What can we say on July 3?

June 28th, 2022

My snarky side, yet backed up by years of experience, snarls that on the Sunday close to July 4, our people exercise their much-vaunted freedom of religion by freely not materializing for worship. Alas. Last week’s text spoke quite directly to freedom, and how freedom theologically construed is vastly different from freedom American-style. I’ll refer you to my “Jesus and July 4” blog from yesteryear, which still holds – not to be preached, but as background music for us as we preach, and live as the people of God. 

And Americans right now are especially roiled over Roe v. Wade - both sides, oddly enough, exhibiting some theological confusion, no matter how right it feels to us to side with life in the womb, or with women's rights and against anything that disadvantages those with fewer resources. The shrill "rights talk," as Mary Ann Glendon has shown, isn't helpful from a secular viewpoint. But theologically, "rights" isn't a thing (unless we speak of defending the rights of the oppressed). We don't have a "right to life," or a "right to choose." Life is a gift. A body to be stewarded is a gift. A person's moral agency is a gift. Like "freedom," "rights" is a seculiar, democratic category, and theology will never be able to pick which is 'right' because we understand ourselves to live in a realm of gifts.

I believe I will preach on one of my very favorite texts, 2 Kings 5, the poignant encounter of Naaman (“a great man… but”) and Elisha, with a pivotal cameo from a little child.

Naaman was a great, successful man of valor, of substance.  But… there is always a “but” isn’t there? “But” he was a leper. Robert Alter, in his great new translation of Scripture, renders tsara’atas “skin blanch,” the main symptom being loss of pigmentation, not lesions and lumps. Only the very bold preacher would dare to suggest that his problem is being white!

He probably cloaked, with armor or sheer reputation and might, his humbling disability, as we usually hide our brokenness. His unsought humility was mirrored to him in the person of a young woman, who is small of stature, and female; he is a captain, she is a captive. All other healers having failed him, Naaman is desperate enough to follow her tip.

The not-yet-humbled Naaman rumbles up to Elisha’s house reining in his stallions, bearing gifts, expecting to pay his way to healing, to grease a few palms. He’ll come out for me (the Hebrew of “for me” is emphatic). The wealthy and powerful grouse about the poor feeling entitled; but who feels more entitled than the wealthy and powerful? Such a barrier against God’s grace!

Elisha is unimpressed. After all, once you’ve seen chariots and horses blazing with fire, riding not across rugged terrain but soaring above the clouds (2 Kings 2), a bunch of steeds pulling a cocky chieftan atop wooden wheels just doesn’t raise your pulse. Not deigning to come out, Elisha disses Naaman, enraging him. Naaman was prideful, but perhaps pride was all he had left. Much as we might do in the privacy of the doctor’s or therapist’s office, we’ve dressed well, and mention some cool thing we did last night – but obviously we have come not for banter, but to be healed, to reveal the “but,” to expose what hinders us, hoping, blushing.

Fascinating:  Elisha could have come out; he could have made the trip himself to Damascus; he could have healed at a distance. But he let Naaman come to him. When Joseph’s brothers were hungry, he could have shipped food to them, but he let them come. Joseph didn’t want them merely to fill their bellies; he wanted to heal the relationship. Elisha didn’t want Naaman merely to be rid of leprosy; he wanted him to be more deeply healed. By not even paying him the courtesy of coming to the door, Elisha reverses the sorry tale Jesus would tell of a rich man not coming to the door to help out a poor leper!
 
Elisha’s prescription isn’t courteous either: bathe in the Jordan. Pilgrims to Israel chuckle when they see the Jordan, hardly a river at all, more of a stream, a creek. Naaman protests: shouldn’t his cure be more dazzling, perhaps dipping himself in the pools by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Or some exotic salve imported from Ethiopia? It’s just water, it’s always been there; it’s all around, it’s what I am made of.

Faith is the crumpling of pride (as my theology professor Robert Cushman used to say). This morning a friend texted me a photo of the epitaph on Don Knotts's grave, which reads " He saw the poignancy in people’s pride and pain, and turned it into something hilarious and endearing" - and I thought of Naaman. I picture him as tall, strapping, muscular; but maybe he was more like Barney Fife, a bit ridiculous but not to himself. 
 
Or was he Barney Fife, hiding inside the tall, strapping guy? Is faith, the crumpling of pride, somehow the realization that there is real poignancy in our pride and pain, and it ultimately is endearing?

Elisha invites Naaman to achieve this humility through something as simple, as obvious, as unimpressive as a bit of water only Elisha or somebody desperately thirsty would think of as powerful. I do not know if Naaman flailed a bit trying to get his whole body under such a shallow, coursing stream. But we know there was a miracle in that water. Sure, the leprosy washed downstream. Yet more importantly, when he stepped up onto the river bank, drenched and dripping, he was no longer a man, but a boy: “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child,” like the little maiden who showed him the way, like all of us when we “become like children.”

