Sunday, July 31, 2016

When Israel was a child

Scripture Lessons: Colossians 3: 1-11 and Hosea 11: 1-11, OT pages 842-843 Sermon Title: When Israel was a child Preached on 7/31/16 You know, some relationships end – and some seem to end more easily than others. I was in 6th Grade and I had a girlfriend. Her name was Katherine and we really made our relationship official when at the end of our 5th Grade year we couple skated holding hands at the local skating rink. Unfortunately, then we went on to middle school and in middle school things were different. There was this guy there named Ben and he gelled his hair and before I knew it I was climbing into the school bus when one of Katherine’s friends told me that we would be breaking up because Katherine was now going with Ben. It seems to me that after you’ve couple skated with someone the decent thing to do is to at least break up with them face-to-face, but Katherine didn’t see it that way and just like that the relationship was over. It was less simple for a friend of mine in 8th grade. She called up her boyfriend Steve to deliver the bad news – that they would be breaking up - but Ol’ Steve saw it coming a mile away and wasn’t about to let this relationship end so he had this Boys to Men song playing in the background: “Till the end of the road, Girl I can’t let you go, It’s unnatural, You belong to me, I belong to you.” Now with that song playing, this break-up wasn’t so easy. And maybe the break-up should never be easy. Maybe the break up should always be hard. When a group of Pharisees came to Jesus, to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” This is a significant question because what divorce meant back in the time of Jesus was that a man could drop his existing family to start a new family in a time when only men could work and own property, so if he decided that he would rather start another family he could just write her a certificate of divorce and could move on from that first family as though nothing had ever happened. He could just hand her that certificate of divorce on her way up into the school bus and it was over – she and her children would be without a home, without a source of income, and without an honest name to make their way in the world. So Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart [Moses allowed you to divorce so easily]. But if two have become one flesh – do you really think they can ever be separated again?” Do you really think a man can just walk away as though nothing ever happened? Do you really believe that a man can just pretend that the children never happened, that the life he made didn’t really happen – that he can just hit the reset button and start all over again? You know what – some people do. But not so with God. Our Second Scripture Lesson is among the most beautiful in the Bible, but not only is the passage beautiful – it’s powerful in the sense that here the prophet Hosea, as I told you last Sunday – Hosea the prophet is married to a prostitute and he is married to this prostitute to illustrate his point that if God is married to us than it is a marriage just like a holy prophet being married to a prostitute. Certainly any Pharisee would have approved should God have wanted to issue a certificate of divorce given our condition, but Hosea won’t divorce his wife Gomer the prostitute even though she keeps returning back to the brothel. Despite who he’s married to, Hosea, like our God, just won’t let the relationship end. In Bible studies on this passage I’ve heard women and men identify with God as the divine takes on even more human or super-human attributes in the 11th Chapter. Several years ago a woman named Mrs. Jane Edwards pronounced that this is a mother talking here in Hosea: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. [But] the more I called them, the more they went from me… Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms… I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.” This does sound like a mother to me – or a grandmother. The kind of grandmother who loves her grandsons so much that she even loves the little greasy handprints all over her sliding glass doors and won’t clean them off because of how much she loves the greasy little hands who put them there. The kind of mother who can’t help but bite the little cheeks of her daughter, smell that little smell that only comes from her baby girl. The kind of mother or grandmother or father or grandfather who remembers lining up the cheerios on the couch cushions so that the baby would pull up and shuffle down, step by step, cheerio to cheerio until little Israel could walk. And the couch is still there years later – even in those days when he doesn’t come around because he has other people to impress. The couch is still there even in those days when the baby now grown seems to think only of himself. The couch is still there even if he falls farther and farther down the pit of drugs or alcohol, crime or indiscretion. Our God still looks at that couch and remembers the baby we used to be even if we’ve forgotten who we ever were and have walked so far away from the light that we can’t see our way back home. In this moment it’s easy for us to believe that our God will be like our 6th grade girlfriend – that God will just issue us a bill of divorce and be done with us so I’ve known plenty of people who’ve been to church their whole lives, completely sure that they’re going to hell – the only question is how soon, but we read here in Hosea God saying: “My people are bent on turning away from me [But] how can I give you up? How can I hand you over? My heart recoils within me; My compassion grows warm and tender, For I am God and no