God and Relationships – Part 2

couple-holding-hands

One of my favorite theological blogs belongs to my friend and mentor Jason Micheli (www.tamedcynic.org). Recently, Jason produced a number of posts about the importance of being in relationships. In a similar vein, I have decided to post a few of my thoughts on the theological virtues of relationships.

 

“To say ‘I love you’ one must first be able to say the ‘I.’”

Fountainhead

So says the fictional Howard Roark to Dominique Francon in Ayn Rand’s behemoth novel The Fountainhead. Though Rand herself was staunchly opposed to all forms of religion, I believe her quote, in a way, speaks profoundly to the importance of what it means to be in relationship with another.

To use Rand’s language: To say “I love you” one must first be able to say “I.” And, perhaps, more importantly, to say “I do” in marriage, one must first be able to say “I.”

Will Willimon writes, “Most people think that the toughest part of marriage is deciding who we ought to marry, making the right choice, and preparing for the decision. We say we are deciding whether or not we are “in love” with this person. Curiously the church has traditionally cared less about our emotional attachments. What the church cares about is not who you have deep feelings for but rather whether or not you are a person who is capable of sustaining the kind of commitment that makes love possible.”

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In today’s culture people (young and old) often commit to a romantic and marital relationship before ever experiencing what it means to be an individual. Young people are maturing later and further delaying the ability to find sense in individuality and therefore seek identity in others. Yes- there must be sacrifice in all relationships, but not at the expense of losing whatever it is that makes you, you.

Before a couple can fully appreciate the depth of what it means to covenant their life to someone else, they have to know who they are in order to give themselves over.

 

But here’s where it gets a little complicated…

 

You will never fully know who you are.

 

As a pastor, when I stand in front of a couple leading a wedding ceremony, the question is not “Jack, do you love Jill?” Instead the question is, “Jack, will you love Jill?” There, in that precise moment, we discover that, according to the church, love is something you commit to, something you promise to do, a future activity, the result of a covenantal marriage rather than its cause.

 

As Stanley Hauerwas famously put it, “we always marry the wrong person.” This is to say that we never marry the right person because marriage and life changes us. There will come a time when you realize that the person you have been living with is no longer the person you married or met at the coffee shop or knew from high school.

 

No one can fully know what he or she is getting out of a husband or a wife. There is a lot to be said about preparing for marriage (meeting with professionals, discussing the future, etc.) but there is an element of unpredictability that must be respected. We can never prepare for marriage in totality, but we can prepare ourselves for a lifetime of commitment to someone who is always changing (ourselves included).

 

This is exactly why it is so important to understand what you say, when you say “I.”

 

You will change in ways that you cannot predict just as your partner will change. But, as Christians, we have been adopted into a new identity through water and the Spirit that sustains us throughout the many changes of our lives.

 

Christ is alive through us, in us, and with us.

 

If we hold on to that identity, love can be the result of our relationships rather than the requirement.

 

God and Relationships – Part 1

couple-holding-hands

One of my favorite theological blogs belongs to my friend and mentor Jason Micheli (www.tamedcynic.org). Recently, Jason produced a number of posts about the importance of being in relationships. In a similar vein, I have decided to post a few of my thoughts on the theological virtues of relationships.

 

(Some of the following elements were first taken from a post written by Ron Edmondson, and then re-evaluated for this post. You can check on Edmondson’s blog here: www.ronedmondson.com)

 

Relationships are tough, perhaps tougher now than ever before. The impact of social media and changes in our contemporary culture have affected dating, marriage, and divorce in ways that cannot be fully comprehended. Moreover, maintaining a relationship predicated on the model of discipleship of Jesus Christ is a challenge in and of itself.

One of the many blessings of what it means to be a pastor is being invited into a couple’s relationship during pre-marital counseling. A few weeks ago I shared the following thoughts with a couple preparing for marriage and I believe they are relevant for anyone engaging in a serious relationship.

