Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Poem for Lent


Manna, day by day
was not enough to cease
their murmuring
the Israelites dissent against
apparent abandonment

Driven out, a test, a trial
Jesus endured praying
hungry, weak, still
he confounded the tempter
until the arrival of angels

Following fire
certain of path and plan
I did not see the
sand erasing my tracks

Which is worse?
being lost
being found

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Finding Ourselves in the Wilderness

“Into the Wild”
Mark 1:9-15
February 26, 2012
First Sunday of Lent

            Word of advice.  If you’re about to go camping in Yellowstone National Park, do not read a book called “Death in Yellowstone.” 
            When I was expecting Phoebe, Matt and I went on a three week trip out west from our home in Albany, New York.  I had never been to Yellowstone or the Tetons, and Matt, who is a national park enthusiast to put it mildly, wanted me to see them. 
            We made it to Yellowstone, our first and primary destination, and were staying with some good friends of his, both Yellowstone employees, who were living in an employee trailer.  The plan was to stay one night with Mike and Christine and the next night we would spend in our tent at one of the many campsites in Yellowstone.  And we almost did just that.
            While we were at Mike and Christine’s, she showed me the book “Death in Yellowstone.”  I skimmed the table of contents and decided to read the death by bear chapter.  Grizzly bears that is.  To this day I don’t know what possessed me to do that because I am scared to death of grizzlies.  They rate right along with snakes in my list of creatures I don’t want to meet – ever. 
            Still I read all about death by bears.    
            The second night arrived.  Mike and Christine followed us to the campsite Matt reserved.  I found out as we made our way to the campground that this particular camping destination is the last to open to the public because the grizzly bears feed there the longest when they come out of hibernation in the spring.  The nice man who checked us in to the campground gave us a long list of bear not-to-do’s, and it seemed that everywhere we looked there were signs up about bear safety.  Bear safety is what you practice if you don’t want to wake up in the morning and engage in pillow talk with a hungry grizzly.
            So I’m taking all this in while still processing the chapter on bear related deaths that I’d just read.  And I’m getting a little nervous.  But I persevere.  We set up camp.  Mike and Christine help us put up our tent.  We build a campfire.  We cook dinner over the campfire.  We make smores, sing some campfire tunes and then it is time to say goodnight.  As Mike and Christine are saying their goodbyes and preparing to leave, I look at the tent, look at the campground, think about the bear chapter and say, “I can’t stay here.” 
            Not only was I freaked out about bears in general, I was pretty sure that since I was expecting a baby, I would be a doubly delicious treat for any bear who wandered by.  I convinced myself that a bear would be able to sense me over and above other human treats, so I just couldn’t do it.  I was pretty sure that me in a tent equaled a grizzly bear goody bag, so I could not tent camp in bear country.
            Being the expectant momma does carry some weight, no pun intended.  I was to be appeased, so when I said I couldn’t sleep in that tent, they took me seriously.  We packed up and headed back to Mike and Christine’s where I spent another peaceful bear free evening. 
            I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that since that time I have managed to tent camp in Yellowstone with no bears involved.  That trip yields its own set of stories, but those will be for other sermons. 
            In spite of the bears and other wild beasts, I am grateful that I’ve gotten to experience some of the wilderness places still left in our country.  I’m grateful that some visionary, far-thinking people over the course of our nation’s history realized that those wilderness places needed to be saved, conserved, left wild.  That’s why national parks came to be, to keep the wilderness wild. 
            It’s funny how on one hand I can laud our country’s national parks, while on the other hand I come to this day – the first Sunday of Lent, the day when the lectionary turns to Jesus’ time in the wilderness – and the wilderness takes on very different meaning. 
            When Jesus goes into the wild, he’s not going on vacation is he?  This isn’t just a camping trip with friends and a time to check out his working knowledge of bear safety.  Jesus goes into the wilderness and is tested.  He is tempted.  In some ways, he relives in 40 days and nights what the Israelites endured for forty years. 
            As we should expect at this point in our year with Mark’s gospel, Mark’s version of the temptation story is much sparser, much sparer than the other gospel accounts.  I’ve said before that Mark’s gospel is an urgent one.  He doesn’t have time to waste on a lot of detail.  It’s as though Mark’s saying, “Look folks, here’s the deal.  This is the gospel of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.  So we need to get moving because Jesus is moving.” 
