Today, from 2 Kings and the gospel we have stories of lepers being cured. In both of these accounts, who takes the initiative toward healing? Naaman, having taken a woman’s advice, is the one who travels to Israel to Elisha, the man of God. to be cured of leprosy. The leper, before Jesus begs, kneels and asks Jesus to choose to make him clean. The disease they have in common, but their expectations for a cure vary. Naaman goes seeking to be healed but very much on his own terms. Replete with power, Naaman goes to trade, to buy the healing he needs. Elisha, the man of God, apparently oblivious to Naaman’s grandeur, doesn’t dignify Naaman with an audience, simply directs him as to what he must do to be healed. Elisha doesn’t negotiate on Naaman’s terms. Naaman wrestles, resists, for he’s unaccustomed to being treated this way, to being the one without power. Naaman’s required to do something to achieve his end in a way he does not expect. He wants to achieve the end but to do so Naaman has to conform to the instruction of the man of God, to acknowledge and submit himself to a power not in his control, beyond and outside his reach and influence. Being healed of leprosy will make a difference, he will not be as he was. Naaman wants to be healed of leprosy but to achieve it he has to do differently, to change.
By contrast the leper-before-Jesus asks his cleansing to be Jesus’ choice for him, the leper calls on divine mercy to be healed, he asks for it. The leper is willing and ready to be cleansed, ready for change. Despite the fact he’s not obedient to Jesus instruction to go to the priest in the temple and offer what Moses commanded for his cleansing, the leper is cleansed. Mark’s giving a fairly big clue that change is afoot, there’s something powerful at work through this Jesus, part of the tradition of the Law yet more.
Willingness to change, obedience, being cleansed, they’re all themes of the season that we’re about to move into, the season of Lent, a season of preparation for Easter, a season of repentance. We’ll begin this coming Wednesday, with ritual in which we’re marked with ashes, a reminder to us of our mortality. Not in morbid sense but to remind us, recall us to live – life is time limited and is precious, so let our lives express that. In Lent we more intentionally place ourselves before God and ask for healing. Ask for healing of that which mars and disfigures us and our lives, keeps us from living fully that we may be made new, begin anew. At Easter we renew our baptismal commitment, symbolically sprinkled with water, we’re washed again in the waters of rebirth. Maybe not seven times do we dip in water but we engage in a ritual of cleansing.
Ash Wednesday to Easter, six weeks to reflect on how we are before God, how we are in our life, how we are with those around us. As means to enable this we may choose in that time to live a little more simply. Historically of course Lent’s been the big discipline season – the time to give something up or, in recent years, to give something to a need or cause. Strangely, though, in our world of plenty I sometimes wonder if it becomes a season of heightened guilt awareness. Of how we fall short, of how foolishly attached we are to certain things, especially if we’ve given them up for Lent, of how inadequately holy we are. In a curiously inverse way we can become distracted by our self-discipline, or absorbed in self-recrimination that turns us inward, away from God and others. Such disciplines can reinforce the sense that we’re the ones in control, in charge, as if by sheer dint of will we can change ourselves, be better people, more worthy of God.
Which brings Naaman to mind – thinking we can trade our way to healing, that we think we know what the process of healing involves, what healing, being healed will look like. We can do the change, we know what we want, just tell us what to do, we’re up for it!! Unless it requires something unlike anything we expect, especially something unreasonably easy, close to home normal, everyday, overlooked, ordinary. Something that means we’re healed, know our wholeness NOW, in what may seem the unremarkable present tense of our life. Something that asks us to be honest, present with ourselves, as we are, without trappings of achievement or power or acquisition, just us moving toward God saying, in the words of Mark’s leper, “If you choose you can make me clean,” open to divine choosing that we know we are whole. We can tangle ourselves up with words like sin and repentance, the need for penance and discipline, as if we can somehow make ourselves worthy. Tying ourselves up in knots so preoccupied, thinking we have power to make ourselves good enough, so busy we don’t give ourselves chance to hear the One before us say, “I do choose.”
How can we learn to hear, put away our expectations of condemnation? Perhaps this image from Reformed Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, on the occasion of Yom Kippur, might help. To give you a brief frame of reference for Yom Kippur: within the Jewish calendar year there’s a period of ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, these days are known as the Days of Awe. We might understand them a bit like Lent, it’s a time for reconciliation not just with God but also with people we’ve wronged in the last year. Yom Kippur literally means “Day of Atonement,” it concludes this time. Perhaps the most important day of observation in the Jewish Year, it’s a day set aside to “afflict the soul,” to atone for the sins of the past year.
Rabbi Wenig asks, “What if we went home to visit God this Yom Kippur? God” she said, “would usher us into her kitchen, seat us at her table, pour two cups of tea. ‘Let me have a good look at you,’ she says. And at a single glance, God sees us as both newly born and dying. In a single glance she sees our birth and death and all the years in between. She sees us as we were when we were young: when we idolized her and trustingly followed her anywhere; when our scrapes and bruises healed quickly; when we were filled with wonder at all things new. She sees us in our middle years when everyone needed us and we had no time for sleep. And God sees our later years: when we no longer felt so needed. She sees us sleeping alone in a room that once slept two. God sees things about us we have forgotten and things we do not yet know.
When she is finished looking at us, God might say, “So tell me, how are you? Can you imagine that, how it would be? God is sitting and waiting for us” Rabbi Wenig closes, “as she has waited every Yom Kippur, waiting very patiently until we are ready.”
Rabbi Wenig’s image of God as an old mother in the kitchen with tea, wanting her children to come home once in a while, is a liberal interpretation of the ancient tradition of Yom Kippur. Wenig alters the traditional images of sin and guilt and repentance and forgiveness into a more human, loving image. The task is still to make an assessment of one’s life, to consider how one has been and to set an intention for where one will go next. Her image, however, softens the traditional language of sin and guilt, repentance and atonement.
That God Rabbi Wenig describes sees our whole lives, from beginning to end, as one whole piece. There’s no life without moments of error as part of it. But would that kind of loving presence expect to see any human life that didn’t experience the whole range of emotions? Would any parent really wish for their child to never experience regret, for them to never make selfish or unthinking mistakes? What parent would feel comfortable raising a child who’d never experienced the difficult realities of life that shape a conscience and a soul?
Can we let ourselves be that beloved, just come home, child of God? Put down what weighs us, relinquish the hurts we’ve sustained and /or inflicted on others? How willing are we to unhook ourselves from our unforgiveness – of others and ourselves. How much is it the stuff of our identity, keeping us in thrall to, entrapped by our past?
I wonder how it would be to live present to each day, not unaffected, not unscarred, not unchanged by our past but able to choose to live now in the fullness of the person we are because of our journey. To let it be possible that the wounds of our past can be healed, so our past need not still be our present. To accept the hospitality of God who waits for us, who asks us to name how we are, that we might be unburdened of that which diminishes us, our lives, our capacity to give of ourselves for the life of the world.