Weekly Preaching: July 7, 2019

July 3rd, 2019
My take on our texts? I find 2 Kings 5 to be fertile for preaching, and I find Galatians and Luke to be texts I need to ponder for me and my ministry. So: 2 Kings 5:1-14, a riveting story of brokenness, humility, hope and healing. Peter Leithart even calls this text “the richest Old Testament story of baptism,” one that “anticipates Christian baptism.” Maybe.
 
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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’at as “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.
 
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.
"Weak Enough to Lead" by James C. Howell. Order here: http://bit.ly/WeakEnoughtoLead
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." I thought of Naaman. I picture him as tall, strapping, and muscular, but maybe he was more like Barney Fife in stature, a bit ridiculous but not to himself. Or was he Barney Fife in personality, 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. 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. 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 isn’t a text that prompts much homiletical creativity in me. Paul’s counsel not to grow weary, though, speaks to us clergy (and could to laity, too) who stave off exhaustion and burnout. I am reminded of Marianne Williamson’s Goop podcast, “Who Are You in Crisis?” in which Gwyneth Paltrow whined of being weary in working for the cause, and Williamson chided her, reminding all of us of how slaves, African-Americans in the 1950s, 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 from the cause for a season.
 
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And then Luke 10:1-11, 16-20. I wish I were better at preaching such a text. Such hackneyed metaphors (harvest/laborers, lambs/wolves), and then Jesus at his most apocalyptic: “Satan falling like lightning from heaven” (So has the apostolic ministry struck a blow to Satan’s cause? Or are they about to get fried in Satan’s fire?). Jesus sends out 70 (or is it 72?). Where did he find five dozen serious disciples beyond the twelve? Is the number symbolic (evoking Jacob’s family, Gen. 46:27; or the elders on Mt. Sinai, Ex. 24:9; or the number of the world’s nations, Gen. 10)? They are “appointed” (anadeiknumi, which Levine and Witherington are sure refers to an “official commissioning”) — a term that would make any United Methodist pastor shiver! They go two by two like the animals entering the ark.
 
Clearly Jesus is saying this work is daunting, and there will be much failure. Galatians (and Marianne Williamson) remind us not to grow weary. I’m drawn toward the words of Reinhold Niebuhr (“Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in a single lifetime”) and Vaclav Havel (“Hope is the ability to work for something simply because it is good, whether it stands a chance of succeeding or not”). 
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