This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

“Toto too?”


Genesis 9:8-17

I.
            Our God is a God of blessing.  No matter how bad it gets, no matter how much destruction people bring down upon themselves by their idolatry and injustice, no matter how much violence we do to each other, causing God to turn away from us, God’s last word is always blessing.  God’s final act is always to save, to deliver, to redeem, to heal, and to liberate.  God’s love always wins in the end.
            In this particular story, God makes a covenant with the whole creation, “every living creature.”  This covenant is not just with one particular nation, or race, or ethnicity, or family.  It is not even with just human beings, as if it were just all about us.  No.  God declares this covenant to be with all of Noah’s descendants, which is the entire human race.  And it is with all the animals as well, “as many as came out of the ark.” 
            This covenant is the conclusion of a much longer story of the Great Flood.  The world had gotten so out of balance, so twisted and corrupt, and so thoroughly wicked that human thoughts were “only evil continually.”  Human beings had very quickly invented murder and revenge.
            So God decides to cash the whole place in and start over.  He selects Noah to build a boat and collect all the animals of the earth.  And then God opens the floodgates of heaven and inundates the entire earth in a flood.
            After the water began to subside and the boat rested on dry ground again, all the animals were released.  And God gives one basic commandment to Noah which applies to the whole human race.  It is a prohibition of bloodshed.  This is the condition that God attaches to the gift of the renewed planet to Noah and his descendants.  No violence.  No shedding of blood.  For blood is life and life belongs especially to God.  Not only are the people not to shed human blood, but they are not even to eat the blood of the animals they are allowed to eat for food.
            This prohibition is extended even into the New Testament, by the way.  The Apostles, when deciding to accept Gentiles into the church, did not require them to keep the entire system of the biblical kosher laws; but they did insist that this law that God gives to Noah, and hence to all humanity, the law against the shedding of blood, be kept.
            So we see that God does not establish this covenant with people alone, but with all animals.  I’m reminded of Psalm 36:6, which praises God for saving “humans and animals alike.”  It is a fundamental brake against all theologies and practices that would make human beings the only life-forms God cares about.  God created humans and animals on the same day of creation, day six.  And for all the special calling that humans have to be stewards of creation, God clearly sees humans as partners with the animals in blessing.

II.
            In this God is working with us.  In the first creation, God only gave plants to humans for food.  But the humans basically quickly disobeyed God and started killing and eating animals.  All this blood soaking the ground was surely one of the reasons for the Flood.  In the second creation, God allows humans to eat animals, but applies a regulation: “Just don’t eat the blood.  Give the blood back to me in sacrifice.”
            In other words, this is an example of God changing the approach in response to what humans can handle.  God chooses regulation over prohibition.  Thus God does not create intolerable, either/or situations.  Instead of saying absolutely not, God says, okay, but within these boundaries.  As long as you are conscious of and recognize and affirm whose creation this is, you may enjoy it.
            And then God makes a monumental promise not to destroy the creation again.  Earlier in chapter 8, God noted that, even though the human heart is incurably evil, God will nevertheless not wreck creation again.  Here this is repeated with reference to a flood: “Never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  God says, that no matter how much evil you all manage to do to each other and my world, at least you don’t have this to worry about.  I am not going to cash the whole place in again.  There is an eternal limit to God’s wrath.  God takes destroying the planet off the table.
            It is an act of absolute grace.  God knows that human nature has not changed one millimeter.  No sooner do Noah and his family settle down on dry land than there is this sordid incident of Noah getting blind drunk on wine, and some mysterious sexual sin involving his son, Ham.  So it’s not like the Flood made people perfect.  They start sinning before the water has even totally receded.  But God does say that God will not destroy the creation again anyway… probably because he knew it would be impractical to impose a global flood every few weeks as human sin continued.
            But God also gives himself a reminder of this promise.  Every time things get bad and God is ready to declare another flood, so that it even starts to rain, God has the rainbow appear in the sky.  It is to remind God of this promise.  “Oh, right, I said I wasn’t going to kill you.”
            God decides to make this version of creation work.  In spite of the people, God chooses patience and mercy and compassion.  God chooses forgiveness as God’s mode of operating, while still retaining an arsenal of less catastrophic events.  People and whole nations might still be destroyed, but God is not going to make the whole creation suffer again for our misdeeds.

