Pentecost 20 October 10, 2010

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

Luke 17:11-19


Friday afternoon we had a training session for our two new young acolytes, Alex Goulet and Anna Ishak, and Alex cracked one of the pillar candles at the altar. It was loose on its holder and he tipped it too far and it fell on the floor. Now what does that have to do with the readings for today? Everything.

You see, the readings are linked by the fact that each has to do with leprosy. Leprosy is mentioned again and again in the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. It’s not to be confused with Hansen’s disease, which is the name for a medical condition, a bacterial infection now readily treated with antibiotics, that causes blotchy skin and disfigurement. In biblical times leprosy covered a wide range of ailments that had in common symtoms that made the skin discolored, scarred or imperfect. Biblical people thought that these imperfections were connected to moral imperfections. So people with “leprosy” were unfit to worship God and unfit for human society. They were outcasts.

The story of Naaman, the mighty commander of the Aramean army, and the story of the ten lepers healed by Jesus are thus stories about human sin, human imperfection, our human sense that deep down we are somehow unfit in the eyes of God and of other people. The candle that Alex broke was a sort of symbol of that imperfection – the imperfection of all of us here in this room, that “smudge at the back of the soul,” as the poet James Merrill put it.

Now in some churches, a young acolyte breaking a candle would have been a big deal. The priest would have scolded the acolyte for tipping the candle too far. He would have delivered a lecture about carefulness, about how expensive altar candles are. The acolyte might have been placed on probation or even told to wait another year or two before he was ready to serve – to serve “perfectly” at God’s altar. In another church, you see, a lot of weight might be put on doing everything perfectly, especially around the altar, so everyone in the pews could feel that they were perfect too.

But this is Holy Cross. So I told Alex not to mind, that it was really my fault because I should have fastened the candle more firmly to its holder. I took the cracked candle home, dripped wax into the cracks, and fixed it – not flawless, but ready to go again. And in my prayers Friday night I gave thanks for serving in a congregation where flaws and imperfections can be forgiven, patched up, and lived with – including especially the flaws and imperfections of me, the priest. I gave thanks for families like the Ishaks and the Goulets who faithfully fit church into busy lives and for kids like Anna and Alex who come and have fun and grow up and bring their liveliness to share with us.

Thankfulness is at the heart of Christianity: forgiveness and thankfulness. They don’t require any time, any money, any college degrees or elaborate efforts. They just require carrying Jesus in our hearts. And that’s what the story of Naaman is all about. Naaman, being a powerful and wealthy man, the commander of the army of the greatest nation of the time, couldn’t believe that his healing didn’t require something costly and spectacular and special.

I always tell the story, when I preach about Naaman, of my visit to the home of a college friend of mine, whose father was a wealthy doctor on the upper east side of Manhattan. The doctor lived in a large town house filled with art and antiques. And after a few double Scotches, he put his arm around my shoulders and confided the secret of his success: “John, important  people like to be told they have important diseases, and they’re willing to pay important fees to be cured.” That was Naaman – and, really, I think it’s our whole mindset in America today, because America is like Aram in biblical times: the greatest nation in the world.

But what does Elisha tell Naaman to do to heal his leprosy, his symbolic sinfulness, his human imperfection? Go, wash in the River Jordan, the little, simple river of the little insignificant country of Israel. Just that. The River Jordan, of course, symbolized the faith of Israel: faith in the forgiveness of God, faith founded not on perfection and performance, but on thankfulness for what God has done for God’s people. Baptism is our River Jordan: a little, simple washing that seals God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, no matter how flawed we are, no matter how many cracks we have to patch up.

This morning we begin our campaign for pledges to support this flawed, imperfect, but deeply loved little church of Holy Cross through the coming year. It’s an important pledge drive, the most important we’ve ever had, I suppose. We have to stretch ourselves, really stretch – 15% or so increase overall – in order to be in a place to call a new priest, not someone retired like me, but for whom we have to pay health and pension benefits. Putting together the pledge materials over the past days (and they’re wonderful, they do a beautiful job of presenting Holy Cross), I found myself deeply anxious that we wouldn’t make it, wouldn’t be able to stretch that far.

But then I said to myself, “John, this isn’t about perfection and performance. This is about thankfulness. God will open the hearts of God’s people, and they will respond. Leave it to God.” And so I will.

Holy Cross, I think, is like the one leper who returned to give thanks: the one who was a Samaritan. The Samaritans, you remember, were the flawed, imperfect faith cousins of the true Jews – the ones who hadn’t quite made it. And the implication of the gospel story is that the nine lepers who didn’t return to thank Jesus were so full of themselves, so full of their good Jew perfection, that they had no room in their hearts to remember who had forgiven and healed them. Only the guy who knew his sinfulness was thereby able to express his thankfulness. I think most of us at Holy Cross are like that Samaritan. I think we’ll return and give thanks. I know I will – from the bottom of my heart.

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