Finding the Strength to Act

A sermon preached on February 15, 2009 based upon 1 Corinthians 9:24 – 27 and Mark 1:40 – 45, entitled, “Finding the Strength to Act.”

I’m wondering if you can identify with this experience: I wake up to the sound of my alarm, overly tired. I sit up and turn the alarm off, then sit there for several seconds. I know the next move is to stand up and start going through the routines of the morning, but moments pass by, waiting for my will power to click in, to make that next move.

Sometimes it can be a while. It’s as though I have to wait for the part of me that wants to engage the day to grow strong enough to overcome the part of me that just wants to crawl back into the bed. Finally, the threshold is passed, and I stand up.

You know what I’m talking about?

There are, if we think about it a number of factors involved in determining how quickly I will proceed to step two.

One factor is simply, how tired am I? Last week I talked about fatigue — about how the life energy that God gives us is not limitless, and that we must pay attention to ourselves to recognize when we are overly tired, both physically, emotionally and spiritually. We need to make a point of getting the rest we need — the rest God desires for us that we may be restored — in order to regain our capacity to say “Yes” to the gift of our lives. That without enough rest, life begins to appear bleak indeed — a burden, not a blessing.

But rest isn’t the only factor. In fact, it is possible to get too much rest.

This morning I hear the scriptures calling us to consider other factors involved in the “what does it take to get out of bed” equation. We are to rest, yes, but we are also to work, to expend our energy creatively engaged in this world.

And just as it is easy to neglect the rest we need, it is also quite possible to turn a deaf ear to the call to action that God speaks to us throughout our lives.

There are some subtleties involved in this morning’s Gospel lesson, of which it’s helpful to be aware.

First off, the leper who approaches Jesus is showing a lot of gumption on his part. The Law clearly prescribes that his disease renders him unclean, and denies him access to human society He disease is viewed as a mark of sinfulness, and sinners must stay clear of the righteous. In approaching Jesus he is standing up for himself, so to speak. His will power is highly mobilized at that moment in time — otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to go against the tide of human opinion.

Elsewhere in the Gospels there are several other examples of people with afflictions exhibiting the same quality: for instance, the woman with the flow of blood, the blind beggar, the four friends with the paralyzed man, the Gentile woman with the sick daughter. In every instance, Jesus commends this quality of “gumption”, in fact, refers to it as having something to do with “faith.”

“If you choose, you can make me clean.” The leper is saying, in essence: “Jesus, I know you have the power to heal me. You’ve been demonstrating that power quite a bit lately. How far as you willing to go with this commitment to giving life?”

the man with leprosy is essentially daring Jesus to act, challenging him. He is inviting Jesus to be a co-conspirator with him in breaking the rules. The Law doesn’t allow either touching the leper (because in doing so, Jesus becomes “unclean” by the letter of the law), nor does it allow Jesus to take for himself the authority to pronounce the man clean. The Law clearly indicates that this the prerogative of the temple priests alone, prescribing precisely how this is to take place, a procedure which required the beggar leper to come up with a payment of money they could not afford.


Now there is a translation issue that comes up here. In response to what the leper says, most Bibles record that Jesus was “moved with pity.” Modern Biblical scholars are in agreement, however, that the oldest manuscripts that have been preserved through the centuries actually state that Jesus was moved with “anger“, not pity.

Here’s what appears to have happened, pointing to an ongoing challenge in Bible interpretation. Somewhere along the line a scribe whose job it was to copy the manuscripts was going about his job when he came to the word “anger”, and he said to himself, “That doesn’t make sense, I’m going change that to pity.”

But let’s assume that it was anger that Jesus was feeling.  What would the anger be about? There seems two possible answers, both which make sense to me.

First, Jesus is angry with the whole religious establishment, the system by which this man is forced to be an outcaste, that his disease is viewed as an expression of him being sinful, thereby allowing the healthy people to feel superior. He’s angry that the system requires the leper to pay the temple priests money, (which someone with leprosy generally wouldn’t have) in order for the man to be restored to his community. He’s angry with the system that keeps people out of the circle. (We know that Jesus had this anger from other stories from his ministry, including what his cleansing of the Temple on Palm Sunday.)