 

You are different. You are different and thats a good thing! Both members of a relationship differ from one another physically, emotionally, psychologically, and theologically. This is not a curse against relationships but something to be celebrated. The more a couple can live into the differences that make them who they are, the better a foundation can be made for experiencing life together. God has uniquely created you to be you, and no one else.

Set your own path. Don’t let either set of families/in-laws dictate how you will go forward with your own family. Our respective histories are important but they do not define how we can be in relationship, or how we can raise a family. Try to make sure that you are in this with/for one another, do not let anyone (related or otherwise) divide you and your thoughts on family. Every couple has a number of other relationships, but care should be made to maintain the oneness that God intends to create within a relationship. Respect the advice given to you, but listen to your spouse and work together.

Prepare to be surprised. Life will not always be peachy and perfect. For the many mountain tops that you will experience, there will be a valley waiting on the other side of the horizon. No one can ever be completely prepared for the changes that might come, but we can prepare ourselves to be ready to handle and address the changes appropriately. When difficulties arise, and they will, this is a prime time to improve the strengths and dynamics of a relationship. Theologically speaking, it might feel like you are always sitting in the shadow of the cross, but the glory of the resurrection will come. Prepare to be surprised.

Model after other couples. Look around and pay attention to the people in your life in relationships that you admire. They will inevitably have stories to share and appropriate advice to give. Remember to not just simply insert their techniques and strategies into your relationships, but allow them to model what it means to be in a fruitful connection with someone else. Often times when we come to church we assume that everyone in attendance has everything together in their lives, and similarly we often make the same assumptions of people in relationships. There is always something under the surface that we cannot see. If other couples are willing to share some of that information with you, it will likely prove helpful for your own relationship.

Communicate. Evaluate your relationship with one another. However, wait for the appropriate time to do this (in the middle of a fight is not always the best time). Couples should ask themselves, “are we growing together as a couple or are we moving further apart?” Do not always assume that your partner feels exactly the same way as you do.  If you can create a habit of honestly checking in with one another about the greater trajectory of your relationship, it will help prepare you to be open with one another in a loving and life-giving way as you move forward. Communicating with one another might sound like a simple aspect of a relationship, but its importance makes it worth mentioning over and over again.

Put God first. This is perhaps one of the hardest things for a pastor to bring up with a couple because it sounds like the “preachy” thing to say. But, its important. A couple’s individual, and collective, relationship with God will help navigate the deep “valley-like” hardships of life and maintain a sense of stability when everything else feels like its crumbling. Talk about God with each other. Pray together. But also experience God in the way that only you can. Your first identity as a Christian will help so communicate who you are and whose you are. Far too many individuals in a relationship come to define themselves on the other person. You are not someone’s better (or lesser) half. You were uniquely made in the image of God and this is important to celebrate. Live into your relationship with God and it will strengthen your relationship.

Weekly Devotional – 10/28/2013

Devotional:

Luke 6.27-31

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

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I have a friend in ministry who once had this passage play itself out in his life in an interesting way. Though an ordained methodist, Jason experimented one Lenten season with wearing a clergy collar out in public. He was surprised to note how many people eyed him suspiciously at the local Starbucks and many strangers were willing to talk to him about their trials and tribulations in public locations. One week, while working on a sermon at a Barnes & Noble, Jason noticed a homeless man sleeping uncomfortably in one of the seats. It was clear that the man had not bathed in some time as many of the other patrons left a quarantine zone of empty seats between themselves and the man. Like many of us, Jason was used to seeing people in need and knew that somebody else could help this man. However, the more he attempted to work on his sermon, the more he realized that most of the people in the mini restaurant were staring at him, waiting for him to do something. Remember: he was wearing a clergy collar, everyone knew he was a Christian. So Jason reluctantly made his way to the counter, purchased a sandwich, and dropped in on the table in front of the homeless man. “Gracias” muttered the man under his pile of clothes while preparing to begin eating. “What’s your name?” Jason asked. “Jesus” the man replied.

