Back when my body would allow it, I used to play a lot of softball in the summer. I love that game in part because as one of my favorite movies, “Bull Durham,” says, it is a non-linear sport – which is a fancy way of saying what Yogi Berra says in plain down to earth language – “It ain’t over till it’s over.” I learned that and another important life lesson in a softball game many years ago. Our team was down by 4 runs coming up for our last at bat. Just so you know, our team had never come back from 4 runs down ever in the history of the franchise. I was the 8th batter due up in that final inning; so I was not optimistic that I would get another at bat.
But, a few hits and a couple of errors by the other team later I suddenly realized I might be called on to hit. That was good, but the bad news was that because I didn’t expect our team to make a comeback, I hadn’t been paying as close attention to the score as I should have. Lo and behold, with two outs the batter just before me hit a triple and drove in a run and I was due up to bat. I knew the runner on 3rd base represented either the tying or the winning run, but I wasn’t sure which. Of course I could have asked the umpire or our coach, but I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t know. And it made a big difference. If the score were already tied and I made the 3rd out – we would just go to extra innings. But if we were still down a run and I messed up, the game would be over; and my out would result in our losing the game. (Just for the record – I got the game winning hit–one of the few highlights in my non-athletic career.) But the life lesson learned was more important – be sure you know what the score is, because you never know when you may be called on to step up to the plate with the game on the line.
I preached two weeks ago about the imperative to take our God stories to those outside the church who need to hear them. There were some things I didn’t have time to say in that sermon two weeks ago; so I’m really grateful to get another at bat today. Making new disciples is without a doubt job one for our church, but today I want to talk about the other side of the coin, the need to balance outreach with inreach, to balance the great commission to make disciples with the great commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves, to balance the preferences of young people with the desires of our elders, to balance evangelism with mission and service. So the sermon topic for today is keeping our balance.
Naaman, who we are told was a great man – a commander, a victorious leader. Everybody loves a winner. Just win the lottery or a big promotion or an election, and see how many best friends [BFF’s] you now have that you didn’t even know! But Naaman’s story also reminds us that even the great and powerful are vulnerable and mortal. Steve Jobs, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela–all of us are dust and to dust we will return. Naaman fell victim to one of the worst diseases in human history – he contracted leprosy, which not only ate away the body but was so contagious and dreadful that anyone with it was isolated and excluded from society and any contact with other people. The great poet Robert Frost was once asked what the ugliest word in the English language is, and his answer was the word “exclusive.” We are social beings who need each other, even if we get on each others’ nerves at times; so the worst thing you can do to a human being is to exclude him or her.
So Naaman is desperate to find a cure for his dreaded illness, and the advice he gets on where to find that cure is fascinating. A young slave girl who has been captured in Israel tells Naaman he needs to go see a prophet in Samaria. A young slave girl from a foreign country– you cannot get any lower on the socio-economic pecking order in those days than that; and to send him to Samaria of all places (think Ann Arbor or some other place you would never want to go).
That couldn’t be the answer to Naaman’s problem! He knows he needs to go to someone with real power – not to some intern or resident but to the best surgeon available. I might go to the local hospital for a simple tonsillectomy, but if they’re doing a heart-lung transplant on me or brain surgery, I’m not going to Dublin Methodist. Take me to the Mayo Clinic, or Cleveland clinic, please.
Naaman knows the best things in life are never free; so he takes a bucket load of cash to get the best medical treatment money can buy. Money has its privileges. It may not buy happiness, but it sure can buy most everything else. Wealth is the universal language the power people of the world speak. So Naaman bypasses God’s prophet and goes straight to what he thinks is the top – to the King of Israel.
But notice how the king of Israel reacts when Naaman comes calling – he’s threatened. The king knows he has no power to heal Naaman. His worldly power is illusory, like the wizard of Oz – hiding behind the magic curtain pulling levers. It’s all smoke and mirrors. And notice also how the king immediately assumes the worst about Naaman. Rather than take Naaman’s plea for healing at face value, the threatened, insecure king immediately assumes that Naaman’s real motive is to expose the King’s lack of power and make him look bad.
