This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany (Year B), 16 February 2003. The Scriptures for this Sunday were 2 Kings 5: 1 – 14, 1 Corinthians 9: 24 – 27, and Mark 1: 40 – 45.
As some of you may know or as I may have alluded to in the past, I am a fan of the Star Trek series. Note that there is a distinction between being a fan and being a “trekkie”. A “trekkie” is easily identifiable by the depth of their knowledge of the original show and its resulting spin-offs as well as the size of their collection of Star Trek memorabilia. By definition, my sister Tracey with her vast collection of Star Trek materials is on her way to being a “trekkie” while Keith Shikowitz, my friend and doubles partner, is the quintessential “trekkie”.
I am a fan, most notably because of James T. Kirk, the captain of the Enterprise that most people know. I am slowly becoming a fan of Jonathan Archer, the captain of the NX-01, the first Enterprise, as the words of Star Trek so vividly remind us, to boldly go where no one has gone before. Archer gets a vote because his explorations in space set the tone for future explorations by Kirk , Picard, and the other captains of the Enterprise.
There are those who would vote for Jean Luc Picard as the best of the captains. In fact, in some management circles today, there are those who strive for the “make it so” approach that Picard uses in command decisions. But I like Kirk.
First, I like Kirk in part because he is from Iowa. And if you doubt that, all you have to do is go to the small country town of Riverside, Iowa. In the town square in Riverside today is a monument that points out that in 2233, James Tiberius Kirk, the future captain of the Starship Enterprise, will be born in that town. I like to think that had Kirk not left Riverside for the Starfleet Academy, he would have journeyed up the road to Iowa City and attended the University of Iowa, as I did. Much to my sister and Keith’s regret, as well as my own, I failed to take a picture of this unique monument when I passed through the town during the summer of 1998.
But perhaps the reason that I like Kirk as a leader is his approach to problem solving. For those not well versed in the curriculum of the Starfleet academy, all graduates must partake in a simulation known as the “Kobyashi Maru problem”. Notice that the requirement is that the graduate take part in the simulation, not pass it. For in the history of Starfleet Academy, only one person has ever successfully solved the problem.
The Kobyashi Maru problem is first and foremost a no-win situation. There is no solution to the problem and every future captain who has taken the simulation has failed, resulting in the loss of his or her ship, the officers and crew. It is a test of how a captain deals with life and death and ultimate failure. But Kirk passed this test and you must be asking how? As he himself said, it was a matter of changing the parameters of the problem so that a winning solution was possible. But as one of his officers noted, he cheated. What he did was sneak into the control room the night before he was scheduled to take the simulation and reprogram the computer to allow for a winning solution. Why did Kirk do it? Why risk an almost sure expulsion from the academy so close to graduation? As Kirk himself said, he did it because he did not want to face death. Nor did he like the idea of losing.
We are all like Kirk at times, not wishing to face death or the end of life. We see life in terms defined by society, measured by how well we do according to society’s guidelines. We have turned life into a race or contest; one in which the contestants have defined the outcome. And in such a race, solutions, the way to win, are often hard to find.
Kirk looked at the problem and came up with a solution that would be considered “outside the box.” We are not always comfortable with that type of thinking, for it puts us in the position of having to push the limits of our own thoughts. Jesus used a similar approach through his ministry.
Don’t confuse creativeness with cheating. It was said that the officers of Enron and WorldCom used similar thinking in their accounting processes. True, their accounting procedures were creative but were done solely for their own gain and done at the expense of the employees of the company. While the officers may have gotten rich, the employees lost everything. While Kirk may have been motivated by his desire not to face death, his actions saved the ship, his officers and crew from death and failure as well.
As we look at Jesus’ ministry, we will see countless examples of thinking “outside the box” and against the current views of society. Everyone who sought Jesus did so because society had cast them out, said to them that their lives were worthless. The choice of a leper in today’s Gospel reading was perhaps a very deliberate one on Mark’s part.
Leprosy was one of the most feared diseases in the Bible. It was not necessarily the leprosy of modern times, a disease better known as Hansen’s disease. But it was one that was contagious and contact with lepers was not advised. Elisha, the prophet, did not want to meet Naaman, the general in the Old Testament reading for fear of infection.
If you were a leper in those days, you were cast out and condemned to a life without hope. And if there was no hope, there can be no future. For those condemned by society and offered no chance for the future, Jesus was their last hope. To them, hearing of this man from Nazareth whose healing powers were indescribable, was a sign of hope. To them, Jesus represented hope and the promise of the future. And in a society where success was determined by one’s ability to fit into a predetermined mold, Jesus showed that there was a better solution.