III.
            The rainbow is a sign of God’s choice to forgive and forebear.  It is in the shape of a bow, as in what people use to shoot arrows.  And the bow is loaded, stretched, bent tight and ready to propel a deadly arrow.  But the point is that it is aimed away from the earth.  This reminds God that he has promised not to shoot global destruction at the earth.  But the bow in the clouds is aimed away from it.  Indeed, as we see in Jesus, God will even receive the shot himself!
            Now, this idea that God will not destroy the earth appears to rub some people the wrong way.  They seem to get a lot of mileage out of the idea that God hates the creation and will in the end destroy it, and they prefer this happen sooner rather than later.  And they will point to other texts in which they say that God is predicted to destroy the earth in rather spectacular terms.  There is the book of Revelation, for instance.
            But Revelation and other examples of apocalyptic literature do not depict the destruction, annihilation, or wiping out of creation.  What Revelation reveals or discloses is the true nature of creation, and all the graphic violence in that book is actually the comprehensive wiping away of the accrued human corruption and sin that had bound and crippled the good and blessed creation.  In the end there is a renewed heaven and a renewed earth, as these shine forth in all their divinely created glory.
            In the meantime God deals with human sin as with something that is winding down and exhausting itself, collapsing and being reduced to the nothingness it is.  In the process of sin being broken down and emptied of its power, God is always there to redeem, heal, and save.  God refuses to use again the ultimate option of global destruction.  Instead of starting over, God pulls us through.
            The idea that God is going to destroy the planet while rescuing believers is nonsense and unbiblical.  If we know anything from Scripture it is that believers do not get rescued; they endure, they come through, they are redeemed, ransomed, restored, and healed.  This may happen on this side or the other side of death.  But it always happens.  Believers are not exempt from suffering; they just realize that suffering is not the end but a way through this collapsing order of the world.
           
IV.
            In this story God covenants to work with us.  God promises to pull us through.  God affirms this relationship with us and with creation and has decided to walk together with us through life.
            This decision is made most obvious and visible and powerful when God actually chooses to walk together with us, as one of us, in Jesus Christ.  “Here is my Son,” says God, “he will show you what your true humanity is.  He will show you, not just by words but by actions, how you need to live in this creation together.  He will show you my holy way of love, which was from the beginning what I intended for you and made you for.”
            In the gospel for today Jesus is baptized and comes among us, facing first the temptations of Satan.  The text says “He was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.”  There’s those animals again!  It doesn’t say that Jesus was in any way threatened by them, just that he was with them.  As if Jesus has animal companions when he goes forth to confront Satan.  As if Jesus’ is explicitly representing in this contest the whole of life, not just humans. 
            The covenant between God and creation, made with Noah after the Flood, is with everyone who came out of the ark, all the animals.  And here we see animals accompanying Jesus as he meets Satan in what was really a battle for the fate and soul of creation.  Because if Jesus caves on any of those three temptations, the planet is ruined.
            You have to look in Matthew and Luke because Mark doesn’t give us the specific temptations.  But they are about wealth, fame, and power.  If Jesus decides that any one of these is more important than obedience to God, it’s all over.  There is no story.  The world would not be saved in him.
            But the world is saved.  Jesus doesn’t succumb to Satan and trade in his calling for any of these three things.  We are the ones who are continually and perpetually doing that.  And in so doing bringing down disaster on our own heads.  Disaster through which God is continually and perpetually pulling us.
            In a sense, Jesus is the embodiment of the rainbow.  He is the rainbow come to life as a person.  Because when God looks at us, God sees not so much our sins and violence, as Jesus, the true human.  God looks down and loves us all the more, for Jesus’ sake.
            When Jesus saves, he is with the wild beasts.  When Jesus saves, he saves every living species that came out of the ark.  We are all in this together, we creatures of the sixth day, and we will come through together.  In the end God asks us to please refrain from violence and remember whose we are.  Remember who is the Lord of all of life.  And remember who is loving us and saving us and healing us and delivering us, all of us, for all time.
+++++++ 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Fasting/Conservation/Justice


Isaiah 58:1-12

I.
            Traditionally, the season of Lent has been a time of fasting.  In agricultural societies this was more than a spiritual discipline; it was often a matter of survival.  This is hard for us to understand.  We have things like refrigeration and a global transportation network that brings us food from all over the world, all year long.  But for ancient people, by the time February rolled around, communities were running low on the food that had been stored since the harvest. 
            They might not have had much meat left that had been killed and preserved the previous fall, and they couldn’t slaughter more because they needed the rest of the animals for the future.  Eggs couldn’t be eaten because they needed them to become new chickens.  Milk was for new calves and lambs, so they couldn’t drink that either.  So, in late winter and early spring, it was necessary for agricultural peoples to refrain from eating meat, eggs, and dairy products.  And neither could they eat any of the grain that was saved to plant in the spring, or to feed animals.  We, of course, know nothing about such calculations; but this was life-and-death for our forebears.
            It so happens that Jesus was crucified and resurrected at Passover, which is always around spring equinox.  Ancient people were fasting anyway; now the church added a new interpretation to the fast.  It was a time of spiritual preparation for the celebration of Easter.  My friend who is a Russian Orthodox priest still doesn’t eat meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, or oil during the 40 days of Lent.  Roman Catholics used to abstain from meat at the same time.
            The spiritual benefits of fasting have to do with the fact that fasting stresses your body.  On the one hand, this makes you more amenable to spiritual experience.  Jesus fasted prior to his temptation by the devil.  Native Americans fast prior to embarking upon a “vision quest.”  The Torah has laws about fasting, mainly for the Day of Atonement.  People have known for millennia that not eating for a while clears your mind and facilitates different states of consciousness.  On the other hand, nothing makes you more consciously aware of your own mortality and your connectedness to the earth than fasting.  When you’re fasting you can harbor no illusions that you are a disembodied spirit.  No.  It is very clear that you are a body with biological needs.
            The point of fasting is literally reducing your consumption, or not consuming at all.  When we do this we are made viscerally aware of our own dependence on the earth, and on the Creator.  When we fast we reduce our footprint, as it were, so that the earth has time to recover and be regenerated for the future.  At the same time, the spiritual benefit of fasting makes us more focused and appreciative.  We are better able to say “thank you” and receive new experiences.      

