Monday, January 16, 2012

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany Year B

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

II Kings 5: 1-14; Psalm 30; I Corinthians 9: 24-27; Mark 1: 40-45

Powerful men, large egos, a humiliating stigma, a self-effacing representative of God and, finally, a deeply moving conclusion in this story of Namaan. As a successful and respected military leader and favorite of his king, Naaman knows how and through whom to get big things done. He knows how to be successful in anything he wants, except finding a cure for his humiliating skin disease. Through a very unlikely channel, he hears how he can be healed; a captured slave girl who serves as a handmaid to his wife says there is a prophet in Samaria who can heal his leprosy. Relying on the gossip of a nameless slave girl, he makes arrangements as befits his status. He plans to go right to the top and gets a letter of introduction from his king to the king of Israel. He puts together a staggering fortune to present to anyone who can help him. But the king of Israel is confused and angry by Naaman's inquiry. Elisha hears of the situation and sends a message to the King to send Naaman to him. With his entire entourage, chariots, horses and vast fortune he arrives at the door of the humble prophet, who does not show even the usual courtesy of coming out to greet a guest but sends a message: Go wash in the Jordan seven times. Naaman is insulted and infuriated at this treatment and the instruction to go wash in a muddy little creek that cannot really even be called a river by the standards back home. But those who serve him plead: If you had been asked to do something difficult you would have taken the challenge with relish and not been insulted. Follow the instructions from the prophet, they argue. What a sight-- the proud military hero with every human honor known gets down off his high horse and washes in the muddy, joke-of-a-river, Jordan and "his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy."

The psalmist has experienced a kind of death, which, although not identified, made him feel like he was at the end of his rope. "I cried to you and you healed me" he witnesses in song. "You have tuned my dirge into a dance/undo my sackcloth and [instead] bind me with joy."

Using sports metaphors-- competitive running and boxing-- Paul compares his "training" to preach the gospel to an athlete obsessed with training to win at his competition, except his trophy is "imperishable."

Following the preceding episode (see last Sunday's reading), where Mark's emphasis was on Jesus' frenetically rushing about, healing more people than could even be counted, this episode focuses on one person with what was assumed to be an incurable disease. A leper approaches Jesus. In a provocative detail, Mark says Jesus has a strong, emotional reaction to the man and his situation. The man seems to challenge Jesus: " If you choose, you can heal me." Just as succinctly Jesus responds: "I do choose. Be made clean." Immediately he is cured. Jesus asks him not to tell anyone. But the man bolts out to tell anyone and everyone he meets. As a result, Jesus can no longer move around the cities and towns because the crowds are too large. So he goes out into the countryside where the crowds can come to him.

Right at the beginning of Mark's narrative, we are presented with these amazing pictures of Jesus rushing from house to house and town to town and finally gong into the countryside so he can perform exorcisms and heal as many people as feasible. Running himself ragged, trying to steal a few minutes for himself before everyone else gets up at daybreak, he responds to every person who comes to him with a need, excluding no one, and even going after those who might not have thought themselves eligible for healing. He even responds to strangers in the street. As his followers come to realize, Jesus is the complete image of the God their ancestors had known days long past-- persisting, inveigling, pursuing, individuals, likely and unlikely groups and finally, from the cross, the whole world.

In this encounter, Jesus is challenged by a man with leprosy, which was a situation a lot more complicated than just a medical condition! Throughout the scriptures, leprosy is a sign for Levitical "uncleanness," (see Leviticus, especially chapters 13 and 14). It causes fear and repulsion, it marks a person as morally repugnant. The only hope for a cure is from a holy person. But a leper presents a unique challenge. His mere existence tests the reach of God's mercy and the willingness and effectiveness of the holy person to whom the leper comes for help. "You can cure me, if you choose," the leper says to Jesus.

For those who see Jesus as God in the flesh, the choices Jesus made are still shocking. God-- in the flesh-- exhausting himself trying to touch as many people as possible, deserving and undeserving, grateful and ungrateful, friend and complete stranger. And when he is confronted by someone who bears the unmistakable stigma of religious, social and moral revulsion, without missing a beat, Jesus heals in one crisp sentence that it seems he cannot wait to get out of his mouth.

This incident fits into a bigger picture, too. At this point in the liturgical year, not that long after Christmas and just before beginning the pilgrimage of Lent that ends at the cross and the empty tomb, a reminder from Graham Ward, inspired by Hans Urs von Balthasar is pivotal. He writes: "All incarnation is kenotic [God's self-emptying to the whole world received as gift that began and sustains existence as we know it]; all Word becoming flesh, all acts of representation are kenotic." "The cross is not then an event that can be isolated and made the fulcrum for all theological understanding. Not only is the event of crucifixion, the death of God, part of a trajectory moving from incarnation to resurrection (and Pentecost.) It is the outworking of a sorterological economy inaugurated with creation...." (from Balthasar at the End of Modernity, Gardner, Moss, Quash and Ward, eds., pp 45-46)

But God's work in the world is fulfilled in the testimony of witnesses to that work for what it is and what it actually accomplishes in the lives of specific people. Mark makes it quite clear, despite the fact that Jesus asked the healed man not to tell anyone, he told anyone and everyone.  

In Acts of Religion, Jacques Derrida writes: "The act of faith demanded in bearing witness exceeds, through its structure, all intuition and all proof, all knowledge. ('I swear I am telling the truth, not necessarily the "objective truth," but the truth of what I believe to be the truth, I am telling you this truth, believe me, believe that I believe, there, where you will never be able to see nor know the irreplaceable yet universalizable , exemplary place from which I speak to you; perhaps my testimony is false, but I am sincere and in good faith, it is not false testimony.' " "That one is called upon to believe in testimony as in a miracle or an 'extraordinary story'-- that is what inscribes itself without hesitation in the very concept of bearing witness. And one should not be amazed to see examples of 'miracles' invading all the problematics of testimony...."
( pp 98-99) Testimony supersedes every other form of expression and rises or falls on its veracity in the lives of actual people who attest and those who believe.  Despite Jesus' request that the healed man tell no one, he darts around the countryside telling anyone he sees!

The witness completes the miracle!