            But even with as few details as Mark provides, there is still much to learn, much to ponder about Jesus’ wilderness experience.  According to the Greek, what is translated as driven by the Spirit is better read as picked up and thrown.  Jesus is tossed into the wilderness.  Immediately.  Immediately upon Jesus being baptized and hearing God’s confirmation from the heavens, he is thrown into the wilderness for 40 days.  He is tempted by Satan.  He’s there with the wild beasts and angels wait on him. 
            Those are the extent of our details.  But even in this brief description, we can come up with one picture of the wilderness that is terrifying.  Just the thought of Satan sounds scary.  Wild beasts?!  Yikes!  I couldn’t tent camp one night at the mere thought of a bear, Jesus was with wild animals for over a month. 
            One of the theological conclusions that we draw from the wilderness stories is that Jesus was tempted just like us, but he doesn’t sin in response to temptation.  This helps us establish him as both human and divine.  He faced temptations.  They were real.  In his humanness he may have wanted to give in, but his divine nature resisted.  He overcame. 
            This is a stark contrast to what we think of when the Israelites are wandering around the wilderness.  The surface conclusion to their time in the wilderness is that God left them out there because they wouldn’t learn to listen to God.  They were rebellious and difficult and murmured against God all the time.  Thinking about it in parental terms, God grounded them to the wilderness until they could come out with a better attitude.  It’s just that the attitude adjustment took 40 years.
            It seems logical then that we speak of our wilderness times as the times we’ve had to endure – hardships, sacrifice, temptation, struggles.  Endure seems to be the key word here.  We have to endure the wilderness.  We have to go into those wilderness places because Jesus went there.  We’re like the Israelites, always complaining, never fully grateful for what we have, for what God has done for us, so we are sent into the wilderness, whether it’s spiritual, physical, emotional or all three and more.  We endure the wilderness until finally we can work our way out breathing a sigh of relief that we survived.  The grizzlies were fended off, the rain flap held, the tent didn’t collapse in the night, we survived. 
            Yet as we make our way into this new Lenten season, I wonder if this is just one side of the wilderness.  Maybe this is too one dimensional of an understanding of what the wilderness is and what happens to us while we’re in it. 
            Think again about the wild places in our country, national parks or otherwise.  Why have people raised their voices over the years to preserve them, to keep them?  I think in particular of John Muir, who so passionately worked for the conservation of Yosemite.  Why did he dedicate his life to activism on behalf of a wild place?  What I know of Muir is this – he understood that in nature, in the wild, he was able to come back to himself.  The wild helped form his identity. It taught him about who he was in relation to God’s creation. Being in the wild shaped him.  And when Muir was too long gone from the wilderness, he would sense a need to return, because in the wild he found a restfulness, a peace, a sense of identity that he did not find anywhere else.
            Muir understood who he was in the context of the wild.  Maybe that’s the other side of the wilderness that we overlook.  The Israelites became the Israelites in the wilderness.  That time shaped their identity as a nation, as the people of God.  They didn’t go through it gracefully, far from it, but that didn’t take away the power that the wilderness had in their formation. 
            Maybe Jesus is thrown into the wild for the same reason.  It is there, in the wilderness, in the midst of the wild beasts, the temptations, the struggle that he comes fully into himself as God’s Son, the Beloved.  Perhaps going into the wild was the true confirmation of his baptism.  Jesus came into himself in the wild.  When he emerged on the other side, the course of his ministry was set, and he did not veer from that path. 
            Perhaps rather than seeing Lent as a season to endure until we arrive at last at the bright colored eggs of Easter, we should see this time as a call.  It’s a call to go into the wild and embrace it.  Let it test us.  Let it shape us and form us.  Our mettle will be tested and temptation is everywhere, in Lent and out, it’s true.  But I don’t see going into the wild as a test to see if we will break or not.  I don’t think God is trying to break us down by calling us into the wilderness.  I see the wilderness as the place where we come into ourselves, the true fullness of our identity as the children of God.  Let us go into the wild.  Amen.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

