14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings for this Sunday:
2 Kings 5:1-14 | Psalm 30 | Galatians 6:7-16 | Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
This may be a bold statement, perhaps simplistic, but when we talk about relationships I think it is fair to say that all unhealthy interaction is the result of one of two movements—either moving too far into someone else’s business, or allowing someone else too far into what belongs to me. We might say it positively this way: healthy relationships are built on a clear understanding of where I stop and others begin.
Of course a host of suffering is written beyond the lines of these two margins and on a small or massive scale. Small personal offenses, acts of violence, and human rights abuses of historic proportion are the stories told outside of these lines. Not all are equal in scale, but their origins are the same—when I forget or intentionally cross over that line of what is mine and what is someone else’s.
Sometimes we act as if the law is the law is the law—as if it is straight forward and clear cut and the problem is simply enforcement. But Lady Justice has been holding her balance scales in hand since the Goddess Maat first held them in ancient Egypt and later Themis in ancient Greece, reminding us that the evidence must be weighed, and each moment judged. I am not an expert in law, but it seems to me that our U.S. Constitution is built on a series of truths—a bill of inalienable rights, if you will—that are held in tension. We have the right to free speech, but not, as the old saw goes, to yell “fire” in a crowded theater. We have rights to privacy, but at some point those butt up against the right others have as a collective to security. The rights of the few are balanced with the well-being of the many.
Everything has to be balanced, weighed, adjudicated. It is a complex and ultimately creative process that demands the best of human judgment and even human nature. Humans have been working on this since the beginning of culture. And when we lose our balance we begin to lose ourselves.
“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ,” Paul says to the church at Galatia, a town to the south of the Black Sea near modern day Istanbul, the sight of one of our most recent acts of terror—and surely an example of people privileging their own beliefs over the rights of others to horrific ends. In the very next breath Paul balances that with the claim that “all must carry their own loads.”
Whenever we imagine ourselves as either too big or too small, the sacred, God-given value of human life is diminished. We sell ourselves short. We do violence or allow it to be done. We exchange the fullness of life for a shadow of it. We become sick rather than become the agents for healing that we are made to be. We inflict suffering rather than bring comfort.
There are many things to love about the sending of the 70. They go out with instructions that see to this balance. The word they carry is life, and yet it cannot be forced on anyone else. If they invite you in, go in. If they don’t, let them be free not to learn.
And at the end, they are so surprised. They simply cannot believe what they were able to accomplish. They return with joy and Jesus seems to be over the moon with them. And did you notice that none of these 70 are ever named. We don’t know who they are. They aren’t identified like the 12 or the women who follow. And yet in their anonymity, their works were legendary. They are a sign of things to come. Evil is overturned: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning,” Jesus sings. The kingdom of God is near.
The story of Naaman in the first reading brings this out even more. Throughout the story it is the “no-name” little people who keep moving the story along. In fact, with the exception of Elisha, if it were left to those in power, those whose names have been preserved, nothing would have gotten done.
I suspect this has always been true, and it speaks to the truth of our common human experience. No matter how much we may miscalculate, no matter how big of a deal we or others imagine we are or are not, we are the same. Naaman’s commanding presence could not betray his inner struggles and heartache. Yet his humiliation is overpowered by his wealth and privilege and reputation. He seems to have a certain sense of his own place that puts him above ordinary people and ordinary rivers. He walks and talks with kings. He rides at the head of an army, he has the means to assemble a massive ransom to offer in return for a cure he thinks he can purchase. “Everything can be bought, after all” writes the Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann, when you live on top of the world.”[i]
And yet, no amount of money or prestige can buy his healing. It takes the gentle and cautious suggestion of a young servant girl to get him to look elsewhere. She is a victim of war—stripped of her home and family, perhaps like so many of the Muscogee who sang the song we did for our gathering, as they walked the Trail of Tears forced by Andrew Jackson and an imbalanced American policy from their ancestral homelands east of the Mississippi River to reservation land in Oklahoma.
We might wonder why she would care. And yet she does, knowing perhaps better than Naaman does that their futures are intertwined.
Yet this is not enough to move this story to its happy end. Perhaps predictably, power speaks to power. If it is a prophet in Samaria who can heal Naaman, then certainly the pathway is through the King in Israel. And, perhaps predictably, the king’s first thought is that with such an impossible request, Naaman’s king is looking for a reason to attack him.
Once again a person of little power, Elisha, intercedes and prevents a response that would have been catastrophic for everyone—especially the many who rely on the kings good judgment.
And even as Naaman finally makes it to Elisha’s doorstep, he still needs help to move the story along beyond his ego to healing. It takes yet another unnamed nobody to invite the great general back to reason: “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’?”[ii]
And Naaman’s skin is healed, like that of a young boy. He is reborn. And we are reminded again that God works by means that are unexpected in our world—through the little ones, by way of unnamed people, and muddy rivers, while the mighty are not only humbled but healed. Perhaps the most astonishing thing of all is that Naaman is healed of being a big deal. And that makes a way for others to be saved and protected and restored.
The story is not really that rare. If we have eyes to see, we will remember that the story of this country is written by the lives of countless unnamed people who have given of themselves in quietly heroic and generous ways. And the story continues to be written today through the lives of people we will never know who change the world, remembering that we are a part of one another, that our stories are intertwined no matter how big a deal we are or are not.
For there is one God who is the mother of us all, and we are a part of one another no matter how we define ourselves, no matter the arbitrary lines of land and culture and identity we manufacture to imagine ourselves different. We are one, and we have the power together with the Spirit of God that is in each one of us to create the kind of world that we need to be human and to be well.
Thanks be to God.
[i] From Bruggemann’s book Testimony to Otherwise: The Witness of Elijah and Elisha (2001: Chalice Press). Referenced in UCC Sermon Seeds: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_july_3_2016.
[ii] 2 Kings 5:13.
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