“Go wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”

“Seriously?”  Says Naaman.  “That’s what it’s gonna take?”

Naaman expects this to be a big deal; after all, Naaman is a big deal.  Naaman is a well-respected military commander in the army of the king of Aram.  Naaman is a celebrated hero, yet he is also a tragic figure, as he suffers from leprosy.  It’s important to point out here that any number of skin diseases at the time fell under the category of “leprosy,” and in many cases the ailment bore little resemblance what we now know as Hansen’s disease.  However, what remains clear is that Naaman has suffered deeply, so much so, that he is willing to travel to Israel, and to consult with a prophet who he only found out about because his wife’s Hebrew servant told him.[1]

Naaman expects more from a great prophet like Elisha.  He’s already been surprised to find that this powerful prophet isn’t squarely situated in the center of power near the king.  He thought for sure it would take a lot of money and gifts to incur the favor of this prophet.  So, Naaman expects a big production, in which the prophet comes out and waves his hands over the area calling upon [quote-unquote,] “his” God to effect this healing.  Instead, Naaman never lays eyes on Elisha.  Elisha sends a messenger with the simple instructions to go wash seven times in the Jordan.

Naaman is furious.  “This is all you want me to do?  Go wash in your muddy Israelite river?[2]  The rivers where I come from are better than your river!  I should have stayed at home.”  And then, his servants help him to put things into perspective.  “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?  How much more when all he said to was, ’Wash, and be clean’?”  “Maybe just give it a shot?”

Naaman expects a grand ceremony, or at least some feats of strength to overcome his disease.  Except that his stature and his abilities are not what will heal him and cleanse him.  God will.  Elisha doesn’t need to come do a big production, waving his hands over the area because he’s not the one doing the healing.  In fact, Naaman doesn’t know it yet, but the narrator has told us that even Newman’s success hasn’t come from his own efforts, but because God gave victory to Aram.  It is all God.  Elisha doesn’t need to give Naaman a difficult journey of cleansing.  God will do the cleansing.  He just has to respond, to go to the waters and wash seven times, a number of completion, a number of perfection, and let God take care of the rest.

Water.  Simple water.  Today is Scout Sunday, and one of the things I reflected on as I read this passage is the way water can be your friend or enemy.  It can be the thing that gets through your hike when you’re thirsty, yet it can also be the thin that ruins your camping trip as it soaks your socks.  I recalled a time when I tried to dry my socks by the fire, and they caught on fire!  But water.  Naaman is aggravated because water is so mundane!  So normal!  This is going cure my leprosy?  And yet, God chooses to cleanse Naaman through the mundane waters of the Jordan.  And when we think of water, we are naturally drawn to think about baptism.  That God offers us grace through something as mundane and yet as vital as water!  Simple water.

What happens to Naaman is not baptism.  Yet, what we see in Naaman’s cleansing is a prefiguring of one of aspects of the waters of baptism:  washing and cleansing.  We tend to think only in terms of cleansing from sin, which seems somehow different than Naaman’s skin disease.  Yet, isn’t that what sin is?  A disease.  A disease that finds us as people who are sick not just mentally, but physically, emotionally, and relationally.   Just like Naaman, it is not a disease that we can perform our way out of with great feats of righteousness.  Rather, it is a cleansing that is a gift to cure a disease that we can’t cure ourselves.  It is forgiveness and new life that is offered to us, with the only condition being that, with the help of grace, accept it.  It is learning, as we have seen over the past few weeks, how to perform into what Jesus did because we are in him and he is in us.

It is when we accept that forgiveness and new life that is offered to us, that we begin to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.  And yet we know that we will experience times of difficultly even after baptism.  Times when we stop listening.  Times when we might walk away.  Times when we turn our back on the love offered  to us by God.  Times we reject God’s invitation to be a part of God’s life.  Times when we as members of the church do not offer that same love and forgiveness to those in our midst.  Times, when lose sight of the effect that the grace offered to us in the waters of baptism has had on us, in drawing us into Christ’s body and to doing the things that Christ did as members of his body.

