Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

To the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O Jehovah my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever.

Saturday is Valentine’s Day. Now, secular holidays do not really have a place in the corporate worship of the Church, and despite the name “St. Valentine’s Day” this holiday is totally secular. Valentine was a saint, but he has been removed from the regular schedule of feasts because there is too little information and too much confusion about his identity. They simply do not know how, or why, St. Valentine’s Day was celebrated. However, it is impossible to look at our faith without placing it in the context of our lives. And for most of those who will join us for worship on Sunday, Valentine’s Day is part of our life.

The most common story behind St. Valentine is that he was a Christian who refused to give up his Christianity, willfully marrying couples even though the emperor had made marriage illegal. He needed soldiers, and married men could not be forced to go to war. Valentine also helped Christians who were being persecuted. It is said he was martyred on February 14th, which happened to be the eve of the Roman festival honoring Juno, the goddess of marriage. A lottery was held on February 14th, with the names of all the unmarried girls being placed in a jar. The boys each selected one name and the couple spent the festival of Lupercalia together. Sometimes the lottery choice led to marriage.

Valentine is said to have written a note to the jailer’s daughter shortly before his death. He signed it, “From your Valentine.” She had become his friend because he healed her sight. The celebration for Juno was so popular, that (like many other Christian festivals) the celebration was renamed after the Christian Saint Valentine so as to help remove pagan elements of daily life from the new believers. It was noted sometime in history that love birds began mating on February 14th, thus sealing the day to be one of love. By the middle ages there were already traditions of passing love notes and flowers on the day.

They say Valentine’s Day is just another one of those Hallmark holidays, and yet there is good reason to celebrate love at this time of year. Spring is just around the corner. Despite Groundhog Phil’s pronouncement of a long winter, some places are already seeing the return of spring like temperatures and regrowth. I’ve already seen signs of the neighborhood birds preparing nests for offspring.

Now, Valentine’s Day is not always a pleasant day for everyone. Those who are not involved in a romantic relationship might feel especially lonely on this day. Some may even feel outcast by the lack of holiday greetings. Though most teachers do their best to insure that every child receives valentines at the party in school, but what child hasn’t experienced the horror of not getting that one from the person whom they love? And sadly, there always seems to be one child whose valentine box is much lighter than the others, that child who is left out of the crowd who is a loner.

On the show “True Beauty” last night, the pretty people were put to the fitness test. But since the reality show is about finding more than the outer beauty of the contestants, there was another test about which they did not know. The fitness tests were run by teenagers, and it was the teenagers who would select the winners and the losers. The show’s judges wanted to see how the beauties would deal with the youth with whom they were working. During the fitness test, the contestants were friendly, laughing and joking about the tests. Some even gave the teenagers fitness advice.

As is typical of the show, there was another test. During a lunch break, one boy was set aside, apart from the crowd. The ‘loner’ was the test. Would the contestants talk to the loner or focus only on the ‘cool kids?’ Would they sit with him, ask him questions, give him a word of encouragement? Out of the five contestants left on the show, only one talked to the loner. She was very sweet, complimenting him on the work he had done that day and making sure that he had eaten some lunch. The other four went out of the way to avoid him, ignoring the loner as they rushed to sit and talk with the cool kids. One contestant even commented after the boy left, “He’s going to become a sniper one day.”

We see later in the show that the boy is really not an outsider. It was just an act to test the beauties. Four of the contestants failed the test. They did not recognize his loneliness. They did not care that he was set apart. They avoided him and ignored his needs. The young man’s friends, however, knew that he was a great guy. When the contestant predicted his future, one of the other boys looked horrified and disturbed by such an unkind remark. That contestant was one of the bottom two and he was the one who was sent home last night.

That young man was well-liked and part of the group, but the reality is that there are many people who are outsiders in our world today. They are lonely, set apart from society for many different reasons. As much as we would like to deny it, we still see illness as they did in the ancient days. We may not call the sick ‘unclean’ but we are afraid of many diseases and separate ourselves from those who suffer. We may be uninformed or just uncertain about what we can do. We may think that there is no way to help. So we avoid the situation, sometimes not even realizing that they are outcast. Sometimes we allow the social culture in which we live dictate the way we treat those who are different. We are blind to the possibilities, and unfortunately miss out on some awesome opportunities because we do not live in faith and trust.

There are two very different leper stories in today’s scriptures. In the first story, Naaman was leprous, but apparently did not suffer the same exile as the leper in Mark’s story. Naaman was a powerful man, in the counsel of the king. His skin disease may have been minor, perhaps in the earliest stages, and yet it was bad enough that the servant girl of his wife knew he was suffering. His people probably did not see him as ‘unclean.’ Naaman followed all the rules of his culture, seeking permission from his king and mercy from Israel’s king. Naaman asked the prophet for healing, not because he believed but because he expected obedience. Naaman expected the prophet to do something extraordinary. He was offended by Elisha’s distance and his ridiculous command.