Upon later reflection Jason wondered whether or not he would have given that man food if it were not for the fact that he marked himself as a Christian and therefore strangers had expectations of what he should do in the situation.

 

Jesus regularly challenged his disciples to change their lives in strange and uncomfortable ways. It is not easy to live into a new reality where we are called not to react to everything but instead continually act according to the kingdom principles of love, forgiveness, and generosity.

 

So, the next time you’re out in public and you see someone in need, or you’re being ridiculed by someone at work, know that following Christ’s commands are not always easy. But think about how you would act differently if everyone around you knew that you were a Christian and had expectations of you according to that identity. How would you act differently?

The answer to that question is what discipleship is all about.

 

(You can find out more about Jason and his ministry at www.tamedcynic.org)

 

The Magnificent Defeat – Sermon on Genesis 32.22-31

Genesis 32.22-31

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The Sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

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Jacob was left alone. He had sent his entire family, all of his possessions, and his future across the Jabbok river. There he was all alone basking in the glow of the sunset, terrified but hopeful for the morning. Jacob had lived a strange life, but nothing would compare to what was about to happen.

Out of nowhere, a strange unnamed man arrived and began to wrestle with Jacob till daybreak. Scripture is rather lacking in details about this epic match, but we can imagine the blood, sweat, and tears that went into this fight. Two men grappling with each other in the bleak conditions of the ancient near east. When it seemed as if one man was finally getting an advantage, the other would return with a defensive move pinning the other one to the ground. This was probably not some glorified hollywood-esque battle, but rather like the ones you used to have with your brother or sister, where no one would relent.

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The fight went on throughout the evening, and when the stranger knew that he could not prevail against Jacob, he struck him precisely on the hip socket, knocking it out of joint as they continued to wrestle. Then the stranger in the night said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Though already having received a remarkable blessing, a new name, a new identity, Jacob further pushes the man, “Tell me your name!” But the man replied, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. Jacob would later name the place Peniel (which means face-to-face) saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” And for the rest of his life, Jacob walked with a limp because of his battle with the man.

What a story! 

Some theologians are convinced that this narrative has received more scholarship than almost any other story from the Old Testament. Yet, last Sunday, when I casually mentioned this narrative to a few people before church, they remarked that they had never heard about it. In our current culture, we can no longer take for granted the amount of scriptural knowledge everyone has in the church. A lot of people will be quick to blame the laity for not reading enough scripture outside of church, but I believe the fault doubly lays with the clergy who are afraid or unwilling to preach on particular texts.

So, if you’ve never heard this story before, or even if its the 100th time you’ve heard a sermon on it, what do you make of it?

It is one heck of a story, but like many passages in scripture, we have read this section in isolation and we are missing the rest of the narrative. If we really want to know what is going on here on the sandy banks of the Jabbok river, we have to go back to the beginning…

 

Jacob was the son of Isaac and Rebekah (son of Abraham and Sarah). When Rebekah became pregnant with twins she felt a struggling within her womb, and after praying to God, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” The Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two people born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”

The first born was Esau, red and covered in hair, and later Jacob who came out gripping the heal of his brother; each of them were named after elements regarding their birth (Esau – red // Jacob – one who grabs the heel). When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau; but Rebekah loved Jacob. 

Esau

Esau

Like most sibling rivalries, Jacob and Esau were combative throughout their lives. You can imagine them as children fighting over simplest little things while the father would side with one, the mother the other.

Once, when they were older, Jacob was cooking a stew while Esau came in from the field famished. Esau said to to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” Jacob, the cunning heal-grabber that he was, agreed to give his brother food, in exchange for his birthright, and thus Esau gave up his birth right to his younger brother.