When that happens, and we find ourselves far away from God, far away from church family, that we begin to create great barriers for ourselves to return.  This is reasonable because when we begin to recognize God calling us back, we are aware of what we have forfeited.  And, like Naaman, we begin to expect that great feats will be necessary for us to be cleansed and return back to the community.

Yet, what is simply required is to dive back into the waters.  I don’t mean to be re-baptized.  What I mean is that after we are baptized, we spend our lives swimming in those waters, learning what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and we are helped to live in him and let him live in us through the grace regularly offered to us by God.  That includes even those times when we have walked away from God and the community.  It doesn’t mean coming back into the community will always be easy.  There are consequences for our actions, there are relationships that may have to be mended, but isn’t that what the community of the baptized is supposed to be?  The primary location of where such relationships with God and one another are healed.  It’s why we confess our sins and pass the peace before we share Holy Communion with one another.  Just as Naaman must dip into the river seven times, our lives as Christians is the story of us being shaped, formed, changed, healed, and brought back to Christ by the waters of our baptism.

The scene that keeps running through my head as I consider Naaman’s cleansing and our baptism comes from The Apostle starting Robert Duvall.[3]  Duvall’s character, “Sonny” Dewey is on the run.  He is a preacher who has had what many might consider a successful ministry at a Pentecostal Holiness Church in Texas.  However, things are now out of control.  His wife has decided to leave him for another man, a younger minister in the church.  In an angry drunken rage Sonny takes the life of this man at his kids’ little league game, where this other man is a coach.  Sonny flees town, eventually ending up in Louisiana.  He ditches his car in a lake, and begins walking, trying to figure out what to do next.  As he is walking along the river, he runs into an old man fishing, and he asks if he can hang around the man’s property.  Sonny begins to search his soul as begins to fast and lay in a small pup tent that the man lets him borrow.

As Sonny lies down in this tent, he reflects on his life, his ministry, his family, and his call.  When he emerges from this tent, we find Sonny in the river, praying:

With great humility, I ask permission to be accepted as an Apostle of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and with your gracious permission, I wish to be baptized as an Apostle of our Lord.  I therefore, without witnesses, baptize myself in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and in the name of Jesus.[4]

I watched this movie for first time during seminary for a class, and this scene was a topic of great discussion.  It doesn’t take a seminary student to see that what Sonny does is rife with problems.  First and foremost is that Sonny re-baptizes himself. As I’ve already alluded to, while some traditions permit and may even call for re-baptism as a sign of commitment and membership, we as United Methodists believe that we only require one baptism.  We accept the baptism of other churches as valid as long as water is used and God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is invoked because we understand Baptism as God’s act of claiming us even as we understand the need for a human response to the grace offered.   Even more peculiarly, Sonny baptizes himself.  Even Jesus had someone else baptize him!  Not to mention this baptism occurs outside of the context of a faith community.  Finally, what in the world does it mean for this new baptism to confer on Sonny the title of “Apostle”??

There are plenty of problems with what Sonny does, and yet, it is a profound moment of transformation for both Sonny and the viewer.  We don’t recognize it at first.  As the “Apostle, E.F.” as Sonny calls himself now, emerges from the waters, and he begins to do his “preacher thing” again.  We don’t trust him.  It seems he has used his religion to don an alias to hide his identity while he is on the run.  He is just a murderer who now sets about doing the only thing he knows how to do, creating a ministry, not out of sincere faith, but because he needs to create some income.   The Apostle, E.F., begins to establish this ministry, first on the radio station where he gets a job as a janitor, and then as he begins to gather a congregation around him and work to renovate an old church.  We want to view Sonny as a charlatan, a cheap huckster of a false gospel.  Seriously?  He baptized himself?  Who baptizes himself an apostle?

The only thing is, that as the movie proceeds, we find that, even with all the problems with what Sonny as done lives begin to change in his midst.  We begin to root for Sonny, even though, as viewers, we know for certain that he will eventually have to suffer the consequences of what he did.  What becomes clear is that Sonny’s transformation, while there may be some self-confirmation and self-deception in that self-baptism his action is actually a function of him knowing nothing else than the practices and beliefs of Christ’s Church.  In his own weird way, he knows he needs to repent, and he knows that baptism, repentance, and cleansing are related, and so he makes his way to the waters.