In Mark’s story, the leper was a loner. By law the man was exiled to a place outside his village, separated from those he loved and everything he knew. He could not work, had to rely on the goodness of others for food. He may have had to shelter in rocks or in some make-shift hut. He was unclean, and as someone deemed unclean he had no power or rights within the community. The man did not follow the law; he approached Jesus. The leper knelt before Jesus, humbling himself before the One he knew could change his life. He begged not for healing but to be made clean again. The problem for this man was not that he was sick, but that he’d been cast out of the life of the community.

No matter how different their stories both men learned that healing comes with trust. By trusting the word of the God who can heal, both Naaman and the other leper were made clean. They were restored to wholeness.

Naaman had leprosy and the future of Syria was dependent on his leadership. They heard of a healer in Israel who could give Naaman a new start, but from the beginning this story from I Kings is filled with ridiculous expectations. The king of Syria, based on his understanding of how the world works, sent Naaman to the king of Israel. The king of Israel had no healing power and no control over the prophet who can heal. The king of Israel thought the king of Syria was just looking for a fight, so was frightened by the visit from Naaman. Everyone was looking at the situation from his own world view and established unrealistic expectations.

Elisha, the healer prophet, heard that the king of Israel had gone into mourning over this visit, so sent for Naaman. Naaman, an important man in his country, expected Elisha to meet him along the road. However, Elisha simply sent a message to Naaman to go wash in the river Jordan. This was yet another ridiculous expectation. Naaman thought he deserved a face to face meeting. He thought Elisha would touch him to provide the healing. He thought there would be some grand gesture. He was dumbfounded about the suggestion to bath in the Jordan, which even then was a dirty river. “Are not Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” he asked. He did not expect to be healed by taking a bath in a dirty river.

Naaman was ready to leave disappointed and angry, perhaps even with a thought of war on his mind. However, his servants suggested that perhaps it wasn’t the prophet’s expectations that were ridiculous, but instead his own. “My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?” His servants convinced him to try, and it did bring the healing he desired. He just needed to trust the words of the prophet sent by God to bring healing and peace.

I wonder how often our own response to God’s Word is the same as Naaman’s? As a matter of fact, I think most Christians find it difficult to believe that we are saved by only God’s grace. We feel like we need to do the big gesture. We think that the only real healing and salvation comes from some grand miracle or by some extraordinary event. Naaman took his servant’s advice and did as the prophet had spoken. After seven dunks in the Jordan River, Naaman was healed. The healing did not come by some supernatural incantation or magical water. It was God's Word that brought healing and all of Syria saw that the Lord is God.

That was the purpose of this story: to show Syria that the Lord is God. It is also the purpose of Mark’s story about a leper. In that case, we see that Jesus is Lord.

The Jews believed that someone who was unclean could make everyone unclean. This is why the lepers were sent away. They did not want to risk destroying the entire community with the sin that caused their disease. The man knew that his problem was not really the leprosy—it was that he’d been cast out of the community, left alone to die. While the healing would necessarily be the means by which Jesus made the man unclean, it was more important that he be restored to his community. “You can make me clean,” he told Jesus.

There is so much we do not know about this encounter. Who else was there? It is unlikely that Jesus was alone; after all, Jesus had already called a number of people into His ministry. In the previous story, Jesus asked His companions to accompany Him someplace else, into the other villages to preach and heal. Now, the leper was probably living on the outskirts of a village, having been exiled by his disease. Did Jesus manage to get away from the crowds without anyone tagging along?

All it would have taken was a word from Jesus and the leprosy would have left the man. But Jesus reached out to the man and touched him—an act that would have made Jesus unclean. However, we see here that Jesus’ perfection, purity and sinlessness is far greater than the man’s uncleanness. The leprosy left the man immediately and he was healed.

Social restoration would take more. Jesus told the man to go show himself to the priest. It was the priest who would allow the man back into the village, back into society. Jesus also sent the man to the priest to show them (his detractors) the power of God. Just as Naaman’s healing was to show Syria that there was a prophet in Israel, Jesus’ healings were signs to the priests that the Messiah had come.

