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Skin In The Game

Preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church, U Street, NW Washington D.C. (field ed site) on February 12, 2012.

6th Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B (RCL): 2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love.  Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.  O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by that same Holy Spirit, we may be truly wise, and ever enjoy its consolations, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I wonder how many of us have ever heard the phrase, “Skin in the Game.”  It’s a term that some have attributed to renowned investor Warren Buffett which refers to a scenario where high-ranking insiders dealing in the financial markets use their own money to buy stock in the company or portfolio that they are managing.  The thinking behind this type of investing is that you want your corporation managed by like-minded people who share a stake in that company.  Executives can talk all they want, but the best vote of confidence anyone can set down before you is that they have “skin in the game,” and have put their own money on the line just like outside investors!

I’m not a venture capitalist who invests money in new startup companies, so I see “skin in the game” just a bit differently.  It still involves building something entirely new.  Perhaps creating something fresh from something that already existed.  Evolving from one place to another.  Maybe changing a culture or a practice.  Introducing some true innovation.  Finding standout success.  Attaining influence or authority.  Building a devoted following.  Creating lasting relationships.  

I have “skin in the game” in my marriage to and with Heart Of My Heart.  I also have “skin in the game” to pursue this call to ordained ministry, with its costs of time, effort,and money associated with the requisite education and formation that it requires.  I have a stake in these activities, and I share the responsibility for the successes and failures of them. 

“Skin in the Game” is our theme today, based on the readings for this sixth Sunday after the Epiphany.  Our focus scriptures are 2 Kings 5:1-14 and Mark 1:40-45.  Both of these passages describe a healing of leprosy.  In Second Kings, the prophet Elisha heals the Aramean commander named Naaman.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is going through Galilee on a very early healing mission when an unnamed leper approaches him seeking a cure.

Leprosy was a horrendous disease in Biblical times.  It could have been one of any number of different skin diseases, but all these infirmities led to the same reaction: those afflicted were deemed to be unclean or impure, and became outcasts, forced to be set apart from family and friends, to forego the common interchanges with other members of society.  The community shunned them and they were openly, actively ostracized.  The lepers were herded into communes to keep to themselves or with other diseased sufferers and were required to announce their condition so that no unsuspecting healthy person would mistakenly come in contact with them.  It is fair to imagine they were affected physically, emotionally, and likely spiritually as they were often seen as having committed sin of some sort that provoked God’s wrath upon them as this sickness.  

So the question here might be: What would you be willing to do if your very life depended on it?  How far would you be willing to go to save yourself?  If our “skin,” our personal being, physical, mental and spiritual, were truly at risk of being lost, what would we do?

We can never know what we would do when faced with those sorts of life-or-death choices until the moment comes for us to make such a weighty decision.  Yet, there are ways in which small, seemingly easy requests can carry far more than first meets the eye.

Naaman was angry at Elisha’s word given by way of a messenger because the commander had expected the prophet to welcome him personally and to heal him directly of his skin disease.  The Aramean was also disappointed because he deemed the waters of the Jordan River to be inferior to the waters of the Abana and the Pharpar, two rivers in Damascus.  At the insistence of his servants, Naaman finally obeyed the directions of Elisha, washed himself seven times in the Jordan, and was healed of his infirmity.  The symbolism associated with the number seven indicates that the healing was the work of God.  What we don’t read today is that afterward, Naaman returned to the house of Elisha to express his gratitude to the prophet.  Naaman would tell Elisha that he now knew that there is no other God but the God of Israel.  In gratitude for his healing, Naaman offered Elisha a gift, but the prophet could not accept it.

Although Naaman was willing to make quite the effort to reach Elisha for his healing, once he was there, he sought the easy fix, and pride almost kept him from being made whole.  Naaman wanted Elisha to wave his hand and heal him without anything more than the travel required to reach him.  The seven time immersion in the Jordan River required Naaman to have faith that this God of Israel could really heal him.  This requirement proved to be too much for Naaman who was almost willing to forego his healing rather then dip in the Jordan.  Yet his wise and faithful servants reminded him how he would have been willing to do something great to receive his healing.  Why should he sacrifice this opportunity to be restored to health because it was not as he expected - to step out in faith and do something that seemed far too simple?  Naaman finally assented and was healed.

Quite often, it seems, faith is so simple.  God does not always require us to go a great distance or to do something valiant, heroic or great to experience God’s touch.  On the flip side, it is rarely not what we can do at all.  God invites us into relationship and requires we have a simple faith.  At the same time, simple faith can be our greatest challenge because simple faith is not always easy.  Naaman seemed to be seeking a “drive-through” healing.  He thought the journey itself would be the ticket.  Elisha would receive him and then heal him.  But rather, it seems God required more as God always does.

