Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

I promise this blog will not just be my sermons, but for now, here is my latest...

Feb. 12

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

My internship year was spent in a Minnesota town called Owatonna, just an hour south of Minneapolis. This town was doing pretty good compared to the dying towns around it. But I heard an interesting story one day, relating to the famed Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, a big town about 45 minutes away. Apparently way back when the Mayo brothers were scouting for sites to build their clinic, Owatonna was on their short list. But, as it turned out, Owatonna didn’t want any sort of clinic to be there. The reason? Too many sick people around. I mean, if you think about it, who wants to attract sick people to your town?
What Owatonna didn’t know at the time was how health care would truly become an industry. A world-class hospital like Mayo would attract more than just people who need medical attention. It attracted restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, housing developments, malls, conference centers, and more. It’s almost single-handedly keeping Rochester from becoming like some of the other dying towns around it. People come from all over the country come to the Mayo Clinic to be treated by some of the very best doctors of our day. If anyone can heal all your ills, Mayo can.

Unless it can’t.

Naaman, the mighty warrior, had access to the best doctors in his country that money and power can buy, but his embarrassing illness still wouldn’t go away. What is described here as leprosy could have been any number of skin diseases, but the fact remains – this famous and successful army general had something like a really bad, unsightly rash that could not be cured. Imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger had contracted a stubborn case of the chicken pox, and you might have something close to this situation.

The king that Naaman served would stop at nothing to get his favorite general healed, sending a small fortune to the king of Israel to sweeten the deal. And Naaman practically brought a parade with him when he arrived at Elisha’s house, loaded with gifts as well. It’s not too hard to translate this into modern times, with rehab centers reserved for the rich and famous, expensive cutting-edge treatments on a moment’s notice, and the smartest specialists on the planet on speed-dial.

But most people don’t have access to those kinds of resources. The person with leprosy in our Gospel story certainly didn’t. He wasn’t a prominent or powerful person by any means. He was just a regular guy with a terrible skin disease, which actually made him worse than a “nobody.” It made him “unclean,” which basically means not only is his skin ailment contagious, but also his disgrace as well.

Nobody wants this kind of person around, do they? So people like this man with leprosy tended to live on the outside, looking in – outside of cities and market places, outside places of worship, outside of any kind of communal life.

Who are these people today? I don’t think the list has changed that much in two thousand years. Then, like now, those who are “healthy” do not want to be around those who are “sick.” “They” shouldn’t have to be seen. They can all go to Mayo Clinic – that’s great – as long as they are not in our day to day lives. Our obsession with the appearance of health and vigor alienates those who do not measure up. So, too often, we end up treating them like non-people.

But our God is in the business of healing and wholeness. While the Mayo Clinics of his day failed the man with leprosy, Jesus did not. Though he was in the middle of a preaching tour, Jesus stopped and listened with compassion to the request of a sick and lonely man.
That day Jesus saw more than just a man with leprosy, a leper, an outcast, a disgrace. He was more than just a stubborn medical mystery to be cured. To Jesus, he had name and a face and a history of suffering a mile long. Jesus saw him. Jesus touched him. And Jesus made him whole again.

You see, most of us don’t wear our terminal illness on the outside. Most of us don’t go about our day to day activities with a medical chart around our necks. But if we did, they might say things like: lonely, consumed with worry for aging parents, miscarried, lost my job, failing grades in school, recently divorced, the list goes on. We could all use a trip to the Mayo Clinic of the mind, body, AND spirit.  But would they welcome us there? Would we find the help we need?

We think that this list becomes who we are. You may think that there is no way a person in your situation could ever find healing and wholeness. There is just too much pain to ever find healing, too much hurt, to many broken promises or relationships to even imagine it. The wound is just too gaping and fresh. The leprosy is just too widespread. We’re just not eligible, we say; we have a pre-existing condition. We tend to think we belong on the outside, looking in.

I don’t think the man with leprosy got that memo. What in the world was he thinking? To have the audacity to approach Jesus and ask for healing so boldly? Who does he think he is, Naaman or something?

Both men with leprosy got the healing that they sought after. How ironic is it, though, that the powerful Naaman never got a glimpse of the face of the prophet who healed him, but this poor nameless man got the attention and the healing touch of Jesus. But that’s how God tends to work – humbling the strong and mighty, seeing the invisible, hearing the silenced, and touching the contagious.

God is in the business of healing and wholeness. Rich or poor, American citizen or not, married or single or somewhere in between, God is not afraid of staring our sickness straight in the face. In this cosmic staring contest, God will never blink. God is willing to go places we don’t even want to go ourselves. While we are still afraid to ask, God says to us: “I DO CHOOSE!”

But this choosing and this healing may not look entirely like healing to us. Naaman and the other nameless man seem to have gotten off easy. Their healing involved a curing of their visible illness. Other types of healing take years for the wound to knit closed and for the scars to begin to fade, both inside and outside. And sometimes, healing looks like dying.
Let’s go back to another experience I had while I was on internship, this time, at a hospice center, not worlds away from the Mayo Clinic. Mary was a saint of the congregation, but I had only known her for a few months before her health took a turn for the worse. She was going fast – barely conscious, barely able to hear. But in her life she loved taking communion, and when she was still able to speak she would ask for it. So one morning, a few days before her death, I found myself in her hospice room, practically shouting the words of institution at her. Only for a moment did I think it strange and wonder what the staff might think. But I wanted her to hear as well as see the healing presence of Christ there in that room with us. And after, I sat with her in silence, holding her hand. She seemed to like that too.

Jesus said to this man in the beginnings of his ministry, “I do choose.” And Jesus said it again with his death on the cross, “I do choose.” And again three days later, when the stone rolled away, revealing an empty tomb, “I do choose.”

God is in the business of healing and wholeness. God will never overcharge you or turn you away. God has chosen, and he has chosen you. So come to him and be made clean. Amen. 

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