The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
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Rewriting The Story

Year B - 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mark 1:40-45

Peeking into the Future

Sometimes I think about how odd it would be to catch a glimpse of the future, a quick view of events lying in store for us at some undisclosed date. Suppose we could peer through a tiny peephole in time and chance upon a flash of what was coming up in the years ahead?...Some moments we saw would make no sense at all and some, I suspect would frighten us beyond endurance. If we knew what was looming, we'd avoid certain choices, select option B instead of A at the fork in the road: the job, the marriage, the move to a new state, childbirth, the first drink, the elective medical procedure, that long-anticipated ski trip that seemed like such fun until the dark rumble of the avalanche. If we understood the consequences of any given action, we could exercise discretion, thus restructuring our fate. Time, of course, only runs in one direction, and it seems to do so in an orderly progression. Here in the blank and stony present, we're shielded from the knowledge of the dangers that await us, protected from future horrors through blind innocence.1

This bit of philosophical pondering is offered by Kinsey Millhone, a middle-aged, two-time divorcee detective and junk food junkie star of Sue Grafton's popular "alphabet" mysteries. It comes from the opening paragraph of 'N' Is for Noose, but who among us has not had such thoughts. We wonder, “What if I had known the future? What would I have done differently?” Would I have made the same decisions? What things would I have done differently. I cannot resist asking that question about the man in today's story. Let us for a moment travel back in time to the man's early youth. When the leper enjoyed a wonderful healthy life. Let us take a glimpse into that past when he enjoyed celebrating the festivals with his family; when he worked with his father in the family business. We do not know the specifics but we can guess what life would have been like for a young man living in a rural town in Galilee. He would have worried about the Roman occupation. He would have spent time in the synagogue with his friends listening to the rabbi read from the prophet Isaiah and speak about the coming Messiah. He would have also attended the town feasts and ate till it hurt and drunk till he could not walk. So, what do you think this young man would have done had God given him a glimpse into the future and allowed him to see the years he would live in isolation and despair as a leper?

In ancient Jewish society, lepers were ostracized from village life. They were required to wear torn clothes and call out “Unclean! Unclean!” so that no one would make accidentally contact. Consider what it would be like to be banished to a life of separation and isolation; to live in a world that lacked all human contact. The world of the leper lacked the embrace of friendship and the intimacy of love.

What would this man have done if God had shown him not only his life as a leper but also the day of his healing? What would this man have done if God had given him a choice? A) he could live a healthy but uneventful life in a tiny village in Galilee where he would hear stories about a miracle worker but never actually meet this Jesus of Nazareth or B) he would live for years as a leper until that day when Jesus would come and heal him. What would you choose.

What if God had shown me that three months before my wedding, I would be moving my future bride's mother off the family farm because of a foreclosure? How would I have responded if God allowed me to see myself undergoing two years of chemo-therapy and wondering if the cancer was finally in remission? Would I have began my journey with the same enthusiasm? Would I have still agreed to walk through those difficult years? Or, would I have asked God to rewrite the story?

While I may ponder the possibility, the reality is that I cannot rewrite my past nor dictate the plot for my future. God has a sovereign plan for my life and for yours. For some of you, your future holds great joy and exciting opportunities. Others will encounter difficult times and still other will experience excruciating suffering. Are you willing to embrace God's future regardless?

The easiest thing we can do is to place ourselves at the end of the story; to move from the beginning to the end thereby skipping the discomfort in-between. We much prefer to hear the words “and they lived happily ever after...” rather than “It was a dark and stormy night....” I preferred seeing Aragon's wedding to Arwen much more than the the Fellowship of the Nine's walk through the mine or Moria and their battle with the Orcs and the Balrog. However, you cannot know the joy of healing without enduring the anguish of suffering. The honor of the Purple Heart is only worn by those courageous women and men who know the pain of a battlefield wound.

