"Why Wholeness Is So Complicated"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - February 12, 2006
2 Kings 5:1-14
Yet invariably we are champions of making mountains out of molehills. Little inconveniences can ruin our day. An unexpected change often appears as a final straw that broke the camel’s back. Why is it that enjoying our wholeness appears to be very complicated, distant and so unattainable? Let me give you some examples before we launch into today’s lesson.
My father retired from Cheverly United Methodist Church in 1980. That particular church had been a former Evangelical United Brethren congregation until the merger with the Methodists in 1968. One of the minor traditions the church family never changed was their use of “debts and debtors” while saying the Lord’s Prayer.
When the new minister arrived on the scene, he decided that it was time to pray the Lord’s Prayer by using language familiar to the Methodists. He announced that from hence forth, the words, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” would be used.
The request for the transition appeared easy enough, but it was not. There were those who were loyal to their EUB tradition and those who were open to the suggested change. When the congregation came to that phraseology in the Lord’s Prayer, it became obvious to the worshippers that a verbal contest was being waged across partisan lines. Eventually trespasses carried the day. Believe it or not, there were some people who felt so strongly about the new pastor’s decision that they left the church. Why is wholeness so complicated?
Next we have the issue where a Mom and Dad did not care for their daughter’s boyfriend. These parents became keenly aware that this young man was not a good fit for their daughter. Various unsolicited observations from Mom and Dad had escalatded into sarcastic remarks. Through the daughter’s predictable defenses, she reminded her parents to mind their own business. The family eventually got to the point where the question of the boyfriend had completely compromised the family’s ability to communicate effectively. The issue became the elephant in the home that no one could discuss. Why is wholeness so complicated?
Finally, the granddaddy of all recent illustrations was in the world news this past week. There have been massive riots, the burning of buildings, the killing of people and destructive protests in many of the world’s capital cities that were sparked by a Danish cartoon that was not flattering to the prophet Muhammad.
The deaths and mayhem, however, had nothing to do with the teachings of Muhammad. The behavior displayed by thousands of Muslims appeared to be addressing an insult to someone considered to be of sacred worth by the Islamic world. The destructive quality of their response, however, only reinforced the point the cartoonist was making. Why is the experience of wholeness so complicated?
We can sit comfortably in our pews and shake our heads in dismay as we consider the flash points that have caused others to become so enraged. Yet, if we are honest, we also have our own buttons that others push with regularity. Often it does not take much for us to lose touch with our professed beliefs with common sense or with the countless alternatives available to us when we remain in control of ourselves. Perhaps this is the rub; this is the skill that so many people have not yet mastered.
This morning we are going to examine why our sense of wholeness can so easily slip from our grasp. The secret of how to adjust creatively to this unproductive habit of ours lies in today’s Scripture lesson.
Naaman was an outstanding general in the Syrian military. In one of his raids against Israel, Naaman kidnapped a young Israelite girl whom he gave to his wife as a servant. The general had leprosy. The servant girl, who had obviously adjusted well to her posh surroundings, had become part of Naaman’s family. She said to his wife, “We have a prophet in Samaria who could heal my master if only he would go to him.”
Word reached the general and he made arrangements with the Syrian ruler to carry a letter of introduction to Israel’s king. Soon Naaman is on his way with gold and silver plus ten changes of fine clothing for the king. The letter from the Syrian king read, “This letter is to introduce to you my officer, Naaman. I want you to cure him of leprosy.” Quite predictably, the king became distraught over having to face such an impossible task. However, when the prophet, Elisha, heard the news he said to the king, “Send him to me.”
Naaman went to see Elisha and was greeted in a most peculiar manner. Elisha sent a servant to tell the general to wash himself seven times in the Jordan River. Please notice what happened next. Naaman engaged in the same behavior as the congregation at Cheverly, as the parents and their daughter and as many people in the Islamic world. He lost perspective. His commanding sense of wholeness slipped from his grasp the moment he was confronted by something over which he had no control – the behavior of this prophet.
Naaman exclaimed to anyone who would hear him, “I thought this prophet would at least come out and greet me, pray to his God, wave his hand over my diseased body and cure me. And what’s with my having to bathe in the Jordan? The rivers in Damascus are ten times better than the Jordan. I could have bathed in them.” There was a dramatic pause after the general expressed his righteous indignation. Naaman’s servant spoke, “General, had the prophet told you to do something far more difficult, surely you would have done it. Why don’t you just wash yourself as he said?” Of course, Naaman did as his servant suggested and was cured.
