Sunday, February 15, 2009

Wholeness: Prize or Gift?

Sixth Sunday of Epiphany
2 Kings 5:1-14; Mark 1:40-45

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Naaman, army commander and leper. Amazing story.
On the one hand, we have someone mighty in power and wealth,
with all the freedom and resources to come and go,
to buy whatever he needs for a whole and healthy life.
But he is suffering deeply.
On the other hand, we have a young girl,
snatched from home by an invading army,
carried off to a country strange in language and custom,
living as a slave in the household of the very one
who carried her and her people away.
And she becomes the catalyst for his healing. Wow.

The kingdom of Aram does not have a clue who Yahweh is,
the God of Israel.
But even in such a God-forsaken place,
even in the household of an idol-worshiping army general . . .
God is present, because there is suffering.

And God works through this vulnerable slave girl.
Just as amazing is that Naaman went along with her advice
that he seek out the healing prophet back in Israel.
Of course, Naaman did it on his terms.
He knew he had to guard the power and dignity of his office.
So he worked out a quid pro quo transaction—healing for pay—
brokered at the highest level: king to king.
The king of Aram sent Naaman to the king of Israel,
along with a bunch of royal robes,
a royal chariot-load of gold and silver—
about three-and-a-half million dollars at today’s prices—
and a royal letter with the royal seal,
asking the king of Israel to cure Naaman of his leprosy.

Not surprisingly, this distressed the king of Israel,
who had just been humiliated by the king of Aram.
This was a lose-lose proposition.
He couldn’t heal anyone.
So he tore his clothes in distress.
The prophet Elisha got word of this,
and sent a message to the king,
“Send Naaman to me.”
So Naaman went, with his millions, with his servants,
to the door of the humble house of Elisha,
an old man with no position in the royal courts.
Quite an honor, for someone like Elisha,
to have someone like Naaman come knocking.
But Elisha didn’t even have the courtesy to come to the door.
He sent a servant with a message,
“Go wash yourself in the Jordan River seven times.”

It was an insult of the worst kind.
Elisha not only disrespected him by failing to greet him.
He not only refused to act like a real healer,
and perform the act in person.
His instructions were disgusting.
Wash seven times in the ordinary and insignificant
and dirty brown river of the Jews—the Jordan.
Naaman had rivers back home much more to his liking,
and far more powerful and majestic.
The Abana and Pharpar beat all the waters of Israel combined.
He turned his chariot around in a rage.
But once again, a lowly servant intervened.
“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’?”

Reluctantly, Naaman washed,
and his skin became clean and smooth like a baby’s.
And in the part of the story we didn’t read,
he returned to Elisha and proclaimed his faith in Israel’s God.
But he continued to exert his power in the situation,
trying to compensate for the healing with his millions.
Couldn’t dare be beholden to such as Elisha.
But Elisha refused to take it.
Naaman left, Elisha’s servant ran after him.
and lied to get some of the gift money himself.
Which resulted in the servant getting leprosy.

Well, in the other healing story this morning,
there was another man with leprosy.
But his posture, and Naaman’s, were polar opposites.
Where Naaman exerted power,
controlled the process,
carried certain expectations,
and offered payment to even the score,
this poor man got down on his knees before the healer,
and begged for mercy,
and said, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”

If you choose.
What a concept.
To actually release control.
To drop all pretense of deserving to be healed.
To drop any attempt to manipulate the process to his advantage.
To drop any effort to pay for it with his own resources.
To drop even his expectation that he would be healed.
If you choose.
Words of yieldedness.
Words of release.
Words of submission.
Words . . . of freedom!!
They freed the leper to simply be present and receive what came.
They freed God to work in God’s own way and time.

In both these powerful biblical stories of healing,
there seems to be this unmistakable connection
between release and healing,
between being yielded and becoming whole.
To the extent that we try to barter, purchase, manipulate,
or otherwise control the action of God the healer,
we are blocking God from doing the work.
To the extent that we yield ourselves to the healer,
we can find ourselves at rest, at peace,
and in a position to experience deep healing.

This is a counter-cultural approach to healing, isn’t it?

Our culture obsesses about health and wellness.
I didn’t say we are healthy.
I said we obsess about health.

Probably half of the commercials on television
are for some medicine.
And if we talk to our doctor about that medicine,
and he or she puts us on it,
suddenly everything from our digestion,
to our heart, our lungs, our allergies, our bladders,
and our love life,
will not only improve dramatically,
but we will find ourselves laughing and leaping . . .
surrounded by wildflowers,
or sailing the open sea,
or strolling the beach at sunset with the one we love.

All we need is good health insurance, or plenty of cash,
and a healthy, vibrant, and happy life can be ours.

Of course, we don’t quite believe health can simply be bought.
No, we also have to work for it.
And work hard, we do.
People in our culture obsess over every possible risk to our health,
and we work anxiously and feverishly (pun intended)
to avoid these risks.
The sheer anxiety overtakes us.
There must be something we can do,
to head off the latest health scare—
be it cancer, stroke, salmonella, the flu, or . . . anxiety.
Ours might be the only culture where some of us actually
stress ourselves sick, over trying to be healthy.