His new ministry, as much as at it may be an effort to start a life somewhere else after his crimes, comes because he knows nothing else than preaching the Gospel in such a way that people are compelled to have their lives changed by the power of the Holy Spirit.  It doesn’t excuse what Sonny did, and even Sonny knows this.  However, Sonny’s problematic baptism in that river turns out to be also a turning point in his life as a Christian.  It unfolds complete with the Biblical drama of receiving a new name.  His time in that pup tent turns out to be a tomb, and his emergence from it a time of resurrection culminating in his return to the waters.  Sonny, who has been preaching since he is 12 years old, is returning the beliefs and practices that have shaped him as a Christian.  In his problematic baptism, we find Sonny returning to the waters for another dip, in his own weird way.

The preacher and theologian in me doesn’t like what Sonny did.  It is, after all, my responsibility to teach rightly about our beliefs, especially with regard to the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.  Yet, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am compelled by Sonny’s character.  As a disciple I am reminded that the Spirit may work outside the normal channels.  I am compelled by Sonny’s character because Sonny isn’t all good, and Sonny isn’t all bad.  He isn’t all righteous, nor is he all evil.  He’s somewhere in the middle.  He is, I think, a lot like you and me.  Sonny recognizes this himself.  As he walks along after his re-baptism, he prays and talks with God:

“Thank ya Lord. I’m your Apostle from now to the end of eternity.  Ever since you rung my bell when I was 12 years you’ve been with ya.  Sometimes I zig-zagged off course, more zaggin’ than ziggin’, but I’m on’ tell ya I’m with ya now on a straight line forever!”[5]

More zaggin’ than ziggin’.  How many of us have done more zaggin’ than ziggin’? Sonny doesn’t need to re-baptize himsel, yet the transformation that comes from his odd activity looks and sounds someone who Jesus has got a hold of.  He still suffers the consequences of his actions at the end of the movie, yet we root for him, I think, because we want to believe that, like Sonny, even though we’ve done more zaggin’ than ziggin’, there is still redemption for him and for us.

Naaman expects a big production with a powerful healer-prophet, but what he finds is healing and cleansing from the mundane waters of the Jordan and God’s touch in the Jordan.  It is the same cleansing that beggar experiences from Jesus’ touch in our Gospel lesson.  It is the same cleansing that we experienced in our baptism, and that continues to happen in our lives and in our church as we come the table of Holy Communion over and over again.  We spill out into the world to invite others to the cleansing, not because we are so clean, but because we’re somewhere in the middle, and we know that we find cleansing at the waters of the font.   It is a cleansing that comes because God’s invitation to us never ceases.  It never expires.  It comes because God knows us each and everyone of us by name.

One of my favorite phrases in the Apostle comes as Sonny performs a healing:  “I always call you Jesus; you call me Sonny.  Now heal this broken heart!”[6]  That, I think, sums up what we as church experience, and are called to offer to others, even though we’ve done more zaggin’ than ziggin’.

“I always call you Jesus, you call me by my name.  Now heal this broken heart!”

[1] William J. Carl III, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 339.

[2] Carl, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 341.

[3] The Apostle.  DVD. Directed by Robert Duvall. 1997; Universal City, CA: Universal Home Video, 2003.

[4] The Apostle.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

Exile can dim the memory.  It is difficult to remember our identity when exile happens.  There is pressure to assimilate into the foreign culture, both from persecution as well as simple peer pressure to fit in.  Further, exile seems to place us on the losing end of things.  When exile happens, those other gods and false idols start to seem appealing.[1]  The doubts begin to creep in.  “Maybe they are stronger than our God?  Maybe we were wrong?  If God loved us more, wouldn’t our God have prevented this from happening?”  It is hard for the Israelites, and us, to remember who we are in when we are in exile.

The Israelites suffered this failure of memory regularly during their exile.  And who can blame them?  Plucked up their home, disconnected from their land, their people, and many of the practices that made them who they were, it is no wonder that they struggled to remember.  Think of the words of the Psalmist: “How can we sing the songs of the LORD in a strange land? (Psalm 137.4).”  In our Isaiah passage today, we hear the Israelites say, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God.”  It is hard to remember who we are in exile.

