A Reading from the Second Book of Kings (5:1-19)
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. Then 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.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” He urged him to accept, but he refused. Then 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. But 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.” He said to him, “Go in peace.”
1 I will exalt you, O Lord, because you have lifted me up *
and have not let my enemies triumph over me.
2 O Lord my God, I cried out to you, *
and you restored me to health.
3 You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; *
you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.
4 Sing to the Lord, you servants of his; *
give thanks for the remembrance of his holiness.
5 For his wrath endures but the twinkling of an eye, *
his favor for a lifetime.
6 Weeping may spend the night, *
but joy comes in the morning.
7 While I felt secure, I said,
“I shall never be disturbed. *
You, Lord, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains.”
8 Then you hid your face, *
and I was filled with fear.
9 I cried to you, O Lord; *
I pleaded with the Lord, saying,
10 “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? *
will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?
11 Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me;*
O Lord, be my helper.”
12 You have turned my wailing into dancing; *
you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.
13 Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; *
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.
A Reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (9:24-27)
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark (1:40-45)
A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
God loves everybody. What a nice statement! It makes you feel good just to say it.
God loves everybody. It is an affirmation with which most Christians would agree, although there are, of course, a few extreme groups who seem obsessed with God allegedly hating certain group of people. It’s interesting that these people’s “god” always seems to hate the same folks that they themselves hate. They apparently worship a different God from the one that Jesus worshipped. They apparently worship the “god” they see in the mirror, and it’s not a pretty sight.
God loves everybody. We are probably willing to buy into that, but are we willing to take it a step further? As the people of God, are we willing to assert that we love everybody? That is a lot “iffier”: a lot tougher to say, at least with any conviction.
In theory, I suppose we do, in the abstract. But, when it comes down to particular groups of people or to individuals, it is a lot harder to practice genuine love: love and acceptance in action. Our attitude reminds me of one of the classic “Peanuts” comics, in which Charles Schultz has Linus insist: “I do love mankind – it’s people I can’t stand!” We are willing to assert that, at least in theory, we love humankind. But when it comes to particular individuals, we start making exceptions. We start excluding people from our love.
Whom do we exclude? Well, if we were among those living in Israel in the ninth century BCE, I would bet that we would want to exclude from our love Naaman, the Syrian commander, about whom we heard in today‘s first reading. The story tells us that Naaman was “a great man and in high favor with his master.” Why? Because Naaman had led the army of Syria to victory over Israel. Wait a minute! Time out! This man was the commander of an enemy army: an enemy army that defeated our army, killing and wounding our fighting men and subjecting our country to the power of his foreign king? Why would we ever love him?
If we were living in Israel at that time, we probably wouldn’t. But God did. In this story, God works through the prophet Elisha to heal this enemy of Israel: to rid him of his leprosy and make him whole again. God did so even in spite of Naaman’s arrogance and his illusions of superiority. This account of God’s universal love must have been tough for its original audience to buy — and it apparently was not an “easy sell” nine hundred years later, either.
In the fourth chapter of the gospel according to Luke, we are told that Jesus had come back to his hometown of Nazareth. He was preaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. At first, things seemed to be going fairly well. But when he began to speak about God’s love and concern for those who were not Jews, for those who were not part of their people, they started to turn on him. And when he pointed out that “There were… many lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian,” they drove him out to the edge of town and tried to throw him off a cliff. Breaking commonly held, unwritten rules about whom you are supposed to love and whom you are not supposed to love has often been met with hatred and violence. Witness the martyrs of our own Civil Rights Movement.
The citizens of Israel, living in the time of the prophet Elisha, would most likely have excluded from their love and concern Naaman, the Syrian general. The citizens of Nazareth, living in the time of Jesus, clearly wanted to exclude the non-Jews, the foreigners of their time. So whom do we want to exclude?
That is not a question that we like to answer. We prefer to think of ourselves as better than that, as more enlightened than that, as more open than that. So, let’s try a different approach.
Why do we exclude people? Isn’t it because we are afraid of them? Sometimes, that fear is justified. There are some very scary people in the world, and we have to protect ourselves and the rest of society as well. But usually, that is not the case.
So why do we usually exclude certain people and group of people? Isn’t it usually because they seem to be different from us and we simply don’t know them? We all tend to fear the unknown. Conversely, when we come to know people who seem to be different from us, when we come to see all that we share in common with each other, our fears tend to lessen, and we no longer feel the strong urge to exclude them.
At one time in this country, when great influxes of immigrants from places such as Ireland, Italy and Germany were arriving and quickly swelling the population of some of our cities, they were met with fear and with discrimination and with exclusion from the lives of those who had already lived there. It was only when people dared to get to know one another on a personal basis that the fears subsided and the exclusions lessened along with them.
At the time that the Civil Rights Movement was beginning, black and white citizens tended to keep their contacts with each other at a minimum. It was only when they began to live and work together that the mutual fears began to lessen and the walls that separated them from each other began to come down.
I have long believed that the main reason that this parish was affected less than many others by the church’s changing attitudes toward people who are gay and lesbian is because St. Mark’s has, for years, had people who are gay or lesbian growing up in the parish or being part of the church’s extended family. It is much harder to exclude others when they are not just part of “those people”: when they have a name and a face and are part of our common life.
Whenever we realize that there are still people whom we tend to exclude from our lives, we have an ideal example of how to begin to address that issue. Today’s gospel says that Jesus “stretched out his hand and touched” the man with leprosy. That was a gutsy move. By touching him, Jesus risked being contaminated with the man’s ritual uncleanness. But notice that that was not what happened. The man’s ritual uncleanness did not pass from the man to Jesus; instead the healing power of God passed from Jesus to the man, and both of them were blessed. The two of them together experienced the life and love of God.
I suggest to you that it is the same with us. When we are willing to recognize the ways that we, or at least part of our society, has excluded from its life certain individuals or groups of people, not because they pose an actual threat, but simply because they are unknown, because they appear to be different in some way, and when we dare to stretch out our hands, whether physically or metaphorically, and touch them, then we just may find that the healing power of God passes from us to them, and from them to us, and both of us together will come to know that we have been truly blessed, that in each other we have received anew the life and love of our one God.