Tuesday, February 14, 2012

He Didn't Even Ask

Scripture for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany includes II Kings 5:1-14; I Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45

Every November for the past I-don’t-know-how-many years, I’ve gone to my primary care physician for a physical. And like clockwork, he would ask me what I was doing for exercise. This moment wouldn’t be quite as awkward as the prostate exam, but close, because I would usually have little to report.

And it wasn’t as if he kept raising the bar higher, from year to year. “Even walking briskly for a half hour a day would make a difference,” was pretty much what he would urge.

Well, this past November, he didn’t ask. He didn’t even ask. At the moment, I welcomed what I took to be his oversight, relieved that I could skip that moment of shame. But as time went by, I would occasionally return to that puzzling moment when…he didn’t even ask.

At some point, this registered as an uh-oh moment. That’s something like an Aha moment. Awareness is breaking through. But while an Aha moment often stirs surprise and excitement, an uh-oh moment can seem somehow ominous.

So I resolved to start walking as many times a week as I can manage. This resolve happened to coincide with the new year, but it wasn’t a typical new year’s resolution. This one had, well, the added impetus of one simple fact: he hadn’t even asked. If my own doctor had given up, it was time for me to act.

It’s not much, lacing up at the Field House and walking a brisk couple of miles on the most forgiving walking surface I’ve ever felt. Not much, compared to the athletes who are working out, practicing, and competing in the great open center of the Field House as I hoof along around the perimeter, and around, and around. Not much, compared to what some people do by way of regular work-outs, like my wife, who alternates between a morning routine of kickboxing and an evening routine of spinning.

Yes, not even that had motivated me to get out there and do something. Not until… he didn’t even ask.

Now, I tell you this story in part to report that I have a whole six weeks of experience to go on, as I relate to St. Paul’s metaphor of gymnasium events requiring self-discipline. I’m hardly punishing or enslaving my body, those four days a week that I walk (I will even confess that I have lost my scruples and drive down to Spring Street, thereby losing for all time my license to criticize Williams students who do the same) but I do get a small sense of Paul’s extreme language at around the 17th lap, definitely the 18th, especially as I push my pace. The thing is, with the exception of finishing up before the public walking period is over, there’s no race—and every time, I win a sensation of well-being that has me pretty well hooked.

In our first lesson, we met a man who was surprised by how easy his course of treatment would be. Who knows how long Naaman the Syrian army commander had suffered not just the physical symptoms of leprosy, but the social consequences of it too. It’s an isolating disease. Society shuns the leper. Maybe it was somewhat different for a hardened mighty warrior: perhaps just his presence already intimidated people and caused them to keep a healthy distance. Still, this was a man at the pinnacle of power, in high favor with his king, lacking nothing… except his health, which we know is nearly everything.

Notice who it is in his story who possesses the knowledge he needs: a young slave girl whom the Syrians had captured in a raid on their enemies in the land of Israel. He’s at the top of the power system, she’s at the bottom. He’s at the center, she’s at the far edge. But in this story of illness and healing, everything is turned on its head: Naaman is kept at a distance by everyone, and this little girl who is treated like property holds the saving knowledge that will bless her master with healing.

“I know someone in Israel who can make him whole,” she reports to her mistress, Mrs. Naaman, telling her about the prophet Elisha. There follows a comic horse opera, as the King of Syria sends a mule team of costly gifts to persuade the King of Israel to arrange for Naaman’s healing. That request terrifies Israel’s king, who is positive his enemy is going to declare war the moment he hears that the health care system in Israel is no better than the one in Syria.

“Not so!,” declares Elisha, the man of God who claims he knows just what to do for Naaman. “Send him to me.”

It’s then that Naaman has an uh-oh moment. Having heard of Elisha, the great commander of the Syrian army expected this powerful prophet of Israel’s God to do something dramatic, like make an impressive appearance, loudly invoke God’s intervention, and wave his hand over Naaman’s diseased body. But no. Elisha did none of those things. He didn’t show any such interest, didn’t have an engaging bedside manner, didn’t require Naaman to do this and that and the other… He just told him to go and wash in the Jordan River seven times.

