Showing posts with label scripture Advent peace. Show all posts
Showing posts with label scripture Advent peace. Show all posts

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Follow the Directions

This sermon was presented at Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church's 11:00 AM contemporary worship, the way (Arlington District, Virginia Conference) on Sunday, October 9, 2016. The revised common lectionary text for Year C, Proper 28 (Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost) was 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15 and Luke 17: 11-19

Follow the Directions: Two Passages about Being Healed

The two passages of scripture we heard this morning tell parallel stories, one in the Old Testament book of Second Kings, and one in the New Testament Gospel of Luke. Although there are differences, each story is a case of those who are ill seeking healing. Both Naaman, the Old Testament warrior, and the ten unnamed people in Luke suffered from leprosy, a disease that turned its sufferers into outcasts. Scholars disagree about whether the Biblical-era disease whose name we translate as leprosy is the same disease we know as leprosy today, but whatever disease Naaman and Luke’s ten people had was one that no usual remedy worked on, one that made healthy people shun the sufferers, one that made the sufferers ritually unclean according to Jewish law.
In Luke, the ten lepers recongnize Jesus’ power as he comes into the town. They call to him for help from a distance in deference to the social rules about those suffering from leprosy. They are made clean as they follow his simple instructions to show themselves to the priests.  These lepers follow Jesus’s instructions without question because they have nothing left to lose; living as outcasts, they had already hit rock bottom. They recognize Jesus’ power, they ask for help, and they are  healed.  Hallelujah!
The Old Testament story is more complicated. Naaman comes to Elisha for healing because an Israelite servant girl in his household suggests it. Naaman, a powerful warrioir,  sends a letter asking for help to his weaker neighboring nation because a servant, a female servant, a female Israelite servant suggested it. The letter in itself is an act of humbling. His supplication from a distance, however, is not enough to heal him, and Elisha summons him to come to Israel.
So Naaman goes to Israel expecting  to be heled with pomp and circumstance, expecting an act of healing worthy of his rank and station.  When Elisha gives him the simple instructions to bathe in the river seven times, Naaman is outraged! “What did I come all this way for?” he thinks.
A servant says – and I love this next part – a servant says, “Dude, if he’d asked you to do something difficult, you’d have done it. Why not just bathe in the river?” The servant is right. If Elisha had demanded a feat of strength (moving a giant boulder) or  a feat of endurance (climbing up a mountain and coming down without resting) or delivery of a magical object (three drops of slime from the Great Pink Sea Snail), Naaman would have moved the boulder, climbed the mountain, and found that snail. The simplicity of the instructions to bathe in the River Jordan, a tiny trickle of  river in the desert, seems disproportionate to the magnitude of Naaman’s disease.  Naaman, humbled, follows the directions, and is healed. Naaman and his servant teach us to follow the directions, even when they’re weird.
This is a conversation I have with my students all the time.:
“Dr. Koppy,” they say “what do we have to write?” 
And I say, “Read the description in the syllabus.”
“Dr. Koppy, do we have to print this out and bring it to class?”
“What does the syllabus say?”
“Dr. Koppy, when is the essay thing due?”
“Did you check the syllabus?”
My colleagues and I take great care to lay things out clearly in our syllabi, especially our common syllabus for freshman composition, from which we all teach every semester. The students, somehow, don’t think it can be as simple as reading a piece of paper I’ve already given them. *sigh* They need servants like Naaman’s. They need someone to say to them, “Dude, it’s in the syllabus.”
I shouldn’t snark on my students though. Every senior scholar in my field says the same thing about research writing: Do it every day, write every day even if only for 15 minutes, write every day even if you don’t feel like it. The key to making progress is consistency and repetition. And yet....what do dissertation-writing graduate students and junior scholars like me do?  We procrastinate, we faff off on the Internet, we avoid writing for days and then stay up all night chasing the lightbulb moment that will transform a rough draft into a polished piece. And it does not always come.
We fail to follow the directions.
In both of the stories we heard this morning, the lepers were healed simply by following the directions they were given. Following directions isn’t always such a tidy process. Following the directions, for example, doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen to you. Bad things happen to faithful people. Tragedy happens to good people all the time. Bad things happen to people even though they follow the directions.
You’ve all heard the platitude, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ Perhaps some of you have even said it. It’s often trotted out in the face of tragedy. People who don’t know what to say to the victim or the victim’s chief mourner’s say this, ‘Everything happens for a reason’ and it’s close corrolary ‘God has a reason.’ As someone who has been the chief mourner, I have to say that this is one of the most insidious lies that Christians tell each other.
The Old Testament lesson this morning seems to be supporting this idea. At the end of Naaman’s story, he returns to Elisha and praises God, saying “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” A tidy interpretation would be to say that Naaman got leprosy in order to bring him to Israel so that he could see God’s power. It’s tempting somethimes to think this way.
Here’s why that lie is so bad: If we believe that God protects the truly faithful, then those to whom bad things happen must not be truly faithful. Our reality, though, is that tragedy strikes good people, faithful people, devout people every single day. Church membership does not come with a ‘get out of tragedy free’ card.
On NPR last week, I heard a Story Corps interview with TerriRoberts, the mother of the man who shocked the world ten years ago this month when he barricaded himself in a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and started shooting, “killing 5 girls, wouding the others, and committing suicide.” The Amish community shocked the world when they forgave the man and embraced his parents. Roberts talks about the Amish families who came to the private funeral for her son and surrounded the family in a crescent that emanated love. She also talks about her ongoing relationship with the victim’s families, including acting as a part-time caregiver for one girl who was profoundly disabled by her injuries. Roberts reports that one of the Amish fathers told her “None of us would have ever chosen this. But the relationships that we have built through it … you can’t put a price on that.”
All of the families connected to this situation experienced tragedy that day. The family of the shooter might have become outcasts in their own community, made  unclean by their association with a person who would kill children in their school. The Amish community, however, followed directions. They chose to turn the other cheek, to love the people who some might see as their enemies, to forgive.
In the end of today’s Gospel story, Jesus expresses surprise that only one of the nine lepers came back to praise God after being healed. Now, you might be thinking that returning to offer praise was not part of the directions. Jesus said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” He did not say, “then come back here and offer praise.” Jesus probably thought he didn’t have to. Praising God is in the syllabus. Over an over, the Old Testament scriptures instruct the faithful to praise God. The lectionary offered two different Psalms of praise that we are not reading this morning, but our music has filled that role for us. The first two songs we sang this morning were full of praise. Jesus expected the lepers to know that they should offer praise for their healing, and he expresses shock that only the foreigner among them does so. Jesus tells this man that his faithfulness, his following directions, has made him well. Not just healed, but well.