mortal.” I believe that too often we misunderstand what love really is. And I say so because I misunderstand it all the time. Week before last my mom sent me a birthday card – and on the front of the card is this little boy with his bike helmet on and he’s pushing his little blue bike up a gravel road and the card says: “Son, sometimes I find myself smiling just remembering something you said when you were little” and there’s big part of me that expected to open the card to read the words: “But then you became a teenager and the words you said then I spend a whole lot of time trying to forget.” Instead – you know what the card said: “And today, I just hope you know how very much I love you – and how grateful I am to call you my son.” Now that’s kind of a miraculous card, but this kind of miracle isn’t so far away. And I say that because I know there some of you who have known friends who cut ties with you, maybe even friends that you’ve had to cut ties with. There may be children who you still love but you don’t ever see, parents who you loved at one time and wonder if you still do. There may be wives here who have been issued that certificate of divorce – tossed aside like yesterday’s news, and that there are husbands here who have loved and lost and want to tell Tennyson that he’s crazy thinking that doing so is better than never having loved at all. I know that here are people here who don’t feel worthy of the love of God because they’ve learned about divine love based on human love, but the love of God is more. And the God who once lifted you up to his cheek – who bent down to you and fed you – can’t just walk away? So – we’re talking here about a “love that wilt not let me go.” A “Grace, greater than all our sin.” The love of a Father who waits at the widow praying to see his Prodigal Son return home. It’s like Hosea here is quoting that great Sam Cooke song when he sings to the woman who treated him bad but still he sings: If you ever change your mind About leaving, leaving me behind Oh, bring it to me, Bring your sweet loving Bring it on home to me - Because we’re talking here about the love of a God who can’t just walk away from the baby who learned to walk in her den regardless of the mistakes that he’s made or the man he’s become – and I say that this is God according to the book of Hosea, but is this you, is this me? Having been loved like this, by the living God, can we love like this while we are living? Can we begin to forgive the ones who hurt us the most, because if God is in the business of forgiving us, what justice would it be for you or me to just go around cutting people off? Can we let go of the old hurts? And I say we should – because for you and for me God already has. Because of this wondrous love, we have to start moving on, and even if there’s no going back to the way things used to be, remember those strong words of Dr. Martin Luther King: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” So having received the love of God – the amazing, miraculous, divine love of God – we must all be so bold to embody the words of Colossians – “seeking what is above. Putting to death whatever in you is earthly” loving not as the world loves, but loving as God loves. We must get rid of anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from our mouths, stripping away our old selves and clothing ourselves with new selves – living according to the image of our creator. For while some may have treated us like a 6th grade sweetheart, the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord – that is a love that never ends. Amen.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Children of the Living God

Scripture Lessons: Colossians 2: 6-15 and Hosea 1: 2-10, OT page 835 Sermon Title: Children of the Living God Preached on July 24, 2016 This week a Daily Herald article did a good job of describing the national party conventions which have been in the news. My favorite part of the article was this: The conventions are a multiday infomercial to kick off the fall campaign. The podium is filled with carefully scripted, designed and choreographed advertising for the presidential ticket – and against the other party’s ticket. The impact of that advertising in most years is most strongly felt among the party’s own voters. The conventions remind them of what they like about their party and what they don’t like about the other one, and they offer plenty of things to like about their nominee. I like this description and I agree, that yes, when the Democratic National Convention kicks off tomorrow they’ll try to remind democrats what they like about their party and what they don’t like about the Republicans just as the leadership of the Republican National Convention has done their best to remind republicans what they like about their party and what they don’t like about the democrats, but I have to say, and I hope I don’t offend anyone too much when I say it – that just getting the party faithful excited about their candidates must be more difficult this year than it ever has been before. Sure – there are plenty of things to like about Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, and it’s the purpose of a convention to offer plenty of things to like about them both, but while I remember so well the words of the pastor who offered Sara and I premarital counseling 13 years ago saying that “those who look for something wrong in a person will always find it” I am troubled by how easy it is to find something wrong in both of these presidential nominees. Will it ever again be said that the nominee for one party was a reality television star who more than once appeared in a professional wrestling match the same year