Coming and Going

(sermon 7/7/19 – Immigration Sunday)

go away doormat
Elisha’s doormat

2 Kings 5:1-14

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”

So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, 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’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

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Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

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The prophet Elisha may not be the strangest person in the Bible, but he certainly ranks up there, which is impressive given just how relatively little the scriptures tell us about him. Unlike his mentor Elijah, who never seemed to be at a loss for words, Elisha actually didn’t say much. Most of the scriptural record of him focuses on supernatural miracles he performed – making oil mysteriously not run out, raising a boy from the dead, making an axe head float in water – usually without much conversation from him surrounding it. In one case, Elisha wanted to say something to a woman who’s been offering him hospitality in her home for years, so he has his personal assistant Gehazi bring the woman to him – in her own home – and while she’s standing there right in front of him, Elisha tells Gehazi, “Tell the woman…” what he wants to say, refusing to speak directly to her while she was standing right in front of him and must have been thinking “Well what am I, chopped liver?”

Another time, in maybe the most bizarre of Elisha stories, Elisha is being hounded by a large crowd of young boys who are teasing Elisha because he’s bald, so he summons two bears to come down out of the woods and maul 42 of the boys, indicating that Elisha had anger management issues, to put it mildly.

That’s all a long-winded way of making it clear that Elisha was not by any stretch of the imagination a people-person, and that sets the stage for the story we heard about him this morning. Naaman, a powerful, highly decorated, well respected five-star general in the army of the neighboring kingdom of Aram, hears that this odd little man of God in the Samaria – this backwater, the armpit of the universe by Naaman’s estimation, might be able to cure him of this ailment that he’s been suffering from for so long. So at least for a little while, he pushes down his substantial ego and goes to get an audience with  Elisha.

Of course, we heard that isn’t exactly how things played out. When Naaman and his entourage arrived at Elisha’s house, Elisha wouldn’t even agree to see this foreign bigshot in person. He sends out some unnamed lackey to tell Naaman to go jump in the lake, almost literally. Elisha instructed the lackey to tell Naaman to just go bathe in the Jordan River nearby, which in that location was likely muddy, and brackish, and hardly more than a large creek, something that looked like if you tried to bathe in it you’d probably come out dirtier than when you’d gone in. This was too much for Naaman’s ego, and he decides to go home, unhealed, until some of his people talk some sense into him. Finally, Naaman gives in, and does what he’s been told, and he ends up heading home healed and humbled, and all without Elisha ever having to debase himself by actually meeting Naaman.

There’s a bit of a reversal of this situation in today’s gospel reading. There, Jesus sends his disciples out to engage directly with people throughout the countryside, to heal the suffering and proclaim God’s good news, rather than waiting for them to come to them, as Naaman came to Elisha, to receive God’s blessings. When the disciples did this, and they return, they’re joyful as they tell Jesus all about what had happened, and their experiences. You can imagine the excitement in their voices. Clearly, this was a transformative experience for them, and you can almost hear them tell Jesus that most  often-heard comment made by people coming back from a mission trip, that they know they helped others, but they’d received so much more than what they’d given. I’m sure that when our group in Puerto Rico gets home, many of them will say the same thing.

That seems to be an important way that God works within us. We’re called to be compassionate toward others, to proclaim God’s good news of love for them, to be the face; the heart, hands, and feet of Christ to them – but at the same time, we experience God, we learn about God, we’re transformed by God, largely by coming into contact and relationship with them.  They have things to teach us – about them, about God, about ourselves. That act of being open to and receiving others seems, in fact, to possibly be the most important way that we grown in our faith and see God in the world.

So let’s think back, then, to that story of Elisha and Naaman. There are all sorts of things that a person could draw out of this story, but I suspect that more often than not, it’s told as a morality play in which the moral of the story is “Don’t be a Naaman” – don’t let our pride and ego get in the way of God working goodness in our lives. And that’s a good enough point, I guess, but today I want to suggest seeing the story from a different angle, one where the moral of the story might be “Don’t be an Elisha.” I imagine Elisha, sitting in his house after this encounter, feeling all smug and superior for having basically just phoned in Naaman’s healing, without ever having any actual personal contact with him. And in the midst of that feeling of superiority, I imagine Elisha passing by a mirror in his house, and stopping for a moment to look at himself in it; and as he’s looking into his own eyes he hears the voice of God saying “Really, Elisha? Do you know what you just missed? Do you really know everything about why I sent that man to meet you? Do you realy think you couldn’t possibly have anything to learn from him? Do you know what I’d had in mind for you, what I wanted you to learn through him, how I wanted to make you a better servant of mine, by meeting and talking with him? Really, Elisha?” And I imagine Elisha realizing what an opportunity he’d just missed, how he’d frustrated God’s good intentions for him, by not opening himself up to this other person, and suddenly, he couldn’t look into his own eyes anymore, and he quietly walked away.