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And then later, when their father Isaac was approaching death, with weakened eyesight, he beckoned for Esau to bring him some wild game in order to bless him before his death. However, when the cunning little heal-grabber found out about this from his mother, he covered himself in fur and deceived his father by pretending to be his brother. Before Jacob had had enough time to even make it away from his father’s tent, Esau returned from the field shocked to discover that Jacob had stolen his blessing.

The heal-grabber had gone too far this time and Esau was furious. He vowed to kill his brother after the death of his father. But Rebekah discover Esau’s plot and sent Jacob away to flee from the inevitable wrath of his twin.

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Years pass. Esau and Jacob continue to live out their lives apart from one another. When it seemed like Jacob might finally be able to forget his past and his brother, he had a vision which made him realize that he needed to return to the land of his father.

And so, with all his possessions and children and wives Jacob prepared to encounter his brother, unsure of what would happen. However, the little heel-grabber had one trick left up his sleeve; knowing that his brother would surely kill him, Jacob sent ahead of him all his possessions and family in order to appease Esau before their reunion, while thinking to himself, “I may appease him with presents that go ahead of me, and afterwards I shall see his face; perhaps he will accept me.” Therefore his gifts passed on ahead of him, and he stayed behind alone for the night before meeting his brother in the morning.

At this critical moment in his life, at the matrix of what would determine everything forward, spending the night on the border of the Promised land, Jacob struggled with God.

So you see, the story of Jacob wrestling with God is placed perfectly within the greater story of Jacob’s life; while anticipating a frightful reunion with his brother Esau, Jacob must first meet with the dreaded stranger of the night and these two meetings are intimately related to one another.

The story, as we find it in scripture is not explicit about who Jacob actually wrestles with. Is he wrestling with his metaphorical brother? Himself? A stranger of the night? Though arguments abound for many interpretations, it makes most sense to understand the story in such a way that Jacob is wrestling with God

During the night, the cool evening when precision and detail are lacking, the divine antagonist arrives and takes on features of others with whom we all struggle during the day.

What a man this heal-grabber was! He may have been frightened of the coming repercussions of the reconciliation between he and his brother, and he may have been afraid of the almighty Lord, but in the fray he held his own with either one.

This is no ordinary story.

In a way, what Jacob experienced was a magnificent defeat. A defeat because Jacob is left with a limp for the rest of his life, and magnificent in his ability to prevail. From that day forward Jacob limped every day to show others (and remind himself) that there are no untroubled victories with the Holy One. Yet his limp was also a reminder that he had prevailed in this skirmish between humanity and the divine.

It is important to note that this meeting with God, this nighttime wrestling match, did not lead, as we are wont to imagine, to reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing. It resulted in a crippling. There is a dangerous consequence of meeting the divine, resulting in a marking that we will carry throughout the rest of our lives.

And so, when the day broke the stranger left a crippled Jacob, now Israel, limping toward his powerful and vengeful brother.

Can you imagine how he must have felt? Weak after wrestling all night long, afraid of the coming consequences, isolated from all his family and possessions, sand caught in his eyes, clothing ripped, walking across the deserted landscape toward his brother?

When Jacob made his way forward, lessening the space between himself and inevitably, he bowed seven times until he came to his brother.

Like the stranger from the night before Esau rushed forward and grappled his brother to the ground, falling upon his neck. However, instead of punches and scrapes, Esau covered his brother with kisses and tears.

The juxtaposition of the wrestling in the night with Jacob’s reunion with Esau offers us a warning; God will not be taken lightly or easily. There will be no cheap reconciliations. On the way to the affronted brother, Jacob must deal with the crippling and blessing of God.

It is easy to take the story in isolation and make it into a simple lesson: “being a Christian is about wrestling with God. There will be times when we cannot understand what it happening and though we are grappling with the divine in a negative, God will positively hold onto us while refusing to let go.” And though that message is true, there is so much more going on with the greater story.