that the opposing candidate was being investigated by the FBI? What are we to say about these things? That it’s time to move to Canada? Maybe, but this year it is so abundantly clear that while the purpose of the political convention is the same as it has always been: to tell their supporters all the things they should like about their nominee and all the things that they shouldn’t like about the other, this year no party can claim that they are the righteous and that their opponents are the unrighteous. No party can claim that they are the innocent and that their opponents are the guilty – but still, our culture moves us to choose one or the other as though things were so black and white because that is what our culture does. In Canada VISA is calling Canadians to boycott Walmart because Walmarts in Canada will no longer accept VISA – and Walmart is sure that her customers will stay loyal despite the inconvenience, but why anyone should be loyal to either the loan shark or the dispenser of cheap plastic stuff is what I want to know. But worse is that more have died while in the custody of the police. More police have died. More groups have been protesting. More angry people have been even more agitated than they were before, so we have to lament to an even higher degree that this year we are short on good options for our President in a time when we so truly need good leadership – and leadership is more than finger pointing, because it is not as though one is clearly good and the other clearly bad. But still, the democrats will say that Trump is bad and Clinton is good just as the Republicans have said that Trump is good and Clinton is bad in the same month when the Black Live Matter activists are saying that the police are guilty of brutality – and I’m not about to say that all police are completely innocent in this – but can the righteous response possibly be to return evil for evil by murdering police? For me the news cycle lately has made this much clear – that while some would divide the nation between us and them – right and wrong – good and bad – I am convinced that we actually a nation made up entirely of sinners. Now that’s not a new claim for Presbyterians. We come here Sunday after Sunday confessing our sins just as publically as can be. We put on our nice clothes and walk in here and week after week we come seeking the Assurance of our Forgiveness because we know we need it and this is just as Hosea would have it. In this first chapter of our Second Scripture Lesson the prophet does something that no other prophet in the Bible has done. Certainly there are a lot of prophets who do strange things. You think of Ezekiel who laid on his left side for 390 days and cooked only using animal dung to illustrate what it would be like for the Israelites when taken into exile, but nothing could be so strange as the prophet who marries a prostitute to illustrate his conviction that a prophet married to a prostitute is the perfect illustration for God being married to us. Think about that. Such a big part of these political conventions are the speeches given by the nominee’s spouse. Who you are married to matters – so Melania and Bill have to get up there to say nice things and as they do they want to look their best and sound their best because they know that they are reflecting on the presidential nominee. Now whether either are successful in reflecting positively on the nominee is beside the point because the point raised by the prophet is: How does it look then for God to be married to the Nation of Israel – God to be married to us? It looks like a prophet married to a prostitute according to Hosea – and the prophet even goes a step further to name his children Jezreel – or “I will punish”, Loruhamah or “I will have no pity,” and Loammi, which means “you are not my people”. How did the preacher who baptized those children feel? In a sense, maybe like every other preacher who looks at that tiny baby, and makes the claim that before the child has done anything wrong – before the child can speak or act – before a thought of selfishness has even crept into his mind – he needs forgiveness, because that is just who we are. And despite that sinfulness – we read in verse 10 of our Second Scripture Lesson: “Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” We are sinners. And those who march in the street are no exception. Those who wear a badge are no exception. Those who deny their guilt or have never apologized – they too are no exception to the reality that all have fallen short of the Glory of God. The unfortunate reality is that while no one dared throw a stone when Jesus stood by the woman caught in adultery and said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first” – it’s not just stones thrown today by the self-righteous but mud, bullets, and home-made bombs made for infidels as though some were and some were not – so hear what the book of Colossians has to say: “When you were dead in trespasses – God made you alive. When he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us – he set it all aside, nailing it to the cross.” You see, while the world denies every email sent – we rejoice knowing that while dead, condemned by our mistakes, God made us alive. And while the world has never apologized seeing confession as weakness – we rejoice knowing that the record that stood against us has been set aside by the one who was nailed to the cross. It’s not that some are good and some are bad. It’s that we all are bad, but still he calls us Children of the Living God. Do not despair in an era short on saviors – for we already have one. Amen.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Amos, what do you see?

