Luke 10: 1-11 Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III
2 Kings 5: 1-14 July 3, 2016
But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had 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.
Prayer: Holy One, please open our hearts to the meaning of your word and put it into place and practice in our lives. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray, Amen.
Tomorrow our nation celebrates being in existence for 240 years! Now, 240 is not really a remarkable number, and our celebrations this weekend are probably considered to be “normal,” or “the usual.” Picnics with hotdogs and burgers, baked beans, corn on the cob, apple pie. Family gatherings, or perhaps you might take in a baseball game like I did on Friday night, or watch fireworks, or maybe go to an outdoor bandstand and listen to John Philips Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. All good for the holiday weekend.
But, in many respects, though the number 240 may not be remarkable, the human experiment of a nation built on a democracy, a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” ...the fact that it is still going, that IS remarkable.
And even more remarkable is that our founding ancestors strove to have the foundation and heritage of our nation be grounded in faith. Words referring to God are found in some of our most famous documents, including the US Constitution's predecessor, the Articles of Confederation, but most notably in Thomas Jefferson’s famous words in the Declaration of Independence. He wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And at the end of the Declaration, Jefferson appealed to the “Supreme Judge of the world” for the righteous approval of their intentions to be independent from the British crown (http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html, retrieved July 2, 2016).
Thank God, that not only does the human experiment continue, but also that, despite what some might think or say, I believe God is still in the heart of our nation and this experiment.
I urge care, however, when thinking about God being in the heart of our nation and in this human experiment called democracy. God being in the framework of our nation can, and has for some, come to mean that whatever we do as a nation, must be right in God’s sight. That in our strength and power, we have God’s blessings; that in our democratic freedoms, we are entitled to impose our style of democracy on other nations; that in our language, we have a right to assume that everyone in the world must understand our language; that being patriotic is integral to keeping faith, which means, that if people are patriotic, then that means they have faith that God is on our side and not on the side of other nations of the world. I urge care here for all these ideas, because none of these ideas are necessarily true.
I think that God calls us to believe that yes, God is in the heart of our nation and our democracy, and indeed, we have become the world’s most powerful nation, but what if, in these days our powerful nation often gets its thinking backwards? What if, it’s not about God being on our side? What if it’s about us striving to be on God’s side? What if, instead of our culture supporting the idea that being patriotic is integral to keeping faith, God is saying keeping faith is integral to being patriotic? Instead of believing that we are blessed, that we are entitled because we’re a powerful nation, that we can assume others should be like us, perhaps God calls us, as a powerful nation in the world, to meet God’s power and live as a nation transformed by God’s Spirit, obedient to God’s ways.
In our text today, the Elisha / Naaman story, I think we can see what happens when power of the world meets God’s power. Metaphorically, Naaman can represent powerful nations. Here’s this Aramean commander, with all the symbols of power and importance of his day—horses, chariots, soldiers, drivers—arriving at Elisha’s house. Naaman is the epitome of the world’s power and is exceptional and feared in many ways. But, like everyone and every nation, powerful or not, he ain’t perfect; he has this dreaded skin disease that can’t be cured by even the best doctors of the day.
Maybe Naaman’s leprosy is symbolic of the inner traps he has fallen into—the same traps that powerful nations can fall into by excessive power: self-righteousness, exceptionalism. He’s consumed with his own importance, he’s privileged, he thinks he’s entitled to the best health care anywhere. And, the healing should be done by Elisha himself, no one else will do. After all, he’s Naaman, the supreme commander of the army of the king of Aram! And, Naaman thinks that Elisha should at least made a big show of calling on the name of the Lord, his God to magically cure him. Not only that, he should use the finest water for healing, certainly not the dirty waters of the Jordan! And Elisha should at least come out to see him, which Elisha does not do. In fact, none of what I just said happens—and it ticks Naaman off! Often when power of the systemic injustices meet with God’s power—the first reaction is anger. God’s ways are not the ways of the world.
Now Elisha, obviously represents God and God’s ways. You remember from last Sunday’s message by our Lay preacher, Jerry Heilner, that Elisha had double portion of God’s power that his predecessor, Elijah had. Even though he had double portion, Elisha simply tells Naaman to obey the instruction to wash in the Jordan River seven times, and God will do the curing of the disease. After resistance and anger, Naaman gets shaped up by his servant, and he obeys. When he did, his true flesh was restored; he was free of the disease. He was his authentic self.
Now, don’t get me wrong here… I’m not saying that simply being obedient to formulaic instructions will give a cure to whatever diseases you may have. It’s easy to get stuck on that idea… I’m thinking of this story metaphorically. What I am saying is that when what the world thinks is powerful meets God’s power after the initial resistance and anger, an inner transformation can take place. Our inner traps we’ve fallen into or are prone to can give way to our true authentic selves… a people filled with integrity, speaking truth in love to the world, a church, and as a nation striving to be just, egalitarian, and God centered.
Or, as Jesus would say, the kingdom of God has come near.
Or, as Jim Hendrix would say, “When the power of love becomes stronger than the love of power, we will have peace.”
When power in the world meets God’s power, we will have peace. Or, more precisely, when politicians and world leaders let the power of God’s love become stronger than their own love of power, when all of us, when all churches, when all nations trust in God with all our hearts, when all strive to synchronize our heartbeat with the heartbeat of God, a life of unconditional compassion and relentless grace, a life of simplicity, hospitality, justice and peace come about.
As a nation, I think we should always strive to hear the heartbeat of God. And thank God, many times we have had our hearts beating in sync with God’s heart beat, I think. When people all over our country respond to disasters, large scale destruction, needs of the wider community, like they have been doing these past week in the wake of the flooding in West Virginia. Or when 9/11 happened and our nation for a time, rallied together as one in the care of the families and the clean up. These are powerful reminders of what our national life can look like when we synchronize our heartbeat with the heartbeat of God—a life of unconditional compassion and relentless grace. Privilege and power are not first; simplicity and faith are. So people authentically taking care of people, and helping people, regardless of race, creed, titles, wealth, or status are the hallmarks of what happens when God’s power is transformative. Once we can get the titles and pretensions out of the way, the real human encounter, one heart meeting another, becomes a reality.
Our founding ancestors strove to have God as a part of the foundation and heritage of our nation, they started a human experiment in democracy and gave us a heritage grounded in faith. On this 4th of July, I encourage us to continue that experiment by celebrating our heritage of faith by prioritizing and practicing God’s power of love first and foremost. That is, I believe, the only way for us to be a nation that is truly “under God” where all men and women are truly endowed by our Creator. Thanks be to God. Amen.