“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do.
I wonder how long it is that my mind will be in this space, that my refrain will be from the second part of the third verse of psalm 6, “low long, O Lord, how long?” It feels like every day is the last one I can stand. Sometimes, I ask my husband to drive me home or I sit and stare at the wall, paralyzed. Psalm 6 gives voice to my frustration. I roll my eyes and pound at my pillow, I complain and cry about this disease that leaves me dumb, disorganized, addled. But I’m asking the wrong question. Continue reading
“Every branch that bears fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”
Look at the stained glass windows around you this morning. They’ve been given at various times for various members of the community, and as any chorister will tell you, they’re a symbol of how God’s light shines through each of us. As we look closely at the passage from the Gospel of John this morning, I want to offer these to you as a metaphor for God’s work in us as we consider what it means to be pruned, and where exactly the Good News is in the revelation that we should expect spiritual amputations. Continue reading
We live in an accomplishment-oriented society. Our identities are wrapped up in what we do in our jobs, what we can produce, how we “contribute to society.” There’s a lot of ego wrapped up this lifestyle–one that tells us that we know who we are because of what we do. Depending upon and feeding our egos, allowing our lives to be ruled by how many people like us, or how much money we make creates an environment of anxiety and fear.
This is an illness. This is not how we’re meant to live.
We learn in Scripture that our identity is not based on our egos, our abilities, or our status. Though we’ve been confused almost from the beginning of time, hiding ourselves, covering ourselves up with fig leaves when we sense God nearby, our confusion is not a permanent condition.
The truth is, God already knows everything about each one of us–as the prayer for purity at the beginning of an Episcopal church service affirms, “to You all hearts are open, all desires known, and from You no secrets are hid.”
“Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’” Matthew 9:35-38
As God sees and knows us, he does not condemn us; he has compassion for our struggle and desires to lead us safely, like a shepherd, into healing. God’s light, God’s presence, is healing–it is the only place we are fully seen, fully known, and fully accepted.
“though Jesus was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.” Philippians 2:6-7
Our worth is based in the reality of God; we are so precious that God seeks to dwell in each of our hearts, to be so close to each of us that we become like one being.
When we are healed from wondering and worrying about our own abilities and contributions to society into knowing that our worth comes from being God’s precious creation, from being fearfully and wonderfully made, we are truly free.
By losing our lives–refusing to be identified by our job title or bank account–we lose our egos, and we move into the light, into God’s presence without shame.
Since the first seeds dove into the soil the end of February, the weather has been rather dramatic. There are strong, sunny days when heat seems to rise off the dark soil, and I imagine the seeds waking up warm and cozy, opening themselves to the nutrition of the dirt and the affirming warmth of the sunshine. There are lots of chilly, wet, very cloudy days, when I imagine the seeds soak up the wet, even soggy, nourishment floating around them, loosening the hard seed covers, encouraging the seed’s stretching and growing–like those little sponges that start out as colorful pills but become great animals for bath times.
The little seeds–and me!–don’t get to choose which are sunny days and which are cold, rainy days. They’ve got to just keep doing their thing, growing and stretching and taking in what they’re offered, using all the resources of the moment to help them grow.
How are you using the resources you’re being offered this very moment to help you grow?
23When you [Israelites] heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you approached me [Moses], all the heads of your tribes and your elders; 24and you said, ‘Look, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the fire. Today we have seen that God may speak to someone and the person may still live. 25So now why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer, we shall die. 26For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and remained alive? 27Go near, you yourself, and hear all that the Lord our God will say. Then tell us everything that the Lord our God tells you, and we will listen and do it.’
The people feel like they can’t bear to listen or to be near to God’s voice. They’ve got a healthy respect–even fear–of God, which is sometimes missing from our modern understanding of the Creator of All That Is. They’re convinced that God’s presence will consume them, burn them up.
Isn’t that what we should desire?
And yet, I feel just like the Israelites–“let me have my little life in my tent at the bottom of the mountain (Deut 5:30), leave me alone to my regular, everyday stuff; don’t upset everything I know now by the all-consuming flames that are part of experiencing you, God. My reality right now is bearable, I don’t really want to know what would happen if it was all burned up. I don’t even really want to know what would happen if it all rose from the ashes again.”
They ask Moses to go and listen for them, so that God’s presence and voice isn’t quite so close, so that they themselves don’t have to go through the agony of truth and transformation–someone else can do it for them.
We see and know from Scripture as well as our daily lives that no one else can transform for us–we’ve got to go through the changes ourselves for them to have any real power in our lives.
Shouldn’t we want God to be near? Shouldn’t we desperately desire for the transforming heat to melt away the extraneous parts of our lives?
The problem is that when the heat comes close, when God starts burning things away in us, it’s uncomfortable. Any time something hurts, whether it’s stretching us, or poking us, or singeing us, there’s an opportunity for growth.
Though I want to close my eyes and hum real loud and drown out the invitations to grow, the only way to be close to God, to be transformed, to get out of the little, narrow, grey everyday lives we live, is to let the difficulties wash over us, to let God come close to change us and to pour his strength into us–that’s what Moses let happen to him.
