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Rev. Holly Antolini's Sermon for February 12, 2012

6 Epiphany Year B 2-12-2012

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: 2 Kings 5:1-14; Ps. 30; 1 Cor. 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45 

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace. Amen.

The Vestry and Edwin and Reed and I are just coming off of our annual Vestry Retreat this weekend in the chapel and library of the radiantly hospitable Sisters of St. Anne and Bethany House in Arlington.  It’s always an intimidating business, stepping into the leadership role in a parish, and this Vestry has a more daunting task than many: more than half of them are new to this Vestry this year, and they’re catching up with a remarkable avalanche of accomplishment by their predecessors, including the Legal Agreement with Oaktree for the new Parish House construction; our Anti-Oppression Initiative; an ongoing Food Pantry Study; the pending Revenue Enhancement Task Force to create a business plan for our rental operation in the new facility; the restoration work to seal the building envelope of this “wonderful and sacred mystery” of a sanctuary, funded by your pledges to last year’s amazing Capital Campaign.  And that’s not counting all the “business-as-usual” of running a parish. 

Fortunately for us, yesterday was the feast day of Fanny Crosby, the great 19th century hymn-writer (she apparently wrote over 8000 hymn texts, so Patrick, you chose a good patron saint for your hymn-writing festival yesterday… but you have a WAY TO GO!).  It’s stunning to learn that despite her monumental output – or perhaps, feeding that torrent of creativity! – Fanny Crosby was blind.  She was blind, moreover, in a time before anyone had remotely conceived of the Americans With Disabilities Act! Yet despite the obstacles posed by her blindness, through her poured a positive CATARACT of the Holy Spirit.  It was Crosby who wrote the hymn of spiritual confidence we sang in our Eucharist at the Retreat yesterday.  Pull out your Lift Every Voice & Sing hymnals, turn to No. 184, and join me in the first verse:

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long; this is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.  

DON’T CLOSE YOUR BOOKS!  Keep your finger in that hymn! 

If the Spirit could pour hymns through Fanny Crosby as if her blindness had become a kind of verbal channel direct from God, our Vestry can step up to the challenge of leadership in a congregation in hyper-drive!  But ONLY if we fuel our work with the conviction in the Collect our service and this sermon opened with today: O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace. And only if we exercise the kind of submission to God’s grace that Crosby goes on to chronicle in Verse Two of Blessed Assurance.  Let’s sing it!

Perfect submission, perfect delight! Visions of rapture now burst on my sight; Angels descending bring from above Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.

This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long; this is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.  

Both our Hebrew Scriptures and our Gospel for today attest to the same power of faith – even, in the case of Naaman the Aramean army commander, reluctant faith -- to turn weakness into strength. Naaman thought his power, status and wealth should assure him a miraculous cure for his leprosy.  In the end, it’s the testimony of a captive slave girl and the commander’s own servants that convinces him to obey the prophet’s simple advice to immerse himself in the humble river Jordan and, at last, he finds himself clean.

The leper in Mark’s story has more faith than the powerful Naaman did.  Perhaps, like Fanny Crosby, the vulnerability of his terrible illness itself made him more open to the power of God’s grace.  He “came to Jesus begging him,” writes Mark, “and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’”

Be made clean.  When Mark uses this term in today’s Gospel, he knew it had deep roots in Jewish tradition, as the 2 Kings passage proves.  Much of Jewish life in Jesus’ day was structured according to a part of the Jewish Law – the Torah that was the foundation-stone of Jewish faith – that was called the “Purity Code.”  The Purity Code was aimed at “right relationship with God,” and it made the maintenance of that relationship very concrete, full of detail about how to conduct one’s daily life.  It included what one could eat or not eat, what one could touch or not touch, what one could wear and what was “off-limits,” when one could be in public and when not, who you could associate with and who not.  Not to follow the Purity Code’s requirements to the letter was to be made UNCLEAN.  And since it was impossible to keep the Purity Code perfectly, there were rituals for every kind of “uncleanness,” involving washing and often involving offerings in the synagogue and rites handled by the Levitical priesthood.  Keeping up with the Purity Code was a demanding and often an expensive business. NOT to keep the Purity Code was to endanger oneself bodily and spiritually.  Not only that: to be unclean was to endanger everyone around you, too, because uncleanness was infectious: if you were unclean, those who touched or associated with you were, also.

Sadly, “leprosy,” which included every manifestation of skin disorder – not just the classic “Hansen’s Disease” we know as leprosy now – was considered in the Purity Code to indicate “uncleanness.”  So if you had a skin disorder, you were not welcome in public, and worse, you were literally untouchable.  As a result, a person with a visible skin disorder in Jesus’ day could not work or maintain relationships.  They were ostracized, and utterly cast out of normal society, left to beg as best they could and depend upon others’ pity.