Scripture Lessons: Colossians 1: 1-14 and Amos 7: 7-17, OT pages 855-856 Sermon Title: Amos, what do you see? Preached on July 10, 2016 Not only was Fred Rogers the host of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, but he was a Presbyterian minister and there’s a quote from Mr. Rogers that I read recently and that I really like: “I believe that appreciation is a holy thing – that when we look for what’s best in a person we’re doing what God does all the time. So in loving and appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something sacred.” I really agree with Mr. Rogers here, and I agree with him so much that I wish a little bit of him would rub off on the Prophet Amos. While Amos may be into appreciating the Nation of Israel and her people, he isn’t focused more on their strengths than their weaknesses here in the 7th Chapter that I just read. He’s not convinced of the power of positive thinking or swayed by the importance of nurturing healthy self-esteem – instead, led by visions and inspired by the Lord, the Prophet Amos seems to be one of those people who are willing to say the things that no one else is willing to say to address the weakness, brokenness, messed up stuff that those who err on the side of appreciation fail to address again and again. In his two major prophetic visions, he was called by God to point out the crooked walls and the over-ripe fruit. In both of these visions the prophet address the broken places and the sin of the people, and you can imagine that pointing these broken places out did little to improve his popularity in the community, so if I, and maybe you too, had the choice of spending time with either Mr. Rogers or the Prophet Amos, I’d chose Mr. Rogers every time, but today I’m reminded that the Prophet Amos makes a good point that I need to hear because I’m guilty of ignoring the crooked walls, both in my life and in the world around me – and by the strong words of the Prophet Amos I hear the Lord demanding that I pay better attention. We read in our 2nd Scripture Lesson: “This is what [the Lord] showed me: The Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.” All around Amos were these crooked walls, and it’s true for us as well. All around us are these crooked walls, but all the time I walk passed them without paying them a second thought and I’ve been doing it for years. Back when I was in college I remember doing so. I was on a mission trip and I love that our church’s youth group is so active during the summer with Mission Trips. Two weeks ago our Youth Director Diane Money took a group of Middle Schoolers to Birmingham, Alabama and just yesterday she left to take our High School Youth Group to Brooklyn, New York. Personally I believe that these trips are important because so much of who I am and what I believe developed when I was on mission trips. When I was in high school every summer I’d go with my church’s youth group to Mexico – either Juarez, right on the border, or Monterey, more to the interior of the country, and for a week we would build cinderblock houses in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods. The cinderblocks were stacked on a poured cement foundation, we’d pour cement to bring stability to the corners, apply a thick layer of stucco to the walls, inside and out, and then we’d put a roof on – and the roof was made of these great big cement panels. After it was all finished we passed the keys to the house to the family who would live inside and they who would cry and we would cry and I loved every minute of it and since I loved this trip so much, after high school I was invited to go back – this time in charge of one of the four houses. It was my job to supervise the work of the youth group, and to occasionally use a plumb line to make sure that the block walls were straight, and interestingly enough, just like the plumb line in our 2nd Scripture Lesson, when I went to check the walls of my house, the back wall was dangerously out of line. When I realized this, my first thought was that the wall needed to come down, but then, after realizing how much work that would take, I did what I imagine no one else here would ever do – I decided to wait and see if anyone else noticed. That may have been what Israel was thinking too. The Prophet Amos, by virtue of his trades, probably traveled around the country for he was not a shepherd but a “herdsman” – a livestock breeder – and also a dresser of sycamore trees who would travel beyond his home country where the sycamore didn’t grow to maintaining the health of this important crop where it did (7: 14). As he traveled you can imagine that he witnessed the plight of his people, and in his day of economic growth, he watched as the rich became richer and the poor became poorer, debt slavery became commonplace (Amos 2:6; 8: 6), rights were violated through intimidation of witnesses and bribery of judges (2: 7; 5: 10, 12) for luxury and poverty both flourished in his day much as they do now. Amos was called by God to express the Lord’s displeasure, specifically with economic inequality, and so he prophesized: “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (2: 6-8). With words like these you can tell that he longed for an end to unfairness and was convinced that the true intention of God for the Nation would be, to use his own words in chapter five: “[That] justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing steam” (5: 24). The Prophet was willing to say these bold words, but even after these