Note that Jesus’ reaction to the leper’s request to be healed was one of compassion. Here was a soul forgotten not only by society, but also by his family and friends. And not only did Jesus answer the man’s request, he did so by touching him, something most definitely against all rules of society. But though Jesus knew and had no doubts about the correctness of his own actions, he also knew that the religious and political leaders of that time would use the occasion, as they did others, to show how Jesus was working against society. In part, that is why he commanded all those who he healed to remain silent.
It is easy to understand what Paul was writing about in the passage from Corinthians that we read for today. Corinth was a hot bed of athletic competition, highlighted by an annual race. Competitors in the race trained for the ten months preceding the race in order to be ready for it. In referring to disqualification, Paul was referring to the rules that disqualified those who would seek to use inappropriate or unethical means as a way to win the race. And though this race brought laud and honor to the victor, the other athletes received nothing to show for their work and effort over the previous ten months.
If we view life in the terms of the race, as Paul was saying some did, with only one winner, we will quickly find ourselves disillusioned with life. Though there are times when winning is acceptable, to view life in those terms is not. Life may be a race but it is one in which everyone has a chance to win and winning is not determined by how well some do or how poorly others do.
Paul spoke of training to win the race. He knew that any champion must have a dedication to succeed, no matter what the cost. Even a life in Christ required the discipline of a champion. But Paul wanted those that were reading this letter to know that a life in Christ offered all the chance for winning, not just for a select few or the ones with the most talent or dedication.
Each of us has a calling to follow God and how we answer the call will determine if we win the reward that goes with the calling. Paul knew that by remaining faithful to the calling, he would receive the reward but if he ignored or treated lightly his mission, the reward would be lost. And such a loss was a very real possibility for Paul had seen others who had given up their calling simply because the cost was too great and the demands of the life too great.
We are at a point in time where all we see around us are signs of despair and abandonment. We see panic where thoughtful consideration is needed. And we are asking what we should do. Could it be that life has become so complicated that simple answers do not work?
That was most certainly the response of Naaman when Elisha commanded him to bath seven times in the River Jordan. His response was that was too simple a solution. Did not his own position in life, as a powerful general, demand a cure reflective of his stature in life? Were not the rivers of his own homeland just as good or better as the River Jordan?
But it is too his credit that he, Naaman, listened to his servants. They pointed out that he would have willingly done something difficult or hazardous if that had been what Elisha had commanded him to do. So why not think about the simple solution? And once he did so, Naaman knew that the simple solution was the best solution.
Paul wrote that we are runners in a race but it is not a race with only one winner. The race defined by society can only have one winner, a winner defined by economy, politics, and other societal influences. And when we get tangled up with the rules imposed on us by society, it becomes easy to lose sight of what life is about.
But, it is very comforting to know that no matter how complicated life gets, there is a simple solution. And in a time where we are faced with challenges whose solutions seem beyond our comprehension, it is nice to know that a simple solution exists. And when it seems that society has passed us by, cast us out or shut us out, it is comforting to know that a simple solution exists.
It would be just as simple to say that no solution exists; that there is no hope; that we can do nothing. It would be very easy to say to those who society has abandoned that there is nothing we can do for them because there is nothing we can do for ourselves.
We are in a society rushing by, demanding more and more of our time, not giving us time to pause. And while we may think that in a complicated society it will be a complicated solution that saves us, all we have to do is think about Naaman. He wanted a complicated answer but found that it was a simple one that worked best. Jesus was on the road to the next town in order to continue his ministry but he still had the time to stop and answer the cry of a lonely leper needing help. Sometimes during the hectic pace of life, the best solution is something not complicated but simple, to stop and pause, to ask for Jesus’ help. For Jesus promised that no matter when or where, He would always be there to answer our cry for help.
We might be comfortable that Jesus is a part of our life. We may have found the peace that others seek. But then we had better remember that the race of life still requires training and discipline and we cannot run the race if someone else is on the side of the road. Our own race means nothing if we pass by those in need, if we shun others because they don’t fit into a predetermined mold. Remember that after he had been cured, the leper could not remain silent but had to tell others what had happened.
Life may be complicated and there definitely are no easy answers. But life changes when we take Jesus Christ as our own personal Savior. It is that simple.