What Difference Does Faith Make?
February 16, 2003
Every so often it is important for us to ask the BIG question. What difference does it make to have faith in Jesus Christ? How can we tell the difference between a person who has faith and a person who does not? This is an important question. Because if the believer and the non-believer look exactly the same, if we cannot find some way to distinguish the one from the other, then faith is without value. Faith, if it is to have authority, must somehow make a difference, an impact upon the way we live.
The apostle Paul certainly believed in the centrality of faith. In today’s second reading he says, “Whether you eat, or whether you drink or what ever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” Paul believes that faith should influence every aspect of our lives. It should affect the way that we love, the way that we work, the decisions that we make, the clothes that we wear, the music that we hear. It should influence the way we brush our teeth. Paul believes that faith is to influence everything we do.
So again comes the question: What difference does this faith make in every area of our lives? Now our first inclination might be to say that faith make us better people. Yet I doubt that our experience proves this. I do not find Christian believers more loving or more just or more generous than many other segments of our society.
In fact the difference in being a Christian is not to be found in our actions. It is to be found in God’s actions. What makes us different is not what we do or fail to do but what we believe God is doing. And what do we believe that God is doing? We believe that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God is saving the world. We believe that even though Jesus suffered a violent and unjust death of a criminal, God raised him up and made him Messiah and Lord and that through Jesus Christ God continues to destroy evil and to establish God’s Kingdom in our midst. That is what we believe God is doing. Believing that is what makes Christians different.
For that belief gives us an unshakable foundation for hope. Hope is the answer to my original question. It is this hope that sets us apart. Christians believe that through the resurrection of Jesus there is reason to hope in every circumstance. You see, Christian hope is not based on our goodness or on the wisdom of our political or religious leaders. It is not based on the achievements of science or the accomplishments of our culture. Christian hope is founded on the action of God, the same action that we believe raised Jesus up from the dead. Christian hope does not exist only when things are going well. Christian hope continues to be present even when things are falling apart. This is why Christians continue to hope even in the face of sickness and death, even as we stand on the brink of war, even when the people we trust betray us, or our leaders make faulty and disastrous decisions.
Even when there is so much evidence to the contrary, Christians continue to look for goodness and for reasons to celebrate because we believe that God is still active in the world. You all know the common phrase: “I’ll believe it, when I see it.” Christian faith turns that around. Christians say: “I’ll see it, when I believe it.” Because we believe that God is active, because we believe that God is still involved in saving the world, we look for signs of God’s presence everywhere. And when we look with faith, we find them. We see signs of God’s presence in the people we love, in the work that we do, in the decisions that we make, in the music we listen to. We find reasons to celebrate as we brush our teeth. Because we believe that in Christ God is saving the world, we are able to see signs of God’s presence everywhere, as Paul would say, “in whatever we do.”
This unshakable foundation for hope is what makes Christians different. We are the ones who do not become discouraged or give in to despair even in difficult times. We believe that the same God who raised up Jesus Christ and made him Messiah and Lord, is still active, even in our darkest hours. We believe that God is still destroying evil, that God is still saving our world.
Beware of the Mousetrap
February 12, 2006
Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46; Mark 1:40-45
Charity begins at home. Our first responsibility is to care for those who are closest to us: our family and our friends. This is a sound policy, and most of us follow it. So whenever someone appears as a threat, as a danger, we instinctively push that person away. We do this in order to protect those that we love, those who are closest to us. This is certainly the intent of today’s first reading from the book of Leviticus, because in this reading is found legislation concerning leprosy. Ancient Israel understood that leprosy was contagious. Therefore, Israel put in place this directive, decreeing that the person who was infected with leprosy should be separated from the community. Such people were to live outside the camp, and they were to call out “unclean, unclean” as a warning to others to stay away lest they also become infected.
So clearly, there are some circumstances in which setting up barriers and dividing ourselves from others is necessary. Yet we cannot deny that the gospel pulls us in the opposite direction. Even in those circumstances where we must accept divisions within the community, the gospel always regrets and mourns those barriers and longs for the time when they might be erased. At the heart of the gospel is the conviction that whatever divides us lessens us and that we are never complete until we are united with one another. Now to live in a world without divisions, without barriers, is probably impossible at the present time. But it is clearly God’s intention for the world. This is why the ministry of Jesus was always concerned with reconciliation, with bringing people together. This is why Jesus in today’s gospel heals the leper, not simply to remove the disease but to remove the barrier, so that the leper might again join the community. You see, Jesus knows that it’s all too easy to take necessary barriers and turn them into convenient prejudices. Jesus understands that it’s all too easy to take the fear of a real enemy and allow it to exclude someone who looks like an enemy. Jesus realizes that every time we identify a particular person or group within society and use that identification to push that person away, we are playing a dangerous game. Each time we exclude someone because of race or religion, because of sexual orientation or appearance, we are working against the kingdom of God. Moreover, when we work against the kingdom, we are in fact working against our own best interests.