How Do We Worship?

“Going Through the Motions”
Isaiah 58:1-12
Ash Wednesday/February 22, 2012

            High school was a time of going through the motions for me.  With the exception of my eternal struggle to understand math, I didn’t find it very challenging.  I had one thing that kept me going, and that was Varsity Choir – and boys.  Okay, that's two things.  But Varsity Choir was my true love and my saving grace, and I focused on that, and stuck it out in everything else because I had to.  The understanding in my family was that getting an education was not optional.  College was a given, and in order to get to college, I had to be in high school.  I had to get through it, so I went through the motions.  
            High school is not the only time in my life where I’ve felt as though I’m only going through the motions.  I’ve had jobs that have been the same way.  You just try to make it through every day, look like you are into what you’re doing and go through the motions.  As my friend Chris says, “You fake it till you make it.”
            Every aspect of life can feel this way at times.  Even things you used to do with great passion and energy become rote.  I notice this at times in our worship.  Usually with the things we say or do every week – like the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed.  In the Apostle’s Creed we are confessing what we believe, and we may believe passionately in the words that we utter.  But think about how it sounds when we say it. 
            Hear the most monotone voice you can imagine in your head, then these words …
            “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth …”
            Perhaps we are just going through the motions.
            For the Israelites, fasting, religious ritual and their other religious observations had become times of going through the motions.  They participated in the rituals and kept the observances, but their heart wasn’t in it. 
            In the particular context in which Isaiah wrote, fasting was not the devotional practice that it is today.  At that time fasting was done during a time of mourning or as a response to a crisis.  And the Israelites have certainly reached a crisis.  Commentators and biblical scholars refer to these last chapters of Isaiah as Third Isaiah.  Although this is controversial, it is speculated that a third person writing in Isaiah’s name was continuing on with the prophetic tradition.  And in these last chapters of Isaiah, third or otherwise, the Israelites have returned to their homeland.  They have been rescued out of exile in Babylon – they have been redeemed from their time of banishment.  They have come home. 
Even though this particular homecoming has been years in coming, the novelty has now worn off.  The hard work has begun.  The returning Israelites are faced with the enormous task of rebuilding, and they are starting to despair.  They are starting to lose hope.  Yet they continue to worship, they continue to practice fasting, but their heart is not really in it.  It’s almost as if they no longer believe in the promises of God and in his words spoken by the prophets.
Because the Israelites were going through the motions of worship, their fasting was not so much a way of practicing righteousness as it was a way to manipulate God. It’s as if they were declaring to God, “Look God, if we fast then you will see our devotion to you and our righteousness, then you will have to do what we want you to do.”
Yet God does not answer to this kind of false worship.  This is why at the beginning of chapter 58 the Israelites complain that they are not being heard by God. Their fasting is not being noticed.
God has noticed.  And God reminds them that true worship, true fasting is loosing the bonds of injustice, undoing the thongs of the yoke to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke, it is sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house.  It is covering the naked and not hiding yourself from your own kin.  It is letting your light break forth like the dawn.
This is the worship we are called to offer to God – worship with our whole being, heart, soul and mind.  It is not taking the grace we are given for granted.  It is active, not passive.  It is manifesting God’s love in the very real, very broken world.  Worship is more than just going through the motions.  Amen.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


