Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Sunday, February 15 2009
2 Kings 5:1-14
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Preached by Vicar Anna C. Haugen
First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Greensburg, PA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I knew a girl in college who would never allow a guy to pay for anything, particularly if they were out on a date. She didn’t want to be vulnerable, didn’t ever want to feel obligated, so she used her money as a shield to keep herself in control of whatever they did together. She liked knowing that she didn’t have to depend on anyone else. When dealing with guys, she was a control freak. Money is a potent form of power, and she knew how to use it.
Naaman wanted to use his riches to be in control, too. Being told of a prophet of God who might be able to cure his disease, Naaman’s first action wasn’t to go to the prophet and ask for healing. No, Naaman wanted healing on his own terms. So he went to his king, and got a huge sum of money to bribe the king of Israel into helping. Naaman also got a letter from his king to the king of Israel that was harsh enough to panic the king of Israel, and a powerful military escort. Chariots were the tanks of their day, the most effective way of projecting power on a battlefield, requiring much money and skill to maintain and use. It was the old carrot and stick approach: if you do what I want and heal me, Naaman said, you get a king’s ransom in gold, silver, and costly garments. If you don’t heal me, my king-who is more powerful than you, with a larger and better equipped army-will be very unhappy. So you’d better do what I want. Naaman demanded a miracle of healing, rather than ask for God’s grace. He wanted God to work by his rules, rather than try to work by God’s rules.
The prophet Elisha heard about it, and called Naaman to be cured, telling him simply to wash in the Jordan river. Naaman should have been happy, right? He got what he wanted: to be cured from a horrible, disfiguring, wasting disease. But no. Instead of being grateful, Naaman was insulted that the prophet’s instructions were so simple. Naaman was a powerful man, a rich man, come with a huge entourage and lavish bribes to demand a huge miracle. He wanted a big show, something worthy of his status, something that he could do to heal himself. He wanted something that acknowledged his power and that of the king he served. Aram, what we now call Syria, was mighty and rich, much more so than the piddling little country of Israel. Coming to puny Israel for help, admitting that they had something Aram didn’t, was already an affront to Naaman’s pride. Then to have the prophet of God refuse to deal with him directly, refuse to play to Naaman’s pride, refuse to give him some Herculean task and showy ritual to mark the importance of the occasion-that was intolerable. To have come all that way, just to be told to bathe in a river, something he could have done at home? Naaman wasn’t going to put up with that. He turned away and almost rejected the miraculous healing God was offering him. He had to be convinced to allow God to help him! It seems incredible to us, almost unbelievable, that anyone would reject God’s help and healing because their pride was offended. It seems incredible that anyone would turn away from God with the gift they so desperately need right there in front of them. And yet, we do it all the time.
Nobody likes feeling vulnerable. We like to feel we have control over our own destinies. Think about how much respect we give to “self-made men,” those who take a bad situation and use their own abilities and ambition to rise above it, creating a better life for themselves. We Americans also tend to take a lot of pride in being self-reliant, take care of ourselves. Think about how much time we spend planning out our futures. Think about how afraid people have been lately about the economy, about the threat of lost jobs and pay cuts. Is it really about money, at the heart of it? Or is it about something deeper, about knowing that one of the foundations of our society is shaky and unpredictable? Even those people with relatively secure jobs are afraid and unsure. People who have already been laid off, whose lives have been completely changed by forces beyond their control-I can only imagine what they must be feeling.
I know when I feel vulnerable, I try not to show it, try to pretend everything’s going fine, try to take control of the things that are most important to me. Like Naaman, when I’m weak I try to look strong, try to keep the situation in terms that are familiar to me, on my own home turf. For Naaman, the home turf was wealth and military posturing. For me, the home turf is academic debate and nitpicking. There are many defense mechanisms, ways to try to compensate for feeling weak and vulnerable, but everyone has them. Sometimes, we don’t even realize we’re using them. What are yours?