Don’t we all have a little Jacob in us? At times we’ve all acted like the little heel-grabber, willing to do less to receive more, willing to focus on ourselves alone rather than those around us. And at the same time, don’t we all have a little Esau in us too? At times we’ve felt betrayed, unloved, and hurt, our trust broken from broken relationships. Being Christian is about wrestling with God, but its also so much more. This story in scripture reveals to us how the love of God and the love of brother belong together. We were never meant to be alone, scavenging for ourselves, removed from others. We were all created in the abundant image of the triune God, made out of unified plurality to be in plurality with others.

Like Adam and Eve, like Jacob, like the disciples, and so many other figures from scripture, we want to know the answer to the ultimate question. We want to bridge the gap between us and God. In this passage Jacob wanted to know God’s name, the mystery of heaven and earth, to overcome all the distance. When wrestling, the stranger did not win, but he did not lose either. Jacob gained a great deal, but the depth of God’s being had not been given. The stranger stopped short of giving the ultimate gift – that would have to wait until a cramped night in the crib of a manger in Bethlehem.

In a few moments I will be inviting Isabella Bailey-May Sullivan and her family to come forward and gather around the baptismal font. In Isabella’s baptism she will be incorporated into this body here, to learn about these kinds of stories from scripture, to begin a life of wrestling and reconciling with God. Like Isabella, all of us gathered here have been grafted into the story of Israel through Christ’s death on the cross. We will encounter our brokenness through God’s Word but we will also rejoice in the grace that God gives us in spite of our brokenness.

And so what are we left to make of this heel-grabber and his wrestling match on the banks of the Jabbok? Like Jacob’s wrestling and Isabella’s baptism, when we enter the church we are marking ourselves for the rest of our lives. It is in this place through the worship of the people and the proclamation of the Word that all the Jacobs of the world become reconciled with the Esaus. Its where we can meet one another and God face-to-face and prevail. We might be brought down in a way that we are truly wrestling and we will walk away marked by God. Though we may not walk with a physical limp, we have been struck by the almighty God in a way that we will never be the same again.

And that, is good news.

Amen.

 

Weekly Devotional – 10/21/2013

Devotional:

Luke 18.9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

 

There was a couple I knew growing up who had it all together, or at least it seemed like they did on the surface. They were in church every Sunday morning, sitting together holding hands, with children flanking them on either side sitting attentively. They attended the Wednesday night dinners, participated in bible studies, and volunteered for celebratory programs.

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However, on one particular Sunday morning I saw them out in the parking lot, before church, yelling at one another. I was shocked: not only were these two some of the best members of the church, but they were yelling so loud that many congregants were parking on the other side of the lot just to avoid them. Yet, 45 minutes later there they were standing in line with their palms outstretched ready to receive communion. They were surrounded by people who had seen them fighting in the parking lot, but they still came forward to receive the body and the blood.

I am often guilty of thinking I have to have it all together before I pray, before I read scripture, or before I arrive at church. Like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable I tend to focus on all of the things I have done correctly. But, when I enter church thinking I’ve got it all worked out, I leave feeling empty, as if something is missing. Though I was perplexed by the juxtaposition of the fighting couple standing at the altar of God, I realized that we are all just like them, in different ways.

I think that this parable Jesus told is all about prayer and about the way we enter into a church on Sunday mornings (or any other day of the week). Jesus tells his disciples that there are two types of people who come to church – Pharisees and Tax collectors. Depending on the week, or the time of year, we are one or the other most of the time. There are times when we walk into the house of God, ready to worship as good bible-believing Christians, Pharisees of the 21st century. We are so pleased with ourselves for following all the rules and behaving appropriately all the time. And sometimes we go home after church with an emptiness because we were so full before we arrived. But there are other times when we enter the house of God as tax-collectors, needing everything, afraid, lost, full of doubt, and return home with more than we ever dared to ask in the first place.