“Jesus Came Down”
Mark 9:2-9
February 19, 2012

Professor McGonagall is the transfiguration teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  For those of you who are Harry Potter fans like me, you already know this.  But whether you are a Potter fan or not, this may be one of the few references we find to transfiguration outside of this particular story in the gospels. 
Transfiguration in the Harry Potter stories means changing one thing into something else.  So the students practice turning one object into another.  I believe in the movie, they try to turn rats into teacups.  It’s not an easy magical skill to master as you can imagine. 
According to J.K. Rowling’s understanding of the word, transfiguration means to change from one thing into something totally different.  But is that what’s going on in our scripture passage?  Let’s hold on to that question.
The Greek word that is translated as transfiguration is metamorpho.  Our word metamorphosis also comes from this.  I learned the word metamorphosis when I was a sophomore in high school.  My German teacher talked about it in class one day and suggested a book called The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.  It tells the story of a man, Gregor Samsa, who goes to sleep one night as a man and wakes up the next morning as a large insect.  He is still Gregor.  He know who he is, has the same awareness he did the night before, but he is completely different.  He is metamorphosed into an entirely new creature. 
Is that what happens in Mark’s telling of the transfiguration of Jesus?
Does the human Jesus change into an entirely different creation when he goes up on that mountaintop?  Or is just that his true nature shines forth in that moment?  Mark’s text is not exactly overflowing with details that help us understand what happens.
“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”
Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, James and John.  Every biblical scholar I’ve read refers to these disciples as the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples.  They were the ones who were closest to Jesus.  However last summer at the Synod of Lakes and Prairies Synod School, Anna Carter Florence, the  keynote speaker for the week and an amazing preacher and teacher of preaching, made the comment that perhaps they weren’t the inner circle as much as they were the remedial group. 
Maybe they weren’t so much favored by Jesus as they were in need of some extra help, some extra understanding.  And this makes sense to some degree because our text starts off with the words “six days later.”  Six days later from what?  What happened six days earlier?  Six days earlier Jesus had begun to teach the disciples that being the Messiah, the Son of Man wasn’t what any of them expected it to be.  It meant that the Messiah would suffer.  It meant that the Son of Man would be rejected by all the religious authorities.  It meant that the Messiah would die and after three days of really being dead, would rise again.  According to Mark, Jesus tells them this quite openly. 
Jesus tells them all this because of an answer Peter gave to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am.” 
Six days before our text today Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, but the minute he heard the rest of it, the cost of it, he told Jesus to stop talking such nonsense. 
Now, six days later, Jesus brings Peter, James and John up a mountain.  And there he is transfigured before them.  Mark gives us no other explanation as to what that means other than Jesus’ clothes turn a dazzling white, whiter than any human made bleach could make them.  In other gospel accounts, Jesus’ face shines.  There are a few more clues as to the transfiguration of his countenance as well as his clothes.  But this is what we have in Mark.  Jesus is transfigured before them.  And while he is transfigured, he is joined by Elijah and Moses.  The disciples see these two great figures of their faith, their history, talking with them. 
They are terrified, which I think is a reasonable response.  I probably would have been terrified too.  Peter, out of his terror, wants to respond somehow, so he offers to build booths for them to stay in.  Just as he makes this offer to Jesus they are overshadowed by a great cloud.  And out of that cloud a voice speaks.
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” 
The voice that only Jesus heard at his baptism is now audible to these three disciples as well.  Although I’m sure the numinous atmosphere must have felt dreamlike to the bewildered, terrified disciples, it wasn’t a dream.  It was real.  They witnessed, at least for a moment, the human Jesus that they knew transfigured into the divine Jesus that was also his true nature.  For just a moment they witnessed glory.
I realize that this doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding exactly what happened in that transfiguration.  But I’m not sure that it serves our purposes to know.  Maybe it doesn’t matter that we don’t understand it.  We just have to trust that something happened to Jesus on that mountaintop that gave the disciples, inner circle or remedial group, a glimpse of the fullness of who Jesus was – his humanity and his divinity all together, all at once. 