“Have you not known?” Isaiah interjects.  “Have you not heard?” Isaiah cries.  “Has it not been told you from the beginning?” Isaiah shouts.  “Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”  Isaiah exclaims.   Through Isaiah, God challenges them to remember.  Their God, isn’t just any god.  Their God isn’t just the kind of god who can be judged and evaluated based simply on whether things happen to be going well for them right now.  Their God is the God

who, sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

All of the rulers of the earth can be made as nothing because of the greatness of their God.  God is above these things.  God is in control.  Isaiah reminds the Israelites of the temporary nature of these rulers over and against God’s eternity:

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

Isaiah brings back to their memory who their God is:

To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.

Their memory has failed.  Their resolve has begun to buckle.  But Isaiah will not let them forget.  These false gods, these new rulers who seem to have won the victory are incomparable to the God of Israel.  Who created even those who seem to be winning?  The God of their ancestors.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Remember who you are Isaiah says.  And the way to remember that is to remember who God is.

After he repeats the complaint of the Israelites, Isaiah keeps pushing.  God is the Creator, and there is no end to God.  They might lose faith, they might feel powerless, even the young may fall exhausted, but God is everlasting.  God’s understanding is unsearchable.  When we lose sight of this, when our memory fails, we lose resolve.  But the strength of the Israelites, and our own strength is renewed by waiting for the Lord.  God outlasts exile.  But God doesn’t outlast exile and suffering from some distant place.  God outlasts all because God is everlasting, but God extends the invitation to us to join him in God’s everlasting-ness (yes that’s a new word I invented).  When we are caught up in the stream of God’s everlasting-ness, we are mounted up with eagles’ wings.  We can run and not be weary.  We can walk and not faint.  The Israelites have lost their vision.  The Israelites have experienced amnesia about their God.  Because of this, they also begin to forget who they are.

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.  Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.  He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.  Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

 “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  Has it not been told you from the beginning?  Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? … He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless…Have you not known?  Have you not heard? … Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is caught up into God’s everlasting-ness.  The same God about whom Isaiah cried out to the Israelites.  The God who is over all things.  The God who gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.  The God who renews strength has renewed her strength.  God’s Word has assumed flesh and begun to walk among God’s people.  In doing this, Jesus Christ initiated the most decisive way for us to be caught up into God’s everlasting-ness.  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?…The fever left her, and she began to serve them.”  Her experience of Christ, the renewal of strength she experiences immediately moves her to service.

“That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  And the whole city was gathered around the door.”  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”  “And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”  Even the demons know who Jesus is because the God who “sits above the circle of the earth,” is the God who is even Lord over them. We hear the words of Isaiah echo: “Lift up your eyes on high and see:  who created these?”   Jesus is bringing to fruition the cries of Isaiah.  He does this, as we saw last week, first by assuming flesh and initiating our healing.  Then he begins to move from place to place raising up signs of this healing by performing healings on those who are afflicted, sick, and possessed.  And in the midst of this, the disciples and we, are being trained to do the same to bring healing to others.

The kind of healing we talked about last week finds us caught up in God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Through Jesus Christ we are invited into God’s life.  God’s life is everlasting.  Our healing finds us caught up in God’s everlasting-ness.  It is not a far off everlasting-ness, left to a distant heaven.  It is an everlasting-ness that begins now, as we are shaped, formed, nourished, and sent out into the world to reveal glimpses of God’s everlasting-ness to the world.  Eternal life begins now, and it is not something to be hoarded our boasted about.  It is something to be offered.  The very shape of eternal life, the everlasting-ness that God offers us, is that it grows when it is offered and shared.

When Jesus goes to the desert place to recover and pray, the disciples “hunt” him down.  They tell him, “Everyone is searching for you.”  Everyone is searching for you.   Think about the depth of those words.  Everyone is searching for you.  I don’t want to read too much into these words, but the Wesleyan in me wants to her Prevenient Grace here.  I want to hear that God’s grace that comes before we have any idea is always wooing us into relationship or back into relationship with God.  I want to hear that when people begin to encounter the everlasting-ness of God in Jesus Christ, they want to come closer.  They want to respond to the grace.