We probably aren’t seeking a leper’s healing like Naaman.  Generations represented in the church today seek to know God like never before.  We want a tangible experience with God.  Naaman’s story should remind us that that experience may ask more of us than we first realize.  We cannot merely attend a worship service or spiritual gathering, buy a book, or listen to religious music.  Doing any of these things is not sufficient alone without faith and a true, earnest encounter with the living Christ.  It is when we are willing to dip ourselves in the River Jordan that God meets us in those waters and intersects with our lives.  The modern convenience of the drive-up window will continue to grow, perhaps even morphing into something through the internet which then does not even involve the journey to meet God.  Let us always remember that when it comes to our faith and relationship with our Lord and Savior, we are called to do more than pull ourselves into the driveway and roll down the window to our soul.  We are called to actively seek our God and embrace all the opportunities to meet and know our God wherever we can.

In Mark’s Gospel account, legalistic religion seems to stalk the steps of Jesus as he preaches in the synagogues of the cities of Galilee.  Like two large ships on a crash course with no time for turning, a collision is inevitable.  The Good News that he offers challenges the drudgery of the Law: His authority threatens the legitimacy of the scribes; His concern for human need tears at the traditions of established statutes.  It happens so naturally and innocently.  When Jesus takes compassion upon a leper and touches him, he is thrown headlong into an era of contending for the Truth against a dead orthodoxy and deadly opponents.

Imagine the scene when the leper comes to Jesus, violating the taboos of begging, kneeling and speaking to our Lord, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”  These are the words of a person with one last desperate hope.  Even then, with a life history of disappointment, the man qualifies his pleading with the contingency, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” 

Here is the early and yet ultimate test of the feelings of Jesus.  During his ministry, he will meet the full range of physical needs: blindness, blood disease, epilepsy, palsy, paralysis, and even insanity.  But of all these diseases, leprosy is the symbol of hopelessness.  A leper is not only considered physically incurable, but they also suffer under social rejection and spiritual condemnation.  Never forget, Jesus hears the dregs of the earth cry out, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Philip Yancey, in his book Where Is God When It Hurts, singles out leprosy as the most hopeless of all diseases.  Physically, leprosy seems incurable because it reverses the pain process.  Most diseases have pain as an early warning system which helps in healing.  Leprosy is just the opposite.  The disease destroys the signal system for pain, leaving the body without its natural protection against self-destruction.  A leper can be burned, cut, and broken without the warning of pain.  Skin sloughs off, fingers, arms, toes, and legs die and fall away in defiance of the normative process of the human body to heal itself.  In the absence of pain, the leper loses the hope of healing.  

Leprosy is also a hopeless social disease.  Because lepers are considered grotesque, respectable society labels them contagious and sends them into exile.  It is one thing to be condemned to die, but it is quite another thing to die in isolation.  Lepers are to cry out, “Unclean, Unclean,” wherever they walk.  Decent people try desperately to avoid contamination of even their shadows.

Before Jesus’ ministry has gained full momentum, he meets a leper who cries our from the outer edge of human need, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”  Jesus, moved with “pity,” breaks the sacred purity laws and touches the leprous man.  How can he be holy if he touches that which is deemed unclean?  Jesus‘ actions speak for themselves: How could he be holy if he did not? 

To match the most difficult of human needs, Jesus responds with the deepest of human feelings.  As with us, Jesus knows the full range of human emotion.  He knows cheer, anger, disappointment, laughter, sighing, displeasure, surprise, impatience, exhilaration, and depression.  But among all these feelings, compassion stands out as the deepest of all human emotions and as the most true expression of the heart of Christ.  Not just mind for mind, hand for hand, or even heart for heart, but stomach for stomach, blood for blood, gut for gut, Jesus feels his way into the leper’s needs.  We see that both the leper and Jesus have “skin in the game.”

To feel compassion is not enough.  Jesus reaches out his hand and touches the leper!  Violating every medicinal practice and risking every social taboo, Jesus showed the leper then, and us now, that he assumes the place of the afflicted - not just risking physical contagion, but also the social stigma of contamination as well.  How little we really know of true compassion!

  In Second Kings, the healing of Naaman is a demonstration that God’s power is even far greater than that of the commander of a strong army.  In Mark, the healing of the nameless leper is a sign that the Kingdom of God is coming near in the ministry of Jesus.

I invite us all today in our worship to consider God’s loving power to heal us at a level which is far more than just skin deep.  After all, by the God which used the prophet Elisha to demonstrate his powerful works, and the healing made possible through the touch of Jesus, we come to meet and know the God incarnate who has put his own “skin in the game.” 

Let us pray:

O God of life and hope, whose Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, with divine pity and power brought healing to the sick in body and soul; enable still His Church by a faithful ministry to bring to Thy people in all their needs the healing gift of the Holy Spirit, that they may stand before Thee victorious out of all tribulation and secure in Thy unfailing love; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Feb. 13th, 2012 09:50 pm (UTC)
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David - Once again you have delivered a wonderful sermon and I am grateful that you share it on your web site. Keep up the good work. Love, Dad
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