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.

Hearing Jairus

(sermon 7/1/18)

Jairus daughter

“The Raising of the Daughter of Jairus,” detail, painting by Jeremy Winborg

Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

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This is a story of three people who have become locked together in time – three people, forever connected by the way the writer of Mark’s gospel tells the stories of their meeting with Jesus. Each one of them very different, each one encountering Jesus from a different vantage point, each one being an important part of this whole story for the ages.

Mark’s story begins with Jesus and his disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee in their boat. They did this an awful lot in the gospels, moving back and forth from one place to another along its shoreline. Sometimes they crossed over in order to go *to* somewhere, to do something over there – but many times they’re doing it to get *away* from somewhere, to be able to relax and enjoy their own time in peace. Word had spread about Jesus pretty quickly; everyone had heard about his powerful words of hope, of good news – and especially abut his healing powers. So wherever he went, countless people who were suffering from all sorts of situations swarmed him in the hopes that in Jesus, they would find a chance at a better life. In at least one of these boat trips, Jesus and the disciples seem run down, feeling like all these people who keep thronging around them are preventing them from taking care of heir own needs and self-preservation – and they still kept coming, crossing the sea or taking the longer, more circuitous land route around the sea’s edge just to get to Jesus.

Jairus was one of those people. A leader in the synagogue, a respected person, and educated person, someone with position and some measure of power – the only person in this story whose name is considered worth remembering. And yet, despite the position and his ability in most settings to be in control of things, now he finds himself helpless and desperate, because his twelve year-old daughter is gravely ill, near death, and no one around him can help to save her. So, filled with desperation and hope, Jairus left his home and came to Jesus.

The next person in this story is just about the exact opposite of Jairus. This woman is an ordinary person without any position of respect or authority. It’s just her, by herself, struggling to find health and the acceptance of the community around her, a culture that considered her ritually unclean and literally untouchable because of her medical condition. She was as good as dead to them, and Mark’s author tells us this had gone on for twelve years. So, in desperation, hoping for a new beginning, a new life, she left her home that day and came to Jesus, hoping just to be able to touch the hem of his garment, which she knew would be enough to save her, just hoping for the slightest bit of mercy from him.

Finally, we meet the third person in this story – Jairus’ sick daughter, on her deathbed. Surely she’s the most helpless, the most in need of compassion of anyone in the story. Not in control of anything in her life – subject to the decisions of her parents in everything; what she could or couldn’t do; where she could or couldn’t go – wherever they decided to go, and do, she had to follow along. And now, not even in control of her own care in her illness. It was her father’s decision, not hers, even to go to Jesus to help her.

Despite the fact that Jesus had trekked across the Sea of Galilee, recognizing that he and the disciples needed to take time to take care of themselves and put their own needs first for a bit, when Jairus came to him, Jesus looked into his face, heard his words, saw his need, and he still set out immediately to help. And when he encountered the unnamed, suffering woman along the way, terrified, afraid to even speak to him, seeking healing, acceptance, life, he looked into her face, heard her words, saw her need, and he helped her.

We know from the story that Jairus’ daughter died before they could arrive, so we don’t hear any words from her. As helpless in death as she was in life, Jesus went into her room, looked into her face, felt compassion for her, and he provided all the words that were needed – Talitha cum; little girl, get up.

Jesus was undoubtedly tired, and in all likelihood feeling some burnout and “compassion fatigue” with all the huddled masses trying to get to him for an improved life, but in the end, he looked into these three faces, and heard their stories, and knew their suffering, and he must have thought to himself, “How can I *not* help?”

There’s an interesting sidebar that happens in this story. Mark’s author seems to be making an intentional parallel between the fact that the little girl was twelve years old, and that the woman had been suffering for twelve years. When something good, the girl’s birth, happened, some corresponding bad, the woman’s illness, occurred – and twelve years later, seemingly the moment that something good happened to the woman – she was healed, and given a new life – the little girl dies. It seems to project this common thought at the time the gospel was written, and which continues in some quarters even today, that in order for something good to happen somewhere, to someone, some corresponding loss has to happen somewhere, to someone else – it’s the idea that the universe is essentially a big zero-sum game, where helping someone in need is going to cause one’s self some cost or loss.

But in this instance, Mark seems to be intentionally making the point that Jesus blows that idea out of the water, by saving both the woman *and* the little girl, showing that goodness, that compassion – that *life* – is not a zero-sum game. That helping others in need doesn’t result in a net loss, but is actually a net gain.

Jesus looked into these three people’s faces and heard them, and he worked miracles to help them. This same Jesus, our Lord, has looked into each of our faces, too, and heard us, and has worked wonders in our lives every bit as miraculous. And this same Jesus calls us, out of gratitude for the good news he’s brought to us, the new life that he’s given to us, to look into the faces of others – and to use the immense resources that we have been given, living in the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world, to work miracles every bit as real as Jesus’, in the lives of those people whose faces we see. Jesus calls us to look into the faces of men, women, and children, who desperately need help, and hope, and new life every bit as much as Jairus, and the suffering, unnamed woman, and the helpless little girl. As a core, fundamental issue of our Christian faith, we’re called to look into those faces – and having seen them, to ask, “How can we not help?”

How can we not?

Amen.