A sermon preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 12 February, 2012
Proper 6, Lectionary Year B, 2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Mark 1:40-45
Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” (Mark 1:41)
Our readings from scripture today, especially from 2 Kings 5 and Mark 1 (and, I suppose, Psalm 30), invite us to think about healing, which is especially significant given how many of you in our small chapel community work or have worked in the profession of nursing. It’s also a happy coincidence since our chapel cycle of prayer this morning remembers our Canadian Forces base surgeons finishing and starting tours here, and asks for skill and care for them as they treat their patients.
There’s nothing wrong with praying for healing. I don’t know of a church that doesn’t include intentions for the sick and for the suffering in its Prayers of the People. We pray for our loved ones and friends when they go into hospital or face surgery, and I doubt that any of us here, if we were sick, would not feel comforted knowing that we were being upheld in the prayers of faithful people.
If we are at all honest, we will admit that when we pray for healing, we don’t always pray with confidence. We may ask fervently, especially when it is for ourself or for a loved one (and are there any prayers more fervent than prayers for our sick children?), but we ask with the knowledge that not all prayers for healing are answered. For some, the denial of prayers for healing can be a faith-shattering experience.
As a mentor of mine said once, a preacher should avoid theological explanations for the existence of evil and the perceived inadequacies of God. Trying to explain these things is a mug’s game. As a priest, I’ve seen the children of parishioners come back from seemingly fatal injuries, and I’ve seen others taken away without warning, and I could never say how the hand of God worked in any of these situations.
If our expectations of God are like the expectations of Canadians for their health care system (quality health care available at all times for all people), then God will always prove disatisfactory. In any case, I am not sure that today’s readings have any sympathy for those expectations. The story or Elisha and Namaan in 2 Kings is really about the superiority of Israel’s God to those of its militarily powerful neighbours, while Jesus does not cure the leper in order to build up his practice as a healer. Rather, in telling the leper to go “and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them” seems intended to establish Jesus’ authority as the Messiah who comes to fulfil the law and prophets.
What is most interesting about these two stories, I think, is how God’s power is shown to work. In the case of Namaan, a powerful general, the Patton or a Stormin’ Norman Schwartzkopf of his day, has to submit to the advice of a servant, present himself to the prophet of a God he does not serve, and be healed by that God. Namaan’s brand of worldly power is shown as nothing compared to God’s power. Yet in the second story, the Son of God, who has power over demons, ends up swapping places with the outcast leper. At the end of the story, the leper is made whole and returned to his community whereas Jesus becomes the outsider because of his fame,to the point where he “could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country”.
Luther Seminary professor Sarah Henrich is right, I think, to see a shadow of the cross in the exchange of positions between Jesus and the leper. She writes that “this exchange of realities between Jesus and the man whom he has healed … points long-range to the role that Jesus is willing to take for humanity itself, giving up his life of freedom for the loneliness of the one isolated on Golgotha, whose “willingness” is a proclamation in its own right. He will use the language of “willing” in 14:36, exchanging his own desires for what the Father “wills.”
Henrich’s point is that Jesus mission is to go to the cross for humanity’s sake to cure us all of sin and death. The healings and miracles done along the way to that goal are signs and indicators of Jesus’ power and purpose, not goals in and of themselves. In going to the lonely place of Golgotha and death, Jesus by his cross-stretched arms embraces the whole of humanity’s sickness: all of our cruelty, selfishness, all the deaths we inflict and all the deaths we suffer. All of these things are taken on by Christ, and in his unlooked for resurrection we have the first sign that God will make good on his intention to banish these things from his creation.
The widespread loss of faith in the promise and purpose of God by our contemporaries manifests itself in our turning to medicine to save us. Poll after poll in Canada and its provinces shows that health care is the number one concern of Canadians, far eclipsing issues like foreign aid. Our fixation on health care and on related issues such as longevity, a subject that seems much in the media of late, underscores a point that the theologian Stanley Hauerwas likes to say. According to Hauerwas, we want to live as long as possible, until the point where we entrust ourselves to medicine so that we die painlessly, in our sleep, and not knowing we are dying at all, thus denying the reality of death. At the same time, the inequitable consumption of health care resources, from analgesics to doctors, in the developed world leads to an increase in the realities we try to ignore, death and suffering, in the developing world.
Fortunately, there are many examples around us of those who practice the healing arts in ways that we might call Christ like, meaning that they do so not for gain and often at great cost to themselves. Last week the news from Syria, where Namaan’s successors have been unleashed, told of medical students who have left school to work in field hospitals, or of those who risk death to bring medicines into blockaded and shelled cities such as Homs. These examples raise the interesting question of whether the benefit of the healing arts is not only the eradication of disease and suffering but the restoration and reclamation of community. After all, the point of today’s gospel is not only that the leper was healed, but that the price paid by Jesus to do so also restored the man to his community.
Returning to Hauerwas, we might ask ourselves, what benefits might we gain if we were willing to see medicine more honestly, not as the means to deny our own death and suffering, but as the means to restore community? If the developed world were to divert some of the health care money we spend on ourselves to others at home and abroad, would the benefits realized in a wider vision of the human community outweigh the sacrifices we might bear? And would not that sacrifice be true to the spirit of today’s gospel?