And while they were in the power of that moment Peter expressed what I suspect all of them were feeling, the desire to stay there, to stay in that moment.  Which isn’t surprising either.   When it came to Jesus, the moments when the disciples “got it" were few and far between.  Actually, in Mark’s gospel, they never really get it.  They never  fully understand who Jesus is and what he came to do and fulfill.  So it makes sense to me that when they are confronted with his glory, when they have his Sonship confirmed by a terrible, wonderful voice from a cloud, it was natural that they want to stick around.  Staying on the mountain keeps what they’ve seen and heard real.  When they go back down the mountain, the glory is going to fade, the voice is going to become distant, the edges of the moment will start to dull and blur.
Because that’s what happens, isn’t it?  We have what is referred to as a mountaintop experience, and we want to stay in it.  When I was a young Senior High youth advisor, I went with my youth group to the Montreat Conference Center outside of Asheville, North Carolina.  Every summer Montreat hosts several weeks of youth events for Senior Highs.  It is a life changing experience for everyone who has the opportunity to go.  The conference itself is amazing.  Friends are made, bonds are formed.  It’s incredible for youth and adults alike.  And you are actually on top of a mountain.  So when I say it was a mountaintop experience for me, I mean that literally and figuratively. 
Yet once the week was over, we had to go back down the mountain.  We had to go home, back to the daily grind of our lives.  We had to go back down and reenter reality once more.  I remember feeling so joyous while I was on the mountain, so alive and ready to be a better disciple, a better person, but once I left the mountain that feeling of joy, of zeal was hard to sustain. 
Maybe the disciples suspected this would be true as well.  Maybe they didn’t.  But either way, they went back down.  More importantly, I think, Jesus went back down.  We never think about what it may have meant to Jesus to be transfigured.  Did he know exactly what would happen to him when he took the disciples up the mountain?  Did he discern a call from God to climb that peak that day?  Or did he just have a gut sense that going up the mountain was the right thing to do, for the disciples and for him? 
Regardless, Jesus went up.  And Jesus came down. 
I wonder if going down the mountain was even harder for Jesus than it was for the disciples.  I wonder that because Jesus had to have known what he was he was descending to.  He went back down to so much pain, so much need.  Yet Jesus came down.
Jesus came down.
He came down because staying on the mountain was not what he was there to do.  He was called to a broken world, and that broken world was in the valley below.  There he was called to be, to preach, to teach, to heal, to proclaim the kingdom of heaven. 
Staying on the mountaintop, basking in God’s glory is a wonderful thing.  And we are indeed called to glorify God.  But if there is a danger in descending because we may forget our moment with God, then there is an equal danger in staying because we forget the world that needs our witness. 
Staying on the mountaintop is equivalent for me to the many contemporary praise songs I hear.  It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with contemporary praise music, nor the need to praise and glorify.  But what bothers me about these kinds of songs is that often they become more about the person doing the praise, then about the One who is praised.  They become, as my friend Kristen memorably put it, “Jesus is my boyfriend” kind of songs.  Or maybe for some of you, they become Jesus is my buddy songs.  Jesus is not my best bud.  Jesus is the One who came down.  Who went willingly into darkness to bring about the Light with a capital L. Jesus crossed that threshold from the mountain to the valley because he was faithful to God and the narrow way he was called to travel.  Jesus crossed that threshold.  Jesus came down.
Transfiguration Sunday is our threshold.  It is the threshold between Ordinary Time and Lent.  It is a glimpse of glory before we cross into the darkest time the world has ever known.  So just like Jesus and the disciples, we are called to come down from the mountain and to walk through the valley that awaits us.  But even as we walk that valley, let us cling to the memory of the mountain, the memory of God that lives in us.  Jesus came back down and so do we, to bear witness to the glory of God that illumines not just a mountain but the whole world, whether we can see it or not.  Alleluia.  Amen.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

An Unexpected Love

            Love finds us in unexpected ways.  I learned this on my 7th birthday.  I was in second grade and the only present I remember from that birthday was a book my parents gave me.  The inscription, written by my mother, reads “7th birthday.  Amy, oodles of love, Mommy and Daddy.”  It was a copy of Charlotte’s Web, written by E.B. White with illustrations by Garth Williams.  