Following directions is not a spell that protects us from harm. God does not promise us invincibility. The thing about the directions, though, is they make us resilient. The platitude that says everything happens for a reason has it backwards.  It is our work as Christians, not God’s work, to make meaning from the broken situations in which we find ourselves. The connection we forge with God when we follow the directions changes our perspectives. It makes us bend like the grass and not fall over like the trees when hurricane force winds overtake us.  

Sunday, December 7, 2008


This post came out of the mini-sermon I gave at church this morning because the pastor wasn't feeling well at the last minute. It is based on the scriptures from the Revised Common Lectionary for this week: Psalm 85, Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, and Mark 1:1-8.

Recently with my students we read an article that talked about how happiness isn't only a function of what we have and experience in the present, but also highly dependent on our expectations for the future. People with moderate income, according to the article, are happier if they have reliable expectation for continued job security and raises at regular intervals.

Let me tell you, I am a total believer in the power of hopeful expectation for the future to improve my mood in and outlook on the present. I love surprizes. I savor them. I especially love when I know a surprize is coming. If I can get through the ensuing ordinary, something extraordinary is on its way.

And I totally love Advent. The time between the holidays of Thanksgiving and CHristmas is one of my favorite times of year. Despite the difficult of this time. Despite the unpredictable weather, despite the mountains of end of semester grading, despite the annoying consumerism, despite the cleaning, despite the shopping. I love Advent.

Each reading from Isaiah, each pile of presents for Toys for Tots, each Salvation Army bell ringer, each Christmas card on my wall reminds me that the surprize at the end of this stretch of difficult isn't just extraordinary; it's miraculous. It's the word made flesh. It's the divine made human. It's the holiest of holies in the humblest of places. It's Christmas!

There is excitement in anticipation, but in this case, there is a certain peace in the anticipation as well. We do Advent and Christmas every year. We know that every year, at the year's darkest point, the light comes back again. We know, becasue it happenned last year and the year before and the year before that.

The speaker of Isaiah's passage this morning says that "people are like grass, their constancy is like the flowers of the field." He says it in a derogatory way, meaning, "Why should I bother to preach to these humans. They'll pay attention for, like, 5 minutes and then turn away. Again." And God says to that cynic, "Go anyway." Because God measures things differently. "A thousand years are but a day, and a day is like a thousand years." God knows that we are like the grass and the flowers of the field. We aren't constant. We are incapable of being constant, but we are persistent. We wilt, wither, and fall away. We fall prey to doubt and darkness, but we always come back.

The cynical voice in Isaiah obviously did not belong to a gardener, because a gardener would know how persistent grass is. It may go dormant for a while in the winter, but in the spring, it comes right back, and it spreads.

It seems to me that there is a certain peace to be found in acknowledging and accepting this cycle of faith-doubt-renewal in our own lives. It mimics the annual cycles of plants and of sunlight and darkness. For each of us, the cycle is different and it can be variable. Maybe you have a time of year that is difficult for you. A time when a loss remembered makes it tough to keep your faith and enthusiasm. Or maybe the stresses of the ordinary and the difficult are just too much to handle sometimes.

Find peace in the knowledge that it is part of a cycle. Sometimes your faith may falter. The grass does, too, so do the flowers. But you know what? They come back, and your faith will, too. Trust in the roots you've laid down: your foundation in the bedrock of Christ.

Those dark hours in our lives are Advents. They are times of preparation and transition. And miraculous moments await us at the end of every one. When you find yourself in an Advent, embrace it. Find peace in the knowledge that it is a call for you to prepare. You know how to handle Advent; you do it every year. Prepare the way. Get ready for the miracle. It is coming.