This is the predicament of the man who approaches Jesus in today’s Gospel.  He hasn’t just lost his skin tone; he has lost everything: health, livelihood, community.  Dire as his predicament is, however, the leper speaks in hope, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Mark says Jesus is “moved with pity,” in Greek, splagnitzomai, his guts churned with anguish and compassion. Some other early transcriptions of Mark say he was moved with orgitzo, anger, as if he were deeply distressed that the man would be so disenfranchised by something he could not help.  Either way, Jesus’ emotions run deep and strong, and his response is immediate.  He reaches out and touches the man. “I DO choose! Be made clean!”  It’s hard for us to hear this as Mark’s hearers did, since most of us don’t live by the Purity Code now, but we need to realize that this act of Jesus’ was an act not just of healing, but of SOLIDARITY, SHOCKING in its implications.  By the Purity Code, Jesus, TOUCHING the leper, became UNCLEAN HIMSELF.  He didn’t hesitate.  The healing was as much a healing of the wound of alienation and helpless dependency as it was of illness.  And the man was made clean.

Last Tuesday morning at our PRAXIS devotions, Judy Gay mused about being made clean.  She pointed out that recovering addicts refer to themselves as “having been clean,” as in, “I’ve been clean for two months!  I’ve been clean for 48 hours.  I’ve been clean for five years!”  I find this a very fruitful reflection.  Leprosy does not hold the shame it once did.  It’s curable, for one thing, if you can afford the medicines. But addiction – succumbing to the compulsion to engage in activities even when you know how destructive they are to you and those around you – is fraught with shame.  And the shame only isolates and further undermines the sufferer.

Addicts on the road to recovery speak about the discovery that focusing on shame simply subjects one to “stinking thinking” and drives one deeper into the compulsive using, the self-medicating. Only the deepest discovery and claiming of God’s abiding love and forgiveness seems to be able to penetrate this terrible sucking vortex of shame.  Only coming to turn one’s will and one’s life over to one’s Higher Power can erase the shame and make one “clean.”  Only “perfect submission” like that we sing of in Fanny Crosby’s hymn, submission to a God we realize loves us utterly and will empower us in ways we cannot imagine under our own “self-will run riot.”  Being “clean” means being free of the substance one used in addiction, of course.  But it means so much more than that: it means to know oneself, no matter what one has done, to be lovable and loved.  To be connected. To have an ineradicable dignity. To be worthy.  My friends who are recovering addicts are rooted in the most grounded and concrete EXPERIENCE of the power of grace of anyone I know.  They’ve known how desperate is their plight when they have tried to substitute their own determination for that abundance of grace.  And they’ve learned how much becomes possible when they “turn their will and their life over to God as they understand God.”

Be made clean.  We are ALL lepers, we clay-bound human beings!  We are ALL addicts!  We ALL, like Naaman, succumb to the temptation to trade upon whatever earthly power we have to gin up the good stuff for ourselves.  It doesn’t work, though.  ‘T ain’t gonna work to get our wonderful new Vestry where they need to go, either!  But fortunately for us, Jesus’ guts have already churned.  He has extended his hand and TOUCHED us and JOINED US in our vulnerable humanity, our UNCLEANNESS.  He has TOUCHED US and said, I KNOW what human frailty feels like!  I DO choose!  I DO choose to pour out my grace upon you!  I DO choose to do so even when you seem mired in your weakness.  I DO choose to do so even when the world seems determined to shun and shame you!  I DO choose to love you even when YOU CANNOT LOVE YOURSELF!  Oh, I may not choose to do the healing just the way you’d like it.  I didn’t choose to give Fanny Crosby back her sight.  I might not empower the Vestry to do any old thing they come up with.  (TESTIFY, all you experienced Vestry members!  It’s not that easy, is it?!)  BUT I WILL BE WITH THEM.  AND, if they will only extend their hand and ask me, THEY – WE! – WILL FLOURISH!

With enough prayer – YOURS, as well as the Vestry’s own prayer! – Jesus might even give our Vestry the power to realize their great dream, their PRIMARY GOAL for the coming year: a return to a flourishing OPEN TABLE DINNER program – a program that connects parishioners of all ages, sizes and background to each other in deep communion over a table laden with ALL the good food St. James’s members know to expect whenever two or three of them – or eight or ten of them – are gathered together!

O God… because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us, the Vestry, ALL OF US, the help of your grace!  And THEN SOME!

Open those hymnals and let’s sing Fanny Crosby’s great Verse Three!

Perfect submission, all is at rest! I in my Savior am happy and blest, Watching and waiting, looking above, Filled with his goodness, lost in His love.

This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long; this is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.  AMEN.    

Rev. Holly Antolini Sermon February 12, 2012