Perhaps a parable might help. A mouse was looking through a crack in the wall of a farmhouse. He was watching the farmer and his wife open a package. “I wonder what’s in that box,” thought the mouse, “I hope it’s cheese.” But it wasn’t cheese. To the mouse’s horror, he saw the farmer unpack a mousetrap. Frightened, the mouse ran out into the barnyard and yelled out in warning, “There’s a mousetrap in the house! There’s a mousetrap in the house!” The chicken clucked and looked up from plucking her seed. “Mr. Mouse, I’m sure this is a grave concern to you, but it is no consequence to me. Please leave me alone.” So the mouse ran over to the pigpen. “There’s a mousetrap in the house!” The pig said, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, but I never go into the house. I’ll keep you in my prayers.” The mouse then ran out to the pasture to warn the cow. “There’s a mousetrap in the house!” “How unfortunate for you,” said the cow, “but it’s no skin off my nose. Please go away.” So the mouse went back to the house dejected, because he knew he would have to face the mousetrap alone.
That very night there was a sound throughout the whole house—a snap. The mousetrap had just claimed its first victim. The farmer’s wife got up to determine what was caught. But in the darkness she failed to see that the mousetrap had closed on the tail of a poisonous snake. When she reached out toward the trap, the snake bit her. The farmer took her at once to the hospital, where she stayed for a few days with a serious fever. Finally, when she was sent home, the doctor recommended that she be fed chicken soup. So the farmer took his hatchet and went out to the hen house. That was the end of the chicken. But the wife’s health did not improve. For days friends came and sat by her bedside, supporting her. The farmer felt the pull of hospitality, so he went out and slaughtered the pig to feed them. Unfortunately, the poor woman died. She was a very popular person, so people from all over the county came for her funeral. In order to provide the luncheon, the farmer slaughtered the cow. The mouse watched all of this through the crack in the wall. He shook his head, “I tried to warn them about the mousetrap, but they wouldn’t listen.”
Sometimes we imagine that we can separate ourselves from others without any consequence or danger to ourselves. Sometimes we might think that we can divide ourselves from those who are different with impunity. But the gospel warns us about setting up such barriers too casually. The gospel understands that when we choose to build walls, they are just as likely to hurt us as to protect us. It is a myth to think that we are better off alone, separated from others. We all inhabit the same planet, and the life of each person is interwoven with the lives of others in one great tapestry of life. Whenever we choose to pull out a particular thread of that tapestry, we mar the whole cloth.
There may indeed be times when dividing ourselves from others is necessary, but Christians always regret and mourn such barriers, because we know that they are not part of the ultimate plan of God. That is why we continually commit ourselves to reconciliation, to forgiveness, and to building unity. We above all others should know that whenever we choose to divide ourselves from one another, we do so at our own risk.
The Power of Joy
February 12, 2012
There is little doubt that the leper in today’s gospel had a deep respect for Jesus. Who would not honor someone who healed them of leprosy? But if this is the case, how do we explain the obvious disobedience of the leper to Jesus’ command? Jesus says, “See to it that you tell no one anything”. Yet this man immediately goes out and publicizes everything that had happened, speaking to everyone. How do we explain that this man ignored Jesus’ desire to keep things quiet?
The simplest explanation is that there are some secrets that cannot be kept. There are some blessings too wonderful to hold in. In other words, this story of the leper is a story of the power of joy.
When the man sees that his leprosy is removed, when he realizes that he is again made whole, the joy of his healing consumes him. He cannot do anything but proclaim it to everyone he meets—regardless of what Jesus has commanded him. His proclamation has a tremendous effect. Hundreds of people start coming to Jesus so that Jesus can no longer enter into the towns openly. People are persuaded that what this former leper said was true not simply by the argumentation of his words, but by the authority of his joy. They could see in the brightness of his eye, in the enthusiasm of his presence, the promise that if they too went to Jesus, they too could encounter the love of God.
So the leper in today’s gospel is a model for us. All too often, our lives lack the power of joy. We know our faith. We can recite the creed. We come to mass. We believe in God’s existence. Yet how many people can see in us the joy of God’s presence or the enthusiasm of belonging to Christ? Do people see in our lives the energy of the good news, or do we appear much like everyone else, including those who do not believe in God at all.