Without romanticizing childhood, we may recognize its virtues: vulnerability, an implicit demand for justice, the way children show their treasures, weep in the open, accept grace easily, suffer no illusions of independence, and are easily amazed. All of Christianity is a kind of return to childhood, a training in humility. All of our gestures seem silly: folding our hands, bowing our heads, kneeling. How do you get ahead or defend yourself acting in these ways? We believe in vulnerability, humility, a bit of flailing in embarrassment. Dipping in a no account river on the suggestion of a two-bit prophet who wouldn’t even answer the door: the foolishness of God is wiser than all of us.
 
The humility goes on. Sensing his nascent excitement about Elisha’s God will be compromised at home, Naaman rather charmingly scoops up some dirt to carry back with him, to cling to some piece of holiness in an unholy place. “Elisha does not expect Naaman to abandon the world or withdraw into a ghetto where he can escape moral dilemmas and difficulties” (Leithart). Not only is our post-baptized life full of dilemmas and difficulties; we fail miserably. We cannot heal ourselves, or achieve what God wants of us. But we remember the water, the awkward humiliation – and wasn’t it at precisely that moment of spiraling out of control, of losing all hope and dignity, that a slight rustling of wings was heard, and a whispered message, something like “this is my beloved child,” just a boy, a girl, small, wet, like we were at birth, like we will be when we are greeted at the door by fiery chariots?
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Galatians 6:1-16 tickles me, since it includes Paul’s childlike brag: “See what large letters I make.” Did the Galatians giggle on having these words read to them? Did they want a peek at the parchment from which the reader spoke these words?

If we call to mind the context of this being the Eve of July 4, we feel how counter-cultural Paul’s urging his readers to have a “spirit of gentleness,” not the hysterical rancor and exasperated sighing half of Americans have for the other half. “Bear one another’s burdens” – instead of blaming or judging. We all carry this awful burden of political ideology. It’s heavy. Can we bear the other guy’s by not investing it with such weightiness? It’s temporal, far from eternal, the real idolatry that afflicts us all.

“If those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves.” Of course, we all are something. It’s just what kind of something, what defines that something that is the catch. “Test your own work” – not your neighbor’s! Moses the Black, one of the Desert Fathers, said “If you have a corpse lying in your front room, you won’t have time to go to someone else’s funeral.” “All must carry their own loads,” and gosh, we each have plenty, and could actually use some of that “bearing one another’s burdens,” in love, not in judgment that is.

Indeed, “you reap what you sow.” This isn’t a stewardship sermon: Give! And you’ll make even more! Those who reap rancor will be consumed by it. Frederick Buechner memorably said that “of the 7 Deadly Sins, anger is the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to save to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back: in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

Paul encourages his young Christians not to grow weary. I just love what Marianne Williamson said in her fantastic Gooppodcast “Who Are You in Crisis?” Gwyneth Paltrow whined of being weary in working for just causes. Williamson chided her, reminding us of how slaves, African-Americans in the 50’s, Jews in concentration camps, and so many others who’ve suffered far worse haven’t had the luxury of feeling tired or taking a break. “You put on your big girl pants and keep going” – something Williamson can say to Paltrow, but that I’d best omit from my sermon!

And finally Luke 10:1-11, 16-20, not a text I warm up to much. Jesus sends 70 (where did the extra 58 come from??) in pairs (like animals moseying into Noah’s ark!). They are “appointed” (anadeknumi), a word making every Methodist pastor shiver. “The harvest is plentiful”? My sense is that the harvest in this culture isn’t plentiful much at all… It’s hard to get church people to pay attention, much less those outside the fold.

But still we go, we try, we labor on. “Take no purse, no sandals” – so no minimum salaries or raises for these guys! The simplicity of how we go: their attire reminds me of St. Francis, who went to Pope Innocent asking for authorization for a new order of monks. The charter he presented? We can read it, and it’s nothing but a little listing of Bible verses about what Jesus did and said. Maybe that’s it. No grand strategies, not business-model smoothness, no skills or techniques. 25 years ago our conference required each church to devise a new mission statement. I gathered some key folks, and explained our assignment. One woman laughed out loud and said “That’s easy. We are to do the things Jesus told us to do.” We wrote that down, sent it in and went home. Seriously.

How kind, thoughtful and anticipatory Jesus’ preparing them that some will welcome you and hear, others will not, will even reject them. Failing in ministry? Jesus saw it coming and sent us anyhow. I do try to be careful when I parse for myself “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me,” as I can get the me in there to the point it overshadows the Jesus in the me, and so they are rejecting not Jesus but me, my unfaithful me, my ego me, my competitive me, my insecure, trying to make my mark me. I hope you do not share this affliction with… me.

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