II.
            The problem is that, by the time of Isaiah, people figured out how to technically keep the rules of religious fasting, while not inconveniencing themselves much at all.  Perhaps they just compensated for what they were not eating by eating more of other things.  We know that they used their visible fasting as a way to make themselves look good and be admired by others, and even justify gaining power over them.  Isaiah says that wealthy people were using their fasting as a way to oppress poor workers, perhaps by driving down the wages of farm workers by reducing demand, thus pocketing more money.   
            Fasting can easily degenerate into a religious work you do for show, or for other equally bad reasons.  And Isaiah is well aware that this happens.  He hears God say to the people, “You serve your own interests on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  You fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.”  In other words, you fast as if it was all about you.
            What Isaiah urges is not self-centered abnegation, which, as Jesus points out, is more often to draw attention to yourself.  Fasting is not self-punishment or some feat of ascetic achievement we can all admire.  It is not about paying your dues to earn some benefit or status.
            No.  Isaiah famously reports God saying: “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” 
”If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,” then that will be a real fast, one that God appreciates and rewards.
            In other words, God insists that fasting must not be separated from justice.  Fasting has to be about setting people free from oppression, violence, inequality, exploitation, hunger, and illness.
            We can see how the careful response to the shortages of resources in late winter had a justice component.  If we simply consumed everything to our heart’s content there would be nothing left.  The whole community would die out.  There would be no animals to bear new animals, and no grain to feed them, and no seeds to plant.  The earth needs room and time to regenerate.  We need to invest something of what we have now so that we will have a future.
III.
            What we don’t see is how our economic regime that depends on and positively demands consumption is what generates injustice.  We don’t see it because we are at or near the top of the food chain.  We don’t see what it costs in terms of labor, wealth, heartbreak, suffering, and disease to keep us in the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed.  We do occasionally see what our consumption is costing us, in terms of expanded waistlines, clogged cardiac arteries, diabetes, asthma, and various forms of cancer.  We do sometimes see that this system is spawning mental illnesses like depression, that it is putting intolerable stress on families, and breaking up communities.  We might perceive the polluted air, soil, and water that is an inevitable cost of unchecked consumption.  But mostly we either don’t want to know or realize that trying to change it would be too costly.
            But Scriptural mandates like the Sabbath, and Christian traditions like the Lenten fast, do change this system.  In these disciplines we are encouraged to carve out some time and some space that is not dedicated to consuming as precipitously and as voluminously as possible all the resources of the earth.  In these we decide to opt out, even if only for a few days and weeks here and there, of a system based on the exploitation of other people’s labor.
            For that agricultural reality of late winter, when it was clear that conservation was an imperative, and that without it the people would be foreclosing on their future existence, is something we need to understand right now.  Only now it’s not our farm or our farming village that is at stake, but the whole planet.  The whole creation is at risk from our overconsumption.  We are in a late winter of our own making, and it pertains to the earth itself.  Conservation is an imperative now, and it is a matter of justice.
            Jesus’ fast brought him into direct conflict with the devil.  It offended the devil, who feeds on our waste and consumption.  So he tempts Jesus with three tests that appeal to Jesus’ self-centeredness: bread for his belly, fame for his soul, and power for his altruistic spirit.  All of which Jesus categorically rejects.  He refuses to be a bread-maker, an entertainer, or a politician.  He refuses to have it be all about what he can consume in terms of food, fame, or power.  It is not about him but always God… which proves that he is God-with-us.
            Jesus comes to fulfill what Isaiah says about what a real fast is.  It’s about justice, equality, healing, liberation, sharing, hospitality, and satisfying the needs of the afflicted.
 IV.
            I am convinced that if we do not start to follow Jesus – not just affirm or worship or make theological statements about him but actually follow him by living the kind of life he lived – that we are doomed.  Not to follow Jesus is to attract the wrath of God, who cares more for the good and blessed creation than for our sins of greed, gluttony, avarice, envy, anger, and so forth.
            Our seasons of fasting need to resolve into lives of conservation, stewardship, protection, healing, and justice.  We have to start walking lightly on the earth, as Jesus did.
            And one place to start is in Lent.  We Presbyterians don’t have any rules about Lent.  There is no tradition or hierarchy telling us what not to consume.  We get to use our judgment. 
            Most of the time we judge not to bother.  But I hope we learn to witness to God’s goodness by reducing our consumption significantly, and redirecting our resources to helping, healing, and liberating people.
            Then we will be able to relate to the promises of Isaiah:
“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. 
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.  Then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday. 
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.”
+++++++ 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Succession.