Can we grasp what happened here? When we are in control of ourselves we are basically free from the influences of other people’s behavior, attitudes and opinions. In other words, no one is capable of raining on our parade unless we are the ones who become bothered when life is not the way we want it.
Naaman became side tracked from his purpose. He was looking for respect. He was looking for some expected healing ritual to be used by Elisha. He was resentful of the request to bathe seven times in the Jordan.
When we want to know why we are unable to maintain control over our lives, quite often it is we who are the saboteurs. However, when we remain very careful about protecting our wholeness, we are more in control over how and what we communicate. When we add Jesus’ admonition to love others, we learn that it is possible to experience our wholeness everywhere at all times.
Suppose the minister who came to Cheverly had first gained the trust of the people and then had taken his proposed changes of the way people prayed the Lord’s Prayer to the Worship Committee?
Suppose the daughter in the troubled family would have said, “Mom and Dad, you have given me some very valid observations. I will weigh each of them carefully as I date Kevin. After all, that is why lengthy courtships are so valuable. He may not be the one for me. Thank you for sharing your concerns.”
Suppose members of the Islamic faith would have responded to the cartoonist with these words, “Your depiction of our revered prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, revealed far more of how uninformed you are than of anything substantive about him.”
Think of it! All these potential conflicts would never have occurred had people remained in control of themselves by living in the protective custody of a loving spirit. This desire for his followers became the heart and soul of Jesus’ ministry. Somehow, Naaman’s servant had learned the same wisdom.
When we keep our peace, who is there that is strong enough to take it from us? When we are holding on to our peace, we are always bringing our wholeness into every environment. However, when we are dependent on our circumstances for giving us our peace, we seldom have it. Seeing life in this light helps to deepen our understanding of why the way of kindness, gratitude and love is the only path capable of saving humanity from conflicts that are bound to arise from our vast diversity.
Each morning I ride five miles on a stationary bike listening to educational CDs or tapes. Recently, I have been listening to War Letters by Andrew Carroll. This group of CDs features the narration of various letters that have been written by men and women who served in our armed forces since the Revolutionary War.
During World War II, the Japanese engaged in some of the most horrible atrocities imaginable to their prisoners of war. Our nation ended the war by dropping nuclear bombs on two of Japan’s densely populated cities. What was striking in the correspondence from a number of our occupying troops was the recognition of many marvelous qualities possessed by the Japanese. The Japanese were seen as being polite, kind and generous to a fault. They were honest, hospitable and curious about Americans.
Several soldiers waxed philosophic in the correspondence they sent home. One soldier wrote, “I cannot believe that we were ever at war with these people. Perhaps it was abstract ideas, carefully crafted and marketed by politicians on both sides that ultimately sent we puppets to march against each other in hatred. What a loss for both sides.”
Such thoughts should make us wonder. If we only invested more of our energy seeking ways to live in community, perhaps there would be no future to war. It was a mini war that was fought in Cheverly United Methodist Church over the praying of a prayer. It was a mini war that was fought in the family over the worthiness of a boyfriend. It was blind anger on a massive scale that ignited a spirit of bitterness and revenge in some believers within the Islamic community simply because of a cartoon.
The sense of wholeness will never be ours as long as we allow others to be the custodians of it. “General, if the prophet had told you to do something far more difficult, surely you would have done it. Why don’t you just wash yourself as he said?”
When light carries itself into darkness, it never debates the outcome. It never wonders whether or not it will be effective. It never questions its strength or its identity. It simply presents itself to a situation, and, because of light’s wholeness,s the darkness ceases to exist.
Jesus invited us to be such a light. That is all we need to do. In a moment of desperation, we might exclaim, “Why didn’t God come to me, perform all kinds of miracles and speak words of encouragement to me?” Perhaps some humble person might say to us as one did to Naaman, “If God had told you to do something far more difficult, surely you would have done it. Why don’t you just let your light of caring, kindness and gratitude shine?” What this world needs are more people who choose to practice their wholeness.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Merciful and loving God, the more we become fully alive, the more joy we are able to radiate to others. As we learn more about your will, we discover how easy it becomes to remain peaceful, kind and generous of spirit. Yet there are times when we become discouraged and frustrated because of change. There are times when disappointments cause us to assign blame. There are moments when it becomes easy to deny that many unpleasant experiences have resulted from our choices. When these moments come, may we recognize pain as an invitation to stretch in our awareness. Help us remember that you offer guidance to those who have the wisdom to follow. Amen.