Lessons from A Leper's Story

The story of the leper's healing reveals several things about the character of God that should strengthen us to accept whatever has taken place and embrace whatever lies before us. First, the story reminds us that we serve a God who is sovereign over all of history. Notice the words of the leper. He does not question whether Jesus could heal him. He begs for Jesus to heal him in complete confidence that Jesus has the power to grant his request. “If you want to, you can make me clean.” The leper knows that Jesus can make him whole. The man may have seen Jesus cleanse others or had merely heard the stories. Whatever the case, he knew that power belonged to the Lord. Even with his body ravaged by disease, the leper trusted in the sovereign power of God.

Secondly, the story also reminds me that I serve a God who responds out of his will not my wants or my faith. The NIV states that Jesus was moved with compassion or pity. Other manuscripts record that he was moved out of anger. Most commentaries agree that if Jesus was filled with anger, it would have been toward the legalistic enforcement of the law of Moses. Jesus understand that God gave the people his laws to protect them so that they might live in peace and harmony with one another, but the religious rulers twisted them to punish and inflict the people. In either case, whether Jesus was moved by his compassion or his anger, he still choose to heal the man according to his will not the lepers wants.

We are people who are told by both secular and religious speakers that we can take control of our lives and the events that shape them. We are to shape our future. We are to create our destiny. We should pray expecting results. Kathleen Norris observes in her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, that the life of faith “stumbles over modern self-consciousness and self- reliance, a remarkable ingenuous belief in our ability to set goals and attain them as quickly as possible.” She received a mailing from a group of  New Age witches that stated, “I can create my own reality and that sending out a positive expectation will bring a positive result.” Norris noted that only America could produce a Pollyanna witch. Why, because America's spirituality, both secular and Christian is based in a pragmatism that is focused on accomplishing our goals and our plans. We fail to accept that God does not always respond to our wants, our plans, or even our faith.

I often hear people say that if you just have enough faith you can be healed of anything. I was listening to a lady who called a radio pastor. The pastor was a wise, grandfatherly gentleman who has that calm reassuring voice that can melt all fear. The lady, who was obviously crying, said, "Pastor, I was born blind, and I've been blind all my life. I don't mind being blind but I have some well meaning friends who tell me that if I had more faith I could be healed."

The pastor asked her, "Tell me, do you carry one of those white canes?"

"Yes I do," she replied.

"Then the next time someone says that hit them over the head with the cane," He said. "Then tell them, 'If you had more faith that wouldn't hurt!'"

God responds to our pleadings out of his compassion but only according to his will. Have you ever considered that while Jesus healed many, he did not heal everyone? Have you ever considered that those who Jesus healed would later still become sick and die? God may give us a brief respite from our suffering out of his compassion, not because of our plans and our goals.

The story of the healing of the leper also serves to remind us that our response to God's sovereignty and compassion is to live each day in the present not lamenting the past or worrying about the future. The leper did not consult a crystal ball, or stare into the bottom of a tea cup or gaze into the stars to decided if he should approach Jesus. He seized the moment that was before him. When he approached Jesus, he did not complain about his past. He did not challenge the fairness of God's plan for his life. He did not ask Jesus, “Why me?”

We are told to seek and knock, and certainly we should, but always with the mindfulness that our wills cannot rewrite the story of God's will for us. ...our petition is always, "Lord, show me your will and give me grace to accept it."

Lest any of us thinks that smacks of fatalistic inevitability, be assured that is emphatically not what I believe about the God who has so much compassion for us that Jesus came to share our suffering before relieving it. Jesus promises a way through whatever we face so that all we need is God, and isn't it God who is the author of our stories?2

"For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb...My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them-they are more than the sand; I come to the end-I am still with you" (Ps 139:13, 15-18). .

1Sue Grafton, "N" Is for Noose [New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1998], pp. 3-4

2William H. Willamon, “Rewriting the Story,” Pulpit Resource, February 13, 2000.

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