Admitting that someone or something else has power over you means that you are not in control. It means that you are vulnerable to them. It can be very scary. But here’s the thing: no matter what we do, no matter how much power we have, we are not in control of the world. God is. God is the one who created the world, who redeemed it through death on a cross, who brings us out of the pit of sin and despair and makes us whole. None of that is our own doing. All of it belongs to God and is done by God. It is not our will that determines the course of our lives, but God’s will.
But do we really believe that God is in control? We say it all the time in worship, in hymns, we read it in the Bible and hear it preached. We pray it in the Lord’s Prayer, asking for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. But all too often, we don’t mean what we say. When things go right, we look back at all the little things that happened, everything we did, that helped make things turn out the way we wanted them to. We attribute things to chance, luck, other people, everyone but God. We don’t look for all the little ways God has intervened to help and guide us, the ways God has shaped events. When things go wrong, we want God to step into our lives and fix everything, but fix it on our terms. God gets the blame for tragedies-children dying, jobs lost, homes destroyed-but we don’t often give God the credit for all the things that go well. Like Naaman, we try to keep control of our lives by keeping God’s presence within boundaries of what we consider acceptable. And it’s a lot easier for us than for Naaman; we don’t have a prophet of God like Elisha to point out our mistake and make us relate to God on God’s terms rather than our own.
We live in a world broken by sin. I don’t mean just individual sins, bad things done by individuals. Sin has invaded every aspect of our lives. Each individual sin takes us further away from how God wants us to live our lives. All those little-and big-things we do wrong add together to create ever larger problems. Because we are flawed and sinful people, the things we create-like institutions, groups, and cultures-are also flawed and sinful. Just as our bodies get sick because of diseases and germs, our minds and souls get sick because of sin. But while our bodies can fight off minor ailments and doctors can cure us of many serious illnesses, the only one who can save us from sin is God. Like leprosy, sin is a long-term wasting disease that affects our entire life, something we can’t cure ourselves. Like Naaman, our only hope is the grace of God, a miracle of healing given for us. Like Naaman, we need to be washed clean.
But like Naaman, we want to be in control. We don’t want to admit we have a problem, don’t want to admit we can’t fix it ourselves, don’t want to admit we’re vulnerable. We come up with reasons why we don’t need God’s help. We convince ourselves we’re not doing that badly, that we’re no worse off than anyone else. We worship God on Sundays and try to leave him safely in church behind us when we leave instead of looking for his influence and guidance in our daily lives, until something bad happens and we want God to fix it just the way we prefer. We turn away from the love and salvation God offers us through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, just like Naaman turned away from the healing he was offered in the waters of the Jordan river.
It’s hard to be vulnerable, to put our trust in God to take care of us and heal us. It’s hard to admit that we need God’s grace so desperately. But here’s the good news: we have been washed clean by the waters of baptism and redeemed out of the hands of sin and death by our Lord’s sacrifice. Even living in a world broken by sin, even when we turn away from God, God never turns away from us. Baptism isn’t just a matter of splashing a bit of water on a baby’s head. Baptism is a fundamental cleansing, a drowning of the old, sinful self. Each day of our lives as baptized children of God, we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ Jesus. We are sinners, yes, but we are also saints claimed and made holy and whole by God. This is why for the last few weeks we’ve been using the Remembrance of Baptism in place of the Confession of Sins we normally use. It’s a reminder that baptism isn’t just a once-in-a-lifetime event but a daily reality, a way of living in God’s grace our whole life long.
We don’t need to be afraid to let God work within our lives. We don’t need to be afraid to admit we need God’s help. We don’t need defense mechanisms to try and prove we have control or hide our own fears. We don’t need to control God’s actions, because God loves us and cares for us and won’t abandon us. Even when things aren’t going the way we want them to, even when we’re afraid of the way things are going, God is still with us, still healing us from our sin and working to make us whole. God washes us clean from the illness of sin in the waters of baptism. All we need do is open our hearts and minds to God’s work in our lives and stop turning away.