As people encounter Jesus, they begin to crowd around him.  Though Jesus has moved away by himself to pray, when he hears “everyone is searching for you” he says, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’”  He doesn’t stay to revel in his new celebrity, he is spurred on to proclaim his message in a new place, to allow more people to encounter face-to-face God’s everlasting-ness, God’s life, and God’s love into which we are all invited.

Jesus moves about Galilee.  Emmanuel, God with us, goes about, and as he does those who encounter him encounter God’s everlasting-ness.  He moves about, giving power to the weakened and strength to the powerless.  He lives out what Isaiah was trying to so hard to bring to the memory of the Israelites, what they seemed to have forgotten in exile.  Here’s the thing.  In many ways, we could argue that we are experiencing our own exile.  If there was ever such a thing as America being a Christian nation, it’s not true any more.  And there are a couple of ways we can respond to this.  We can lament for days gone by.  We can try to grab hold of power politically.  Or we can recognize that exile may not be the worst thing.  While it can be scary, it is not the worst thing in the world for our faith to cost us something.

When there is little cost to our discipleship, there is little real commitment required.  The times when martyrdom was a reality were more convincing to the world of who Christ was than times when the governments have implicitly or explicitly claimed the Church as its own.  When the lines are blurred, whatever the state does may appear to be the same as the Church, which is a dangerous reality.  The power of the state will almost always coerce the Church.  The Church has always flourished in the times when it takes actual commitment to follow Christ.  It is that commitment, that often goes against the grain, which demonstrates to the world that we are shaped differently than the world around us.

Yet, as we saw from the Isaiah passage, exile can dim the memory.  How are we to remember?  We might find a new prophet among us saying the words regularly, “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  Have you forgotten who Jesus is and the things he did?  Have you forgotten that it is who graciously invites you into God’s everlasting-ness?  Have you forgotten hat you are trained to do this same, to proclaim the message with your life?”  How are we to remember?  This week, during our Holy Communion study the issue of memory arose in our conversation.  One of the most important facets of Holy Communion is memory.  Yet, often we short-change what it means to remember in the Lord’s Supper.

When we think of memory, we tend to think only of looking back to a different time.  We can turn Holy Communion into a memorial service for something that happened 2,000 ago.  We may look upon it with gratitude.  We may bring it into our mind.  But it mainly affects us by Christ’s example, by looking back on this particular act.  When we only look back on it as an action in the past, we don’t remember that this table also involves God’s action NOW in the church community!

“Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

The word that we translate remember is the Greek word anamnesis.  To remember in the way this word suggests means more than just looking back.  The conception of remembering inherent in this Greek word is that the past event is brought into the present.  To remember at this table means not just that we look back.  Rather, it means that the Lord’s Supper is made present among us.  Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is present at the table when we share the bread and the cup together at the table.  God’s grace that forgives our sins is in this sacrament because Christ who forgives our sins is present.  God’s grace that makes us one in the one body of Christ is present in this sacrament because his body and blood are present through the power of the Holy Spirit.

What all this means is that when we come to this table, we not only remember what happened in the past, but we, ourselves, are re-membered.  As a friend of mine, Andrew Thompson pointed out in a United Methodist Reporter article, to re-member something is “to put something back together that has been taken apart.  We “literally…‘re-member’ that thing, so that the various “members” that made up the “whole” are put back into a unity.”[2]  This is Holy Communion.

“Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

Coming together at the Lord’s table is the ultimate antidote for our amnesia.  When we come together to receive Holy Communion we are reminded of who we are because we are literally “re-membered” by Jesus.  Jesus puts us back together.  When we begin to forget who we are, we meet Christ, God’s everlasting-ness, face to face at the table.  We experience God’s everlasting-ness with taste and touch.  This reminder is more than just a pointing to an act 2,000 years ago.  It is an invitation into God’s everlasting-ness.  It is an invitation into God’s life.  It is an invitation to have our identity re-shaped as we share Christ’s body and blood.

It is the ultimate encounter with the one who brings healing to us by sharing our flesh because through the power of the Holy Spirit we receive the flesh that heals us.  When we encounter this reality, like Simon’s mother we begin to serve.  When we encounter this reality, like the disciples we begin to move with Jesus, proclaiming his message.  We remember because Christ re-members us to serve and proclaim his message in the world in which, whether they know it or not, “Everyone is searching for him.”