bold declarations and those of the plumb line that we’ve just read this morning in our 2nd Scripture Lesson, we read that the priest of Bethel, the highest ranking religious professional in the nation, sent word to King Jeroboam of Israel saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words” (7: 10). Maybe the priest knew that throughout the community were these crooked walls and broken systems, but he was just a little leery about pointing those problems out. And maybe the priest knew that things were not as they should be, maybe the King already knew as well, but both were willing to turn a blind eye because who wants to try and dismantle habits ingrained in culture, who wants to be the one to point out the problem, especially if it was during election season? Wouldn’t you rather be the one who appreciated everyone’s gifts? Wouldn’t you rather be the one who applauded, even if you knew that no one was exactly doing their best? Wouldn’t you rather be the positive one rather than the negative one who points out the problem? Wouldn’t you rather be Mr. Rogers than the Prophet Amos? And maybe that’s the problem that we see again and again and again – no one wants to be the one who has to call sin sin. So there I was, ignoring the cinderblock wall even though it was crooked – and this memory convinces me that there is a human tendency in us all to turn a blind eye or even launch a cover-up, because while the doctors were saying that smoking would cause lung cancer and that concussions in professional football is causing long-term brain damage, how long did it take before people were actually willing to do something about it? From time to time someone has asked me if I believe that God is sending us any prophets today just as God sent Amos and Elijah and Isaiah – and I believe that God is sending us prophets all the time, but the problem today is the problem that has always been – God keeps sending us prophets but we are so slow to listen. The sure sign of a prophet in the Bible is that after the prophet speaks the truth no one listens, and as the plot line continues, if the prophet keeps talking eventually people try to kill him because the prophet’s words, if they are words of truth that challenge the way things are – then they are always threatening – because the words that the prophet speaks challenge our tendency to look the other way. It is hard to hear words that challenge the life I’m used to, so most of the time I prefer words that affirm who I am and what I’m doing rather than challenging words that tell me it is time to pluck up and pull down, destroy and overflow, and that God is about the hard work of making the rough places plain that all might walk in peace. Even if the wall is crooked - even if the wall might well fall on the people who will live inside – I am slow to do much of anything about it. So thankfully, soon enough, that wall of mine in Mexico was torn down and rebuilt, because fortunately there was another adult assigned to our group who went behind me to inspect the work that I wasn’t doing a very job of inspecting. The cinderblocks came down, and then they were put back up again, and this time the lines were straight, the plumb line attested to it – but the memory of this experience reminds me still that I live in a broken world, and even though the walls of our community are crooked, I am more likely to ignore the voice of the one who wants to challenge the way things are than to change. I can’t be so tied to the way things are – because I don’t pray every Sunday that things in heaven will be like they are on earth, but on earth as it is in heaven. The Apostle Paul prayed that the people of Colossae would be “filled with the knowledge of God’s will” and not the knowledge of human will. He prayed for “spiritual wisdom and understanding” so that the Church would be filled with those who “lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him” – and such a life as that demands the uncomfortable process of change and renewal. So as you go out into the world today to face again a country struggling with issues of race, where too many people see violence and hatred as their only solution, I challenge you - because I believe that the word of God from the Prophet Amos challenges us all – to look out on the world not just with the eyes of appreciation who value what is good about the way things are, but also with eyes attuned to God’s justice, ready to call the crooked walls crooked – to tear them down, that they might be rebuilt. Amen.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Wash and be clean

Scripture Lessons: Galatians 6: 7-16 and 2 Kings 5: 1-14, OT page 336 Sermon title: “Wash and be clean” Preached on July 3, 2016 You’ve probably heard of Wilt Chamberlain. According to some he was the greatest basketball player of all time having once scored 100 points by himself in a single game. That’s the most anyone has ever scored in a professional basketball game, probably the most anyone will ever score in a professional basketball game – but what’s so interesting about this game is that in this game in Hershey, Pennsylvania in 1962 Wilt Chamberlain made nearly all of his foul shots. Now why did he make nearly all of his foul shots in this game when he typically made less than half of them? It’s because for this season and only this season Chamberlain shot his foul shots underhanded. Today, every basketball player shoots foul shots with their hands right up here at their forehead, but back in the 60’s