Finding Focus in the story of Naaman
2009-02-08 by Dan Flanagan
6th Sunday After Epiphany
2 Kings 5: 1-14; 1 Corinthians 9: 24-27; Mark 1: 40-45
There is a clear relationship between the Old Testament and Gospel readings and a tangential relationship with the epistle. The common theme is likely ‘focus.’ The story of Naaman identifies his false concerns until he discovers "there is a prophet in Israel." (vs. 8) In the gospel lesson Jesus also heals a leper who seems to immediately recognize the power of God in Jesus. "If you choose, you can make me clean." (vs. 40) The epistle uses two sports analogies to emphasize the importance of discipline and ‘focus.’ The common thread is that the only true power of life is found in God (through the prophet in Israel and through Jesus Christ in the gospel).
We understand that in competition there is only one winner. The letter to the Corinthians reminds us that winners have self-control and a clear goal. If they become distracted competitors are likely to lose.
Michael Phelps has discovered the consequences of a lack of focus. The media coverage of the last Olympiad as he won eight gold medals focused on dedication to training physically and mentally. The recent revelation of marijuana use may or may not affect his performance, but it certainly detracts from his focus on competition.
Phelps won medals. Those of us who take up spiritual goals will be rewarded eternally, not with something perishable.
Some exegetes suggest that the story of Jesus healing a leper is a response to the Naaman story. Mark’s leper contrasts Naaman in social position and in immediate recognition of the power of God through Jesus. "If you choose, you can make me clean." (vs. 40) In the time of both stories lepers were social outcasts and required to stand at a distance shouting to oncomers, "Unclean, Unclean." Rather than an outcast, Naaman is commander of the army of Aram, "a great man and in high favor with his master"(vs. 1) Elisha had no contact with Naaman (although likely not because of his leprosy). Jesus chose to make himself vulnerable by touching the leper out of compassion. In so doing, Jesus returned this leper to community.
Naaman’s story is less about compassion than about all those things which interfere with our relationship with God. The story holds a variety of interesting observations about human interaction, and most of them can be illustrated today.
Isn’t it interesting that it is a little child who leads Naaman to God. The NRSV says the captured servant girl serving Namaan’s wife was "a young girl." The Hebrew is "small girl." Not only is she from the enemy, but it is a child who offers her advice through Namaan’s wife rather than directly to Naaman. Social order was important. Notice that one king addresses another in the letter rather than Naaman directly communicating with a foreign king.
Privileged position comes into play as Naaman finds Elisha. Instead of approaching Naaman in person Elisha sends a messenger which angers Naaman. "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!" (vs. 11) Naaman becomes so infuriated that he leaves.
Again, the servants save the day. Naaman’s servants help him see that if Elisha had offered a difficult challenge he would have immediately accepted it. How could he not take Elisha’s suggestion? What would it hurt? All he had to do was to wash seven times in the Jordan river.
The idea of dipping into this river as opposed to those in his home country also angered Naaman. Naaman was demonstrating our human tendency toward provincialism.
We are likely to find the power of God in the most unexpected places. Naaman found it in the home of his enemy and through a servant girl. Can you imagine Americans being open to finding God through an enemy such as Iran or Al Qaeda? If Naaman’s story possesses a tinge of skepticism about the potential of healing in Israel, how would we define our contemporary understanding of potential healing in Iran? Through Islam? Through an illegal immigrant? Or through someone who has hurt us?
Jesus dealt with similar provincialism in Nazareth. "There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." (Luke 4: 27)
In spite of his sense of superiority and reluctance Naaman was healed. "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel." (vs. 15) If we are focused on finding God and not preserving our human wreaths, like Naaman, we will discover God’s healing power. But it may be in the most unexpected way.
2009-02-05 by Rick Brand
So it all comes together on Friday morning. All congregations want good preaching. They will give a minister time, if the minister uses it for preparation Every Friday morning I would go into the office, after the necessary chit chat with others, I would tell them I was going to hibernate. I closed the door of my office and did not take any interuptions until I had a finished written copy of my sermon. It did not take the congregation long to know this and accept this. They appreciated the results of that discipline and so honored it.
2009-02-05 by Rick Brand
Thursday brings the need to get the skeleton outline of the sermon completed. For this week my major debate is whether or not to start with the problem and then the solution or to start with the solution and then look at the problem. Paul Scherer, one of my heroes, often commented that preachers frequently know a lot about the problem and so send lots of time on the problem, but then cannot make the solution as big as the problem Do I start with our fears and concerns and then put those fears in the context of God or do I start with God and then say "now, our fears don't look so big."
