Love Itself

Epiphany 6B    2 Kings 5:1-14     Mark 1:40-45

Blessed St Valentine’s Day week to you all. It seems that all the world is filled with flowers, hearts, cards and the real proof of love—Chocolate! Some of us may think of this holiday as “singles awareness day” as I have heard it called in the past. But who really is this St Valentine anyway? Was he really a saint and what’s the big deal about all this love stuff?

 Well, St Valentine was, indeed, a real person. In fact, he was several real people! There were at least three, possibly four, men during the early life of the church that were called Valentine and may be the Valentine for which we have named the day. All of them were martyred for their faith. One of the oldest sources identifies a Bishop Valentine in the Third Century who was martyred by the Roman emperor for helping to convert people to Christianity and providing them with such religious rites as Baptism, communion and marriage. He was beaten and beheaded because he would not renounce his faith in Christ. Not quite the same thing as the images in the Hallmark store or CVS candy isle and I must honestly say that it is hard to see a connection between this man, or any of the others by the same name who met similar ends, and the light hearted day many will observe this upcoming Tuesday. But maybe, there is something more here worth exploring.

 Reading the story of St Valentine made me think of a conversation between a friend of mine and his co-worker. A few years ago when Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of Christ, was first released, my friend, Johnny, invited Matt to see the movie with him. Matt was one of those people who we might call unchurched. In other words, except for possibly a friend’s wedding, he had never been to church before. He may have had some idea of what Christianity is from tv and movies, but he had never been baptized nor been to a church function or regular worship service. After the movie was over, Johnny and Matt were talking and Matt said, “I don’t get the big deal, really. I mean, I don’t want to insult your faith and all that, but I do not understand what was so great about him dying and all.” Johnny said, “Well, he died for all of us—because he loves us.” “Yeah,” Matt retorted, “but that’s not so unusual to die for what you love, is it? I mean, don’t soldiers give their lives for our freedom—love for an ideal? Wouldn’t a mother or father give their lives for their children? A good husband would certainly take a bullet for his wife! Love for family and stuff like that. A hero, of course.  I’ll give you that this Jesus guy was definitely a hero, but I don’t see anything more than that.” Johnny thought about it for a minute and said, “maybe that’s where we got the idea that this is what real love looks like?”

 This wasn’t the end of their conversation and, eventually, Johnny got around to telling him that the significance of Jesus’ love for us was not only in his death but also in his life and his resurrection. Not only his love for those who loved him back, but for those who hated him, those who had no idea who he was, those who weren’t even born yet. I think my friend Johnny is right. I think we do learn what love is from God. But what does God’s love for us look like? What does it mean to be loved by God?

One of the things I often hear Christians say about God is that he loves us just as we are.  However I come to God, warts and scars and all, is just how God loves me. I believe this is completely true, but it is also incomplete. We do not have to clean up before being loved by God. We do not have to be pure and sinless for God to be able to love us. Our Gospel text for today can teach us about this. In this healing story, like every other healing story in all of the Gospels, the sick person comes to Jesus or Jesus comes to them just as they are: sick! And it is often not very pretty.  The person in this story has leprosy which could have meant any one of a set of diseases of the time all of which were thought to be communicated by touch or breathing. Diseases called “leprosy” were illnesses that showed up in the skin as sores or other nasty looking and smelling things. Illnesses of any kind would keep a person either at home or, at the minimum, separated from everyone else. Leprosy and other skin diseases so very visible to the world would make a person significantly outcast. Mark tells us that Jesus is moved to compassion when he sees and hears the man beg him for help. The word we read here, “pity”, means moved internally, a gut feeling, but it isn’t the feeling of recoil that we might feel. Instead it is a feeling of compassion for the man and his suffering—so much so that he moves forward to touch the man. Jesus loved him just as he was, leprosy and all. Unlike the priests to which Jesus sent him later, he did not require the man to be healthy and clean before coming into his presence.

 But Jesus does not stop there. He does not JUST love us just as we are.

 The leper says to Jesus, “If you choose, I know you can make me clean.” And he does. He does not only love the man as he is, he loves him so much that he cannot let him remain plagued by this illness; this illness that not only has physical suffering associated with it, but also keeps him separated from his family, from friends and his community. He could not even go to worship with everyone else. Jesus, in his compassion, heals the man of his physical condition and by so doing restores his whole life as well. He loved him too much to let him stay the way he was.

