The Israelites, My Bros & Sises

Deuteronomy 5:23-27

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.

Healing in the Jordan River – Trinity Cathedral

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?

What it Takes to Get to the Altar

The holiest half-hour of my week, when the profundities of God rain down into my head, is when I’m hoping to administer communion to God’s people at the altar rail. This week, a middle-aged woman faltered up to the rail; I could tell, though she didn’t look injured, that it was a feat for her to get herself to the rail – she gladly expended significant effort to come and receive life-giving bread.
I began to pray as I pronounced to each person, “the body of Christ, the bread of Heaven.” I prayed for what these dear, faithful people faced in order to get themselves and their loved ones to Jesus’ altar, to his living Body and Blood.
A sister congregation lost two whole families in a plane crash last weekend; well-publicized – and many more not-well-publicized – court case verdicts came in; someone left a marriage or a home; someone got very bad medical news.
Years ago, friend of mine posted quotation that (in my better moments) I try to keep in mind, “Be gentle with everyone, for you do not know what load they are carrying.”
Our sufferings in this life are many, but our medicine is the same – God’s love through Christ’s broken body.

brave people make intimidating congregations

Often, while sermon-writing, words come slowly, and when they come, they seem like little clods of dirt that break apart into dust the moment you try to grasp them. This exercise sends me running through my cycle of google reader-facebook-twitter.  Having just completed the circuit a few minutes before, there was nothing new on my reader, but when i typed in “fac” in my browser bar (the fewest letters necessary to bring up my worn “facebook.com” link) and arrived at the top of my newsfeed, a new photo had been posted by one of my oldest friends:

She wore a white sundress, her blonde hair was down, and the big white posterboard she held up read, “Shh… just go back to sleep.”  It was a photo taken for Project Unbreakable, a website dedicated to survivors of sexual assault.  I’d known about the event she referred to for a few months, but seeing her brave face meeting the camera’s eye humbled me–what good were my fancy sermonizing words to her?

I’d asked that question of myself before, thinking of a friend of mine who is a veteran of Afghanistan.  With all that he’s seen and survived, what can a sheltered, charmed, suburban Midwesterner say that has any weight?

Of course, the answer is that the Gospel is the most powerful thing we can describe to anyone, but the rub is describing it faithfully and articulately, both with our words and with our lives.  These friends of mine make me a better preacher, because I know that sitting in the pews each Sunday are others who have been abused, assaulted, witnessed and survived war, and continue to fight for their lives; keeping them in mind as I search for language keeps me honest and humble (and makes me pray more often).