You know, we can chase after wholeness
with all our energy, all our money, all our time and resources,
we can fight for health and wellness all we want.
But unless we can get to a place of simple trust
in the love and goodness of a God that desires our wholeness,
we are fighting a losing battle.

On our wedding anniversary, Irene and I had reservations
at a fancy dining establishment in Winchester,
connected to a luxury day resort health spa in the same building.
While we were waiting on our meal,
we walked around the spa store a bit,
to see the products and services and to gasp at the prices.
The people who frequented this shop lived in a different world.
Hydrotherapy, aromatherapy, body masks of clay and seaweed.
$135 and up.
A bright yellow luxury convertible pulled into the parking lot.
The woman who got out was dressed to the nines,
and had the bearing of a celebrity.
By the license plate, I assumed the car was from the D.C. area.
The shopkeeper obviously knew her, as a regular.

I didn’t know anything at all about this person.
But she had all the appearances of not being—shall we say—
down to earth.
I cannot stand in judgment, because I don’t know her.
But just seeing her walk into that health resort made me wonder
what the story of her life really was?

Did she have a job that paid a hefty salary,
but brought massive amounts of stress into her life?
Did she have a spouse that she rarely saw,
because they both had to work such long hours
to cover the payments on their luxury cars and homes?
Did she have children who spent more time with their nanny
than they did with their parents?
Did she suffer extreme loneliness?
Were her only friends a few other women
living the same jet-setting lifestyle?
who she could never fully trust,
because they were competitors as much as they were friends?
Did she burn up five gallons of gas and two hours of time
just driving to this Resort to get some treatment to compensate
for the harm her daily life choices were inflicting on her?
I don’t know.

But the message of today’s scriptures are clear.
It doesn’t matter who you are . . .
a poor beggar on the dusty streets of Palestine,
or the most powerful official in the nation . . .
the most dysfunctional superstar celebrity,
or a drunk in the city park.
It doesn’t matter.
If you are suffering, God knows. God cares.
God desires your wholeness.
God shows no favoritism whatsoever.

When it comes to calling on God for healing,
all of us alike, need to let go of our need to control
either the process or the outcome.
We need to open ourselves to the wholeness God has in mind.
Which may or may not be precisely what we have in mind.

This is not to say that we don’t take an active role
in our journey toward health and wellness.
I, for one, go the doctor when I’m sick.
And we should all be wise and discerning,
and adopt good healthy life practices—
eat sensibly, in moderation, in balance
exercise regularly,
lower stress factors,
like working too many hours a day,
like not spending enough time with the people we love.
And we should pray, fervently, for God’s healing to flow.

And then . . . we should rest.
We should trust.
We should thank God for whatever health we have,
and trust God to lead us through
whatever valley we need to walk to reach a life of wholeness.

A life lived in peaceful yieldedness to the One who gives us life,
and on whom we are utterly dependent for life . . .
that is what I call a whole life!!
Being whole does not mean living without
any sickness, any injury, any disability, or any loss.
No, we cannot, and should not, try to control every variable.
We cannot, and should not, try to purchase our health
through sheer effort or willpower or wealth or resources.

Wholeness is not a prize to be earned and won.
It is a gift of God to be received.

As we saw in the scripture,
there is a deep and powerful connection
between yieldedness and wholeness,
between releasing and healing,
between letting go, dropping our obsessions and anxieties,
and receiving God’s pure gift of wholeness of life.

I don’t know what that means specifically for you.
Only you can say what you are clinging to with anxiety and fear.
Only you know the ways in which you are trying to strike a deal
with God, or with others, or with yourself,
to get the relief you want.
Only you know what you are right now guarding and protecting,
or obsessing about,
in relationship to whatever brokenness you have in your life.

Most of you picked up a marble when you came into the sanctuary.
And tucked it safely away in a pocket or purse.
Let it stay there for the moment.
And let it represent whatever it is that you are holding on to,
not wanting to let go of,
not willing to release control over,
in terms of your search for wholeness.

I invite you to a few moments of prayer and meditation.
Pray for insight, for discernment.
Pray that you might know what you are clinging to,
in your own search for wholeness.
Ask God’s Spirit to speak to you
and reveal what you are being called to let go of,
to release,
to drop into the hands of a compassionate God.

[pause for silent prayer]

Now I invite you, if the Spirit has prompted in you
something you need to release,
and if you are willing to take some concrete step of letting go,
whatever that might be . . .
sharing your burden with some friends,
that they might help carry it,
or taking some other specific risk on your path to healing,
a risk that means you are not in complete control.
Just as Naaman did when he humbled himself,
and submerged himself in the waters of the Jordan,
if you are willing and ready to let go,
I invite you to come to the front,
remove the marble from its protective place,
and drop it into the water at the base of this fountain,
and let it be there.
You might need more time and more work of discernment
before you are ready to let go,
or before you even know what you need to let go of.
It’s okay to keep the marble in its safe place for now.
This is just an invitation.
Come . . . when, and if, you are ready.
While we sing together, “O healing river.”

—Phil Kniss, February 15, 2009

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