This past week, we’ve been celebrating our American ideal of independence. This coming week, let’s also try to recognize and celebrate the interdependence that God has created us for, and designed us for, and continually is drawing us toward. Let’s be thankful for the good news that God loves us. And God loves and all the people that Jesus’ disciples helped. And God loves the Elishas of the world, and all the Naamans of the world. Let’s remember and be grateful for the truth that just as God uses us to transform the lives of others, God also uses those others, however we go to them or however they come to us, to transform us, too.

So whose life will you transform this week? And who will you allow to transform your own?

Thanks be to God.

Compassion in Community

(sermon 7/2/17)

meal

2 Kings 6:8-23

Once when the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he took counsel with his officers. He said, “At such and such a place shall be my camp.” But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, “Take care not to pass this place, because the Arameans are going down there.” The king of Israel sent word to the place of which the man of God spoke. More than once or twice he warned such a place so that it was on the alert. The mind of the king of Aram was greatly perturbed because of this; he called his officers and said to them, “Now tell me who among us sides with the king of Israel?” Then one of his officers said, “No one, my lord king. It is Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.”

He said, “Go and find where he is; I will send and seize him.” He was told, “He is in Dothan.” So he sent horses and chariots there and a great army; they came by night, and surrounded the city. When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, “Alas, master! What shall we do?” He replied, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” Then Elisha prayed: “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. When the Arameans came down against him, Elisha prayed to the Lord, and said, “Strike this people, please, with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness as Elisha had asked. Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city; follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria. As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, “O Lord, open the eyes of these men so that they may see.” The Lord opened their eyes, and they saw that they were inside Samaria. When the king of Israel saw them he said to Elisha, “Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” He answered, “No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.” So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.

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Back in my days as an architect, I had a business associate, a commercial real estate leasing agent named Don. For twenty years, Don and I shared business leads back and forth. We also shared a lot of our business and personal ups and downs. We were there to congratulate each other on the birth of our kids, and shared in the joys and challenges as they grew up. Don was a valued business associate, but he was more than that – he was also a dear and valued friend.

Don was an extreme go-getter, Type-A personality. He was passionate about his work and everything else in life. He was constantly smiling; an eternal optimist; you almost never saw him down. And he could talk to anyone, about anything, any time. He could find some connection with you and draw on that, and encourage you, and build you up. That kind of personality is almost literally gold in the business world. It was a gift that I could only dream of having.

Of all of his really amazing qualities, though, his driving wasn’t always one of them. Consistent with his supercharged personality, Don never met a speed limit he couldn’t beat by twenty or thirty miles per hour. Multiple lanes of busy traffic were seen as a challenge – a personal slalom course for him to navigate as he tried to get to wherever the first and the fastest. One morning, Don was driving on the highway between his home and the office, on his way to work. He was undoubtedly in the hottest, newest BMW of the time. Those seemed to be a weakness of his; I always envied him for the great cars that he drove. But on this day, Don encountered another driver like himself – and before you knew it, the two were engaged in what I’ll just politely call “competitive highway driving.” At some point in all of this, Don was even nudging the other guy’s car with his own, trying to get him to do what he wanted. Eventually, the two of them pulled off to the side of the road. The other driver got out of his car, loaded for bear, spitting mad, yelling and screaming at Don, just itching for a fight. Don, for his part, just stayed calm as he listened to the man. He took it all in stride, and then, with a calm and friendly demeanor, he said “Yes, you’re right, I was being a jerk – in fact, we both were; we both got carried away, we let our egos get the better of us. What we were doing was wrong, and dangerous. We’re both better than that. Of course, I’ll pay for whatever damage I did to the side of your car.”

As the man had started to calm down, Dan started to chat with him. Asked him what he did for a living, who he worked for. As they were exchanging information, Don said “Oh, your last name is _____? I know someone with that same name, ________; do you know them?” “Yes, he’s a relative.” “Oh, well if you know him, you probably know _______, too.” “Yes, in fact we went to school together; I was just talking to them a few days ago.” And on and on. By the time they were done talking, the man was at ease, and smiling, and the two of them even laughed at the situation. When they were done, the two of them shook hands and parted ways. Now if this were a perfect story, Don would have ended up leasing the man some office space. That didn’t happen, but I’m sure that he at least had tried to line up a showing.