Why do we so often project our own fears and suspicions on others instead of just asking what’s really going on? When dealing with conflict or potential conflict, it’s like the old story about everyone trying to ignore the elephant in the room. The way to deal with conflict constructively is to communicate – not behind someone’s back, but face to face. There are always at least two sides to every story, and we will not really know the other side until we get it from the source. The king’s reaction in this story illustrates again that when we expect the worst from others – that’s exactly what we get.
Now the prophet Elisha enters the drama. He hears of the king’s distress and his response to Naaman is very interesting. Elisha says, “Come to me…” that makes sense, but notice why he tells Naaman to come. It’s not just to get the healing he wants, there’s much more at stake here. Elisha says, “Come to me, so you can learn there is a prophet in Israel.” Prophets are not fortune tellers, remember, but are spokespersons for God. So if there is a prophet in Israel, the important message here is that there is a God in Israel who is for real and can heal whatever ails you, no matter how important and rich or poor you are.
Do we believe that today? Do we believe there’s a God who can cure what ails us? Naaman does, sort of, at least enough to go to see Elisha. But then the story takes another interesting turn. Naaman’s visit to Elisha is like getting an appointment with a famous physician who’s very hard to see, and when you get to her office you don’t even get to see the doctor. You just get a message from the receptionist that says, “Go take 7 baths and call me in the morning.” The prophet doesn’t even bother to come out and see Naaman in person. You can imagine the reaction of this great commander who’s used to people bowing a scraping before him. He expects better treatment than that. He expects a big showy miracle with red white and boom fireworks, and all he gets is a prescription to go wash 7 times in the Jordan River.
And Naaman gets very parochial. He complains about the water quality in the Jordan and says, “We have better rivers back home in Damascus.” He doesn’t know of course how important the Jordan River becomes many years later when Jesus himself is baptized it its waters.
Does our parochialism ever get in the way of what God wants us to do? Our ways are better than those of others; so we’re reluctant to venture out of our comfort zones? Happens to me all the time. I don’t even like to play a new golf course where I don’t know the lay of the land and where the sand traps and lakes are hidden.
But this story is not about water quality or if our river is more beautiful than yours. It’s about faithful obedience to what God asks us to do. Naaman is too proud to accept this simple solution to his leprosy and is about to stomp off and go home to pout in Damascus. And again, a lowly servant intervenes who is smarter than the great and powerful leader.
Do you ever get advice from a child or someone else that is so obvious and simple you hate to take it because you feel stupid for not seeing what is so obvious yourself. That happened to me last week. We had a leak in the furnace room up above the men’s restroom and water was dripping down thru the ceiling. I do not have a plumbing gene anywhere in my DNA; so my solution was to put buckets under the leak until someone could come and fix the problem upstairs. Fortunately one of our church secretaries had a better idea, which was to put some buckets upstairs too and catch the water before in ran thru the floor and the bathroom ceiling. [HIT EASY BUTTON]. Why didn’t I think of that?
That’s what happens to Naaman. He is too proud to do what Elisha tells him to do, but one of his servants says, “With all due respect, sir, what have you got to lose? Why not give this a try, and if it doesn’t work, you are no worse off than you were before.”
So Naaman reluctantly does what he has been told to do – he washes, not once but 7 times. And that’s important. If we expect instant gratification or simple solutions to complex problems, it’s not gonna happen. Sometimes the solution is simply doing what we believe God is telling us to do, even if it seems foolish or unlikely to work. Washing even multiple times in a river does not sound like a logical cure for something as dire as leprosy, but we will never know unless we try.
I have had one of those weeks when it was very hard not to be turned in on myself and my problems. In addition to dealing with all the joys of aging, life threw me some extra curveballs this week. And the worst part is I think I asked for it. After dealing with the epidemic of road closures and detours in our neighborhood on Tuesday I decided to wax philosophical and wrote a little piece on my Facebook page and in my blog about how detours and obstacles are good metaphors for the roadblocks we run into in life. And when we do, we can either give up on getting to our goals, or we can get creative and find another way to achieve what God wants us to do. It sounded great on paper and I got a lot of “likes” on my Facebook page.