The power of joy is important because it has the authority to change the human heart. The possession of that joy is not only important for the sake of others—so they can see Christ in us—it is also important for us. We need joy in order to claim the blessings that God has given us.
There is an ancient rabbinic teaching that describes the last judgment at the end of time. According to this rabbinic teaching, every person will stand before God, the judge. In that moment God will lay before each person all of the blessings that he or she has received and then say, “How many of these blessings did you enjoy, and how many did you ignore?” According to this ancient rabbinic wisdom, our very salvation depends upon our openness to enjoy the blessings that God has given us.
You know that this is true. We all know people who have everything, who are blessed in every way, and yet they are not happy. They cannot connect their lives to the power of joy. These people do not need to wait for the judgment on the last day—they are already condemned. Already, they are lost.
So the example of the leper in today’s gospel is an example we should follow. He was so filled with of the joy of what God did for him that he could not keep silent. It is unlikely that there is anyone here who has been cured of leprosy, but every one of us has blessings in which we can rejoice. All of us have life, some of us have health, and some of us have the love and respect of family and friends. Some of us have jobs that we enjoy, accomplishments that we can be proud of, and financial resources that give us options which many other people do not have.
What is important here is not simply to have these blessings, but to find joy in them. Joy gives us power. When we are people of joy, we have the power to be generous, the power to forgive, the power to serve, and the power to live. But, if we lack the power of joy, what will be speechless before God on the last day. Without joy, our faith is empty—not only as a witness to others but even for ourselves.
Touching the Leper
February 15, 2015
Mark 1:40 – 45
There are no zombies in the bible. But lepers would come rather close to creating the fear that we associate with the walking dead. Leprosy was a terrible disease that gradually ate away at the body. The people of Jesus’ time did not understand the disease, but they knew it could spread. So they quarantined lepers. (All you have to do is think of the recent events regarding the Ebola crisis to gain some sense of the concern and panic that leprosy caused in the ancient world.) So, if somebody with a dreaded and contagious skin disease would come up to you and want to shake your hand, what would you do? All of us would pull back and say, “No, stay away. There’s no sense that both of us become infected.” We would keep the leper away. Jesus does not. In today‘s gospel when he sees the leper he is moved to compassion. He stretches out his hand and touches him. Why would Jesus do this? He is not inviting us to set aside medical hygiene and go around touching infected people. Jesus touches the leper to show us what God does. Jesus reveals in this action that our God is willing to push past any barrier to touch and to save the infected, the ostracized, and the doomed.
Now this is good news for us because we are the leper. “Now wait a minute,” you say, “I’m not a leper. I’m healthy. I have family and friends around me. My life is good and successful.” And, if that’s the case, then this gospel is not your gospel—or this gospel is not your gospel today. But this is the gospel to remember if your life takes a downward turn. If your health fails, and you have to deal with sickness that limits your mobility or threatens your survival, this gospel tells you that God will not forget you and that even in your sickness God desires to touch you. When your relationships fall apart, when your marriage fails, your family splits, or people you trust turn away, this gospel tells you that God is still in your corner and that God still desires to save you. When we mess things up because of greed or selfishness or pride or weakness, it is easy for us to feel that we no longer have value. We fell that we are unclean, that we no longer deserve to be loved. This gospel tells us that our sins and our failures are no barriers to God. We are not contagious to Jesus. He still has the power to make us whole.
So, on days that we are healthy and happy, we should give thanks and praise God. But on the days when we are the leper, this gospel is our hope. Although we may see ourselves as the walking dead, God still sees us as beloved daughters and sons. And, if we call out, we will feel God’s touch and hear, “I do will it. Be made clean.”
What God Intends
February 11, 2018
Jesus heals a leper in today’s gospel, but the important part of this story is what the leper says to Jesus. Now, this man was clearly a man of faith. He believed that Jesus could heal him. What he was not sure of was whether Jesus was willing to do so. He comes up to Jesus and says, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” What a remarkable statement: “If you wish, you can make me clean.” It is a mixture of both faith that Jesus has the power to cure him and doubt whether Jesus is willing to do so. Of course, there is no doubt with Jesus. He stretches out his hand and says, “I do will it. Be made clean,” and the leprosy leaves him. The text says that after the leper’s request, Jesus is moved with pity. We often imagine that Jesus is moved in this way because of the horrible disease of leprosy. But, we might also see that Jesus’ emotion results from a sadness that this man would ever doubt that Jesus would cure him.
