Naaman Syndrome

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. Continue reading “Naaman Syndrome”

Epic Quest

(Sermon for Sunday, July 7, 2013 || Proper 9C || 2 Kings 5:1-14)

kingfisherNaaman, the central figure of today’s story from the Hebrew Scriptures, has superiority issues. And for good reason. He is, after all, the commander of the army of the King of Aram. He has the resources to travel with an entourage, not to mention bags and bags of precious gold and silver. He has the political clout to rate an audience with Israel’s king. And to top it off, Naaman has chariots! (No, seriously. The mention of chariots is a big deal. My Old Testament professor in seminary used to joke that Israel had “chariot-envy,” because it didn’t have any. So to mention this guy has chariots – watch out, he’s the real deal.)

So this Naaman is a big wig, the alpha dog; he’s large and in charge. And he knows he’s on top. We shouldn’t expect anything less, then, when Naaman explodes in a rage at the way Elisha the prophet treats him. He just saw the king, and now this lowly prophet won’t even come outside, but instead sends a messenger? To add insult to insult, the task Elisha gives him in order to clear up his skin condition is laughably small and easy – too small and easy, of course, for someone of Naaman’s stature.

Where’s the epic quest to pick the first bud of the first flower to bloom on the treacherous mountain peak a year’s journey to the west and then make a tea of its petals and drink and be cleansed? Where’s the command to chase after the last shooting star of the meteor shower and find its resting place far across the sea and melt down the metal to make a set of armor which, when worn, will rid the wearer’s skin of leprosy?

I’m sure Naaman expected this type of challenge when he went to see Elisha the prophet. Naaman’s superiority complex told him he was suited only for the most difficult and heroic of circumstances. His mission would, of course, match his own grandeur.

But he receives something wholly different than he expected. Elisha’s instructions invade the bubble of Naaman’s superiority and remind him he’s not quite as special as he thinks he is. Or perhaps, better yet, he’s not special for the reasons he thinks he is. Elisha gives Naaman quite an ordinary task to do. A small, easy task. Leave the mountaineering and meteor-seeking alone. Just go and wash in the closest river.

Thank God for Naaman’s servants. They have the measure of the situation and enough guts to set their commander straight. In the end, Naaman accomplishes the greatest task of all – he tames his own ego – and then he goes and washes in the Jordan. And he is made clean.

Naaman’s mistake is one of the most common mistakes we can make in our life of faith. It’s so common, in fact, that most of us probably don’t even recognize it as a mistake. Here’s what I mean. Naaman’s delusions of grandeur prompt him to expect an epic quest in order to be healed. Therefore, he is unprepared for the simple steps that will lead to his cleansing.

While Naaman might have been up for whatever challenge Elisha threw at him, when faced with the same prospect, I’d hazard most of us would rather just slink away. Indeed, many of us balk at connecting deeply with our own spiritual journeys because we see them as too difficult or arduous even to begin. We look out at the vast expanses of our lives, and we see the epic quest to follow God from now until eternity. The goal is so lofty, the mission so grand that instead we decide we haven’t faith or stamina enough to see it through. And so we never even try. We just roll over and hit snooze on our relationships with God.

But again, our mistake is the same as Naaman’s. We expect the grand and lofty lifelong challenge of following God, and so that’s what we see. What we miss is our version of Elisha’s instructions. Just go and wash in the river, he tells Naaman. Just take a deep breath and greet me in silent prayer, God whispers to us.

You see, we our mistaken when we look at our spiritual lives and see the whole long, arduous journey at once. Yes, the journey will be long. Yes, the journey will be arduous. Not to mention full of joy. But whatever the case, we don’t experience the journey as a whole. We live the epic quests of our lives with God one moment at a time, one step at a time, one prayer at a time, and that’s what we should concentrate on – the simple things we can commit to today and then commit to again tomorrow and the tomorrow after that. And so our epic quests to follow God grow slowly, imperceptibly, as we, moment by moment, choose our own versions of Elisha’s instructions to Naaman.

The brilliant writer Anne Lamott explains it all this way. (She’s talking about writing, but the point is the same.)

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” (Bird by Bird, p. 19)

The spiritual life is hard. But God doesn’t call us to live the spiritual life. God calls us to live the spiritual moment. Bird by bird, God whispers to us. Just take it bird by bird.

The Library (January 15, 2013)

…Opening To…

When you read God’s Word, you must constantly be saying to yourself, “It is talking to me, and about me.” (Søren Kierkegaard)

…Listening In…

The king went up to the house of the LORD, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the LORD. (2 Kings 23:2; context)*

…Filling Up…

The first thing you might not have known about the Bible is that it isn’t a book. I know what you’re thinking: have you ever seen a book before? It looks exactly like a book! It’s true: the Bible is cunningly disguised as a book. A small enough one will fit in your pocket. You could download it on you Kindle. The dusty one in your church sanctuary could be used for bench pressing. I even called it a book yesterday when I mentioned its overwhelming popularity.

But it’s not a book. The Bible is actually a library. Way back when ancient Greek was just normal Greek, people called the Bible “ta biblia,” which happens to be plural. The Bible was not “the book,” but “the books.” Nowadays, we get the Bible in a single, handy bound volume, but when we look at it, we should picture a shelf of books rather than a single tome.

Here’s why. When we mistake the Bible for a book, we are primed to make the next logical mistake, which is to think the Bible speaks with a single voice. But the Bible was written by hundreds of people down through the centuries. The texts affirm and contradict and reference and ignore each other. They speak with myriad different voices, espouse several understandings of God, and cover dozens of genres of literature. But they all have one thing in common: they were all written in response to encounters with God. The richness of the Bible is found in the varied encounters with God that all those varied people experienced. Mistaking the Bible for a book can lead us to miss out on the kind of wonderful variety that reinforces our own varied experience with our God.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you encountered the people in the Bible and you continue to encounter people today. Help me to use the library of the Bible to search for you, that I notice you more readily when you find me. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, hoping for an encounter with you as I read about your presence in the lives of your people.

* Many scholars think that the “book of the covenant” that King Josiah reads here is Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah.