February 12, 2012

     ON TAKING A BATH SOMETIMES

                                                          Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                             at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 12 February 2012
 
                                                         Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: II Kings 5: 1-14
                                                         Reading from the Gospel:                      Mark 1: 40-45

 

It used to be that, whenever the passage that we have for the Gospel today was read, the preacher, at least in the parish church that I attended as a boy and a youth, would preach on Father Damien.  Now I have nothing personal against Father Damien.  He was a devout nineteenth-century Roman Catholic priest who, as a young man, believed that he had been called to serve the residents in the leper colony on Molokai in the Hawaiian Islands.  There were many others of his generation, clerical and lay, male and female, of all manner of ecclesiastical traditions, who answered similar calls to serve the Church in distant lands.  They spent the rest of their lives in far-off climes, many of them never returning to their native lands.  However, it was Father Damien who seems to have captured the imagination of a number of mid-twentieth century preachers.  Perhaps this was because he eventually contracted leprosy himself and could not have left the colony on Molokai even if he had wished to.  In the eyes of our Victorian-era predecessors and those whom they taught, there would seem to have been some great fear of leprosy and the finality connected with contracting it. 

But surely that is not the message of the Gospel narrative this morning, nor of the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures concerning Na’aman, the Syrian army commander-in-chief.  In both narratives the one suffering from leprosy did not die from the disease, and the one most directly concerned in the lepers’ healings did not contract the disease.  Admittedly, Elisha, the man of God, went nowhere near Na’aman, whereas his servant, who did approach Na’aman, did contract the disease, though not from Na’aman directly but through contact with objects that Na’aman had previously handled.  But that is a story for another day. 

It is certain that Father Damien’s parishioners were indeed lepers, suffering from leprosy as we now know it.  Yet the descriptions of people called lepers in the Bible do not seem to match people with leprosy, even though the English translations, from the fifteenth century on, describe them as lepers.  Instead what they seem to have had is what has been described as a repulsive disease, almost certainly contagious.  These people were called lazars. In mediaeval Europe, churches were built with small windows called Lazarus windows.  In mediaeval Venice in Italy there was a quarantine station for such people called a lazaretto, a word which has very little to do with the diseased beggar called Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke, but is a corruption of the name of the church that oversaw the quarantine station, Santa Maria de Nazaretto.  It is one of those nice quirks of language that has a church named for the mother of our Lord be the haven for those who were afflicted by a disease that her Son went specifically out of his way to treat. 

If we look at the story of Na’aman a little more carefully we might see that his disease was the result of personal hygiene, or the lack of it.  Elisha tells him to go and have a bath, or rather to go and have seven baths.  Na’aman at first protests, seeking to belittle the waters of the Jordan, but eventually he is persuaded to do what he has been told, and lo and behold, he comes out smelling like roses, or at least definitely smelling better than he did before!  This is not to belittle the healing that he experienced, but it does tell us that avoiding contamination and ridding oneself of it is a good way of avoiding disease.  This is so on the physical level and it is also so on the spiritual.  It is not for nothing that the term, leper, is applied to people whose moral and social behavior are not acceptable to the majority of people. 

Na’aman’s moral “leprosy” can be laid down to his pride.  He was successful at what he did, and his King held him in very high esteem.  He was, as the writer of II Kings 5: 1 describes him, a great man.  He was, as we learn from this passage, also a very rich man, probably due to the plunder that he kept after successful military campaigns.  His social “leprosy” can be laid down to his arrogance, as again we see in II Kings 5: 11 when he expected Elisha to come out to him rather than send out a messenger.  It might also be laid down to his racism, not to put it too strongly.  The rivers of Damascus were much better than the River Jordan, or so he argued.  Yet, as an aside, we know that, for the Biblical writers, the waters of the Jordan were where the people of Israel and Judaea came to be cleansed of their sins in the baptism of John, and it was to the waters of the Jordan that Jesus came to take upon himself the sins of the whole world and to carry them to Calvary and the Cross.  Once Na’aman could be persuaded to lay aside his pride, his arrogance and his racism, he could be and was healed, morally, spiritually, physically and socially. 

What is conspicuous in this story is the stubborn obstinacy of Na’aman.  We cannot say that he was content with his lot as a leper, or with having whatever physical disease he experienced.  He had to be given advice and support by people who to him were mere nothings, an Israelite slave-girl and his military servants, all of whose names are so inconsequential that we have no knowledge of them.  We might wish to add that his wife had something to say about the matter, since she had to put up with his smelliness!  Like Na’aman, so many of us are stuck in our morally and socially unacceptable ways, that it takes the efforts of others to get us out of them and back on the right path. 

At least the leper in the Gospel narrative recognized that he needed help, and having heard of the healings that Jesus had performed, the leper knew full well where to look for that help.  Nevertheless, since Middle Eastern society in his day so ostracized people with skin diseases, as they had for generations, even going back to Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron in the Exodus story, that he could not be certain that the Holy Man would risk his Holiness by coming into contact with such an unholy person as a leper.  The evangelist does not tell us what the leper expected Jesus to do.  Perhaps Jesus, like Elisha, might get someone else to instruct him, while himself standing by remote from the diseased man.  Perhaps Jesus would tell him to go bathe in the Jordan.  All he knew was that, just as Elisha had known what to say and do for Na’aman, so Jesus would know what to do and say for him.  What that might be he could not know, and so he does not tell Jesus what to do, he merely asks for Jesus to help him He did not tell Jesus what to do, but simply begged for his help.  Perhaps our prayers would be more effective if we simply asked Jesus to help us rather than tell him what to do. 

What Jesus did would have been considered completely extraordinary, even totally unacceptable.  It is a tenet of our Faith that Good conquers Evil, yet how often we belie this tenet by our actions! For example, we consider people such hardened criminals that there is no hope of their redemption, and so we ostracize them or, even, execute them.  Yet the Holy Jesus reached out to touch the one who would have been considered unholy by his peers.  What so many religious people seem to forget, although the Scriptures from the Prophets on proclaim it, is that there is nothing more contagious than Holiness.  Nothing, no one, not even the Devil, can withstand the power of Holiness.  Many of us could and do attest to how God has come into our wayward lives and turned us around.  He has cleansed us of our moral and social depravity, and then has empowered us, has enabled us, to do good works in his Name, works that we probably would never thought of doing. 

It is the knowledge that in Christ God finds us acceptable that enables us to become the people he meant us to be in the first place.  We might not be in the same desperate state as the unnamed leper.  Perhaps we are closer to Na’aman, after all.  I am willing to suggest that there is someone, even someone we least expect, who is doing for us what those unnamed people of II Kings 5 did for Na’aman.  But even if there is not, we can still approach Jesus and he will reach out to heal us of our moral, spiritual, social and physical dis-ease. 

The Lazarus windows in those mediaeval churches were little more than narrow slits, but they were never glazed.  The one outside could look in and the window was so placed that he could see the altar and so the Body and Blood of Christ, as the mediaeval Church understood those terms, and could hear the Word of God proclaimed.  The individual parishioners might well have been afraid of the so-called leper, but they recognized that he, like they, had a need to get close to Jesus, as close as possible.

And we are still like that.  We all of us need to get as close to Jesus as possible, in order to hear him who is the healing Word of God, and to touch him and be touched by him, especially in the Eucharist, and so be made clean.  For his Purity will wipe away our impurity, his Holiness will do away our unholiness, and his Goodness has already overcome our evil.