            This wasn’t the book that taught me what it means to love reading.  I had been reading for a while and I already loved it.  Even before I could read I loved books and stories.  My father read to me every night before bed.  My mother claims she can still quote Green Eggs and Ham from memory because she consistently complied with my requests to “read it again.”  There is a photo of me at 3 or 4 sitting on our couch with my dolls sitting beside me as I read to them from one of my picture books.  No, Charlotte’s Web didn’t teach me the love of reading.

            It’s hard to put into words the love I discovered in this book.  From the first sentence to the last punctuation mark, I was entranced.  Maybe it was the discovery that when I read a book that embraces me, I don’t just read it, I live it.  Maybe it was the idea that animals can talk if only we listen hard enough.  Or perhaps it was the premise that every creature, no matter how big or small, has something to teach us.  Maybe it’s all of those things, but there’s something more; something intangible and inexpressible about the love I felt (feel) when I read this sweet story.

            I know I learned that the love of a good friend has great power – power to heal, power to save, power to transform.  It was one thing to sit in Sunday School and learn that Jesus said there was no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend.  It was a whole other matter entirely to see that embodied in the love between a spider named Charlotte and Wilbur the pig. 

            I learned about grief from reading White’s classic.  Spoiler alert!  If you haven’t read the book, Charlotte dies at the end.  It wasn’t a tragic death, just a poignant close to a life lived in love.  But I have never gotten over it.  In second grade I read this book over and over and over again.  No matter how many times I read it, I would come to the last paragraph of Charlotte’s life and weep inconsolably.  One night as I sat in bed crying bitter tears, my mother came up to see what was wrong.  I held out the book to her, almost as though I were imploring some higher power to change the words that broke my heart.  In exasperation my mother said, “Amy, Charlotte always dies.”  I know that, but that knowledge has never lessened my sorrow. 

            Maybe the most important lesson I learned is that the written word holds its own power.  It can save.  Charlotte’s words saved Wilbur.  Words and the worlds they create have saved me.  Not just through escape to a different reality, but by giving voice to the meaning I sense in the world around me. 

            Love comes unexpectedly.  The great loves of my life have appeared when I least expected them, but when I needed them most.  Charlotte’s Web, simple words strung together to make a compelling, beautiful story, is one of those unexpected loves.  I can only hope that someday someone will say about me what was said about Charlotte in the book's final paragraph.

            “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.  Charlotte was both.”

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Sermon On Obedience (From Someone Who Hates to Be Obedient!)