2 Kings 2:1-12

I.
The prophet Elijah’s work is just about finished.  He has been grooming as his successor Elisha, who was chosen by God back in 1 Kings 19.  Now it is several years later, Elijah’s time on earth is up.  And before he is taken to God he has to confirm that Elisha is really the one who will take over when he is gone.
So Elijah takes Elisha on this odd road trip, from the town of Gilgal, to Bethel, back to Jericho, and then across to the east side of the Jordan.  Along the way they meet with the company of prophets in each town.  These prophets are also independently aware that this is Elijah’s last day.  But Elisha instructs them to be quiet about this.  He doesn’t want this intense charismatic experience to be defiled by too many confining, limiting words.
Words necessarily carry baggage and preconceptions.  It is interesting how many times in the Bible people are instructed not to speak.  It happens at the end of today’s gospel reading, when, after this dazzling experience on the top of Mt. Tabor, Jesus tells his disciples not to mention this to anyone.  If it were put into language, people would certainly misunderstand.  Words, especially regarding experiences like this, just create confusion.  They cannot adequately express what the Holy Spirit is doing much of the time; they only get in the way.  Jesus does not want people proclaiming him the Messiah, or giving an account of this experience on the mountain with Moses and Elijah.  And Elisha does not want the prophets telling everyone that Elijah is about to die.  Who knows what ideas people would conclude from such news?  
As they are traveling, Elijah instructs Elisha three times to stay behind, and three times Elisha refuses and remains with the older prophet.  It is as if Elijah is testing his apprentice, and Elisha surprisingly passes the test by his disobedience, by not doing what Elijah says.  I wonder if Elijah isn’t trying to assess whether Elisha is obeying him, or God.  Elisha intuitively knows his own calling and God’s will for him.  Is he focused on Elijah and what Elijah says?  Or on what the Spirit is telling him to do?  Not even Elijah’s commands are allowed to overrule the call of the Spirit to Elisha.
Sometimes, when someone knocks at the door of a monastic community and asks to join, he is curtly told no, and to go away.  And he gets the same answer every time he asks.  But if he keeps asking, after a few days of literally camping out in the doorway, he will be allowed in.  It’s like he has to prove his seriousness, patience, humility, and dedication.
Elijah wants to be sure that Elisha is a disciple of the Lord, not him.  Even the best leaders are not to be followed and obeyed blindly.  People must stay true to their callings in spite of what earthly leaders command.

II.
Fifty prophets from the local towns follow them down through the wilderness to the Jordan River.  In the witness of these prophets we see the living presence of the community, ratifying and verifying what is happening.  Neither Elijah nor Elisha is having a private, personal, exclusive experience of God’s Spirit.  Both of them are called by God directly, but that calling is affirmed by others who recognize God’s hand upon them.
They get to the river and the prophets watch from afar as Elijah goes down to the water, takes off his mantle, that is, his robe, which may have been made of animal skin, rolls it up like a towel, and smacks the surface of the river with it, at which point the water parts, leaving a path of dry ground for Elisha and him to walk across.
This intentionally reminds us of Moses, who separated the waters of the Red Sea by striking the surface with his staff, at God’s orders.  And it also reminds us of when the people came across the Jordan into Canaan.  In that case the flow of the Jordan also stopped, leaving a dry path for the people to cross over on.  Any mention of the Jordan also places us on the interface between the wilderness and the Promised Land.  Crossing the Jordan was the last step in the journey of God’s people out of slavery in Egypt.
In deliberately invoking these ancient memories of the people, Elijah is expressing the continuity of his ministry with those events.  It’s almost as if he is saying we have to continually go back to these primal stories and events, reviewing and representing them, as we journey into the future.  The people of God must never lose sight of what happened at the Jordan, and the Red Sea, and in the wilderness between, when they were given the Law and molded into a nation.  Most of the Torah tells the story of the Exodus and the time in the wilderness.  These are the stories that formed God’s people.
It is for the same reason that we regularly remember our baptism, which is our symbolic and ceremonial connection to the Jordan and these stories.  In our baptism we pass over into the new life in God’s promise.  Just as Elijah goes back to the Jordan to pass the torch of his ministry on to the next generation, and just as Jesus himself was immersed in the Jordan, at which point his identity and ministry was confirmed by God, so we also gather around the font each Sunday to reconnect to these formative stories in which our faith is rooted.  When Elijah returns to the Jordan he invokes the taproot of the faith of the people of God.

