A tale of two reversals
As always, a small disclaimer before you read this sermon. These words are meant to be spoken, so the rules of written grammar are not followed – yet I still trust it can be ‘heard’ again as written.
For the first seven years of my pastoral role in the church, I worked primarily with youth and young adults. A real privilege to be engaged and in dialogue with families and young people on their way through many changes. As I searched for a theme to pull together the passages we heard from Kings and Mark – my mind landed on the idea of ‘counting the costs of being a healing presence in the life of another’. I immediately thought back to a young man who called me up one day and asked me to meet up for a conversation. There was something he needed to talk about. This young man was and is still one of the most earnest Christians I know. We had enjoyed many great discussions about the bible, church, and theology, he almost thought of nothing else. He was exhausting to be around. But this visit was different, as we walked around the neighborhood there was no talk between us – he tried to get words out, but the sentences dropped of into silence – over and again. Finally it was: Jonathan, I have not told anyone about this before, but I have been feeling an attraction to other men, and I don’t know what to do. Before I could say anything, he dove into what he thought the bible had to say on the subject, and that what he was feeling was not what God accepted. Right, Jonathan, that’s what the bible says, right? I didn’t say yes, only that that was one point of view. Upon which the conversation suddenly became hostile, contentious, or maybe just sad. His desire to live a biblical life and his trust that a pastor would affirm his take on the bible, well…he felt let down. Disappointed. Like he came to the wrong person. That was hard for me, I have no interest in disappointing people, making folks angry, undermining their faith, or losing friends. But I felt equally strongly that to be a healing presence with this young man, was a commitment to open up the conversation, not narrow it down. It cost a friendship, at least for the first while – and I know he has gone on to become one of the most articulate young queer theologians I know, and his writing on the unaddressed violence of heteronormativity in the church (especially its impact on youth and adolescents) is mature beyond his years. He is still one of the most earnest Christians I know.
We walk upon the earth and interact with people every day who long to be well again. The earth groans and people are asking to be healed and made clean. I would like to say to you all that if you seek to have God’s healing, work through you in the lives of others, that you will likely not experience vast benefits, glory, prestige and satisfaction – sure we may know something of a peace when we offer ourselves to the ministry of healing and see examples of people’s lives being turned around – but the texts from today bring a focus on considering the costs of being involved in healing ministry, and warn against a hard focus on benefits that come back to those involved in healing ministry.
It order to get at the fullness of this theme in 2 Kings – we have to expand the pericope to include all of Chapter 5.
15Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” 16But he said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” He urged him to accept, but he refused. 17Then Naaman said, “If not, please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord. 18But may the Lord pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count.” 19He said to him, “Go in peace.” But when Naaman had gone from him a short distance, 20Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, thought, “My master has let that Aramean Naaman off too lightly by not accepting from him what he offered. As the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something out of him.” 21So Gehazi went after Naaman. When Naaman saw someone running after him, he jumped down from the chariot to meet him and said, “Is everything all right?” 22He replied, “Yes, but my master has sent me to say, ‘Two members of a company of prophets have just come to me from the hill country of Ephraim; please give them a talent of silver and two changes of clothing.’” 23Naaman said, “Please accept two talents.” He urged him, and tied up two talents of silver in two bags, with two changes of clothing, and gave them to two of his servants, who carried them in front of Gehazi. 24When he came to the citadel, he took the bags from them, and stored them inside; he dismissed the men, and they left. 25He went in and stood before his master; and Elisha said to him, “Where have you been, Gehazi?” He answered, “Your servant has not gone anywhere at all.” 26But he said to him, “Did I not go with you in spirit when someone left his chariot to meet you? Is this a time to accept money and to accept clothing, olive orchards and vineyards, sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves? 27Therefore the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you, and to your descendants forever.” So he left his presence leprous, as white as snow.
So we have Gehazi and Elisha – Gehazi focused on the selfish benefit of payment, to the detriment of his relationship to Elisha and to his health – cost he had not counted before leaping forward – contrasted to Elisha’s focus on the healing that YHWH longs to bring to all people, not just Israel. We have some idea that Jesus knew and felt some connection to the story of Elisha and Naaman, because in Luke 4 – when Jesus feels like he is under pressure to heal people in his hometown, he speaks of Elisha who could have focused on the many people needing healing in Israel, but instead he healed Naaman, the Syrian, a foreigner, and enemy of the state – and brought the potential of conflict between the two nations to a non-violent end. This enraged the folks in his hometown, such that they pushed Jesus to the edge of a cliff and sought to throw him to his death. The listeners would have know the back story of Gehazi and the outcome visited to him as a result of his pursuit of God’s blessing for himself. Jesus clearly aligned his healing ministry, which was to be carried to all people, with the ancient character of Elisha in 2 Kings. It cost him.
