If you choose
Dartmouth College Chapel
Richard R. Crocker
February 19, 2012
We are talking about grace, God’s unmerited favor, by which we are saved, as St. Paul and Kurt Nelson reminded us last week.
Kurt presented the Lutheran view, which, though it has its critics, is generally redeemed by Lutheran good humor. It is up to me to present the Calvinist view, which, despite being central to the heritage of this college, this region, and indeed this nation, or perhaps because of being central to it, is often reviled and misunderstood. Calvinists are derided as rigid, humorless, narrow-minded, obsessively frugal people. We Calvinists today are a small group, but, dare I say, there are those who love us.
As a Presbyterian/Calvinist minister, I have presided at many funerals. There is one sentence in the funeral service that I identify as the essence of Calvinism. No matter who has died, no matter whose body or ashes or picture lies before us, we begin the service by saying: Our hope is not in our own goodness, but in the goodness of God.
The scripture passage today presents a problem.
It is about leprosy, or rather, about healing leprosy. We are thankful that leprosy is not a common disease in our world today; though it does continue to afflict about 200,000 people in the world, it can now be successfully treated. In ancient times, it was a dread disease because of its contagion, its debilitation, and its hopelessness. When they were not forced to live isolated in graveyards or in islands, lepers were required to cover themselves and to proclaim as they walked a warning – “beware, leprosy. Do not touch me.” We can only imagine the social stigma that it carried, and the hopelessness it engendered.
As I said last week, there is no protection against bad things, including disease, happening to us. We may live very healthy lives, take exercise, consume vitamins, get vaccinations, and still get cancer. Many of us know this from personal experience. (I speak as a cancer survivor, and chances are that some of you are survivors as well.) God does not grant us immunity from the frailties of being human, and disease – even dreadful hopeless diseases - are part of the human condition from which we cannot escape – no matter how powerful we are or how wealthy or how much we exercise.
When one is ill, one hopes for healing and searches for it wherever one hears of a possible cure. Today, we go to doctors, and they are often able to help us. This is a mercy, for which we are thankful. Whenever we experience healing, though the instrumentality of physicians or medicines, or through prayer, we know that healing is a gift, and we know that it comes to us as a sign of God’s mercy and goodness and grace. Sometimes healing does not come, and this is a reality that we must face as well. The leper who sought out Jesus said: “If you choose, you can make me clean.” And Jesus said: “I do choose. Be made clean.” And then Jesus told him to go show himself to the priest, but not to tell anyone what had happened.
A number of questions arise from this story. Its point, of course, is the miraculous power of God to heal us. The story commends to us, in our sickness, an attitude of faith. But it also prompts questions that we think about, but cannot answer. Questions such as:
Why is there disease in the first place?
Why did Jesus heal this one leper rather than all lepers?
Why did Jesus tell the man not to tell anyone what had happened to him?
As I said, these questions cause endless speculation, but there are no definite answers. Still, there are observations to be made.
What about the leper who came to Jesus. Was he especially worthy? Not that we know. He simply presented himself in faith, prepared to be healed if Jesus chose. And Jesus did choose to. Why did Jesus choose to heal this leper and not others? Why is the gift of healing experienced by some but not by others? There are “faith healers” who tell us that it is our faith that heals us. If we are sick, it is because we have sinned, or because we have not prayed hard enough, or because we do not have enough faith. That then means that we are sick because we are not good enough, and that healing, when it comes, is not a gift, but a reward. But you know what faith is? Faith is not belief that I conjure up in myself that will make me be healed. Faith is the attitude of trust that seeks healing, hopes for healing, but that does not demand healing or think that healing is my due, any more than it is anyone else’s.
People often speak of faith healers; and there are many people who call themselves faith healers. Many are frauds. Some are helpful. It is indisputably true that faith in one’s doctor, and faith in God, contribute to our healing. But it is also true that people of great faith sometimes are not healed. And their great faith is shown to be great because they are able to accept that God does not always bring us healing on this earth.
I learned a great deal from a colleague many years ago who suffered from numerous diseases for years, all related to kidney failure. She was a person of great faith, but her life was very difficult. She said to me once, “I believe that God can heal me. God can heal me through medicine, God can heal me through a miracle, or God can heal me through death.” It was the third that brought her the healing she sought.
It is very hard for thoughtful people, in this world where awful things occur, to have constant faith in the goodness of God. I don’t know how many of you have been in situations (church camps come to mind) when someone starts the chant “God is good – all the time” and the response is “All the time – God is good.” In such situations I remain silent as a mummy. I am not the cheerleading type.
Elie Wiesel has said that, after the holocaust, no theological statement should be made which is not credible in the smell of burning children.
I think he is right. Glib affirmations of God’s goodness often strike me as incredible or naïve or offensive – or all three. And yet – I believe. I believe in the goodness of God.
There are clues. You can probably affirm from your own experience that the lessons you learn from failure, though painful, are more valuable than the lessons learned from success. But does that justify the pain and death and suffering that are so common in this world? I think not.
Christians believe that God is with us in our suffering – not always to heal, but to redeem. It is the picture of Jesus on the cross that represents for us, supremely, God’s presence in our suffering. But I don’t think it would be helpful --- in fact, it is blasphemous – for us to stand in front of the cross, or at the entrance to Auschwitz, and chant “God is good, all the time.” At such times, it is better to be quiet.
We all are preserved each day from many possible disasters. How often have we had narrow escapes, for which we can take no credit at all. We sometimes speak of those events as miracles – and there is no doubt, miracles occur. But miracles are not ours to demand or to presume. Just as Jesus did not presume to escape suffering and death himself, so we also must live with gratitude for the blessings of every day, with hope that guides us even through difficulty, with faith in God’s goodness, and with compassion and love for all the beings who surround us, whose fate we share, for whom God’s love is also abundant. “If you choose, you can make me clean. Such is the prayer we all utter; such is the faith that sustains us in life and in death. Amen.