The second possibility is that Jesus is angry because the leper is pushing him beyond his comfort zone — pushing him to take a stand against the powerful entrenched system — a stand which is going to cause Jesus conflict and a lot of personal suffering. And although he is indeed willing to go there, it makes him angry nonetheless. Perhaps you’ve had the same sort of experience: a friend or mentor pushes you to go beyond what you are comfortable with, and we resent the person for doing this, but a part of you realizes, nonetheless, that it’s what you need to do.So if Jesus really was a human being who struggled with the same issues the rest of us human being struggle with, it is not hard to imagine him in this story as being angry with the leper for pushing him, even as he realizes that there is a larger principle at stake here that requires his action, calling him beyond his natural concern for his self-preservation. The idea that Jesus was angry with the man is reinforced by the fact that at the end we are told he spoke sternly to him, telling him to tell no one, which, the newly healed and cleaned man, tired of being told what he could and couldn’t do, doesn’t obey.

Although some people make anger a way of life, most of us find anger fairly uncomfortable.  Sometimes, however, anger can be useful in generating the energy necessary to act when before we found ourselves powerless to take action. Anger can, on occasion provide the energy to get out of bed when a big part of you would prefer to escape back into sleep.
The reading from the Apostle Paul draws metaphors from the realm of sports. Normally, I wouldn’t go with this passage. There are troublesome aspects to it — for instance, the suggestion that the spiritual journey is a kind of competition, not to mention the whole bit about the body being something that needs to be beaten into submission. (There’s been some sick stuff in the history of Christian piety inspired by this verse, which you are aware of if you read the book, “The Da Vinci Code.”) But nonetheless, I think Paul is pointing to something very important here.

Throughout me life, I have had a love/hate relationship with sports. As a kid I wanted to be a professional athlete: a football quarterback, or a baseball pitcher. There was passion there, let me tell you.

When I got to ninth grade, things didn’t go so well for me in regard to the school teams. I experienced defeat and some humiliations, and in time I largely gave sports up.

The sports world can be pretty brutal sometimes — actually a lot of the time. I took a beating and got out.

I declared loudly that sports really are pretty trivial, and destructive at times, and that we Americans put way to much energy into them when there are all kinds of things that are far more important.

And there was truth to that.

And then I had a son who showed an inclination to competitive sports, and his interest awoke within me the original passion I had felt about sports. Over the past seven years, Bobby, with me standing behind him, has invested a great deal of time and energy to sports.

There have been some rough spots — times when defeat, not victory was experienced, and times conflicts with teammates and coaches made for  tough going.

But the one thing that seems clear to me is that although sports really aren’t all that important in the big picture, they do provide a great opportunity to learn lessons about self-discipline — about focusing our attention and perseverance. There have been for Bobby discouraging times when he has been tempted to quit, but so far he has managed to find the will to push on, and sometimes anger has been a large part of what has motivated him.

Our church family was inspired three years back when Bart Routhier, a senior in high school at the time, got a hold of the idea that he wanted to join the Navy when he graduated. Bart was significantly overweight at the time, and in order to achieve his dream it was necessary for him to lose a hundred pounds, which he set out to do. He watched what he ate and began walking, then jogging around Lake Parsippany. Slowly but surely the pounds came off, but more importantly, Bart discovered what he was capable of doing in this world when a dream took hold of him in such a way that he was motivated to discipline himself in order to achieve the dream.

It is the army that has the motto, “Be all that you can be.” The motto could be applied to the kingdom of God as well. Be all that you can be, not just for yourself, but for God and for your fellow human beings who need you to be all that you can be.

Every body’s journey is different. Unlike the world of sports, we aren’t competing against other people. Rather, we are competing against that part of ourselves that just wants to take the easy way out, the path of least resistance.

In the particular circumstances we find ourselves in, no matter how humble they may be, can we be the best we can be, and as such be put to use by God?

During his presidency, Abraham Lincoln regularly attended worship services at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. One particular evening, while walking home from church, an aide asked President Lincoln what he thought of the preacher’s sermon.

The President replied in fragmented phrases: “The content was excellent… he delivered it with eloquence… he had put work into the message…”

The aid pressed him: “Then you thought it was a great sermon?”

“No,” replied the President. “I did not. The preacher forgot the most important ingredient. He forgot to ask us to do something great.”

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