So, the next time you prepare to worship, or to pray to God, know that sometimes we fail and sometimes we succeed. We all carry with us a lot of baggage and, occasionally, we are unaware of it. There will be sermons that you get nothing out of, a hymn that does not resonate deep in your heart, and a bible study that you already know all the answers to. But, there will come a time when you enter into prayer empty, afraid, and hopeless; a time when you do not have all the answers; a time when all you have left to say is “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” And God will be there waiting.

Weekly Devotional – 10/14/2013

Devotional:

Psalm 119.103-105

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

Adjusting to life in Staunton has been incredible! The pace of life is a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle that I have experienced in other places. I look forward to my regular trips to Food Lion because I know I will inevitably run into someone from church and we will be able to catch up between the ketchup. Additionally, Lindsey and I have fallen in love with the culture here in town. There are so many great restaurants, used bookstores, and a movie theater that always has an open seat!

Recently, I have found myself engaging in conversations with people about the latest book I read (Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami), the latest meal I had at a local restaurant (Pepperoni Pizza from Shenandoah Pizza), and the latest movie I saw (Gravity). It amazes me how so much of our conversations are about the wonderful things we experience and how we want to share them with others; we hope that they can derive as much pleasure from the activities as we did.

Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami

Gravity

Gravity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, think of something you did recently that was great, perhaps a delectable meal, or an incredible movie, or an exciting novel. Did you tell anyone about it? Did you share your experiences?

 

If those things were good for our lives, why are we so afraid to talk about the Good News?

I’ll be the first to admit that talking about a book or a meal is a lot easier than sharing the gospel, particularly with a stranger. But, when I really think about it, God has done far more for my life than any movie or meal ever has.

The psalmist writes, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119.103) Part of what it means to live out are faith in the world, is to soak up the delectable qualities of God’s word, and then be ready to share the good news with those around us. This doesn’t mean that we need to be bible-carrying evangelists ready to knock on every door on our street. But if God’s Word has been sweeter than honey in your life, isn’t it worth sharing with those around us?

So, the next time that you start sharing an experience with someone, remember that God’s Word has been a light for our feet and a lamp for our paths, that it has sustained us through the valleys and celebrated with us on the mountaintops, that it is our story.

Prepare To Be Surprised – Sermon on 2 Kings 5.1-15

2 Kings 5.1-15

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, ‘When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet has 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’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.”

Prayer

Have you ever gone looking for God? Maybe your church or your prayer life was no longer cutting it, and you thought about actively seeking out the God who you used to meet in the sanctuary.

For a long time, I made it my duty to help other people find God.

I would help organize trips to domestic or foreign locations, often leading youth and adults into uncomfortable situations so that they could live out the calling of the gospel by serving their neighbors.

Whether you lead a group to Winchester, Virginia or Xela, Guatemala the paradigm remains basically the same: Take a group of people out of their comfort zone, encourage them to serve others through physical means, participate in theological reflection and fellowship, and return home a changed individual.

I have been blessed to see wealthy American men weep in the arms of poor Guatemalan women after working for a week in a remote village, I have seen privileged teenagers play in the destroyed and desolate streets of New Orleans with other children who had lost everything. I have seen college-age Christians sing and chant hymns fervently with their eyes closed after having not stepped foot in a church in years.

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All of these trips were fantastic and were remarkably important for the people who participated. The only problem was, after returning home, it only took a few weeks to fall back into the same routine as if nothing had actually happened. In fact I’ve seen nearly the same thing occur after a group does a Bible study for months: as soon as they finish, they are on fire for Christ, but within a few weeks, that fervor has disappeared. The thought usually goes something like, “I did what I could but I can only do so much” “I tried to keep the fire alive, but I have other responsibilities” “I know this is what Christ wants me to do, but it’s too hard.”

We often engage in these activities expecting to experience God on our terms, only to return back to life the same as before…

Many, many years ago, a foreign warrior named Naaman had it all. He had the favor of his king, he was consistently victorious on the battlefield, and he had power. He was the kind of guy that you hated in high school. The proverbial quarterback of the football team, straight-A student, the guy who had everything just fall into his lap easily. But Naaman had a big problem: he was a leper. Covered in this invasive skin condition, there was nothing he could do to rid himself of the suffering.

