IF YOU CHOOSE…
The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Bobby Gale and I have been friends for a good while. What started out as an Annual Conference acquaintance has become a friendship that I have come to value over the years. Bobby is one of those no-nonsense-kind-of-guys who just has a way of telling things as they are. Years ago he left the local pastorate and its guarantee of a paycheck, health benefits, and a retirement plan to care for some of the world’s forgotten. Like a modern day prophet, he often reminds the rest of us that God is probably not extremely excited about the way we feed the religious systems so much of our energy and resources when there are so many people of the world in need. Sometimes as I feel the fire of his heart and hear the passion of his words, it is like Amos saying again,
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no
delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away
from me the noise of your songs; I will not
listen to the melody of your harps. But let
justice roll down like waters, and righteousness
like an everflowing stream. (Amos 5:21, 23-24)
We sometimes have the wrong idea about what it means to be righteous. It has nothing to do with attaining some level of spiritual piety. Instead, it is a word which speaks about being in a right relationship with God and in a right relationship with the people around us in our world.
Bobby has a heart for the people of Africa. He wants all of them to have a basic need which we all take for granted. He wants them to have clean water—water that is not infected with parasites, bacterias, and germs. He keeps sending these pictures of African women kneeling beside a muddy stream and tells the story of their journey of several miles every day just to draw water from such a place. And then, he also sends pictures of a whole village of people dancing in the pure water which is coming from newly drilled well that goes deep into the heart of the earth’s aquifers. Whenever I see the pictures and hear the stories, I find myself once more aware of the deep burden God has placed in my heart for these brothers and sisters in Christ.
I could not help but think about Bobby Gale and his ministry of digging wells in Africa when I read this gospel lesson for the day. Of course, the text is not about thirsty Africans, but about one Jewish leper. After Jesus leaves Capernaum and its
crowd of people still seeking Him, He encounters a single leper on the road. Everything about the picture of Jesus and the leper speaks of a cultural picture out of kilter. First of all, lepers stayed in isolated places with other lepers. If one should approach healthy people, it was required that they loudly identify themselves as lepers so that the healthy
community could make every effort to avoid them. The leper in this story ignores the taboos of culture, boldly comes to Jesus, and kneels down in front of him begging for help. A second thing that makes the picture appear out of kilter is the response of Jesus. He does what no sane man would dare do. He stretches out his hand and touches the rotting flesh of the leper. Such was an unthinkable response to everyone who watched safely at a distance. Everyone else feared that touching a leper would result in contracting leprosy.
The story is not a complicated story. There are two main characters. There is the leper and there is Jesus. It is the conversation between the two which is so intriguing. As the leper falls on his knees in front of Jesus begging for his life, he cries out,
If you choose, you can make me
clean. (Mark 1:40)
It is such a human prayer. How many of us have not offered it at one time or another? It is the cry of the heart which often says, “Lord, you could do this thing I need if You would.” Hardly had the leper breathed his prayer, when Jesus responded. The Word of God says,
Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his
hand and touched him, and said to him,
“I do choose. Be made clean!” (Mark 1:42)
There is something about the conversation that touches us in the deep places of our hearts. All of a sudden it is not a single leper who is speaking, but the needy forgotten and pushed-out-of-the-way people of the world. All of sudden it is not just a single leper who is running toward Jesus, but the great hordes of sufferers running toward those of us who stand in the stead of Christ in the world. All of a sudden it is not just the voice of single desperate leper, but the desperate collective voice of the world’s needy crying out to the body of Christ in the world,
If you choose…if you choose…
It is a voice speaking a word we do not really want to hear. It is a word which shatters the complacent world we live in as disciples of Jesus. It is a word which makes it clear that personal piety cannot take the place of compassionate choices in the world. It is word which takes the priorities of the church to task. It is a word which declares to the church that caring for the personal needs of the gathered community can no longer be viewed as its primary missional mandate.
As we stand in the world as the body of Christ and listen to the voice of those who struggle daily with such enormous human need, we hear that voice saying to us,
If you choose…if you choose…
“If you choose, you could do something. If you choose, you could dig a well for my village. If you choose, you could put bread on the table for my children. If you choose, you could see that I have a coat and a warm place on freezing nights. If you choose, you could listen to the hurts of my heart. If you choose, you could make me welcome among
you. If you choose, you could tell me about Jesus. If you choose, you could make my life so different. If you choose, you could make me clean.”
When the desperate voice of the world’s suffering is really heard crying out, “If you choose…,” the excuses we use to avoid responding soon no longer seem like things that hold water. Maybe the economy is broken, maybe our own financial future seems shaky, maybe the church budget is being stretched too much already, maybe the climate is filled with fear and uncertainty, but it is still true that if we choose, this church can make a difference in the lives of those who are crying out to Jesus for help. We can still choose to give. We can still choose to reach out. We can still choose to make a difference for Jesus in the lives of others. If we choose, we can do what Jesus did. We can make a difference in the life of someone who is all but forgotten. If we choose, this church can stand in the world in such a way that it will seem to those it touches that they are being touched by the hand of Jesus. If only we choose...But, then maybe we have said it wrong. Maybe we should use the words of the leper, the Words of the Scripture, which says, “If you choose…If you choose…
This sermon preached by the Rev. Bill Strickland at the Richmond Hill United Methodist Church in Richmond Hill, Georgia on February 15, 2009.