III.
When they get to the other side of the river, Elijah asks Elisha: “Okay, you followed me all the way over here, against my commands; what do you want?”  Elisha says he wants “a double share” of Elijah’s spirit.  That could mean twice as much inspiration as Elijah has, or it could mean the normal inheritance of a first-born son, which would have been two-thirds of a father’s assets.  He wants Elijah’s spiritual inheritance; he wants to drink the cup that Elijah drinks.
Jesus has a similar conversation with two of his disciples, and he gives much the same answer.  His inheritance is not his to give, but up to God.  Elijah says that if Elisha is able to witness how Elijah dies, he will get that double share of his spirit.  So Jesus’ disciples receive their power and spiritual inheritance from witnessing to his death, and resurrection.  The test is whether you are gifted enough to perceive the true meaning of death, and life.
Then, as they are walking along, it happens.  “A chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.”
Elisha is able to see this.  I am not sure that just any bystander would have seen it.  Maybe the inspired prophets on the banks of the river could see it.  But anyone else might just have seen someone die.  To the eyes of faith, death is not an ending.  It is not a snuffing of the light but a transformation of the light into a new and glorious form.  It is a merging into the Light of God out of which the whole universe is made.  Death is a victory over the pain and limitations of this world.  That’s why we sing “Alleluia!” at the grave when someone dies.  We celebrate how a soul has passed from somewhere to everywhere!
When he sees this spectacular vision of a chariot and horses ascending into heaven in a fiery tornado, Elisha cries out, “Father, father: the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”  Meaning that here in the life and work and death of the prophet, is the true strength and might of Israel.  Not with the kings and their armies, but with the prophets, the ones chosen and inspired by God, the ones who proclaim God’s Word and will.  The prophets are the ones who are the true warriors; not those who shed blood but those who communicate the good news of God’s love for the world… and whose blood is often shed in this cause.
And when he can see Elijah no more, he tears his clothes in a sign of grief, sorrow, and distress.  No matter how strong our faith, when someone we love dies it tears a hole in the fabric of our soul.  It still hurts.  We may have all sorts of feelings about it: anger, abandonment, sadness, grief, denial, and so forth.  In those days to tear your clothing was a visible sign of this distress.

IV.
The narrative continues from there as Elisha literally picks up Elijah’s mantle and uses it to strike the Jordan again, so he may pass to the other side on dry ground.  It is a clear sign that Elijah’s power has been given to Elisha.  “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha,” say the prophets who witness the whole thing.    
This is a story about succession and continuity in the leadership of God’s people.  It is interesting to me what Elijah doesn’t do when he wants to identify a successor.  He doesn’t have an election, leaving it up to the will of the people.  Neither does he leave it up to a committee, that receives and sorts through a pile of submitted resum├ęs.  He doesn’t expect the new prophet to be appointed by the king, God knows.  Neither does he try to turn his job over to his own biological offspring, which he doesn’t have anyway.  And he doesn’t even draw lots, like the apostles in Acts.
This story has to do with watching for the work of the Spirit in someone’s life.  It is about seeing how that spirit is passed on and actually inherited in a demonstrable way by the successor.  We notice protections, like testing Elisha’s devotion to God even by disobeying Elijah; or like having the larger assembly of prophets witness to the events.  Finally, it depends on what Elisha sees when he sees the passing of his mentor and teacher.  The fact that he sees the triumph of God makes all the difference.  And he then shows that he has received Elijah’s power.  It all happens at the Jordan, the symbolic place of Israel’s emergence as a nation.
I wonder if we aren’t now moving into a new age of the Holy Spirit, in which discernment of spiritual gifts won’t be increasingly important in identifying our leaders in the community of disciples.  I wonder if an example like the ratification of Elisha’s succession won’t become more intelligible to us in the future, than it has been in the past.  I wonder if leadership in the spiritual community won’t have less to do with our written standards, and more to do with watching for the Holy Spirit at work in a person in dramatic ways.
I suspect it will not be about the one with the “qualifications,” or the popular one, or the one chosen and groomed by her or his predecessors, though these are not unimportant criteria.  But our leaders will be the ones in whom the Holy Spirit is visibly and tangibly at work.  In the context of continuity with the heart of our tradition and the witness of the gathered community, it will be the ones who see clearly the presence and triumph of God in life, who relentlessly follow Jesus, and around whom miracles persistently happen.
+++++++

Friday, February 17, 2012

Naaman.


2 Kings 5:1-14.

I.           
            Naaman was a great man: a military commander, advisor to the King of Aram, which is Syria.  He also had been an enemy of Israel; his army defeated Israel and killed King Ahab back in 1 Kings 22.  But for all his power to command soldiers and defeat armies, Naaman had contracted a disease.  The text calls it “leprosy,” but, since Naaman was still permitted to stay in society, it was more likely something like what we know as psoriasis.  When I was kid we used to make fun of that commercial that talked about “the heartbreak of psoriasis,” but I saw some pictures of psoriasis on-line and I can tell you psoriasis is a horrible condition.  (I was almost afraid to touch my computer.)
            In the course of his wars with Israel, Naamans’s wife acquired an Israelite slave-girl.  No doubt she was captured in a raid, forcibly taken from her family, and made a slave.  It happened all the time.  This slave-girl eventually tells Naaman’s wife that there is a prophet in her home country of Israel who could heal Naaman of his leprosy.  Now she could have said it mockingly, in a “my country is better than yours because even though you beat us in a war and took me as a slave, we have a prophet who can heal people and you don’t” kind of way.  Or she could have developed some care for them and so offered this helpful information.
            But the point is that in this story, as in so much of the Bible, it is the insignificant, marginalized people who keep the story going.  The kings and generals are merely along for the ride.  In fact they are pretty hapless and clueless.  But the real actors in the story, that is, the people God uses, are the slave-girl, the servants, and the uncredentialled, eccentric prophet.
            So Naaman hears about this prophet in Israel from his wife’s slave-girl.  And his condition is uncomfortable enough, and he is desperate enough, that he will try anything.  He will even submit to take the advice of a foreign slave-girl and go to a defeated, inferior nation to seek healing. 
            It is like the general has exhausted all the expensive experts at the big medical centers in New York, to no avail.  But his wife has this undocumented Salvadoran housekeeper who says there is an obscure shaman in the mountains of her homeland who can heal him.  We would expect him to roll his eyes and scoff at this suggestion, as if some crazy faith-healer in the jungle can do better than the best medical minds in the world.  We would expect him to say this is just the kind of thing homesick immigrants are always saying about their own countries and their old ways.  Why would he believe there even was such a healer?  And why would he believe that healer would heal him, the general whose helicopter-gunships had dispensed horrible, bloody terror against Salvadoran villages throughout the land?
            And yet, here Naaman makes arrangements to go to Israel.

