Saturday, February 11, 2012

Sixth Sunday in Epiphany: Four Words

Readings for this Sunday:  2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45

If you had to describe Jesus or God in four words, what would those 4 words be?  Just 4 word, nouns and adjectives, not a sentence.  Take a minute and think.  If you’ve got a pen, write them on your bulletin.
How do you describe God?  That’s not a rhetorical question – this morning I want to do something that might be a little frightening for you.  I want to ask a question and give you all a chance to answer. 

Remember – this is not a test.  There is no right or wrong answers.  Nobody really has the definitive answer on who God is, and it would certainly take more than 4 words even if they did.

So, anyone, what words do you use to describe God?

I’ll share mine.  Of course, I did this little exercise on my own before I presented it to you.  I came up with the first couple of words pretty easy:  love, forgiving.  The third word came harder:  holy.  And I really had to think for the last word – I wanted to capture as much of who I believed Jesus was in only four words.  And I cheated a bit.  I wanted to say ‘God as one of us’ so I picked “Emmanuel” as my last word, which of course means “God with us” and reminds me of the incarnation – that God is one of us.
There are lots of ways of describing God.  And those words you came up with, especially the first one or two that came to mind, say a lot about what God means to you – how God speaks to your soul.  And it says a lot about your experiences with God.

Now, I’m going to read today’s gospel again, slowly.
And I want you to think about what it tells you about who Jesus is: 

A man with leprosy came and knelt in front of Jesus, begging to be healed. "If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean," he said.  Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched him. "I am willing," he said. "Be healed!"  Instantly the leprosy disappeared, and the man was healed.  Then Jesus sent him on his way with a stern warning:   "Don't tell anyone about this. Instead, go to the priest and let him examine you. Take along the offering required in the Law of Moses for those who have been healed of leprosy. This will be a public testimony that you have been cleansed."  But the man went and spread the word, proclaiming to everyone what had happened. As a result, large crowds soon surrounded Jesus, and he couldn't publicly enter a town anywhere. He had to stay out in the secluded places, but people from everywhere kept coming to him.[i]

 If you had to describe who Jesus is, using only four words, based on this story, what would those words be?  If we asked Mark, what do you think his four words would be?  Or perhaps the leper’s four words?

I found this little exercise on one of the websites I study when I’m preparing sermons.[ii]  The author suggested these words: touch, compassion, willing, lonely. 
Touch.  I remember hearing a story once a long time ago.  A young boy went to church with his grandmother.  When it came time to share the peace, he enthusiastically went around shaking hands and saying, “Peace of God with you.”  As the activity wore down and people began sitting down, the boy continued shaking as many hands as he could.  His grandmother had to go get him and return him to his seat.

The next time he visited his grandmother, he asked her, “I want to go to that place we went last time? Can we? Please?”  She thought back to his last visit, and couldn’t imagine what they did that was so special he’d be so excited about going again.  The boy told her, “Remember, that place where God shook my hand!”[iii]
God shakes our hand.  God touches us.  God took on our flesh, became one of us (my favorite images!).  Jesus walked this earth, touching blind eyes, putting fingers in deaf ears, a healing touch to the sick, a blessing touch to the children, even a ‘put your fingers in my wounds touch’ to a disciple who needed to physically feel Jesus’ resurrected body.  God still touches us.  The ELCA mission statement is “God’s work.  Our hands.”  God touches us through the hands and hearts of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  And God uses us to be Jesus’ hands and feet and heart to touch others.

Compassion – love.  Jesus had compassion on the leper.  He reached out and touched the untouchable because of his love.  We will discover through Mark’s gospel just how far Jesus will go to show God’s love.  In fact, we discover that it is only through the cross that we begin to know just who Jesus is and what it means for God to love us.
Willing.  I had to look – the NRSV, which we read before this sermon started, translates the Greek word use here as “choose.”  “If you choose, you can make me clean.”  If Jesus chooses?   So l looked at the Greek and the word is “thelo” or “will, want, desire.”   “Jesus, if you desire…if you want…if you are willing, you can make me clean.”  And, of course, Jesus is willing.  It is the desire of God’s very heart that we are made whole, restored to relationship.  That’s why Jesus came.

Lonely.  I had to think about this one for awhile.  It comes from the reversal of circumstances between the leper and Jesus.  At the beginning of the story, the leper is banished to the lonely places, the country, away from anyone whom he might infect with his disease.  Jesus is travelling from town to town proclaiming the kingdom of God.  At the end of his encounter with Jesus, the leper is restored to community, and goes back to his village, and tells everyone what Jesus did for him.  As a result, the crowds begin to mob Jesus, and he remains in the lonely places, where the crowds still seek him out. 
There was a cost to Jesus’ compassionate touch.  It changed his plans for his ministry.  Last week our reading ended with Jesus telling the disciples that they were going to proclaim the message in neighboring towns, but now he can’t go into the towns.  Still, Jesus was willing to heal regardless of the potential for altering his plans.  Throughout his ministry, Jesus makes choices that cost – forgiving sins which enrages the Pharisees, hanging out with sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes, challenging the scribes and Pharisees when their interpretation of God’s will for the people binds the people in needless rules, turning over the money tables in the temple, going to the cross.  There is risk to loving someone, and Jesus was willing to take that risk even if it meant those agonizing hours on the cross, cut off from God and everyone.

And that’s really what the gospel – the good news is all about.  Mark begins his gospel with “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God. By the end of what we call the first chapter we are presented with “the image of a God who is compassionate; reaches out to touch us in love; is so willing and eager to embrace us in healing, forgiveness, and grace; and eagerly embraces the pain and sin of the world out of love for us, for us and the whole wide world we live in.”[iv]

[i] Mark 1:40-45, New Living Translation
[ii] Dear Working Preacher, David Lose,
[iii] I cannot remember where I heard the story and it’s been so long that I’m not sure I have all the details right.  My apologies to the original teller if I’ve altered the story.  The point of the story remains the same; the boy experienced the church as the place where God shook his hand.
[iv] I couldn’t put it better than David Lose did (see above citation).  Thank you David!

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