Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sermon - 12 February 2012 - 6th after Epiphany

6TH AFTER EPIPHANY — 12 February 2012
Trinity – 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00

2 Kings 5:1-14
Ps 30
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.

How many of you have read the Bible? The whole Bible — or at least pretty much the whole Bible? (I’m not trying to put you on the spot here, and I’m not taking names!) Did any of you do the thing where you said, “I need to read the Bible!” and you started in on page 1 with Genesis, chapter 1, verse 1? How far did you get? (Or at least, how far did you get before you started skimming ahead? Along about Chapter 5? Right!)

We all think we ought to read the Bible. And we’re right, we all ought to read the Bible; and at one time or another we probably ought to read at least most of it. (Incidentally, there was a very interesting posting on the Episcopal CafĂ© a week or so ago about whether everybody should be encouraged to read the Bible, with lots of good comments. Here's the URL:)

The truth of the matter is, in some respects the Bible isn’t all that reader-friendly. A lot of it really isn’t very accessible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, and particularly the parts that drone on and on about who begat who. But there are some wonderful stories in the Old Testament -- as well as some that are terrifying -- and we should read them and know them, because for good or ill they are our story.

Today we get the story of Naaman. We get Naaman because the Gospel today is about Jesus healing a leper, and Naaman was a leper who was healed by the prophet Elisha. Okay. But Naaman is a story worth knowing for its own sake, apart from any connection with today’s Gospel reading.

Naaman was a general in the army of the King of Syria, or “Aram” as the Hebrew text actually says. He had contracted leprosy. It’s not entirely clear just what “leprosy” is in the Bible. It was regarded as a dreadful and fearsome affliction. It may be that some of the “lepers” in the Bible did have what we now call Hansen’s disease, which is a grievous affliction, though generally controllable by modern medicine, at least for people in the first world who can get modern medicine. But other persons who are called “lepers” in the Bible may have had nothing worse than the heartbreak of psoriasis. But whatever the disease was dermatologically, it still had the same disastrous social and psychological consequences, and Naaman desperately wanted to be cured. And, as we hear this morning, he finally ended up at the gate of the Israelite prophet Elisha.

Elisha, like many godly persons, was good to people but not always nice to them, and he simply sent out instructions for Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan River. You know how sometimes when we’re not feeling well we call the doctor, but the doctor isn’t available just then, so we have to tell the nurse or the office secretary what ails us, and by and by the office staff calls back and says the doctor has called in a prescription for us, and we run down to the drugstore and pick up the pills, and we take them, and they work and we feel better, but we’re still a little miffed about the whole thing because we didn’t get to actually talk directly to the doctor. Well, Naaman is a Very Important Personage, at least up in Syria, and he was expecting a Personal Consult and a Major Prophetic Procedure. Instead he’s been treated rather shabbily by this Israelite prophet, and he gets into High Dudgeon about it. Naaman’s servants, who have acquired some good sense over a lifetime of being treated rather shabbily themselves most of the time, understand that High Dudgeon is not a particularly fruitful place to be, and they talk Naaman down. Naaman goes grumbling off to the crummy ol’ Jordan River, and he washes seven times, and he is cured of his leprosy.

We all love to complain and whine and get into High Dudgeon about the fact that things aren’t the way we want them to be, instead of simply doing what is necessary to make things better. We would rather curse the darkness than light one candle.

We are especially like Naaman when, as with Elisha’s instructions, what we need to do is something fairly simple. We think that we could get our lives into better shape, get our act together, get our ducks in a row, if only God would perform some great miracle, if only we could have some great spiritual experience, if only we could accomplish some truly heroic quest. If only, if only — anything but just taking care of business right here and now.

And that isn’t the way it really works. It’s all the little daily things that are the real substance of our lives, not the big fat hairy deals, not the “if onlys.” The way we share in the boundless creative love of God that sustains the immensity of the universe in being is — by loving the specific person who is next to us right now. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Every few years we get a cycle of exotic fad diets: buy some TV time for an infomercial hawking your new book on the Beer and Parsnip Diet, and my gosh how the Visa charges roll in! Of course, fad diets don’t really work in the long run, and some of them are dangerous. What does work (though I’m hardly a convincing witness, am I?) is to eat well-balanced, but smaller, meals, and get regular exercise. Calories do count; to lose weight you must consume less and burn up more. It’s that simple. Maybe not easy, but simple. Too simple for many of us. We’re just like ol’ Naaman.

Christian discipleship is a lot like following Elisha’s instructions: relatively simple, really, though not always easy; but the key is to start doing it. Let’s not hold in contempt the ordinary day-by-day things that countless generations of Christians have found necessary to their spiritual growth. Prayer. Reading the Scriptures. Gathering together with the community of fellow disciples to worship and to be fed with Word and Sacrament. Self-discipline. Generosity. Service. Love.

We are such Very Important Personages, in our own minds. We’re so proud. We’re so rebellious. We’re so self willed. Like Naaman we want to do it our way!

“Go, wash in the Jordan seven times.”

