Saturday, 13 October 2007

Pain so close to Pleasure?

Sermon for Sunday 14th October 2007

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c & Luke 17: 11-19

Leprosy is the common factor in our readings today. Of all of the diseases that afflict human beings Leprosy is at the same time the most familiar to us and the most unfamiliar. It is familiar because all of us grew up with it being the most widely supported overseas charity in our churches and perhaps most especially in our parish schools. Those ‘L’ shaped red transparent boxes are one of the earliest images that remain imprinted on my mind since my days in primary school in Abbeystrewry National School in Skibbereen, West Cork.

And yet for all that how much do we really know about Leprosy? – Do we really know what it is and what it does? We associate it with mutilated limbs and faces but perhaps we are a little blurry on the details. For those of you who are not quite clear on it let me describe it in a nutshell:

Leprosy’s effect upon the body is devastating. Where it attacks it causes a loss of the sense of touch. That doesn't sound too bad but consider the implications. When you reach for the cooker to pick up a frying pan that is hot you immediately drop it and put ice on the burn. You watch as your skin turns red and blister. Now, if you had leprosy you would grab the pan and feel nothing. You've lost your sense of touch. You carry the pan unaware of the damage it is doing to your hand. As you set the pan down and remove your hand several layers of your skin are left around the handle. But you feel nothing! You have no pain – and so everything must be alright but it isn’t!

Philip Yancey in his book called, "Where Is God When It Hurts" tells the story of a basketball player Bob Gross. He insisted on playing in a key game despite a badly injured ankle. Knowing that Gross was an important part of the game, the team doctor injected Marcaine, a strong painkiller into three different places of his foot. Gross started the game, but after a few minutes, as he was battling for possession, a loud snap could be heard throughout the arena!
Gross, oblivious to the break, ran up and down the court twice more, then crumpled to the floor. He felt no pain, and yet a bone had broken in his ankle. By overriding pain's warning system with the anesthetic, permanent damage had resulted and so ended the basketball career of Bob Gross.

To the question “Where is God when it hurts?” we could answer: God is in the pain! Sometimes a bit like disappointment and failure, pain is a way of telling us to do things another way – to change direction and to reconsider our plans. It’s a well worn cliché but sometimes it is true – “No pain, No gain!”

In the readings today then healing is actually a recovery of the ability to feel pain. Naaman, the commander of the army of Aram and the 10 Lepers are healed and can once again feel pain.

Perhaps it’s a strange way of looking at it but it is quite important when we consider it a little further. Without pain life would be nothing but pleasure, there would be no values because whatever you did could only bring pleasure, there would be no need for Love because it would be surplus to requirement, there would no need for loyal friends because there would be no situations in which you needed the support of loyal friends. And so in other words while we do not welcome pain (unless we are very strange) we realise that it is an intrinsic part of the human condition. Without it life would be meaningless bliss – perhaps enjoyable for a little while but ultimately totally destructive and enslaving. Pain is a necessary part of our human experience.

But so too is healing – and like pain it has a few surprises rolled up its sleeve. Healing happens in the most unexpected ways and sometimes it doesn’t seem to happen at all. For Naaman before he could be healed he had to let go of a lot that was dear to him – He had to let go of his pride – he had to accept firstly that this was something that he a mighty warrior could not do for himself – despite all his conquests he was helpless in the face of this illness.

Not only that but he had to travel to a foreign land and accept the advice passed on by a mere messenger telling him to do the most sensless thing – to wash 7 times in the Jordan! He ridicules this suggestion and only reconsiders when his own servant points out that he would have responded otherwise if he had been asked to do something difficult to achieve healing! But because it was a simple thing he was being asked to do it made his own powerlessness even more obvious – he was humiliated and yet the message got through and in what was effectively a declaration of faith he did bathe 7 times in the Jordan and was cleansed and healed.

When we turn to the Gospel we another dimension of this healing from leprosy – again location is important (location, location, location is a phrase that had meaning long before the now fading property boom). We are told that we are on the border between Galilee and Samaria – This was not just any border, this was a border every bit as tense as our own border with Northern Ireland once was. But the message here is that earthly boundaries and rules are overturned by the Kingdom of God – Jesus extends his healing to all, including a Samaritan and what is more attaches no conditions to the healing of the 10 – All they must do is show themselves to the priests!

There is a very important message here – The Grace of God is not dependent on our action – Its not so much that we have to earn God’s love – that is a given! – Grace is something we can opt out of but there is no need to opt in because God has already taken the initiative in our lives. This has been described by some as the scandal of Grace – it does not make sense – it certainly doesn’t add up in mathematical terms – there is nothing that we do or can do to deserve or earn God’s Love and what is more it is offered to ALL!

It is no wonder Jesus was seen as a heretic in his day because effectively this subverts all religious systems that seek to control access to God! Not just then but now!

It is a powerful reminder to those of us who call ourselves Church that God is not limited by the boundaries that we draw in the world. The healing of the 10 lepers, regardless of their faith or lack of faith reminds us of the Universality of the Love of God! In performing this miracle where he did and to whom he did Jesus sets the world on fire – he throws out the rule book and gives the complacent and the comfortable a firm boot up the backside!

There is also a lesson to be learned from the conclusion of the story – As you will recall, only one former leper returns to give thanks and he is a Samaritan, an outsider! He is on the margins and yet he is the one, the only one who realises the full significance of what has happened. The others, the insiders take it for granted but the outsider, the Samaritan gets it!

Where is the Church today? Where are we today? – Are we on the margins or are we on the safe ground, the centre where we can maintain our comfort zone around us? Or, are we like Naman becoming aware that we may have to leave this place if we are to find true wholeness, fulfilment and the healing of God?

I leave you with one question: Where would Jesus have us be?.......................

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