[1] Richard A. Puckett, “Exegetical Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 315.

[2] Andrew Thompson, “Rethinking the Church Involves Remembering,” http://www.umportal.org/article.asp?id=7183, cited Oct. 1, 2010.

Last week I told the story of my calling to Lane Memorial UMC, and the ways in which I believe God led me here to be among you.  As I reflected on that story this week while I read the scripture from Deuteronomy, I thought about what things must have been like on this end of the congregation.   At Horeb, the people had requested a mediator because they felt that if they stood in God’s presence, they would die.  What would happen when this mediator God had chosen in Moses was gone?  Who would stand in between them and God to deliver God’s message?  Further, an important thing to note in the background is that as these stories were likely being written down in the sixth century is not that God is right there trying to speak to them, but because they are in exile, they are wondering where God has gone?[1]

Moses assures them that “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet” (Deut. 18.15).  Moses’ words offer assurance both to those addressees when Moses said them as well as to those who would be writing them down because they could trust that God had sent them prophets to reliably deliver God’s messages to them in both circumstances.

It is a scary thought to think about losing a leader.  I can imagine the anxiety that must have existed here at Lane in the months after Rick announced that he would be retiring?  Who will the next pastor be?  What will he or she be like?  Can he or she ever do as good of a job as Rick has done?  Perhaps, you may have even thought, “We just got finished breaking in Rick, and now we’ll have to start over again!”[2]  If that anxiety existed here, imagine how those Israelites felt.

This is Moses we’re talking about!  Moses was the kind of leader to which no one could compare.  At the end of Deuteronomy, we hear “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face (Deut. 34.10).”  Yet, Moses assures them that God has it covered.  In our United Methodist Church, where our pastors itinerate, we probably get that kind of “leadership anxiety” more often than other churches.  Moving around our pastors has its benefits as well as its problems, but it is part of how we understand ourselves as a connectional church.  It leads us regularly asking the question, “What will our next leader be like?”

Moses’ response to the anxiety of the Israelites is telling.   God assures the Israelites that these prophets will be raised up “from among your own people” (Deut. 18.15).  This, I think, should be a word of comfort to us when we begin to have “leadership anxiety.”  While the pastor plays an important role in the leadership of a church, God promises that there will be those from among the people whom God will raise up.  Just as God was preparing the way for me to be here, God was preparing to raise up leaders from among this congregation.  Pastors who share leadership and lay people who are invested and equipped leaders are  a sign of healthy congregations.

Pastors who try to put on a super-hero cap and want to take on everything themselves are robbing their members of opportunities to share leadership.  Opportunities to hear God’s voice, like Samuel a couple of weeks ago.  Conversely, many congregations are famous for doing what I like to call “outsourcing our baptismal vows.”  Congregations who expect their pastor or other staff members to do all of the ministry are attempting to outsource the vows that we repeat every time we baptize a person about creating a community of love and forgiveness.  Except we all make that promise.

God intends for us to serve together, drawing together ordained leaders with those leaders from the priesthood of all believers who God raises up.  In these weeks following Epiphany, we have seen a consistent stream of stories about calling.  We hear about Samuel.  We hear about Jonah.  We hear about the call of the disciples.  Last week, I talked a little about my calling last week, but this week we find ourselves encountered by the call before each of us.  This call that God would raise up people from among us.

The “leadership anxiety” that we experience in churches when there are pastoral changes also regularly ripple throughout the life of The United Methodist and many other churches.  As we watch decline in our denomination, we begin to wonder, from where will the next generation of leaders come?  Moses answers us.  “From among your own people!”  However, we have a role to play in this.  It is the role of the Elis and Samuels we heard about two weeks ago.  When we begin to live into that role among ourselves, leadership begins to bubble up as we begin to hear the different callings people have on their lives.  Yet, the question may arise…”Moses here is talking about a prophet.  This is a particular office, isn’t it?  Surely we’re not all called to be prophets like Samuel? Or like Isaiah?  Are there really prophets any more?”