The CEO of the huge multinational corporation can get the best table at any restaurant in town without even calling for a reservation, but his son is in rehab for an addiction to heroin. The famous and celebrated writer travels the world to give lectures and presentations – but he’s an alcoholic. The beautiful actress can turn every man’s head, but she dreads the lights and cameras in case they show an unflattering angle. The envied mother in the community has perfect children that never get in trouble but she weeps every night out of her loneliness and depression.

In every life there is a “but.” What’s yours?  Naaman was a successful military man in great favor with the king, but he was a leper.

However, one day, an unnamed completely insignificant Israelite, the quiet girl who always sat in the shadows, the one whose name no one could remember said the obvious: “Naaman, all you have to do is visit the prophet in Samaria, he can cure your leprosy.”

Why Naaman listened to this woman, we will never know, but he gathered his treasures and traveled to visit the king of Israel. After an embarrassing episode, where it is clearly apparent that Naaman does not know the way God works because he seeks healing from the king rather than the prophet, Elisha invites Naaman to his home so that he will learn there is a prophet in Israel.

The scene that follows is remarkably comical. Naaman comes in full regalia, with an impressive entourage, and gifts galore: ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He stands proudly before the house of the prophet but he does not even get invited inside. Instead, Elisha sends out a messenger to instruct the officer to wash seven times in the Jordan River.

Naaman is incensed! “This so called ‘prophet’ doesn’t even have the decency to come greet me? And then he is so bold as to claim that his river is mightier than ours?” So Naaman went away in a rage.

But, just as before with the unnamed woman, some unnamed servants approach Naaman, “If the prophet had commanded something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be made clean’?” And so Naaman went down to the Jordan and immersed himself seven times and his flesh was restored.

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Before returning to his homeland, Naaman went to Elisha and proclaimed, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel!”

Like many people who go out seeking to find God, Naaman knew how it was supposed to work. However, the scripture today confirms Naaman’s lack of understanding when interacting with the divine. First, he brings all of his treasures to the king of Israel assuming that he would have the power to cleanse him. Second, he arrives at Elisha’s home expecting to be regarded as the dignified warrior he is, only to be slighted by Elisha’s lack of welcome.

Like Naaman, so many of us go out expecting to find God on our terms and in the ways we want.

If we travel to an impoverished part of the country, or if we go visit a remote village on the other side of the planet we will surely find God. If we sweat in the mud all day long for our brothers and sister we will be blessed by God almighty for our actions. Yet, like Naaman, we cannot meet God on our own terms, but it is God who meets us.

What takes place here with Naaman is the way the Bible often deals with God. The extraordinary arises within the ordinary. The heavenly breaks out amid the earthly. What we tend to view as ordinary and plain, the Bible wants to depict as the realm of God’s amazing work among us.

Elisha, and all the other prophets from the Old Testament have something that we have lost in the church these days. They have freedom from the society around them. They are not blown about by the winds of doctrine or expectation, they are not captive to special interest groups, they do not follow all the latest fads, they do not unquestionably serve the latest liberal or conservative agenda. They serve, rather, their living God – that God who is on the move toward the establishment of the kingdom on earth.  – They hear God and follow him accordingly; this gives them the freedom from all the voices of this world and from every ideology that would capture them for its own selfish purposes. They meet God in the ordinary ways of life, respond to the call, and are transformed.

The healing of Naaman is one remarkable story. God takes an enemy of his chosen people and restores him to good health. In spite of the antagonism between two seemingly opposed people, God interrupts Naaman’s life in order to bring about a revelation.

Naaman was healed, but in what way? Yes, there is the physical healing, by washing himself seven times in the Jordan Naaman loses the leprosy that had so plagued him, but there was something else more powerful going on here in the story.