“We have perfectly fine rivers in Syria,” grumbled Naaman. “I could have stayed home and washed in them,” he sputtered.

And we are again at a moment in his story when this high and mighty man is rescued by his servants. “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, like spend all your money, or give up your career, or never go home again, wouldn’t you have done it for the sake of your health? Instead, you’re being asked to let go, to let go of your need for dramatic victories and just bathe yourself in the present moment… seven times, in the Jordan River that’s right nearby. Once each day of the week, immerse yourself in new life, emerge on the seventh day in Sabbath rest and wholeness of life. Just do it, for heaven’s sake!”

Another leper visits us today, in the Gospel. And he, too, must have been surprised at how little was asked of him.

In the Middle East of the first century, society had elaborate and rigid rules for the shunning of lepers. For starters, you never touched one (from fear of contagion, but it went beyond that), making what Jesus does so compelling: the very first response he makes, before he says a word, is to break the taboo, stretch out his hand, and touch this man who has come to him for healing.

“If you choose, you can make me clean.” It has already happened through that touch, restoring him to full human community, but Jesus the Word of God uses words to seal this renewal of life: “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Jesus doesn’t ask anything of him before this stunning change of life. He doesn’t ask him anything, except to be still and say nothing to anyone; then Jesus directs him, “Show yourself to the priest and there in the temple offer what custom requires for a leper to be certified as healed and restored to the community.” I can’t help wondering if the priest had ever seen the healing of a leper. Wouldn’t he be speechless at this display of dramatic healing?

But it doesn’t go quite the way Jesus intended. The man, hungry for human contact, tells everyone he meets what God has done for him; and what resulted was a swelling of the crowd seeking that revolutionary touch of Jesus.

He didn’t ask the fellow to spread the word. He just didn’t ask. I once heard a preacher ask if this wasn’t reverse psychology: Have we had it wrong, all these years? Instead of urging our members to tell their friends what God is doing in their lives, should we insist that they say nothing to anyone?

This approach seems to have worked for my doctor and me.

Reverse psychology or not, notice the reversals that God does provide. While the leper moves from isolation into community, Jesus moves from the town out to the far country, to avoid the distraction of those fresh crowds intent on finding a wonder-worker whose gracious power they would not understand, because he comes among us as one who serves. Like the servant girl who has saving knowledge, and the man-servants who speak the truth, Jesus changes people with few words and simple humble touch.

What speaks to me from these stories is how each presents a man who needed a new lease on life, but was stuck and had to be helped to reach for it. In both cases, it is God who acts to help them, from right within their world. For Naaman, this divine leverage comes by the simple faith-sharing of a Jewish slave girl. For the Gospel’s leper, it is a poor itinerant preacher whose passing through the neighborhood brought the man face to face with something he may have never met before, pure unconditional compassion.

While it seems that little was asked of either man, one thing was: that each step out of the familiar predictable daily rut and into the new, the unfamiliar, the unpredictable. Type-A Naaman, dependent on adrenalin, the rush of combat, the use of force and intimidation, had to submit, to let himself go across the border into his enemy’s homeland where, to his surprise, he was assigned to (more or les) a week of spa treatment. But he had to choose to walk this new path.

For the Gospel’s leper, it was probably a leper colony that he was used to. Who can say what that was like, but we can assume it offered safety anad a sheltering rhythm of daily life, and this man depended on it. Now, nothing could prevent him from enjoying a much fuller life—but he had to choose to let go of the old life, and can we imagine the changes he had to embrace?

Each man had to be willing to take a new step, then another, and another—on into new life. Such will is what is required of us, whatever new lease on life we need to reach for. Without that will, how can we recognize the leveraging grace of God when it moves to get us unstuck and opens to us that new life?

There and then is the prize to be won.

Lent begins, a week from Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. Welcome a season of spring training to recognize the actions of God.