Sixth Sunday After Epiphany B
Preached at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Muskegon, MI, while on Internship.
2 Kings 5:1-14
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
There is one day in seminary that students dread more than any other day. One day whose very name spawns laments of sorrow and despair.
No, I am not talking about the first day of 8:00 am Systematic Theology, although it is my firm belief that Systematics should never be attempted before two full nutritious meals have been consumed on that day.
No, the day I am talking about is… Boundaries Training. When Mr. Beaver in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” claimed that bath day was “the worst day of the year”, he clearly had not experienced the droll of Boundaries Training. We are required to sit in a lecture hall all day (except for a small lunch break) and listen to someone lecture us about proper boundaries in the work place. Can anything be more boring?
Now don’t get me wrong—with all of the scandals popping up in churches all around the world, boundaries are very, very important. We would not be able to function as a society without proper boundaries, and frankly, not enough people understand what those are.
But sometimes, I wonder if maybe we don’t go too far with this boundaries stuff. Are we being trained to cut ourselves off from our neighbor? And worse, are we being trained to do so because we are afraid of what our neighbor might think? What if he doesn’t like hugs? What if she thinks I’m flirting with her? What if they misinterpret this action or this word and I get in trouble for it? We do live in the age of the frivolous lawsuit, and it only takes one claim, truthful or not, to ruin someone. So instead of risking personal interaction, we shut ourselves out of everything and everyone, because that’s the only way we can be truly be “safe”. And we are by no means the first people to do this.
Take our Gospel reading today, for instance. The man who approaches Jesus is a leper, someone who has an unknown skin disease that people assumed was highly contagious. And they didn’t know how to cure it. Therefore, he was ostracized from his home and community and forced to live out in the wilderness. He may have been lucky to find a leper colony where he could live with other lepers, but it wouldn’t be the same. He was shunned by family and friends because of his condition. Unless he was healed by a divine miracle, he would have to live and die alone, forgotten, and unloved.
When I read about this man, I can’t help but remember an encounter—or rather, an un-encounter—with a man in Jackson, MS while I was working as a chaplain over the summer at the VA Medical Center.
This gentleman had TB, tuberculosis, a highly contagious and possibly fatal disease spread through the air. For most of the day he was confined to his negative-pressure room and allowed no visitors. He was allowed to take a short walk around the floor if he wore a mask that completely filtered his breathing.
I remember not being allowed to visit him because I was only there for three months and was not going to be fitted for one of the serious masks needed to enter the room. But one of my fellow chaplains managed to catch him while he was taking his daily walk and have a long conversation with him.
She told us about that conversation on the following day. About how he felt so isolated and alone. About how no one came to visit him because of his disease. It was a boundary that he and other people could not cross.
Sometimes, our boundaries are necessary. But sometimes, our boundaries can make for a very lonely world. This man needed not only medical healing for his condition, but healing of the boundaries that kept him separate from the rest of the world.
Our stories today about healing all emphasize one important truth—in order for healing to take place, boundaries have to be crossed. Naaman, the Aramean in our first reading, had to cross a physical boundary from his homeland of Aram to the enemy nation of Israel. He had to cross a boundary from being proud to being humble and accept Elisha’s instructions in order to be healed. And he had to cross a boundary from the worship of Rimmon to the worship of the God of Israel to be fully whole.
In the Gospel reading, the leper had to cross a boundary in approaching Jesus in the first place. He was not allowed to do that and was taking quite a risk. And Jesus had to cross a boundary when he, moved with pity, reached out and touched the man. He could have easily healed the man from a distance and sent him on his way, like he does with the ten lepers in another story. But not in this one. In this one, he touches the man. And for me, that makes all the difference.
Healing is not only about medicine. Healing is about being whole again. The ELCA’s wellness wheel, which we demonstrated at our last annual meeting, doesn’t just stop at physical well-being—it includes emotional, spiritual, financial, intellectual, and social well-being. And in order to be fully healed, and fully whole, we need to cross some boundaries.
Maybe that means going to the hospital to see someone, even though hospitals give you the creeps. Maybe it means spending a little extra time with a person with dementia, even though the things they say make no sense and can in fact be a little mean. Maybe it means taking the plunge and volunteering for Supper House or Family Promise, even though “those people” make you uncomfortable. Maybe it means volunteering with the Sunday school classes, even though you don’t know many of the kids. If we are going to effect healing in the world, we are going to need to go where there is brokenness. A carpenter can’t build a shelter from afar. A doctor can’t give a vaccination over the internet.
Ultimately, healing is an act of love. It was love that moved Jesus to stretch out his hand and touched the leper. Without love, medicine is just medicine. Advice is just advice. Counseling is just counseling. It may humble us and knock us down a few notches. In fact, it probably will. We could use that. But taking that risk, crossing that boundary, letting love help us heal. I think it’s worth it.
And more importantly, so do the people who are healed.