In this narrative Naaman learns about humility and encounters the living and active God. It is not the kings, nor the warrior, in the story who understand the ways of God, but it is through the unnamed servants that Naaman comes to experience the divine. It was through humbly following the commands of his servants that Naaman found cleansing in the muddy waters of the Jordan, but more importantly he found new life in a God that meets us in the ordinary.

What is your “but”? What is your excuse for not letting God meet you where you are? When we meet the triune God it would seem that it happens without regard for being rich or poor. Perhaps even more dramatically God extends his mercy, and works out his plans through the unnamed people in our lives, the ones we so often overlook in our day-to-day living.

Somewhere in your life, God is calling you away from the distraction that you are so rooted in. Perhaps God has been using someone to bear a word of hope for your leprosy, for your “but”. Maybe its your mother who you have neglected to call for the last few months that just wants to tell you that God loves you. Maybe it’s the homeless man on Beverly Street who muttered “Thank God” under his breath when you gave him a dollar. Maybe it’s the co-worker who doesn’t treat you with enough respect or your own child who drives you mad when they neglect to clean their room or do their homework. It might be someone who you are jealous of, or threatened by.

Our scripture today boldly declares that God is the one looking for you. If you want to meet God, then you don’t have to go off on some mountaintop, or move to some sort of spiritual summit. You just have to let yourself go, like Naaman, and be willing to let God take over and ready for the changes in your life.

Be prepared to be surprised. When you meet the unnamed person that God is using to address your leprosy, it will almost inevitably offend you in some way, just as Naaman was furious over Elisha’s lack of decorum. The message will cut deep into your life by way of its simplicity, or its unexpectedness, and it will occur in a way that only you will be able to comprehend.

When God comes to meet us where we are, it does not occur through overwhelming theatrics, flashing lights and great booming sounds. God does not meet us where we expect him to, but rather through simple things:

Yesterday morning I stood here right in front of the altar with my cousin Devin. Devin is currently part of a confirmation class in Alexandria, VA at Aldersgate UMC regularly learning more about faith, God, and the Bible. At the end of this confirmation period, Devin will kneel before his home congregation and will be welcomed as a member into the church. But, Devin has not been baptized, and baptism is a requirement for confirmation.

Devin and I talked and he made it clear to me that he wanted me to be the one to baptize him. So after a conversation regarding the importance of the sacrament of baptism, about what it will mean for him and his life, I welcomed Devin to come here for the weekend and be baptized.

So there we stood yesterday, with the muted overcast light coming through the “I am the good shepherd” stained glass window lighting up the altar. I ran my fingers through the cold water talking to Devin about the glorious ways that God has interacted with his people through water over the centuries. And as I held the water in one hand, and Devin in my other, I said, “Devin, many years ago Jesus gathered at the Jordan River and was baptized by his cousin John. In the same way Jesus calls all of us to be baptized in order to be brought into his body, the church.”

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I stood there for perhaps just a moment frozen in my own words. As I looked down at his blonde head I realized that just as John baptized his cousin, here I was, blessed to be doing the same thing to my cousin.

God confronted me in that moment. In a solitary blink of time I was flooded with the knowledge that the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized is the same river where Naaman was cleansed of his leprosy. That I was standing before almighty God baptizing my cousin in the same way that John baptized his. It was not grand: the sky did not open up with the Sun beating down on us, no trumpets were heard blaring from heaven, and the wind did not blow through the building. But it was perfect, because in that moment God met us in the ordinary: through the simple water and words of baptism.

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God does not meet us where we expect him to, but through the ordinary rather than the extraordinary. God meets us in the proclamation of his Word, in the remembrance of a man named Naaman who walked down to the Jordan River, and through a young man’s baptism on a rainy Saturday morning.

What is God calling you to? Where has God been trying to meet you?

Prepare to be surprised.

Amen.

(preached at St. John’s UMC on 10/13/13)