there were still a few players who would occasionally shoot underhanded using a technique that I grew up calling the granny shot, but here’s the thing that I never knew before – from the foul line that night in Hersey, Pennsylvania Chamberlain made 28 out of 30 of his foul shots when he normally made 12 or 13 out of 30, and that night in Hersey, Pennsylvania he made so many more than usual because that night he shot all his foul shots underhanded. Now if Wilt Chamberlain, all 7 feet, 275 pound of Wilt Chamberlain, could dramatically increase his ability to make foul shots by using the underhand technique, why would he ever shoot foul shots any other way? According to Chamberlain himself, it was because he thought shooting underhanded made him look like ridiculous. In fact, in his autobiography Chamberlain wrote, “I felt silly, like a sissy, shooting underhanded. I know I was wrong. I know some of the best foul shooters in history shot that way. Even now, the best one in the NBA, Rick Barry, shoots underhanded. I just couldn't do it.” Now there are two kinds of people in this world – people who understand why Wilt Chamberlain went back to shooting foul shots the way that he did and people who think he is crazy to care so much about what other people thought, and if you think about it for a minute you’ll realize how most people are because no one – and I mean no one who is today playing men’s or women’s professional basketball is shooting their foul shots granny style. The question for this morning is: which kind of person was Naaman? Our 2nd Scripture Lesson describes a miraculous healing, and it begins with important details about the person who has been healed. Right there at the beginning we read: “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.” I don’t know what it would have been like to be a mighty warrior, a mighty warrior who was even a commander of an army, but I have read a little bit here and there and so I’ve gotten the idea that to command an army you have to be thinking about whether or not people respect you. There’s a great biography by Ron Chernow on George Washington, and on the day before the 4th of July it’s good to be thinking of President George Washington who was right there at the helm of the Continental Army in our country’s war for independence. Before he was president he was a general and so he commanded armies of both soldiers and farmers who were aspiring soldiers but who were often shocked by the realities of war, so on more than one occasion General Washington acted so harshly as to execute deserters. It sounds as though doing so is a necessity of war. To be a general can mean living as a harsh man with harsh rules and stable hierarchies of those who give orders and those who take orders and to keep those hierarchies intact – to retain the ability to give orders that people are afraid not to obey – you have to think a little bit about your appearance – you have to be wary of what other people think. Certainly that was true in the southern part of South America where the equivalent to George Washington was a man named Jose de San Martin. He commanded the army who fought for independence from Spain. Among his notable sayings was: “I only want lions in my regiment,” which goes a long way to give you the idea about what qualities General San Martin valued, so I imagine that if he gave an order you were expected to follow that order. That was the case when General San Martin commanded one of his men to guard the battery where all gunpowder was stored and to keep anyone from entering who still had spurs on their boots fearing that the spurs might spark and ignite the explosives. This order was easy enough for the man to follow until General San Martin wanted to enter the battery himself with spurs still on his boots, for when the man on guard duty refused his entry, honoring the General’s command, this man risked his life because like so many generals, San Martin was one who liked to give the orders but did not appreciate being the one to follow the orders. Imagine then, how it felt to Naaman, commander of the army of Aram, that when he came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of the Prophet 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.” Imagine the scene: It had been a proper procession with troops on horse-back and troops in chariots, and the great commander, the giver of orders, a severe man who demanded respect and couldn’t stand to look silly in front of his troops, is left waiting outside the house of a prophet he’s never met because Elisha the Prophet won’t even pay him the honor of a proper greeting. You can imagine that as they rode through towns and villages on their way to this prophet’s house that the crowds would assemble, the children would chase them or be gathered into the safety of their mother’s arms, and either the leaders of those towns would bow in respect or they would tear their clothes out of fear just as the King of Israel did, never having seen a display of force like the great Commander Naaman and his troops – but then they stop at the house of the Prophet Elisha, the dust settles, the general dismounts, but did the prophet Elisha even come out to see about the commotion? Did he even think about paying his respect to the one who made so many others shake in their boots? Instead, 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.” A general can’t be disrespected this way, and I don’t mean that to say that a general doesn’t appreciate being disrespected this