To answer this, we turn to the Gospel lesson.  During the past two weeks, each of the Gospel lessons has featured Jesus calling the disciples.  Yet, our Gospel lesson today features something different.  It shifts away from directly talking about the call of Jesus to begin speaking about his miracles.  Why does this happen?  We said that none of us will stack up to Moses.  That is, no one except Jesus.

In the Deuteronomy text, the Israelites say they don’t want to stand in God’s presence because it is too terrifying and they fear that they will die.  Yet, in Jesus Christ, God’s presence comes to us because God’s Word has taken on flesh and dwells among us.  A prophet no longer mediates the Word in the same way.  The Word is a prophet, the prophet, and yet he is more.  The Word, the message once in need of mediation, has now lived among us.  We now expect to encounter God directly.

Not only do we expect to encounter God directly, but also we find the expectation on us that we will be like Jesus.  Jesus makes it clear that those who believe in him will do the works he does, and they will actually do greater works (John 14.12)!  When the disciples follow Jesus, their role is not simply to be amazed by what Jesus does.  They are being trained “on the job” to do what Jesus does.  This means that while Jesus is the pre-eminent prophet, we, the members of his body should expect to be prophetic in our lives speaking out against injustice, idolatry, and brokenness.  Further, this means that in our Gospel lesson today, when we see Jesus heal the man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit, they are, we are watching an act in which they, and we, are supposed to participate![3]  We are expected to be healers.

This begs the obvious question.  What does it look like for us to go about healing?  I imagine, if you’re like me, that you’re skeptical of this.  We conjure up images of televangelists in fine suits with Rolexes places their hands on someone, crying for the demon to “come out!” as the person falls to the ground.  Yet, as uncomfortable as we are with the image, Mark is not so uncomfortable.  First of all, what is amazing to Mark, is not simply that Jesus casts out the demon.  There were plenty of people walking around claiming to do this all the time in Jesus’ day.  What is amazing, as one commentator points out, was “the authority with which he did so. He did not call upon any other authority in the spirit world to act. Jesus spoke the word, ‘Shut up, and come out of him!’”[4]  Jesus doesn’t need any help.  He relies on his own authority.

Second, it is clear that Mark isn’t as uncomfortable as we are because Mark, as another commentator points out, “more than another Gospel writer, emphasizes Jesus’ miraculous power to heal and to exorcise.  Of the eighteen miracles recorded in Mark, thirteen have to do with healing, and four of the thirteen are exorcisms.”[5]  Mark isn’t scared of this.  What are we to make of this?  Does it mean that if we aren’t healed we don’t have enough faith?  How are we to think about this, especially if we are called to have some role in repeating it as disciples of Jesus?

I think part of the answer is that our vision of “healing” is too narrow.[6]  It is formed by the faith-healer charlatans, and it is characterized based on what our understanding of health is.  But health is wider, salvation means healing!  In reality, Jesus didn’t only heal people because he was moved by their illness and suffering; rather, the healings that Jesus performed were symptomatic of a deeper healing.[7]  Jesus’ life itself is a story of healing because the healing of all humanity was enacted by the fact that God became human.[8]

It is not as if God is somehow hiding in the man Jesus, and revealing God’s self on occasion to perform healings. Jesus’ life is healing. Our healing actually comes from Jesus’ humanity.  Jesus is one who is saving his own people![9]  The healings like the ones we see in the Gospels happen because who Jesus is as both God and human is already effecting our healing.[10] Healing can only happen because the divinity and the humanity are both there.  Our sickness is healed because Jesus shares our flesh.   God becoming human was necessary because of the fact that all of us suffer from such a deep sickness that we fail even to recognize how diseased we are, and even if we do, the sickness has such a hold on us that we can’t get free of it on our own.[11]  To be healed doesn’t mean that we won’t die.  To be healed means that we are part of the one who brings resurrection.

Does this mean we shouldn’t pray for healing from illnesses?  Absolutely not.  We should continue to pray for healing.  But we shouldn’t understand healing in such a limited way.  Our faith shouldn’t be broken when people still die.  Rather, what we see in Jesus’ life, is that each and every one of us is in need of healing.   So, as the disciples watched our lesson for today unfold, they were witnessing a sign of a healing they were also undergoing.  The works the disciples did came only as a result of the healing that Jesus effected in them.  We, who are called to do what Jesus did, can only be healers in the world because we know what it’s like to be healed.  We can only bring God’s healing to other because we ourselves have been and are still being healed.