II.
            So he talks to his boss, the king of Aram, and the king writes a letter of introduction, and Naaman and his large entourage set off for Israel.  They get to Samaria, the capital of Israel and hand their letter to the king. 
            The letter basically says, “Dear King of Israel, Here is my general Naaman.  (You know, the guy who handed your butt to you on the battlefield a few years ago; that Naaman.  I’m just saying….) Please heal him of his skin disease.  Warmest regards, the King of Aram.”
            The king doesn’t know what to make of this letter and visit.  He thinks it is an unreasonable request.  He is only a king.  He can’t cure virulent skin diseases.  He tears his clothes, which was a sign of grief and frustration.  And he exclaims: “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.”  He thinks the king of Aram is looking for an excuse to start another war. 
            These two kings think they have more authority than they really do.  They pompously assume that kings are in charge of everything that happens in their countries. 
            But the king of Israel doesn’t even remember the resources his has in his own land.  Maybe he would just as soon forget about Elisha, since the prophet was almost never in favor of the king’s policies.
            Somehow word gets to Elisha that this has happened.  Elisha no doubt had his sources in the king’s court.  This visit of General Naaman has created a political crisis that may even result in war.  The prophet has to intervene in the hysterics of the court and what must have been the childish posturing of the kings and their diplomats.  Elisha sends a message to the king, saying: “Why have you torn your clothes?  Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”
            The king must have been overjoyed to be rid of this problem and challenge.  Naaman and his motorcade wind their way into the hills to Naaman’s house.  We are told he was accompanied by horses and chariots.  A whole retinue of retainers, servants, and soldiers arrives there.  In our day we could imagine trucks full of media people, helicopters, black limosines with little flags on them, Secret Service perhaps, police escort, the works.  All driving up to Elisha’s little house in the middle of nowhere.
III.
            Naaman is way too important to actually come to the door himself, so he sends an underling to talk to Elisha, while the great General waits in the chariot with dark-tinted windows.  But Elisha doesn’t come out.  He sends a message through his assistant, Gehazi.  The message is, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan River, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”  That’s it.
            And Naaman feels supremely dissed.  He is an important man.  He is expecting the prophet to emerge personally and deliver some exotic incantation, invoking the name of the Lord with a loud voice, waving his hands, and generally making a spectacular show of healing Naaman.  The indirect, offhand instructions: “Oh yeah, well, just go wash in the Jordan seven times and that should take care of it.”  This is offensive to the important man who traveled so far with so many.
            Like most rich and powerful people, Naaman figured it was all about him.  Naaman as well is very impressed with his own disease and its catastrophic seriousness, and the heroic lengths he will go for relief, even hauling himself down to this nobody healer in the wilderness of Israel.  He wants Elisha to take him seriously!  He wants expensive medicine; he wants exhausting physical therapy; he wants to test the limits of this faith-healer; he wants to be cured in a manner commensurate with his importance!  He doesn’t want to be told to go take a bath in the Jordan.
            Now people who have been to the Holy Land tell me that the Jordan is singularly unimpressive as rivers go.  Not only is it nothing like the Nile or the Mississippi, it doesn’t even compare well with the Raritan or the Navesink.  The Jordan is a meandering trickle of water through mostly scrub desert.  Naaman would have had a difficult time even finding a place where the Jordan was deep enough to immerse his whole body.
            This adds further insult, that he would be sent to the Israelite’s dinky little excuse for a river.  Aram had two real rivers, the Abana and the Parphar.  He says that if it is just a matter of taking a bath in a river why not at least do it in a river with some class?
            Naaman is angry and frustrated at this point.  He suspects this whole thing is a conspiracy by these Israelites to humiliate him and make him look weak, foolish, and gullible.  He may feel they are making fun of him, or at least taking advantage of him, for his disease.
IV.
            At this point we hear from more of the insignificant people who surround the supposedly great and powerful.  The story was set in motion by a slave-girl, the uncredentialed prophet rescues the king’s, uh, lamb-chop, and now it is the servants of the angry general who approach him.  Against the self-righteous indignation of the pompous military leader, the lowly servants respectfully suggest some common sense.  “‘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”?’”
            Naaman probably would have gladly taken on difficult instructions.  He would have gone to Tibet, had the prophet instructed him to do so.  That would have been an adventure worthy of his station and his disease.
            But the servants say, “What do you have to lose, except a little dignity, by doing this very simple thing the prophet ordered?  If it doesn’t work out, then you can get angry and commence with the slaughter and mayhem for which you have such a well-deserved reputation.  But it’s just a suggestion; you know best.”
            After he cools off a bit, Naaman realizes the wisdom of this advice, and he mopes suspiciously off in the direction of the Jordan River, entourage in tow.  When they get there, I imagine him instructing all the retainers to wait out of sight.  He would not want to be seen pathetically dipping himself in this brook.
            Perhaps he has only a couple of people with him as he walks to the rocky bank of the river, disrobes and wades out to where he can sit down and immerse himself.  His skin is covered with raw, flaky, and cracking sores of his psoriasis.  Seven times he lays back under the flow of the cool river and lifts himself back up again, exactly as commanded by the man of God. 
            And the seventh time, he emerges from the water and he knows he is healed.  The ghastly rashes all over his skin are gone, replaced by smooth, soft, new skin.  “His flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean,” the text says.
            At this point I imagine tears of joy, and surprise, from the humbled, healed general.
            The story goes on from there.  Naaman goes back to Elisha to say thank you, offering him a pile of money which the prophet refuses to take.  He becomes then and there a worshiper of the Israelite God, the Lord.  And he will continue to worship Israel’s God even when he goes back to Damascus.  He becomes an early Gentile follower of the Lord.
V.
            For us, Naaman is an example of humility, obedience, and transformation.  His story should remind us of our baptism.  Just as he was washed clean of his disease, so we are washed clean of our sinfulness and restored to newness and originality when we are baptized.  Because of what happens to Naaman’s body, his heart is also turned to the Lord. 
            Naaman’s experience is instructive for us because it suggests to us that, like psoriasis, sin is not a comprehensive perversion of our entire being, but something attaching to our surfaces and exteriors. Naaman needed to be washed, cleansed, and purified.  Beneath his psoriasis there was still a human soul to be set free, liberated, and delivered. 
            When he goes into the water he has to give up his own will and pride.  He has to listen to lowly, common people – the slave-girl, the prophet, his servants – and do what they, not his ego, not the experts, not the powerful leaders, not even his own religion, say.  He has to stop being the pompous, directive, assertive, aggressive, sure-of-himself great man.  And he has to become like a child; not just in doing what he is told, but when he receives the skin of a young boy.  He has a kind of restoration of innocence in which all his corrupting, corrupted, violent, superior, dominating ways are washed away in the gentle flow of the Jordan.
            The Jordan always symbolizes the passage of God’s people from slavery and death to freedom and life.  So it is with Naaman.  So it is with us in our own baptism.  We have been washed clean of our bondage and our bondage mentality.  Even Naaman, who had many crimes to his name, emerges free of them from the Jordan.  He is forgiven in the sense that his sin, that clung so closely so it was manifested in his very skin, falls away.  He receives new, healthy skin, in exchange for the old, diseased skin.
            In the gospel reading, it is not the water of Jordan that heals, but Jesus’ word.  When we immerse ourselves in his word… that is, when we dedicate our lives to following him, obeying his commandments of love and justice, healing and forgiveness, we also find our sin, our violence and injustice, our fear and anger, is washed away.
            And what emerges in us is our original, most profound selves, the person we are deep within.  The person God created and loves and redeems.  The person we see in Jesus Christ.  The Christ within each one of us.  We become who we truly are: a free person of humility and joy.