This is not necessarily good news for those in the leadership. Jesus’ popularity was already gaining. People had heard about His healing power and authoritative teaching. He had to leave the last village because crowds were arriving with their sick and possessed. He healed many. He was changing lives. Crowds make leaders nervous because crowds are easily swayed. Crowds can be manipulated into a frenzy. It is important to squash rebellion quickly. Though the Jews were waiting anxiously for a Messiah, the leadership knew that any rebellion would be a detriment to their own positions and power. It would not take long for those men to begin plotting against Jesus.

Jesus was well aware of the power of His message and of the miracles He was doing. He told the leper not to tell anyone, not because He wanted to hide the miraculous work of God, but because He knew that if everything would be destroyed if it built too quickly and with the wrong purpose. The people sought Jesus not for the spirit but for the flesh. They wanted to be physically healed. If it meant listening to a sermon, they would, but they wanted healing. But the man did not listen to Jesus. He went throughout the countryside telling every one of Jesus’ mercy and power. He made it impossible for Jesus to enter into towns and villages. Jesus had to work on the outside.

But, we see in throughout the scriptures that it is for those who are outside that Jesus came. He came to heal the sick, to cast out the demons. He came for the poor and the imprisoned. He came for those whom we usually avoid and ignore. Like the contestants on the show, we would rather hang out with the cool kids, to be seen with the pretty people. Yet, it is in those relationships with the outcast that we really see the work of God, as He brings restoration, healing and peace.

For Naaman, a dirty, ordinary river was the source of his healing, but it was trusting in God that changed his life. The leper in the Gospel lesson also trusted in God for healing. Paul encourages us to run the race to receive the incorruptible crown. The race is not some extraordinary experience, but our daily walk with God, trusting in His mercy and living according to His will and purpose for our lives. Everything we have is God’s and He has given to us according to His grace. Naaman was healed to show the world that the only God is the God of Israel. The leper was healed to show the glory of God to His lost and wandering people. Whatever circumstances we face, we face them with faith so that God will be revealed to our world. We might not even realize what we are doing, for God shines brightest in the ordinary moments of our lives lived trusting in Him.

There is a goal for which we should set aside all things—eternal life in Christ Jesus. This is not a goal we can achieve by our own abilities, yet it is a goal for which we run in the hope and grace of God. There is something great about living our life for the Lord, for giving our life to His service. There is something amazing about always moving closer to the fulfillment of God’s promises to His people, our journey to the greatest goal that exists. This is a goal which we are called to share with others so that they too might run the race and receive the prize of faith and eternal life.

Unfortunately, we often let doubt, confusion and uncertainty drive our attitudes. As I watch the show “Bridezillas” I see women who are unable to find joy in their wedding because they are too caught up in everything that can go wrong. Many parents make bad choices because they forget to be thankful and they work too hard to be ‘right.’ They keep their nose in self-help books, trying to figure out how to be parents rather than enjoying their babies and letting their love drive their actions. We miss out on the joy of life because we set aside the reality that God has given us the gift of that moment and He intends for it to be good.

We tend to think that it is impossible to be joyful while also experiencing doubt, confusion and uncertainty, and yet during the most important moments of our lives these things run in tandem. A wedding day is joyful, but we can’t help but wonder what our marriage will be like. The birth of a baby is joyful, but we worry about whether or not we will be able to raise our kids well. Graduation and retirement are joyful moments in our lives, but we wonder what’s next.

The psalm was written for the dedication of the Temple. Though this was a time of joy for the people of Israel, it was also a frightening moment. The Temple gave the people a sense of stability, roots. Yet, they were still in danger. David and the Israelites had enemies who sought their destruction. They could not become complacent in their blessedness, for complacency is our greatest enemy. Complacency means that we take for granted our past and our God, we forget His grace and we think we can take credit for our blessings.

We may become sick or be exiled from our community for some other reason. We may be lonely, the only one in the class to not receive a valentine. We might have to deal with financial troubles, job loss, home foreclosure, broken relationships. We may face these troubles like Naaman, who had the power and authority to lead an army. Or we might be like the leper, who was powerless and alone. Either way, it is trust in God that will bring us peace and healing and wholeness.

Things will be well, of this we can be certain. Yet, it is not by our power or our might; it is by the grace of God. We will face difficult times, times of transition and uncertainty. Our tomorrows are not set in stone. However, when we remember that God walks with us and that He is the source of all the goodness in our life, we sing His praise and find His joy. We aren’t alone. And as we walk in trust, singing praise to God, the joy fills our spirit.

So, perhaps these lessons have little to do with what we celebrate on Valentine’s Day. However, we are reminded that it is a celebration of love and grace and relationships. Those simple valentines that we give to one another may not seem like very much, but they might mean the world to the person to whom it has been given. A sign of love, a reminder that we are not alone, can make a world of difference. In that simple, and ordinary, exchange God may just provide healing and peace.

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