 Jesus loves us too much to let us remain in our state, too. He loves us just as we are, sin sick and broken, but he does not love us so LITTLE as to let us remain that way. Our lives are fundamentally different because of Jesus’ love for us.

 The changes that happen to us, in us and with us because we are beloved of God are sometimes not as obvious as others. A friend of mine, a lifelong Lutheran, asked me once about what it was like to be un-baptized. Due to the ecumenical diversity of my family I was not baptized until I was in the third grade. Well, I told her, I cannot say that I felt differently right afterward. I remember the day. I remember the curls my mom had fought and struggled to get into my straight hair and worrying that the water would make them all fall out and she would be mad. I remember the tiny little amount of water on the top of my head, the feel of the pastor’s hand, the joy on my parents’ faces. But I do not remember feeling very different. I suppose, I told her, it is like planting a tiny little poppy seed. They are so very small and if you put one in a great big bucket of soil, you could never tell that anything was different.  In fact, you couldn’t find it again if you had to, at least not easily. Yet, the soil is different. I am different and will never be the same again.

 Sometimes, God’s love is as miraculous and striking as a leper being instantly healed, a miraculous medical procedure or any recovery from sickness.  Sometimes it is as small and unnoticeable as the simple knowledge that God is with us even when we suffer. Perhaps most clearly when we suffer. Sometimes God’s love is as simple and ordinary as a helping hand or listening ear when we need it. Another person being the hands, feet, heart of God. Sometimes it is the hope we have in the future, our hope in our resurrection in Jesus Christ when there is no more leprosy; no more disease or brokenness of any kind. When God, in his unfathomable love, wipes away all our tears forever.

 There are other ways we look at God’s love. Sometimes, we go the opposite direction from Jesus loving us just as we are and therefore letting us remain as we are, to believing that we must do some special kinds of actions or sacrifices or that if we are important God will love us more. Or that we will, perhaps, finally be worthy of love. The truth is we will never be worthy. We will never be good enough, great enough, smart or beautiful or talented or powerful enough for God to love us. God’s love for us is, among other things, Agape love. It means a kind of love that loves regardless of any kind of objective value of the beloved. Like one of Martin Luther’s favorite verses from Ephesians (2:8-9) For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

 Like Naaman in our first text for today, we may sometimes think that the more important we are, the more great things we do, the more we are loved. Simple things seem to be meaningless. This great man, a mighty man who served a mighty king, goes to Israel seeking to be healed of his leprosy. All his might did not keep him from being sick, but he and his king are sure that making a big impression on the king of Israel with all their money and fine clothing will certainly get things done! After the King of Israel has a panic attack, saying, ‘am I God to give life and death? Why does he ask me to save him?’ the prophet Elisha says, send him to me so he will know that there is a prophet in Israel—in other words, let me take care of it so that he will know that God is here. Elisha tells him to go wash in the Jordan river and Naaman is insulted. The Jordan??? Weren’t there perfectly good water sources in the place he came from? Didn’t this ‘holy man’ realize that a simple bath wasn’t going to cut it? Obviously, they had already tried that! So, he decides to leave in a huff. But his servants convince him to try it anyway. If it were something far more complicated, they tell him, you’d do it in a heartbeat! So, he goes and does as Elisha has said. And he is healed. The power of God to heal was not in might or in wealth or even in complicated actions. It was just in the water.

This is a little like baptism. It seems like such a small thing, really. A dip, dunk, sprinkle or splash in water. Who knew it would make such a big difference? Who knew God’s love could be in those simple baptismal water; that through them we are united with Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Who knew that love so great could be given through something so simple?

So, as we ponder those we love this weekend, in honor of or at least in the name of St Valentine, let us also ponder love itself. Valentine’s love of God and the people of God—so much love that he risked and lost his life to tell the story of Jesus, to baptize, commune and marry other Christians. With so much love he loved God and trusted in God’s faithfulness that he lost his life in his refusal to stop loving Jesus. But let us also go one step further. Let us also know the love of the one who risked his life to reach out to lepers, tax collectors and prostitutes. The one who accepts us as we are, sinful sick and broken, and cannot bear for us to remain so. The one who loves us so much that despite our unfaithfulness, he gave his life for us, his beloved. The one who loves us not because we are loveable but because he is love itself.

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