How does this connect back with the Deuteronomy lesson?  God promises to raise up leadership from among us.  Rather than being people who are called to break in and take control, leaders in the church are shaped by their “followership.”[12]  Those who God raises up are recipients of healing, and they are called to lead others into healing.  Further, each and every one of us, no matter the role we are to play in the life of the church are being healed, and we are called to be healers.  Jesus chose to take on our flesh, and by doing so, he already began to heal us.  We bring healing to others as Jesus’ disciples because we have experienced Jesus’ healing presence in our lives.  Yet, we recognize that there are many things that are not healed in us yet.

And this morning, as we have thought about our call, as we have thought about God’s provision of leaders, and as we have thought about healing, I’m asking:  Where do need healing?  Where do you need healing, so that you can bring healing to others?  I’m not putting any kind of parameters on this question.  I don’t need to because even now, many of you are bringing to mind what needs healing.  What healing needs to happen in your life, so that you can bring healing to others?  What healing needs to happen, so that you can bring healing to others?  In just a few minutes, we will have the opportunity to undergo the historic church practice of anointing.  Since the beginning, the church has brought anointing and laying on of hands to pray for healing.  Today we will share in that practice, praying for healing, so that we might live God’ call on our lives and bringing God’s healing to others.  Where do you need healing, so that you can bring healing to others?

[1] Richard A. Puckett, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 293.

[2] William J. Carl III, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 291.

[3] “OT/Gospel Stream: This Call’s for You, 1 — Prophets and Deliverers,” United Methodist General Board of Discipleship Lectionary Planning Helps, Online:  http://www.gbod.org/site/c.nhLRJ2PMKsG/b.3879973/k.9C35/Lectionary_Planning_Helps_for_Sundays.htm, cited January 29, 2012.

[5] P.C. Enniss, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting, p. 310.

[6] My understanding of healing from this perspective was, and continues to be, formed and shaped by J. Kameron Carter’s Christology class he taught during the Spring Semester of 2008 while I was working on my Master of Theology degree at Duke University Divinity School.  This explains why my footnotes for this section of the sermon are so detailed!

[7] “We do not really grasp Jesus’ cures, which include the healing of those considered possessed, if we understand them solely as miracles performed for individuals out of sympathy for their illness.  Since the eschatological horizon of Jesus’ activity has reentered consciousness, it has been clear that Jesus’ miracles of healing must be seen in connection with his preaching of the kingdom of God.” Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community, trans. by John P. Galvin, (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1982), p. 12.

[8] “It is as one who is God that he took flesh and it is as one who was in flesh that he divinized the flesh.”  St. Athanasius, Orations against the Arians in The Christological Controversy, trans. and edited by Richard A. Norris, Jr., (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1980), p. 97.

[9] “In this way he saved his own people, not as a man conjoined to God, but as God who has come in the likeness of those who were in danger, so that in him first of all the human race might be refashioned to what it was in the beginning.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, On The Unity of Christ, trans. by John Anthony McGuckin, (Crestwood, New York:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), p. 88.

[10] “The question ‘Who?’ is simply the religious question.  It is the question about the other person and his claim, about the other being, about the other authority. It is the question of love for one’s neighbour.  Questions of transcendence and of existence become questions concerning the person.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, trans. by Edwin H. Robertson, (New York, NY:  Harper-Collins, 1978), p. 31.

[11] “A person who has of his own accord bound himself to a debt which he cannot repay, has thrown himself into this state of incapacity by his guilt.  As a result, he is unable to repay what he owed before his sin, that is, an obligation not to sin, and the fact that he is in debt as a consequence of his sin is inexcusable.” St. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, translated by Brian Davies and G.R. Evans, (London:  Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 310.

[12] Kenneth L. Carder and Layece C. Warner, Grace to Lead:  Practicing Leadership in the Wesleyan Tradition,  (Nashville:  United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2010), p. 10.