The trappings of self-reliance
At some point, all of us usually come to realize that we actually aren’t as self reliant as we think we are. Why? Because we all run into issues with stuff, from school and learning how to drive, to failing, to losing things and people we love and having to find a way to go forward, to having those we love, or ourselves, get sick and so losing capacity, maybe even our sense of dignity. It is so hard for us to realize we must rely on others for what we need because we live in a land where we assume our freedom has granted us ultimated capacity, freedom, and competence. I’ll never forget hearing a statistic out of the US that said Barak Obama’s support fell by some significant percentage when he suggested to Americans that what they have now is built on what they had been handed from others and not on their sole work or work ethic alone. How scandalous to suggest a person isn’t actually totally self reliant.
This topic of the limitation of self-reliance is, I think, at the heart of all of our readings today: the readings demonstrate the universal human need to rely on God’s ways of healing us. As I’ve said in previous sermons, the healing I’m referring to is much deeper than mere physical healing (for our bodies will always break down and die eventually). Rather the healing I’m referring to is spiritual healing. Healing that not only breaks our bondage to sin, and that can relieve us of the fears that so often lead us to act in sinful ways. This healing God enacts and invites us to follow, allows us to see God in places and at times where we often least expect him with people and places and even in situations of challenge and trial. And it allows us to embrace the life of service to which he calls us.
We first pick this up in the Gospel lesson. Jesus tells his disciples to go out two by two into villages that he knows will likely have at least some hostile factions, “I’m sending them out to all the places, all the people to whom I’m going to go. I’m sending them out like lambs into the midst of wolves,” Jesus says. He tells them not to take any provisions with them: “no purse, no bags, no sandals, and don’t be distracted from your mission by talking to strangers on the road who might cause you to stumble or succumb to doubt or anxiety in your mission,” just go. Don’t get uptight if they don’t embrace you. Don’t get angry and throw a tantrum or clamour for your legal right to be heard, or chastise, or tear them down. Your Father in heaven sees their responses and yours. Go and do as I say, for I am the power of both judgment and mercy to them. It is not by your power that I am seen, it is by my own power that through you, I am seen. In this way, “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me … I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions [just as God gave to Moses in healing the broken Israelites in the desert and the sinners bitten by the serpent of sin], and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Don’t rejoice that you can accomplish this. It isn’t your power that fulfils the purpose God gives everyone, it is mine, and so in me, you have life and so might they. That’s where your purpose and power are seated. Your mission is to embrace my healing, my ways, so that others can see me, not you.
In our reading from the Old Testament we hear of a military commander, Naaman, who is sent to the King of Israel so that he can seek out healing from the condition of leprosy from the King’s prophet, Elisha. At first the King is really upset. He can’t, of course, cure leprosy. He’s merely a human king. Yet one of his subjects and a servant have sent this great warrior Naaman to him for healing, seemingly believing the king should have the power. The king thinks he’s going to look weak, ineffectual and so not in control. Elisha says to the king, “let Naaman come so that he is able to see not your power and control, and not my power and control, but God’s power to heal, to cure, to restore, to reconcile him to health. When read alongside our Gospel lesson, we can see that this story is pointing to the deeper spiritual healing of restoration and reconciliation with God, and not a mere healing from leprosy or any other disease. Elisha tells Naaman: ‘go and wash in the Jordan 7 times.’ This of course has tremendous symbolic meaning: to wash is to be made clean yes, but to wash is to have one’s sins drowned, purged, and forgiven, forgiven how many times? 7 times, no I say, 70 times 7. The Jordan is of course the river in which Christ is baptized, but it is also a river that provides obstacles to Israel as they seek to overcome sin and follow God. So the direction from Elisha of how to be healed is not minor, it is weighted with divine meaning. Yet Naaman replies. Forget this. You could just wave your hand and cure me and you’re going to go make me wash in the Jordan? Yeah, God, you know you could totally get rid of evil with a snap of your anthropomorphized fingers. So why this long drawn out narrative where there’s so much suffering. Oh hmmm, perhaps you’d like to consider the story of God figuratively snapping his fingers, when he drowns the evil of sin by flooding the Earth. Bet you're glad he directed Noah to build an ark hey? To rid the world of sin would be to rid the world of us and all of our brokenness with a mere snap of the fingers.
The complicated, interwoven nature of our disease, sin, cannot be undone without destroying its source: human life. God chose instead to reconcile that source in himself, in Jesus, so that everyone of us might be brought from death into life and to have a lifetime to seek out what it for sharing that gift of life and purpose with others. That’s God’s directive to us in these passages: my friends you cannot ‘fix’ your own brokenness or the brokenness of this world. I alone have done this. You take part in true life, meaningful life, a life that lasts forever, when you put down your own presumptions about how everything should go - you don’t take your figurative purse, or food, or cell phone - when instead you rely on my ways, my timing, my provisions. Wait for me to work in the circumstances of your life, follow how I lead you, trust in me so that I can implant in you the rich wisdom of understanding, of hope, of joy, and of peace with which I made you from the beginning. Seek that, my friends, and you shall find your fix. AMEN