But then it was like life said to me, “OK preacher, put your money where your mouth is. Let’s see how well you really cope with some roadblocks!” Within one 24 hr. stretch I got three major pieces of bad news. I learned some good friends are moving out of state. I got an email from a very dear friend that he was in the hospital and told he has had some mini-strokes. And then I went to the mailbox to find a not-so-friendly letter from the IRS informing me that they think I owe them $10000 in back taxes, penalties and fines. I didn’t really need that many obstacles to deal with all at once, and my mood was lower than a snake’s belly for quite some time. Being turned in on oneself is one definition of sin, by the way. It’s one of my favorites when I see others doing it, but when I look in the mirror and see it in myself, not so much.
Now I’m not telling that story to get pity or sympathy (although I’ll take whatever I can get). I tell it because churches and other organizations, companies, nations, and families can all get turned in on themselves too. And the solution to dealing constructively with our challenges in life, health, finances, relationships, grief, whatever threatens to break our spirits and isolate us from others like Naaman was, is as simple and as hard as keeping our balance.
The church needs balance. I know some of you have legitimate concerns that the consultation initiative prescriptions put so much emphasis on evangelism that mission and ministry to existing member will suffer or cease to happen. That’s not gonna happen, folks. Ministering to others and to our members is not an either/or question, it is a both/and. And to those who say we can’t do both, I say read Matt. 19:26 where Jesus says, “With God all things are possible.”
We need to keep our balance. I was privileged to see that balance in powerful action a few weeks ago when one of the older saints in our congregation was in the church office needing help making plans to go home to his family in New York before his terminal cancer made that trip impossible. I came into the office as he was leaving with two of our staff members to go to the airport, but what I learned was that while in the midst of the very busy time of planning our new evangelistic emphasis, all 5 members of the church staff who were in the office that day dropped everything else they were doing to help this dying man make a plane reservation and financial arrangements for his final trip home. That kind of ministry will never stop.
Keeping our balance means a greater emphasis on welcoming newcomers to our church family, but it also means nurturing them and our current members with study and prayer, worship, sharing, caring, and growth that deepens our faith so it’s strong enough to serve one another and to be in mission to transform the world.
Is that a tall daunting order? You bet it is. Are we up to that Mission Impossible, should we choose to accept it? With God’s help we are, and that’s We with a capital WE. We’re not talking about the paid and volunteer staff doing all that work. That’s not going to be possible. We’re talking about the priesthood of all believers. All baptized Christians are commissioned to be in ministry to others in need. We are all wounded and broken servants, simple, common folks like the slave girl and servants who ministered to Naaman and helped lead him to a cure for his affliction.
Naaman’s story is really a baptism story. Baptism is an act of celebrating the fact that God has created us each in God’s own image. That image gets tarnished from time to time and needs to be renewed, but the divine power of love and mercy is in us all from birth, waiting to be nurtured and fed. It again reminds me of the Wizard of Oz story. The wizard didn’t have the power to give Dorothy and her friends what they were seeking, and he didn’t need to. Because they already had courage and wisdom and hearts that got them to Oz in the first place, and Dorothy already had on her feet what she needed to get back home. Those gifts were already there within them – they just needed to trust and believe, and when they did–THAT WAS EASY.
PRAYER – O God our creator and re-creator, like Naaman, we all need multiple cleansings. We don’t drive a car thru a car wash once and expect it to stay clean forever. Our spirits need regular cleansing and renewal also so we can be rid of whatever imbalances there are in our lives as individuals and as a church. We need regular reminders where real power lies so we are not fooled by false power. We ask that you provide us with modern day prophets who are the ones to show us the way to the power to heal and make us whole. Let us be those obedient and humble servants who minister to one another as disciples of the servant king from Nazareth who was baptized in the same River Jordan just as Naaman was. We ask these things in his name and for his sake. Amen.