As does his decision to heal the man with leprosy in Mark 1. Early on in his ministry of teaching and healing as described in Mark – Jesus is going into towns throughout Galilee, into the synagogues, until he is accosted by this ill man, asking to be made clean. The scripture we heard today says Jesus was moved with compassion, but a good number of ancient manuscripts read that he was moved with anger. Either way, Jesus extends a hand of healing, knowing the risks, knowing the real costs. Maybe to protect his own interests, or maybe not, Jesus tells the man to keep it a secret and go the the temple and offer the required offerings for being reinstated in the community as a healed man. If the man would have done this, Jesus could have carried on as he planned. But in ignoring Jesus and spreading the word of what happened, the crowds gathered, and Jesus could no longer go publicly into a town anywhere. It reads that he had to stay out in the secluded places. Jesus, who was on track to take his message into the heart of the establishment, was relegated to the backwater places. The cost to Jesus, was to trade places with the man with leprosy, who would have been the one residing in those secluded places as an ill man, but who now ran free in the town and amongst his people. Gehazi also traded places with Naaman, the result of his desire to benefit from God’s work in the life of another. Healing folks may not be all Jesus wanted to bring in his ministry, but people needed him to do just that and they were going to find him wherever he was. The cost of having to relocate his ministry was worth it.
Now what about us? Where do we find ourselves in these stories? I have always appreciated the Vision: Healing and Hope statement which says: “God calls us, to be followers of Christ, and by the power of God’s Spirit. To grow as bodies of grace joy and peace, so that God’s healing and hope might flow through us to the world.” I have appreciated it mostly because it is an affirmation of the healing ministry we all participate in, both as recipients and bearers of healing. As long as there are people, animals, plants and an earth – we are in relationship with something living, something that heals and needs healing. We are at all times both/and.
In Jesus we are reminded that God is sensitive to the needs and the suffering of people. Craig Rennebohm, who has been such an important teacher on the topic on engaging suffering in others, talks about sensitivity, our senses being a gift at the core of companionship, and by extension a core attribute of God. When we come near someone who is in pain, overwhelmed with sorrow, experiencing homelessness, sick from chronic pain – our eyes see the pain and isolation, our ears hear their cry or lament, we take in the smell of deprivation and taste in our own mouths another’s hunger and thirst. Our bodies and its senses are the first line of engagement, which our minds quickly try to manage with phrases like: It’s not my problem. They did it to themselves. I have nothing to offer. But if our mind will allow our senses and bodies to lead, we are open to the place described by Phil Carrasco to me one day, the place of being pricked by compassion. In Jesus, God was pricked with compassion, and when asked if he was willing to heal, God said yes – I am willing.
So Jesus has been pricked with compassion, or anger or pity, and he reaches out to touch the hurting person. David Lose writes “that there is an intimacy to touch that we can take for granted. Ask the elderly, the ill, the depressed, or the isolated just how rare and beautiful human touch is and you may be surprised (or maybe just reminded) that there are few gestures as profound, loving, as healing touch. Jesus could have healed with a word, with a gesture, or with a command, but instead Jesus reaches out to touch him – one of the ways that God’s healing can flow through us to the world. Here, too, is God’s character and example is revealed,” as we discover a God so eager to be in relationship with us that God takes on our form and flesh, so that God can reach out to anoint, baptize, heal, and touch the world, and you, and me, in love.
And lastly, God in Jesus seeks to heal and embody the hope for the world, while considering of the cost, the loss, the isolation, the opposition, the inconvenience…to the benefit not of self, but for the healing of earth and humanity. The possibilities for discernment are far reaching…
-moving from a 2 car household to 1, at a cost to mobility and freedom, but a benefit to the earth. Or moving from 1 car to none…
-giving more away and keeping less for ourselves, being missional with resources fro the healing of people and the earth…or getting involved with your time.
-speaking truth in a friendship or marriage, at risk of conflict, but open up the possibility for healing…
I don’t need to line it out for you all, you know what it has been to be pricked and have wrestled and are wrestling with the implications of the many calls from God to be a vessel of healing and hope. Just know that you are in good company in this space, and in real fine company – as God in Jesus faced these very same questions. I am personally grateful to inhabit this space with you all, and look forward to our collective ministry of healing – lived out in many unique and intentional ways. Shalom