“A Simple Command”
II Kings 5:1-14
February 12, 2012

User friendly.  That’s a catch phrase we hear a lot of, isn’t it?  It seems to have been coined about the same time that our technology began to advance at breakneck speed.
Computers, smart phones, ipods, GPS, etc. were all supposed to make our lives easier and simpler, but sometimes trying to figure out the technology that will make our lives easier can drive you to distraction if the technology at hand isn’t user friendly.
The phrase user friendly is no longer used solely in reference to technology however.  I often hear this phrase in church circles.  How can we make worship more user friendly?  Are the bulletins user friendly?  Are they clear?  Would a visitor to our church have to do a lot of searching and scrambling to find pages and follow along with the service?  Can someone come to our church who isn’t Presbyterian or who isn’t churched at all and figure out what we’re doing?  Are we user friendly? 
It’s important to ask these questions, because more and more people church shop.  People don’t necessarily stay in the same denomination all their lives.  A family might be Presbyterian in one town, move to a new town and join the Methodist church because there isn’t a Presbyterian congregation close by.  Another family might attend the Baptist church instead of the Episcopalian because the Baptists have a better youth program.  Maybe someone who visits our congregation will never have gone to church before.  Which makes it even important that they have help.  So is our bulletin user friendly?  Is our worship service user friendly?  Are we user friendly?
User friendly helps us keep up.  Simple commands help us keep pace with our technology that seems to literally change from day to day.  Simple commands can help us in our churches. Simple commands and user friendly are ideas that are with us to stay. 
Even though the phrase user friendly was perhaps only coined in the last decades, the idea has been around for a long time.  Our Old Testament passage today deals with user friendly instructions.  In Second Kings the instructions given by Elisha to Naaman were vividly simple: go to the Jordan and wash seven times and you will be clean.  Naaman was a great man, a man of high calling in Aram or Syria as we know it.  But though he had proven himself to be a mighty warrior, he was plagued with leprosy.  The word leprosy in the Biblical context covers a variety of skin diseases, so it’s almost impossible to know the true nature of Naaman’s skin disorder.  Whatever Naaman’s actual skin disease was, according to one Old Testament scholar his disease carried a social stigma and was associated with death.  So Naaman suffered.  On one of the Syrian army’s many raids on Israel, a young servant girl had been taken captive and was now serving Naaman’s wife.
It was this young girl who sent Naaman on his search for healing.  She told her mistress about the prophet Elisha who lived in Samaria.  For whatever reason Naaman’s high standing did not keep him from listening to the advice of a lowly servant girl, and he set off to Samaria to find this prophet.  Considering the fact that the Arameans had defeated Israel, Naaman knew he could not just waltz across Israel’s borders unannounced and expect to find this prophet or get any help in finding him.  So Naaman told his king his sticky situation and the king sent a letter of reference to King Jehoram, the king of Israel at that time.
But the Aramean king’s letter was directed to the king for the actual healing, not Elisha – an oversight that might actually have been a bit of political trickery.  That’s certainly what King Jehoram thought.  He thought he was being tricked, so he tore his clothes and predicted disaster.  But when Elisha heard this news, he sent a message to the king.  “Why have you torn your clothes?  Send Naaman to me so that he may learn there is a prophet in Israel.”
At long last Naaman does indeed come to the home of Elisha.  He arrives with full entourage, and yet the greeting at Elisha’s door was very different than the one he probably expected.  Elisha does not bother to come out and greet Nathan in person.  He just sends a message to Naaman saying, “Go to the river Jordan, wash seven times, your skin will be restored and you will be clean.”  Easy, clear, concise, a simple command, user friendly.
But the easiness of these directions insulted Naaman.  He expected something hard, something challenging, dramatic, mysterious and even mystical.  He assumed that this Elisha, being a prophet of great renown would come to him, call loudly upon the name of God, wave his hands over his diseased skin or at least wave his hands near it and heal him.  That’s how a healing is supposed to work, right? 
If all Naaman had to do was wash in a river, why couldn’t have washed in the Abana and Pharpar, the beautiful rivers of Syria?  They were much nicer rivers than the ones in the Jordan.
Naaman turned and walked away in a rage.  But his servants stopped him.  Yet again, Naaman – a man of status and a mighty warrior, listened to what one commentator called the “bit players.”  He was neither afraid nor too proud to hear the wisdom of those who served him.
