Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Rules

(A sermon based on 2 Kings 5:1-14 & Mark 1:40-45 for Sunday, February 15, 2009)

Rules are funny things. They can save you or they can kill you.

Think first of the ways that rules can save you.

When you are at on overlook on the side of a mountain and there is a sign that says, “Do not go beyond this point,” there is a reason that the sign is there and that the rule exists; if you obey the rule you will live, if you disobey the rule you will die. Rules can save you.

When you are pumping gas and there is a notice on the gas pump that says, “Do not smoke while pumping gas,” there is a reason that the notice is there and that the rule exists; if you obey the rule you will live, if you disobey the rule your cigarette may not be the only thing smoking. Rules can save you.

When you are tempted to be unfaithful to your spouse and there is a commandment posted among the top ten that says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” there is a reason that the commandment is there and that the rule exists; if you obey the rule your marriage may live, if you disobey the rule your marriage may die.

When you begin to feel proud and haughty and self-sufficient and there is a principle in the Bible that is so clear that it pretty much qualifies as a rule that says, “Be humble before your God” and there is another principle in the Bible that is so clear that it pretty much qualifies as a rule that says, “Be humble before others,” there is a reason that the principles are there and that the rules exist; if you obey your spirit will continue to grow and thrive in the love and grace of the Lord but if you disobey your spirit will begin to shrivel and die because you are denying the love and grace of the Lord.

Naaman the Syrian was cured of his leprosy because he obeyed the rules; in a way the rules saved him. A powerful general, he had been laid low by the dreaded disease leprosy. An Israelite servant girl told Naaman’s wife that there was a prophet back in Israel who could heal the general and so the king sent Naaman to see Elisha. Elisha did not even go out to see the general; he just sent word to him that he should go wash himself in the Jordan River seven times and he would be healed and made clean. Naaman’s pride was hurt because the prophet did not even come out to see him and so he got his back up about washing in the Jordan—“We have better rivers back in Syria, after all!” His servants reminded him that had Elisha told him to do something difficult he would have done it; why not do the simple thing that the prophet had told him to do? And so he did and so he was healed.

Maybe Naaman’s obedience was at issue; after all, he apparently was not going to be healed if he did not do what he was told to do. Still, it seems that what was really being challenged was his attitude; would he be humble before God and would he be willing to submit himself before God?

That’s worth remembering because it is not finally the rules that save us; it is our attitude toward the authority behind the rules; in particular, will we love and trust God so that we know that God wants only the best for us and for others and so his instructions and prohibitions and rules are for our benefit?

So rules can save us.

But rules can also kill us.

There were rules in the ancient world about lepers. The basic rule that lepers had to obey was that they had to stay away from everybody else; the basic rule that everybody else had to obey was that they couldn’t touch a leper.

Now, it is not my place to be critical of an Old Testament prophet and I understand that the reason that Elisha did not come out to see Naaman was that Naaman needed to understand that God and not Naaman was in charge of the situation, but I still can’t help but be struck by this basic difference in the story of Jesus and the leper: Jesus touched the leper. Jesus also spoke his authoritative word and that played a role, but still I am floored by the fact that Jesus touched the leper.

How much different that leper’s life would have been had Jesus obeyed the rule that said “Don’t touch the leper.” How blessed that leper was because Jesus ignored the rule of society and of religion—a rule that was given for some good and proper reasons, after all, including the health of the community—and reached out his loving hand that was driven by his compassionate heart and touched that sick, unclean man.

Had Jesus not broken the rule and touched the man, the leper might have died with his leprosy and worse, he might have died in his sin.

It’s a funny thing about rules—how much they matter to you might depend on when you are born. There used to be rules that said that white folks and black folks didn’t sit in the same waiting rooms at the doctor’s office-I remember that and I’m not all that old—so if some of our young adults and teenagers and children had been born back in the 1930s rather than in the 1980s or 1990s such rules would have mattered a lot to them—but they thankfully don’t matter now.

The rules about leprosy would have meant a lot more to me had I been born in Jesus’ day than they do since I was born in modern times. I have a skin condition on my hands—eczema or psoriasis—that in biblical days would have likely been interpreted as leprosy. I wonder what it would have been like to be quarantined, to be ostracized—to be treated like a leper.

There’s another funny thing about rules-- sometimes love and grace mean that you just have to break them despite the risks.

I have had only one experience with anything like being treated like a leper in my life and it was not because of my skin condition; it was because I had mononucleosis. I was fifteen when that happened and I remember feeling pretty lousy but the thing that I remember most was how I felt when my mother, upon my doctor’s instructions, set aside a special plate and a special glass and special utensils to use so that I would not infect anyone else with my disease. It was the first and only time that I felt just a little bit of the isolation and ostracism that can come with the fear of disease.

But I didn’t have leprosy. Jose Ramirez did, though. Ramirez has written a book entitled Squint: My Journey with Leprosy (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009). A resident of Texas, Ramirez was diagnosed with Hansen’s disease, as real leprosy is properly called, in 1968 when he was nineteen years old. He was sent to a special hospital for lepers in Louisiana, since closed but then the only one in the United States.

I heard a recent interview with Ramirez on National Public Radio. He tells a story about how, on a visit home from the hospital, he did what he was supposed to do: he set aside and wrote his name on some dishes so no one else would use them. In the interview he cried as he told of how his mother seized those dishes and threw them to the floor, shattering them because her love would not allow her to treat her leper son like a leper.

Yes, sometimes love and grace mean that you just have to break the rules despite the risks.

The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta participates in the Interfaith Hospitality Network, which is a ministry to homeless families. Only families with children are eligible for the program; the aim of the ministry is to help the families move toward becoming self-sufficient and getting into their own homes. The twenty-something churches that participate take turns hosting the families for a week at a time. A couple of years ago The Hill was the host church in the week leading up to Christmas; the families actually stayed at our church through Christmas Eve, which fell on Sunday that year. One of the children in one of the families had a stomach virus; sure enough, half of the folks who worked in the ministry that week caught it, including the pastor (me), who had to miss the church’s Christmas Eve service which broke his heart.

A Sunday or two after that I preached a sermon in which I noted that I suspected that some folks in the church might point to what had happened as evidence that we needed to stop participating in that ministry to homeless families; I said that the opposite was true, because taking other people’s problems and burdens and sicknesses onto ourselves is exactly what Christ-like ministry is all about.

Jesus broke the rules when he touched the leper but in touching the leper he made the leper well. Sometimes love and grace mean that we just have to break the rules despite the risks.

Yet a final funny thing about the rules—the same ones that you think keep others away from you just might cause others to keep you away from them; don’t we all, somewhere down deep, really fear being the leper? Have you ever noticed how often people who make the most noise about other people’s sins are eventually outed as being guilty of that very sin or one akin to it? Sometimes bluster is just a cover for guilt—or maybe for fear, which is actually what I have more in mind.

As Frederick Buechner once said, “In so many ways, we move through our lives like lepers, the untouchable ones, the unclean ones, afraid to touch other people's lives and let our lives be touched by other people, ashamed of our own uncleanness, suspicious of other people.” Are we letting the rules—don’t touch this, don’t do that, don’t associate with this one, don’t be seen with that one, don’t open your life up to someone else, don’t trust anyone, don’t let your guard down, don’t be vulnerable, don’t be honest, don’t be open, don’t be yourself, don’t put yourself out there—stop us from being conduits of and recipients of the love and grace of God.

Yes, the rules can save you.

But the rules can also kill you.

Let’s be careful that we be loving and gracious enough.

No comments: