spirit in its quest for fulfilment.
I have heard of miraculous cures, but I have come to believe that healing is a more comprehensive process. The army commander Naaman wants to order up a miracle – he wants the prophet Elisha to wave his arms, do some quick magic, and make the problem disappear instantly. He discovers that it involves a process. Again, having had a disease that you just have to learn to live with, I know something of the frustration of the futility and the unfairness of things; I know the fear, embarrassment, anger, and unrealized hopes; I know the frustration of feeling left out or left behind, the pain of envy; I know about self-hatred and the self-destructive behaviours that accompany it; and I know the apparent failure of faith and the infuriating indifference of God. But I came to believe that divine healing was at work all along, and that sometimes even our illnesses can be the means to a deeper and more meaningful life. And I came to know something of the Resurrection in finding within me the will to keep getting up and moving on. Ironically, illness can be a path to a kind of healing. I came to a realization that through my own suffering, other experiences, insights and strengths emerged which are themselves an unexpected blessing and healing, such as perseverance, determination, hope, and perspective. Through my suffering, I also discovered that individual acts of kindness, presence, understanding, affirmation and sympathy, were very healing on an emotional and spiritual level.
Healing happens every time we reach toward another person, motivated by the love of Christ. As the life of Fr Damien demonstrated, when people know they matter, when they know that they belong, and that their presence is valued and their contributions are needed, it is enormously healing and strengthening, and in turn such people can become agents of healing themselves, instead of feeling like perpetual victims.
Love, however it is given, has the power to heal. That love is God’s best and defining gift given to the faithful, and we are meant to use it. That is a gift that we all have the power to give. People ask what is my vision for St. John’s. In part, I would see St John’s as a place where people can come and truly feel they are being helped and encouraged toward wholeness of life. Wellness centres have become popular because they promise progress toward body/mind/spirit wholeness, and spas are a pleasure in good part because the good ones pay careful attention to create a peaceful, quiet and caring environment. Parish life can be a spiritual oasis, a healing, restorative, encouraging, creative break from the challenges of the world, but with an awareness that our presence here is meant to strengthen us to serve in that world as spiritual warriors, athletes, ambassadors for Christ.
I think we can be faithful to the mandate of the Gospel and the example of Jesus by being a caring, compassionate community, a community of genuine concern and care – a community which sees itself as part of the larger, comprehensive healing process of reconciling the world to God.