Sermon for Sunday, October 9, 2016 || Proper 23C || 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
*Plays the opening riff to the Beatles’ “Blackbird”*
Does anyone know what this song is? (Hopefully someone will.) That’s right. “Blackbird” by the Beatles. I’m having something of a Beatles kick in my sermons recently. Not only is it “Blackbird” by the Beatles; it is also the very first song I ever tried to learn on the guitar.
It was the day after Christmas my senior year of high school. I had used my Christmas gift money to buy an incredibly cheap acoustic guitar from the local shop. My friends in musical theatre class all knew how to play guitar, and it seemed like a really good way to impress girls.
So I thought to myself, “What was in impressive song I could learn on the guitar?” And, of course, “Blackbird” came to mind. The trouble is, “Blackbird” is not an easy song to play. Your left hand has to move away from the precious comfort zone near the neck of the guitar where most chords are played and venture into the hazardous territory closer to the body of the instrument. Your right hand has to pluck the correct strings at the correct times, in concert with the movement of your left hand hand.
That first day with the guitar, I could barely play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” I had absolutely no business trying to learn a song as difficult as “Blackbird.” So after an hour of mounting frustration while trying to make my unpracticed left hand do what the music told it to do, I gave up. I vowed I would never, ever play this stupid song “Blackbird,” and I looked around for something easier to play. Something with four chords. Something in which my left hand could stay safely right here near the head.
That first day with my first guitar, I fell ill with a biblical disease that shows up in today’s first lesson. It’s an affliction that affects us when we expect something to be extremely difficult, and then work to make it so. I call it “Naaman Syndrome.” No, not the leprosy that sends the Syrian general to Israel in the first place. Naaman’s skin condition is just the impetus for the tale. Naaman Syndrome appears later in the story, after Elisha’s messenger tells Naaman what to do to be healed.
“Go, wash in the Jordan seven times,” says the messenger, “and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”
Naaman is incensed by this. First off, the prophet himself doesn’t even come outside, let alone wave his hand over the spot or call out to God. “I came all this way for nothing,” Naaman complains. “The rivers in my own land are way better than the rivers of Israel. Why couldn’t I just wash in one of them?!”
Enraged, Naaman storms off. But his own servants diagnose him quickly with his self-named syndrome. “Father,” they say. “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, `Wash, and be clean’?” This catches the powerful general off guard. The Naaman Syndrome had gotten the better of him. He expected his cure to be difficult, so he ignores the command of the prophet when it turns out to be easy.
Naaman Syndrome crops up all the time in our lives and in our work and in our walks with God. You’ve probably heard the medical axiom: “If you hear hoofbeats, look for horses, not zebras.” In other words, look for the simplest explanation of symptoms first. Don’t jump all the way to the most difficult, most exotic diagnosis. You can probably come up with more examples of Naaman Syndrome in your own life; I know I can, especially when my own pride has gotten involved.
I bring up this affliction in today’s sermon because Naaman Syndrome (which I made up, by the way – it’s not actually a thing) happens more in our walks with God than in anywhere else. We hear stories about the saints. Or we remember spiritual luminaries in our own lives. Or we read about Jesus himself, and we think, “Boy, this following God thing is so hard. How could I ever do it well?”
Humans prefer to do things they are competent at. There’s a good chance you will never see me ice skating, for example. So it is completely understandable why following God, why being a faithful disciple and apostle of Jesus Christ, is not always an attractive option for people. We expect it to be hard, and thus we make it hard.
But this approach is inherently flawed. Our Naaman Syndrome compels us to try to live the entire life of faith in one fell swoop, to try to be complete Christians even when we’re just starting out. That’s not how it works. The life of faith takes a lifetime of faith. In the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of watching real baby steps. When we use that image metaphorically, we usually just mean small steps. But true baby steps are also tentative, uncertain, wobbly, and they lead to a lot of falling over and getting back up again.
This is how the life of faith begins. We start small, with baby steps. When we sit down at table, we remember to say grace sometimes. When we hear a siren, perhaps a little prayer blossoms in our hearts. When we see someone in need, we take a second look instead of turning away. Someday the second look may turn into a conversation, a meal, a friendship. Maybe not today, but someday, with God’s help. Over time, the life of faith becomes the rhythm of life in general. But we can’t learn the whole beat at once.
If we try to learn the whole beat all at once, we will suffer from Naaman Syndrome. This affliction can hamstring our own walks with God. Sometimes to such a degree that we never even get started. But like learning to play the guitar, the life of faith grows in us as we practice. Indeed, that first day, I vowed that I would never, ever play that stupid “Blackbird” song. Well, about ten years after I first picked up the guitar, I was idly surfing around a guitar music website when I stumbled on the notes for the Beatles’ classic. A lump gathered in my throat. “I can’t play this song,” I thought to myself. Then I tried. And it wasn’t too bad. I picked it up after about 15 minutes of practice. Somewhere in that ten years of practicing other songs, I had surpassed the skill level needed for “Blackbird” without even knowing it.
The same thing can happen in our lives of faith. Through daily prayer, reading scripture, worship, service, simple practices, we grow deeper into our lives of faith. And someday, we might discover that we are the ones someone else is emulated as their own walk with God gets started.The life of faith is hard when we fall into Naaman Syndrome, when we try to live the whole life of faith at once. But that’s not how God designed it. God designed the life of faith so that God might have the opportunity to walk alongside us on the road. So that we might get to know God a little better before we reach or destination.