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Monday, February 6, 2012

Anti-depressant.

Isaiah 40:21-31.

I.
The prophet is writing to the people of God in exile in Babylon.  It has been several decades in which they have languished in servitude in a foreign land, with the imperial government striving to erase their identity and uniqueness as a people and faith.  During that time, it has been difficult to maintain their faith in the face of what appeared to be the defeat of their God and the triumph of the gods of Babylon.  Many Jews would have given up, accepted the obvious evidence before them, and cast their lot with the victorious, powerful, prosperous empire.  Many more are simply depressed and discouraged, three generations of Jews are now accustomed to living in Babylon and struggling to maintain their own way of life.
Chapter 40 begins with the famous words, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”  The prophet proclaims that the exile is over.  The Babylonian Empire has fallen; a new King, named Cyrus, has taken over.  And he is going to release the Jews and let them go home.
This is an unexpected miracle, something they never dared hope for, and even now they are having trouble believing it. It’s like they don’t want to get their hopes up and don’t fully trust this new thing that seems to be happening.  I mean their prophets and other leaders have spent decades convincing them that this catastrophe really was all part of God’s plan; that their ancestors had grievously and repeatedly sinned, bringing down this punishment on them.  They had no reason to imagine that they would ever go back to Jerusalem.  They must have considered it their fate now to be a landless nation forever.
That the Jews are able to keep it together under these circumstances is a miracle in itself.  The other nations the Babylonians gobbled up were properly digested and assimilated.  But at least some of the Jews kept their faith through it all.
They also know that the prophets of the past who prophesied good things were usually false prophets.  The ones that said that God would not allow Jerusalem to fall, or the people to be defeated and sent into exile, their words did not come true.  So it’s no wonder that they are slow to believe this prophet who is now telling them that their time of punishment is over and they are going home.  Maybe they think that they would believe it when they see it.
Can we blame them?  We have no frame of reference to relate to this story.  If we lost a war and saw our nation destroyed and were forced to go live in the conqueror’s capital city, the smart money would not be with sticking with this same religion this same God who apparently could not protect us.  How many of us would stick with this loser God?  How many of us would not run enthusiastically after the gods of prosperity and power?    