This time I think I will follow the guidance of Isaiah and the Pslam and start with the reminder of the greatness of God. Like Isaiah the people of faith need now to remember the greatness of the God they have claimed to believe. The Greatness of God: the Creator, the Lord of History, the Sustainer of Life, the Giver of Hope, the Healer of the Broken, the One who has redeemed us in the past.
The next movement is to ask so now how do our worries and our fears look. Look at them now through the eyes of faith in that greatness of God and they do not look so big. They are not as overwhelming. They have not gone away, they are still there, but they are not larger than the creative and sustaining power of God.
The last movement would be to affirm that God gives us the gifts of the ability to hold on. To walk and not faith. To return us to our activities. The power of God is to give us another day in which we can enjoy the goodness of creation. That the greatness of God provides us with a creation that can sustain all of us, but does not promises any of us riches and prosperity beyond what is available to all of us.
As I put together this outline I will put notations on the quotes, stories, illustration that have been a part of this process.
Healing and Curing
2009-02-04 by Paul Janssen
It's somewhat of a commonplace to comment on the difference between healing and curing. I'll just add my few cents into the mix, in hopes that perhaps these reflections might stimulate some fellow preacher's thought in a useful direction.
Jesus is a healer, not a curer. Curing is an individualistic art, and, while Jesus did heal individuals, they were people related to others -- a mother-in-law, people who were BROUGHT, etc., and crowds gathered. The healing is all rather thoroughly based in a social setting.
Imagine what might have happened if, when Jesus was told of the fever of Simon's mother-in-law, he had said "What insurance carrier does she have?" This illustrates many things, not least of which is the way we treat individuals for single, highly specialized issues. (A physician in our day might say, "I recognize that gallbladder." Jesus might rather say, "I know your family.")
We pastors live in this reality. A member has been laid up for months with a bad leg. What does she see as the chief issue? Not that her leg is ailing (though that is of course immensely important), but that she is unable to get out and be among friends, to feel human.
The Bantu concept of "ubuntu" says that a person is a person to another person. So, when I am ill, I find that I am less able to be a person to you, and my illness diminishes you. In addition, when I am ill, I am less able to receive you as a person, so I too am diminished.
So let's think of "healing" rather than "curing" and we'll be on a good trajectory.
Second, healing for Jesus is a sign of something bigger. It makes all the difference to a demoniac or a woman with a fever (etc.) if they are healed, of course. But healing is a sign of the reign of God. It says that we were not made for our bodies to be ailing. We were made for wellness. We were made to have the capacity to stand for justice, to make peace, to give and receive joy. Wellness arising from illness is a sign that God is alive and at work and powerful in this world.
So our prayers for healing are subsumed in the Lord's prayer: "Thy kingdom come." Yes, not in any abstract, almost gnostic way, but in a concrete, bodily, incarnate way. I want to be healed, not only because it's good for me, but because it will give glory to God. But here's the thing -- I can be healed, despite not being cured, right? I can be socially restored, to some extent, even though my body is not all that I might hope. Hence, my healing bears witness to God's reign.
Finally, when healing becomes a matter of social rather than individual conception, we can all recognize our need for healing. We all have some sort of broken relationships strewn along our pathway. We may know of them directly -- people we've hurt or who have hurt us. They may be written on a larger scale - irreconciliation between races, or between rich and poor, fundamentalist and modernist, male and female, gay and straight, etc. We are all in need of healing; we all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory.
Thus we are privileged to be part of God's ministry of healing, but as wounded healers. We don't heal from our strengths, but from our wounds. We open our ears to hear the echoes of our own brokenness in others, and make space for them to experience shalom. We open our eyes to detect what we see when we look in the mirror, and we make a covenant of compassion. We take on the mind of Christ, and empty ourselves, as we are, wounds and all, and so give glory to God.
Paul's Honesty and Integrity
2009-02-04 by David von Schlichten
Thank you to Rick Brand for taking us by the hand through his sermon-preparation process. We look forward to his contributions for the rest of the week here in the tub.
I am considering 1 Corinthians. Paul sounds like he is being phony in his willingness to be all things to all people. However, we see elsewhere in Paul that he is not an anything goes, it's-all-good, deceptive kind of guy. After all, elsewhere in this same letter (and in other letters, such as Galatians) he is pretty firm.
The key is that Paul is willing to adapt "for the sake of the gospel." Paul is not a slave to his own biases, habits or prejudices. He leaves those behind in the name of winning people to Christ.
Further, he is openly acknowledging that he is doing this. So Paul is actually showing great honesty and integrity here.
Perhaps he is also saying to the Corinthians, "Go and do likewise. Quit bickering, ranking, and competing. Focus instead on becoming all things to each other for the sake of the gospel."
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
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