Really pretty simple. Let’s just do it!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sermon - 5 February 2012 - 5th after Epiphany

5 EPIPHANY — 5 February 2012
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am

Isaiah 40:21-31 | Psalm 147:1-12,21c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23 | Mark 1:29-39

And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

TV commercials!

Don’t you just love TV commercials? And this afternoon on the Super Bowl we will get a whole new assortment of them! In some years the commercials are more interesting than the football game!

I think my favorite commercials (yes, I’m being sarcastic here!) are the ones from the pharmaceutical companies. Did you ever notice that many of these are full 60-second spots? Can you imagine what it costs to place a 60-second ad on national network television? Anyway, the first nine seconds are all about how if you take our medication your life will be healthy and happy and prosperous and your 401(k) portfolio will double in value! The remaining fifty-one seconds are all about how oh by the way you do need to watch out for side effects that may cause heart attacks or strokes or blindness or the heartbreak of psoriasis or gingivitis or even recurrent death, and incidentally this medication is contraindicated for 87% of the population anyway. So consult your doctor. (Good advice! She or he will probably say, “What? No! Not for you!”) And if you cannot afford your medication, our pharmaceutical company may be able to help. (Yeah, and if they weren’t spending so much money on TV ads they could probably help even more!)

In the Gospel today, we see Jesus in the healing business, if we may so call it, but we notice that he doesn’t place TV commercials about it. On the contrary, Jesus apparently tries to keep a low profile, at least in these early stages of his ministry. “He would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” You may recall from last Sunday, when the Gospel reading was the passage from St. Mark immediately before today’s reading, one of the unclean spirits cried out, “I know you! You’re God’s Holy One!” And Jesus shouted back, “Shut up, and get out!” [Mark 1:24-25]

“Don’t tell who I am” — that’s a common theme in the Gospels, especially in Mark. Jesus heals a leper, and tells him, “Don’t tell anyone about this.” [Mark 1:44] He raises from death the daughter of Jairus, and “he insisted that nobody should know about this.” [Mark 5:43] He heals a deaf-mute, “and he ordered them, ‘Tell no one’.” [Mark 7:36] He gives sight to a blind man outside Bethsaida, and then said “’Go straight home without going through the village.’” [Mark 8:26] He heals other people who are possessed by demons (whatever that may mean): and “whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he sternly ordered them not to make him known.” [Mark 3:11-12]

So much for pharmaceutical advertising!

On the other hand, Jesus does go around advertising! It’s just that he doesn’t advertise himself. We are traditionally accustomed to translating what Jesus does as “preaching the Gospel,” but the plain ol’ ordinary meaning of the Greek text is that Jesus was “running a commercial for God’s kingship – advertising the rule of God.” And Jesus’ commercial said, “The world is God’s and not Caesar’s,” and this ad is good news! (Although as it turned out, Pontius Pilate didn’t like Jesus’ ad very much!)

Jesus started out by keeping a low profile. He did not begin his ministry with a media blitz. He did not have a campaign manager. In the wilderness, you recall, the devil had tempted Jesus to use (first of all) magic, or else “public relations” ads, or else political or military power, as a way to try to convert humankind to the reign of God — and Jesus rejected all these, since none of them would really lead to God’s world –in fact they all lead to the world of Caesar, of the many Caesars of human history past and present.

So Jesus does not blackmail us into believing in him (“Look here, I’m the Messiah, so you better believe in me or else you’ll go to hell!” Some Christians have subsequently said things like that, but Jesus never said that). Jesus simply does the work of the Kingdom of God, Jesus announces (or advertises) the Good News of the Reign of God, Jesus fulfills the prophecies concerning the coming of the fulfillment of God’s world — he heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, life to the dead — and he asks people to recognize for themselves through his words and his deeds who he is and whose Kingdom he bears.

And then at the end of the first phase of his ministry Jesus finally puts it to his followers: “So, now – who do you say that I am?” And Peter responds, “You are the Messiah” — the Christ, God’s Anointed One. (And even there, still, Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone [else] about him.”) But from that point Jesus can take his followers to the mountain of the Transfiguration, where they will see him in glory (we’ll hear about that in the Gospel in two more weeks, just before Lent). And thereafter Jesus will begin to teach his followers more explicitly about who he is and what he must do and how he must suffer.

I think all of this says some things about God and our relationship with God. It shows that God does not compel us. God does not sell us into buying a relationship. God created us free, and God will not compromise that freedom — whatever the cost, to us or to God. (And our freedom is very costly, to us and to God.) God invites us, God calls us, God woos us, God draws us, God even challenges us, but God does not drag us. Love and faith cannot be compelled.

And that means we cannot expect to have all the answers beforehand. The certainty of faith comes afterward, not before. It is not the certainty we have when everything is clearly set out for us in advance, the certainty of logic, the certainty of mathematics. It’s not the kind of convincing that an effective ad campaign aims for. It is the certainty we have in a personal relationship, the certainty of love. Even Jesus will not give us this certainty, so long as all we do is just stand and watch him and wait to be “sold” on it. Jesus gives certainty only when we will recognize him, only when we will struggle through the uncertainties and the ambiguities and the many things unknown to us and even fearful to us, and then will open our hearts to him, to let him fill us with the aweful, awesome love of the Reign of God.