II.
The prophet is trying to convince them that this deliverance is really happening and their salvation and liberation is now at hand.  And the first thing he does here is remind them of what they already know.  He has them remember their own tradition and theology.  He has them recall exactly what God they are dealing with here.  It’s like he has to remind them of what they learned in Sunday School.
“Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  Has it not been told you from the beginning?
 Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.”
In other words, “you have always known that the God we worship is not some local deity, but the Creator of everything who is above everything and ultimately exercises lordship over everything and everyone.”  He appeals to the transcendence and power of the Creator God.
Then he immediately reminds them that times appearing to be bad are built into the very created structure of nature itself. “Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.”  People are like seeds.  When they are planted they can still be blown away in the wind and amount to nothing.  God has a larger plan than our tiny agendas.  We are like grasshoppers to God.  We try to provide for ourselves… but God has fashioned the ecosystem in an unfathomably larger way.  Our little projects may get blown away; but that could just be part of God’s grander plan for wholeness and fulfillment.
What look to us like acts of capricious destruction, what insurance companies like to call “acts of God,” or even horrible political catastrophes like war and exile, even these may be part of God’s larger intentions.  “All things work together for good, “ says the Apostle Paul.  Nothing is ultimately out of God’s control or ability to redeem and reclaim.  Nothing is outside of God’s saving will: not war, not exile, not economic downturns, not torture, not famine, not cancer, not racism, not heart disease… nothing.  Nothing will ever separate us from God’s love.  For God’s love is built into the very fabric of nature simply by virtue of the fact that God created it.
Who created everything?  To whom does everything belong?  “[The One] who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name, because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.”

III.
The good news is that even the things that happen to us that look for all the world like absolute contradictions of God’s will, not even these can subvert God’s will in the end.  God bends the most twisted and wayward strand, and weaves it back into the beauty of the whole, spectacular quilt of creation.  Our job is to be in tune with this the most profound and basic movement of reality, so that, even when faced with the worst horrors imaginable, even the ones that take our lives and the lives of our loved ones, we can step back with confidence and simply wait to see how even this will be redeemed.  Even this will be embraced into submission to God’s will.  Even this will be shown in the end to be something God used, redirected, reformed, reshaped, and reoriented to reveal God’s goodness and love.
But sometimes it is simply more comfortable, in a very sour way, to wallow in our negativity and depression.  The prophet recognizes this.  He asks: “Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God’?”  God doesn’t know or care about me.  God has no concern for my rights and needs and desires.  God hates us.  We are just lightning rods for God’s wrath.
Sometimes it’s just easier to mope in self-pity, expecting only intensifying disaster and increasing loss, than to pick ourselves up and do what is required to get ourselves in tune and participating with what God is doing.  Sometimes it’s easier to harbor resentment, or look for scapegoats to blame our defeats on.  Paranoia, hysteria, hatred, rage… these can all be far more satisfying emotions than trusting in God’s transcendent love.
My personal preference, though, is doom and gloom.  Perhaps this is why I identify so closely with the exiles, and why I frequently find myself turning to these chapters of Isaiah.  These words are better than Zoloft!
Because what God is saying here is basically, “You can mope in the corner if you want.  You can satisfy your anger, fear, and shame, if that makes you feel good.  But know this: that I created this whole place and ordered it and destined it in love, and nothing will get in the way of that.  And even the bad things that happen, I will turn to good.  You can get on board with this, and work with my will for justice, peace, love, healing, hope, and goodness, and so have life.  Or you can cherish your precious negativity, perpetuating lies, doing vast damage in the world, and die.”

IV.    
Take your pick.  God is always placing this choice before us.  Choose death, or life.  Choose curse, or blessing.  Choose anger, or joy.  Choose fear, or hope.  Choose shame, or forgiveness.  Choose evil, or goodness.  Choose slavery, or freedom.
God’s movement is always from one of these poles to the other: God is always bringing light out of darkness, life out of death, and goodness out of evil.  And Isaiah is a witness to one of the more spectacular evidences of this truth.  But he knows that it doesn’t become real for the people unless they embrace it.  If they choose not to participate in God’s movement here, they will miss out.  They will be left behind, nursing their negativity, while God’s future dawns.
God “does not faint or grow weary….  He gives power to the faith, and strengthens the powerless.”  In other words, the powerless are invited to participate in God’s power.  By following God and joining in the inexorable movement of God’s love in the world, we receive God’s power.  And we hear those famous words about what this means.  “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
No matter how consuming the fire that burned up your forest, God is always drawing strong, new, young growth from the ashes.  God made the world and ordered the whole place for life and growth and blessing, so that nothing is ever lost and nothing every gets fully destroyed.  Even earthquakes, floods, fires, diseases, droughts… they all play a part in keeping the system going and keeping the story of life alive.
Do we really think that our little lives are weighty enough to stop God’s will for creation?  I don’t.  Rather than holding on to our hurts, wouldn’t it be easier to, as they say, “Let go and let God”?
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