The servants said, “Master, give this prophet Elisha a chance.  You were willing to do something difficult, why not something easy?”  So Naaman went down to the Jordan and washed.  He did exactly as Elisha instructed.  It worked !  He was clean and his leprosy was cured.
If we were to continue reading we would see that Naaman returned to Elisha.  He stood before him and confessed his new faith.  “Now I know there is no other God except for the one in Israel.”  Naaman’s faith was very new.  When he tried to pay Elisha and was refused, he asked for some earth to take back with him.  If the true God was in Israel, then Naaman believed that he could only worship, offer sacrifices and burn offerings on Israelite ground.  Naaman also knew that he would still be expected to attend ceremonies worshipping the Syrian god Rimmon, so he asked for forgiveness in advance for the times when he would have to bow before another god.
Elisha did not judge him on his misperceptions or try to change his thinking.  He merely told Naaman to go in peace.
In this world of user friendly, of supposedly simple commands, I wonder sometimes if we’re more like than Naaman than not; at least when it comes to directions from God.  Most of the time we want our instructions to be clear, concise, easy to understand, and easy to follow.  If I’m trying to bake a cake or installing new software on my computer, I don’t want to have to decode riddles in order to figure out my instructions.  Yet the belief is that when it comes to directions from God, they should be difficult.  I know I feel that way.  Like my grandfather before me, I have often felt that being a Christian, being a disciple, following the path of Jesus should not be an easy picnic in the park.  Being a Christian should be a challenge, it should be hard.  The path that Jesus walked was a difficult one.  It led to the cross, and we’re called to pick up our crosses and follow him.  Isn’t that hard?  God gives us hard directives because that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
But I think I’ve been confused.  Certainly there is a challenge to discipleship.  Following Jesus is no simple, easy, effortless task.  Our calling to be disciples is not one to be taken lightly or without thought to the cost.  But maybe the real difficulty is not the path we’re called down or that the direction or instructions from God are too difficult or too undemanding.  Maybe the real challenge comes in being obedient to that call, obedient to what God asks of me.  Even though Naaman was angry at the simplicity of God’s prophet Elisha’s instructions, he did finally obey them.  Naaman found his healing when he let go of his pride, and in humility listened to the bit players around him.  He found healing in obedience to the simple, but elegant command of God.  Maybe that’s where we find ours as well.
I have to admit that the rebellious free-thinking American creature that I am sometimes (often) rails at the idea of obedience.  I don’t like the idea of being just another sheep, following along behind the crowd.  But that’s not what obedience to God is all about, is it?  Being obedient to God will more often than not take me away from the crowd; it might even set me against the crowd.  What’s really hard about being obedient to God is not that God’s instructions aren’t clear or easy or user-friendly.  It’s that they contradict the instructions that I often mistakenly believe are most important – my own. 
Being obedient to God means that I have to be willing to stop trying as hard as I can to follow my own counsel.  I often get angry with God for not showing me the right path, but the real problem is that God is showing me the path, I’m just not willing to go down it without a fight.  But what does the path God calls us down look like?  I don’t think it’s any better stated than in the words of another prophet, Micah.  “The Lord has told you, O mortal, what is good.  Do justice.  Love kindness.  And walk humbly with your God.”  That is a simple command indeed. 
That’s my favorite verse in all of scripture.  My mother put it in cross stitch and I have it framed on my office wall.  But favorite or not, I can’t seem to be anymore obedient to that simple command than anything else.  I do what I want.  And more often than not, when I do what I want, when I fail at obedience to God, I end up sprawled on my backside wondering what the heck just happened.  Maybe the real challenge about these simple commands that God gives us through prophets, through his Son, is not that they are too hard or unclear; maybe the real challenge is that we don’t want to obey them.  Throughout the Bible we have people who struggled with obedience, who rebelled against it like I do, but finally when they obeyed, God’s goodness and purpose was achieved.  Abraham’s obedience brought about a multitude of descendents, as many as the stars in the sky.  Moses’ obedience led to the building of a new nation, a chosen people.  Joshua’s obedience brought down the walls.  Jesus was obedient to the point of death on a cross and the world was saved through him.   Naaman found his healing, his physical and his spiritual healing, in his obedience, in his following a simple command.   Maybe that’s where we’ll find ours as well.  Amen.