What this story tells us is that there may be times in our lives when we doubt whether God is willing to help us, but that there is no doubt with God. Always and everywhere, God intends to make us whole.
Now we, like the leper, are people of faith. But if we find ourselves caught in an abusive relationship from which we cannot escape, if we are unable to move past grief over someone we have lost in death, when we feel ourselves losing energy and abilities because of advancing age, we can begin to think, “Maybe God does not really wish to help me.” If we’ve tried everything we can to try to resolve some problem in our family, if we are exhausted because someone is bullying us at school, if we make a disastrous mistake because of selfishness and hurt others deeply, we can start to believe that we are not worthy of God’s love and the things that are taking place in our life are there because God does not really care about what happens to us. Against all these fears and doubts that God has forgotten us today’s gospel insists that God always intends to heal us.
Now, the advantage of the leper in today’s gospel is that his insight into God’s intention and his healing take place in the same moment. In our lives, healing can often take more time. The problems of our life are complex. Resolving them often demands the willingness to change an attitude, an openness to leave old habits behind, the courage to try new options, and almost always the help of others. So God’s plan to heal us can take months, perhaps even years. But what today’s gospel tells us is that we should never doubt that God intends to heal us. We should never question that God desires to make us whole.
When it comes to God’s power being used for our benefit, there is never an “if you wish,” but always “I do will it, be made clean.” So let us hold then to that promise, waiting for our healing to come, so that when it does, we too, like the man in the gospel, can go out and proclaim to others all that God has done for us.
February 14, 2021
Lv 13:1-2, 44-46; Mark 1:40-45
If you were a leper at the time of Jesus, you would be a person without hope. The Jews of the first century did not understand leprosy. They did not know what caused it. They did not know how to cure it. But they did know that it was contagious. So lepers were required to remain in their own dwellings with other lepers. When they did come out into public, as we hear in today’s first reading, they were required to cry out, “Unclean,” to keep others away from infection. Sound familiar? Our experience with Covid is a leper-experience. We have been remaining in our homes, separated from others. When we go out we have to maintain social distance to keep the disease under control. Now, of course, we have a fervent hope that the vaccines will bring our leper-experience to an end.
But this was not the case of a leper of the first century. Those who contracted the disease at that time received a life sentence. For the rest of their days they would live in isolation and exclusion. So you can see how the leper in today’s gospel is a fitting representative of all the hopelessness that we can encounter in our lives. When we feel trapped, when we feel that our future is not viable, we stand as a leper before the Lord. Our hopelessness can come from the loss of someone we loved deeply, and it seems impossible that our future can never be whole again. Our hopelessness might come from a problem with one of our children, our spouse, or another family member, and we see no way out, no way to control the damage. Our hopelessness could come because our lives are ruled by jealousy, anger, or fear, and such emotions rob us from the joy of living.
Whenever we find ourselves in these conditions of despair, we stand as a leper before the Lord. Like the leper in today’s gospel, the challenge is to believe that Christ can heal us. How do we find such faith? How do we discover the courage to believe? A story might help. In the 19th century there was a German Artist by the name of Moritz Retzsch. He created a painting that came to be called “Checkmate.” The painting shows a young man playing a game of chess with the devil. It is clear in the painting that the game is being played for the young man’s soul. In the center of the painting there is a chess board with all the pieces clearly shown. On one side of the chess board sits the devil, dandily dressed in a green cope with a red feather in his cap. The devil is smiling. On the other side of the board sits the young man who is in deep despair, because the devil has just made a move and trapped his king. The young man sees no way to escape. People who know chess have looked at the arrangement of chess pieces in this painting and concluded that the young man’s situation is impossible. He has already lost the game. In a few moments he will have to turn over his soul to the devil.
Many years later after this painting was created, a famous American chess master by the name of Paul Morphy came across a reproduction of the painting at a social in his friend’s house. Because Morphy was such a famous chess player, the guests asked him to assess the young man’s situation. When Morphy looked at the position of the chess pieces, he agreed with the consensus that the young man’s position was hopeless. He had lost the game. Then the conversation at the social turned to other topics. But Morphy remained before the painting. After some time, he became excited and began to shout at the young man in the painting, “Don’t give up! Don’t give up! Your king has one more move.” Then Morphy showed the amazed guests that the young man could move his king to a certain square and still win the game.
This story has become popular in religious circles, because it points to a truth of our faith. When our situation is desperate, when our future seems impossible, we remain people of hope. Because when we stand as a leper before the Lord, we continue to believe that our King always has one more move.