2 Kings 5:1-15 & Luke 17:11-19
When you stepped over the threshold of the building you’re sitting in this morning, you left the United States of America. You left American society. Be not afraid! (have you heard that one before?) You see–it’s more that you entered God’s Embassy than that you left American soil, but here, in the church, we are now on God’s turf. Here, God’s rules carry the day, we are on holy ground that has been consecrated to be the place where we encounter God in the sacraments and are changed by our interaction with the Holy One. The rules here are different than the ones we often follow outside these doors, the social customs are different here than the ones we’re used to following walking down the streets of Columbia, South Carolina. These differences aren’t just nuances or quirks–there is significance to the way that God’s kingdom works; it’s sometimes in opposition to the way we’re used to behaving.
Here, in the Bible, we see dozens of accounts that show us the way that God desires for the world to look. When we read holy Scripture together we learn about God’s kingdom, the world that we step into when we are in this holy place, the world that God desires for all of creation to become. This morning, we read the story of Naaman, a powerful Syrian who is paradoxically, a sufferer of leprosy. In the ancient world, leprosy was a disease the counted its victims among the weak, the marginalized; people with leprosy, as we saw in today’s Gospel lesson, were separated from society, ostracized. Naaman, however, somehow manages to preserve his place of power despite this disease, though he clearly desires very much to be rid of the affliction. Who is it that notices the skin lesions and suggests where he might seek treatment? His Israeli slave girl–this nameless girl has a quotation in Holy Scripture, how strange that a being not even considered a real, full person by her society would get a shout out in the Bible. She says that there’s a prophet in her home country who could definitely cure her master’s ailment.
Naaman goes to this holy man, Elisha, and parks his chariot outside Elisha’s front door. Naaman clearly expects Elisha to dash out to his driveway and greet his Most Esteemed guest. Elisha does nothing of the sort–he sends his servant out the front door with a message. Naaman’s eyebrows raise, verse 11 says that he “became furious”–Elisha, this big-time prophet, was supposed to hurry out to the chariot and wave his hands about and shout in a loud voice. Look at your Bible, it actually says that!
To add insult to injury, another low-life is now giving Naaman directions… The messenger tells Naaman that if he will go and wash in the Jordan River seven times, he will become healed of his ailment. Naaman grumbles. Not only is the Jordan River a pathetic stream compared to the wide, beautiful rivers of Syria, but what sort of pathetic quest is a bath? Couldn’t Naaman, the great military general at least prove his strength or daring or mental acuity in order to be healed?
For a third time, a servant corrects Naaman (I’m almost surprised that more slaves and messengers and servants aren’t killed or banished in this story!), saying in verse 13, “Well, sir, if you had been told to do something super impressive, you would have dashed right off to do it. Why not go do this super easy thing? We might even get back home in time to catch the end of the football game!” Naaman takes a deep breath–I think he must be a very patient, and exceptionally magnanimous nobleman of his time–and agrees with the servant. He makes his way down to the Jordan River, he immerses himself seven times–which is the Biblical number which means “complete” or “total”–and Naaman’s skin is made, it says, “like the flesh of a little child.” “As smooth as a baby’s bottom,” if you’ll pardon the saying so early in the morning.
Did you catch that? Naaman is in danger of societal death, perhaps even bodily death, depending on how bad his leprosy was, and Elisha sends him to be baptized in the Jordan River, which heals him. Naaman, the Syrian, the foreigner, is made healthy and whole again by command of a holy man and the application of a bit of water.
Naaman has borne the insubordination and the humiliation of being directed about by his slave, Elisha’s messenger, and a servant; he has submitted himself to the “easy” task of taking a bath instead of showing his might and earning his reward. He returns to Elisha–Naaman himself goes up and knocks on the prophet’s front door this time–and says, “Indeed, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel; now, therefore, please take a gift from your servant.” (v. 15) Naaman still wants to make sure he pays his debts and doesn’t leave himself beholden to anyone. He’s got a reputation to uphold, and he can’t let it get out that he’s dependent on this holy man for his healing.
Elisha can sense when he’s being bought off, and will have nothing of it. He doesn’t want an offering with psychological strings attached, God’s power is not for sale, and nor is the truth of God’s healing to be silenced with gold. Naaman has learned–he’s been brought very low throughout this experience, and catches himself where he’s gone wrong. He changes his request, asking instead that he might have some soil from Elisha in order to build an altar that Naaman himself might use for his worship of the Living God when he goes back to his own land. I imagine Elisha finally smiled and nodded.
Naaman finally realized what the slave girl and the messenger and the servant had learned long ago because of their necessarily vulnerable place in society: you cannot do anything to insulate yourself from God. Naaman tries to use his impressive strength and mind, desiring a more demanding cure, and then tries to use his money–all to keep God at arm’s length. He finally learns that whether he pledges 2% or 55% to God, none of it is close to a repayment of the life that God, through the Jordan River, has given back to Naaman.
What would you pay for your life being saved? We pay plenty to doctors and car makers and insurers and our government for protection, safety, and insulation from danger or dangerous circumstances. God, through Jesus Christ, has saved us from eternal death.
Have you come back to Jesus’ feet, glorifying God and praising him with a loud voice?