Well, not exactly. Instead of going to VTS, I ended up going to a Lutheran seminary (and I received an excellent education there). And instead of a full-time call to be an assistant rector somewhere, my first call out of seminary was to close a congregation. That sure wasn’t in my plan. It also wasn’t part of the plan to face unemployment before the first anniversary of my ordination. And it wasn’t in the plan that I would end up serving a Methodist church part-time because there are no full-time calls open in the diocese. I wasn't going to be in urban ministry at St. Luke's Franklin Square either. And I wasn't going to go back to my home congregation for nine months. And don't even tell me I'd spend almost two years as a hospice chaplain. No way! That was not going to happen! I had it all planned out, don't you see?
It’s said that we make plans, and God laughs. I guess I've been a major source of comic relief for the Almighty. Things don’t always work out the way we think they will, but that doesn’t mean we don’t think about outcomes or get emotionally invested in how we think things should be.
Naaman had that problem. He was a powerful man, very important general to the King of Aram, but he had leprosy. Now leprosy was a catch all term for a lot of skin diseases and we really don’t know what Naaman had, but leprosy was feared and if you could find a cure, you’d definitely want to get it. Naaman’s wife has a Hebrew servant girl who tells her it’s too bad Naaman isn’t in Israel because there’s a prophet there who would cure him of his leprosy. Eventually, Naaman makes his way to Elisha’s house and gets pretty annoyed when the prophet merely sends word through his messenger to go wash seven times in the Jordan and he’d be clean. Elisha also knows that the healing of leprosy isn’t about him having special powers, but is about the power of God alone to heal. But Naaman doesn’t quite get it, so he blows up. “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” Whoa, wait a minute … hold the phone. His wife’s servant said there is a prophet who could cure him of his leprosy. She didn’t say anything about some elaborate ritual he would do to bring about this cure! But somewhere between hearing about this cure and his arrival at Elisha’s doorstep, Naaman has dreamed up this elaborate liturgy about how Elisha would cure him. He would come out? Stand and call on the name of the Lord his God? Wave his hand over the spot? Wow! That’s a liturgy worthy of an Anglican! Naaman is not only invested in a definite outcome of receiving a cure, but he has also concocted the exact process by which it would happen.
Now the leper in Mark’s story has a very different approach. This healing story begins a series of vignettes in Mark portraying Jesus as a crosser of social and legal boundaries. But we must recognize that the leper actually violates the boundary first. In the Levitical codes, a leper was not supposed to engage anyone. They were to walk with their hand over their upper lip and cry out “unclean, unclean” as they came near anyone so that people could avoid them. Instead, this leper approaches Jesus, not with a cry of “unclean, unclean,” but with a cry bidding Jesus to come to him. This leper invites Jesus to come along side him … and Jesus does. He then says, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Or, in the AAV (that’s “Anjel’s Authorized Version … not available in stores), “If you desire, you have the power to cleanse me.”
The key to his statement is in the “if.” We only have one word for “if” in English, but the Greeks had two different ones: ei and ean. Ei is the “if of certainty” as in, “If I touch a hot stove, I will burn my hand.” We know the outcome, it’s a no brainer. Ean, on the other hand, is called the “if of uncertainty” as in “If I win the lottery, what would I do with the money?” That’s a very uncertain if! It is this latter type of “if” we find in the leper’s words and it is followed by a form of the verb to choose, wish, will or desire which also suggests an uncertain outcome. What we can make of this is that the leper is not invested in a specific outcome; he isn’t taking this healing for granted as a done deal at all. Unlike Naaman who is highly invested in how it should all turn out and exactly how it will go down, this leper is actually making a faith statement. He says that Jesus has the power to cleanse him regardless of whether Jesus chooses to exercise that power or not. If the AAV ever gets published, I’d probably render it as, “You have the power to make me clean. Regardless of whether you want to or not, you have the power to make me clean.” Jesus responds by being moved with compassion, accepting the boundary crossing first proposed by the leper, and heals him.
In the season of Epiphany, the focus is on the question, “Who is Jesus?” In the case of the leper in Mark, Jesus is the one with the power to cleanse, regardless of whether he desires to exercise his power or not. Unlike Naaman, this leper doesn’t get invested in the outcome or a specific process. This is the tension we live in: how do we have a vision of what or how things should be and yet holding it lightly enough to let God do what needs to be done even if it does not match how we think it should happen.
The Christian life is an adventure and there are no guaranteed outcomes short of the fullness of a resurrected life in God. What that will look like and how it will go down is mystery. Letting go of prescribed outcomes and preconceived ideas of how things should happen is what it means to grow in our faith.
Who is Jesus? He is the one with the power to cleanse, the power to make us whole and who promises and abundant life. Our faith challenge is to trust this power and let go of our assumptions of how it will all work out.