way – I mean a general can’t be disrespected this way because once a general has been disrespected the whole hierarchy of power is threatened. If the prophet doesn’t come out of his house to grovel at the feet of Naaman, then who’s to say that the troops won’t start to wonder about sleeping in a little bit each morning. Who’s to say that they won’t try the same technique of sending a messenger rather than showing up to face the commander himself at the morning meeting. Who’s to say that his power and authority won’t be threatened because once this man has been disrespected by the foreign prophet and the prophet got away with it others will try him too. So understandably, “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 all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” And I guess not, because sometimes the cure requires surrender. Sometimes the cure even requires humiliation. Sometimes the cure requires that you stop worrying so much about what everyone else thinks and I know that’s true – I know people worry about appearances - because what every cancer patient wants to know before they start radiation is: “Will I lose my hair?” There are some scary medical words – stoke, blockage, high blood pressure – but ask me if I spend more time worrying about my cholesterol or my male pattern baldness? And no one who is getting up in years wants their children to take away their driver’s license because wrapped up in the ability to drive is pride – and some will say it’s freedom that they don’t want to lose, but I say freedom is the ability to choose being made clean over appearing to have it all together. Now I’m not trying to call anyone vain this morning – I’m trying to call everyone vain this morning myself especially – and I believe that vanity is a problem because sometimes it’s vanity that keeps basketball players from being better basketball players, commanders of armies from being cured from their leprosy, sick people from getting better, aging people from aging gracefully, and sinners from being forgiven. Do you know how the Pope answered when a reporter asked him to describe himself? He said, “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” Now how many people do you know who would ever describe themselves this way? If the great preacher William Sloane Coffin is right in saying that “faith is not believing without proof but trusting without reservation” than it might be safe to conclude that Naaman’s struggle to get into the water of the Jordan River isn’t much like the leap of faith where you walk on water for in this case Naaman’s struggle is more like the struggle of every young man who doesn’t want to get out on the dance floor, every adult who’s weary of being seen in a bathing suit, and every parent who’s filtered through her high school yearbook before she let her children see how she used to dress because no one wants to risk looking silly, even if by looking silly – revealing our humanity, means finally being healed. So let me ask you this – would you wash and be clean? Would you step into the water, casting aside the fear that everyone is watching, so that you might be made clean? Would you tempt the prophet, trust in his words just enough to try it, or would you rather maintain that sense of self and decency and decorum because the right kind of people don’t go bathing in front of their troops? Would you be made clean – out of desperation – more interested in being healed than what everyone else thinks – more concerned with being free than being liked – more ready to trust God than trust yourself to the opinions of other people – because the water is right here and the call is just the same – would you accept the gift of this water of baptism? It is no coincidence that Naaman is healed in the same river that Jesus was baptized in, and it is no coincidence that what is required of Naaman is the same thing that is required of us all – that to become clean we must be ready to do what it takes regardless of who is watching. That to become clean we trust our sense of self, not to our own ability to be strong or inspire respect, not to be presentable and dignified, not to our own skill at maintaining a good reputation and gaining the admiration of others, but to trust the God who created us to tell us who we are. What Naaman had to believe was that he was more than who his army thought he was. That he was more than who he thought he was. And that he was more than who he thought his army thought he was. I’ve been putting a lot of thought into what independence really means on this day before the 4th of July – and I believe that Naaman gained independence from the same forces that we fall victim to when he bathed in the waters of the Jordan, because just like us he cared what they thought, but also like us, he had the chance to become free. Our funeral liturgy makes the same claim saying that “Our baptism is complete in death,” when we are so truly dependent, not on our own works or strength or skill, not on the respect that we are able to gain or the orders we are able to give, but in death our only hope comes from the one who created us, redeemed us, and makes us clean. May it be for you as it was for the Apostle Paul who wrote with his own hand: “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world – with all its pride, expectations, rumors, and shame – has been crucified to me, and I to the world – for what they say and what they think – it’s all nothing. But a new creation – that is everything.” Amen.