That incident came to mind again when I read today’s sermon text. This story deals with the prophet Elisha – who is not to be confused with his mentor, the prophet Elijah. In this story, the king of Aram – the king of the Aramean people – is having constant setbacks on the battlefield in his war against the Israelites, and he’s enraged when he’s told that it’s been Elisha, with his direct line to God, who has been advising the king of Israel regarding where the Arameans would be and what their plans were. So he sends troops to capture, or maybe kill, Elisha; they surround the city he’s living in. But as you heard, Elisha asks God to temporarily, partially blind the soldiers. Then, in a classic bit of scriptural orneriness, Elisha tells the soldiers “Oh no, the man you’re looking for isn’t here; this is the wrong town. But I know where he is; here, let me take you to him!” And he leads the Arameans to Samaria – a city that’s stongly fortified by Israelite troops. And then, once they’re there, the Arameans’ sight is restored, they see that they’re completely surrounded and hemmed in.

At this point, the king of Israel, as excited as a kid who wants to tear into his presents on Christmas morning, asks Elisha “Can I kill them?!! Can I kill them?!!!” It made sense. God had brought the enemies of Israel right into the palm of their hand. Surely, God would want them to finish them off. But contrary to what anyone would think, Elisha says no, don’t kill them. In fact, don’t just refrain from killing them – throw them a party. Prepare a big banquet, lay out a feast for them. So that’s what they did. I can only imagine the conversations among the soldiers from the two armies had at that meal. Telling one another where they were from; what they did for a living when the king wasn’t sending them off to war. Showing one another pictures on their phones of their wives, their kids, their pets. Complaining about their king, and taxes, and the lack of rain for the crops. And after it was over, the Arameans were granted safe passage home, and the passage says that they ended their hostilities against the Israelites.

Elisha had instructed the king to do, by way of a common meal, and being compassionate in community with the Arameans, the same basic thing that Don had done out along the roadside – to not just defuse a tense, dangerous situation, but to actually turn it into something positive and constructive.

There’s something universal, something that cuts across all cultures and all times, about the sharing of a common meal. There’s something almost magical in the way that a meal can bring about healing and reconciliation, and create a sense of community. And since the gospel – God’s good news of compassion for all people – is primarily enacted in the world through forgiveness and community, it seems only natural that one of the most sacred expressions of our faith is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper – a remembrance of God’s faithfulness and compassion, seen through the reenactment and continuation of an eternal, communal meal.

Since we’re continuing to examine God’s compassion this Sunday, we should recognize that reality – that God’s compassion is primarily enacted in the world through radical forgiveness and being in community; in contrast to the opposing attitude of trying to earn God’s compassion through personal acts of would-be holiness and self-righteousness, and concentrating on individualism instead of community.

That’s important for us to remember, because our society has almost always had a strong emphasis on individualism. We’ve sung the praises of the rugged individualist; the one who settled the frontier, the captain of industry, the self-made man who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, who got everything he had by his own hands, who didn’t get any help from anyone and who didn’t owe anything to anyone else. We need to recognize that these attitudes are completely contrary to the kind of community accountability and responsibility that Christ himself has called us to. As our society has evolved, we’ve placed an unhealthy – and I’ll suggest, an immoral, and even sinful – emphasis on individualism over the importance of community, and communal accountability to and responsibility for, one another. And you don’t need to go any further than the evening news, and the ongoing debates over how, or even whether, we have any responsibility for providing healthcare for people in this country, or affirming equal rights and equal protection under the law, to see examples of this ongoing battle to balance individualism and community responsibility in our society.

Our excessive focus on individualism has shaped a lot of American Christianity, too, and usually not for the better. It’s partly why there are so many different denominations – individualists set their own rules and feel no accountability to the rest of a community when there’s any disagreement; they can just go off and start their own church. It’s also why there’s so much emphasis in parts of the church about Jesus being someone’s personal Lord and Savior, minimizing the essential community aspect of the faith. It’s why you hear so many people say they can be a Christian but not be part of a church family.  It’s why there are so many Christian songs full of references to “I” and “Me,” versus “Us” and “We.”

As we look at how we’re supposed to live as God’s people, in both church and society, we have to recognize the high importance that God places on being in community – and that that community has to be as broad as possible. It has to include people who are different from us. People who look different. Who think different. Who vote different. Who live different, who love different, who worship different. And as Elisha showed us, it even has to include people we consider our enemies. Being in *that* kind of community is how God’s compassion breaks into the world, and into people’s lives. That’s how God shows a better alternative to a world where otherwise, Don and the other driver would have ended up in a fistfight, and the Arameans would have been slaughtered.

Being in that kind of community with others isn’t always easy. In fact, most of the time, it’s downright hard. But part of the good news for us in all of this is that we know that God does actually empower us and enable us to be able to model that kind of community, and to extend it beyond ourselves and out into the world – whether that ends up being somewhere  literally at a meal around a table; or in the workplace; or at school; or in the neighborhood – or even along the side of the road.

Thanks be to God.