Sermon: VI Epiphany (b)
1 Cor 9.24-27; Mk 1.40-45
12 February 2012
Fr. Patrick Allen
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I've made a little list:
The Nordic Track. The Stationary Bicycle. Elliptical trainers, treadmills, and stairmasters. The shake weight, the sauna suit, soloflex, bow flex. The iGallop, the power glide, the body blade, the toning tube. The ab coaster, the abtronic, ab rocket, ab roller, ab wheel, ab glider, the abdominator (Okay, I made that one up). The Chuck Norris Total Gym, P90X, and we cannot forget, much as we might like to, Suzanne Somers and the Thigh Master.
In addition to that list, we might just note the $46 billion – that's billion with a "B", as in bacon – that Americans spent on diet products and books last year. Our hall closets and garages and bookshelves are filled with these things – exercise equipment and diet products. Some are just silly gimmicks for the gullible, but others would really work: strengthen muscles, increase cardio-vascular fitness, trim excess weight. At least, they would were they actually used as directed.
Our garages and closets are filled with these things, and there is a constant and predictable market for these things, from the silly to the sensible, because we are always on the lookout for a silver bullet, something that will make exercise easy, a kind of health and fitness get-rich-quick scheme.
In our saner moments, we know that these things are not themselves the answer to our problem. They won't work. Or, rather, they will only work if we will work. There are, I suppose – and I can only suppose because I don't do it either (I'm kind of congenitally skinny; that shouldn't be confused with health, fitness, or virtue) – there are, I suppose, more and less efficient ways and means of exercise, but the key factor will always be personal commitment, personal discipline.
I'm sorry to have to say that. But when it comes to physical fitness, "eat less, move more" is the simple but devastating prescription for most all of us.
I thought about that last week as I sat on my couch pondering these Scripture lessons assigned for this morning, washing down the last of Mrs. Bocabella's oatmeal-chocolate chip-coconut-pecan "cowboy cookies" with a tall glass of chocolate milk.
Every athlete, St. Paul writes, exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
Of course, St. Paul is not admonishing us about physical fitness (those he does have something to say about that[i]), but he sees in the athlete's training an apt metaphor for the life of holiness, the spiritual fitness, the condition of love, to which all Christians are called – and more than called, actually promised.
A flat stomach, shapely calves, toned arms, a healthy heart are good things, and we want them for ourselves. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness: these are even better things, and God wants them for us and is determined that we shall have them.
He will form them in us, give them to us, and give them to us, as he gives us everything, as a free gift – as grace, and not for our own merits or deservings.
Yet, in the normal course of things, our own efforts are the means by which – not the basis upon which, but the means by which – he will accomplish those things in our hearts. In other words, as one Christian thinker has put it, grace is opposed to earning, it is not opposed to effort, to discipline.
So later in this same epistle, St. Paul will say, "God's grace towards me was not in vain, but I labored more than all of them."[ii] Elsewhere he would write, "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work within you."[iii] And in another place, "one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."[iv]
In the normal course of things, grace does not produce magical effects – poof! – out of thin air. Rather, God's grace actually manifests itself in the labor, as we labor, in our effort.
Which is actually a wonderful thing: the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once said that God has ordained prayer to lend to his creatures the dignity of causality.[v] It is important for Christians to know that our prayers matter; they have effects; God listens. But it is perhaps more important for us to understand that God's incorporation of our prayers into his sovereign rule of the universe is itself an expression of his grace, of his love
In much the same way, God incorporates our own commitment, our own discipline into that process by which he will, infallibly, bring to perfection the good work he has begun in us[vi] – so that we will, each one of us in his and her own particular way – come to look like Jesus. Each one of us, with hearts shaped by love, ordered to love, completed in love. And he allows us to participate; he lends to us the dignity of cooperation.
God's grace in our lives requires, demands, calls forth our disciplined commitment – the mastery of our wills, the control of our appetites, the subduing of our bodies.
Now, that's neither easy to say nor to do. My friend in the barbershop across the street who cuts my hair – I like to think of her as my personal stylist – told me that she had been praying for patience but was going to quit, because what she had found was that God was only going to give her patience by giving her plenty of opportunities to practice it.
I pommel my body and subdue it, Paul says. It's daunting. It sounds like jogging, salad, and sit-ups. But really it's prayer, fasting, and self-denial; reading and meditating upon God's holy Word; self-examination and repentance.[vii] It is the practice of patience. And we'd prefer to pay for some get-godly-quick scheme. But God loves us more than that.
It is daunting. So we ought to look first to Jesus. Look to him even in this deceptively simple encounter with the leper in this morning's Gospel. The leper, we read, came to him beseeching him, and kneeling said to him, "If you will, you can make me clean." And the leper's desperate request is met by our Lord's firm resolve: Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I will; be clean."
I will, says Jesus, and his firm resolve, his disciplined commitment, is so deep, so real, that he touches the literally – according to the law – the literally untouchable. The law required that lepers stay outside the towns, avoid all contact with normal, healthy society. Had anyone in love touched this poor man since he contracted this disease? Had he ever been embraced and held? Mark tells us that – again, contrary to the law – that the leper approached Jesus, but the touch tells us that Jesus, in love, wanted to draw close to the leper.[viii]
By that touch, Jesus himself becomes, according to the ritual law, unclean. It is a picture of the Gospel, a picture of our Lord's disciplined, determined, committed love for us – for us strugglers, for us sinners, for us in our need. It is a foreshadowing of that Friday afternoon when he who knew no sin became sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.[ix]
His love is unswerving. For us, he became one of us. Loving us, he loved us to the absolute end. And from this altar this morning he gives himself to us again, reaching out across the rail and touching us, placing his hand in ours.
"Lord, if you will, you can make me clean." ...And stretching out his hand, Jesus touched him and said, I will.
And he will.
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[i] 1 Tim 4.8
[ii] 1 Cor 15.10
[iii] Phil 2.12,13
[iv] Phil 3.13,14
[v] Pensées, 513
[vi] Phil 1.6
[vii] From the Ash Wednesday liturgy, BCP.
[viii] From Peter John Cameron, O.P. To Praise, to Bless, to Preach.
[ix] 2 Cor 5.21