"Why Make Life Complicated?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - July 8, 2007
Galatians 6:1-10; II Kings 5:1-14
Some of us may wonder from time to time where humanity is in terms of its evolution until we find ancient stories that remind us that the answer may be, not much. Our illusion is that we have grown enormously. Think about what we can do that people living 3,000 years ago could not even imagine.
We can get cool during a heat wave by turning down our thermostat. We can get in our car and drive across the United States. We can fly to Italy. We can have our arthritic joints replaced. If you enjoy corn on the cob as I do, you know that Silver Queen is hard to find anymore because that variety takes 90 days to mature. Newly created hybrids of white corn can mature in half that time. New varieties rule the market place.
Our genius is incredibly creative once we have established a specific goal. Our emotions, however, can become a commanding presence in our lives because they govern how we feel. We put a premium on happiness, on having control over our experiences and on having life the way we want it. When we are not happy, we immediately try to fix what is bothering us. In so doing, we often act in haste.
Most of us have seen the commercials on television featuring the newest grocery chain to enter our region. Bloom’s commercials tell us that we shop happy the moment we enter their stores. All the employees are dancing on the counter tops. Everyone is smiling. The ratio of associates to customers is 35 to one.
The management of Bloom grocery stores must know how frustrated we shoppers are when we are trying to find Tapioca, Couscous or Taboule. Maybe we want to find no sugar Cheerios among 9,000 other cereal products in an aisle that is as long as a football field. They want us to be happy when we enter their stores.
If we were carefully listening to the details of the lesson today, we learned that the response to certain feelings made life extremely complicated for a Syrian general. In 3,000 years humanity really has not changed that much.
Naaman had developed the dreaded skin disease of leprosy. During one of his campaigns against Israel, the general had captured an Israelite girl and gave her as a servant to his wife. The girl said to her mistress, “We have a prophet in Israel who can cure your husband’s disease.”
Upon hearing this, Naaman went to Samaria with a contingent of men. As a gift for the prophet, he took with him 30,000 pieces of silver, 6,000 pieces of gold and 10 changes of fine clothing. He also carried with him a letter of introduction from the ruler of Syria stating, “I want you to cure my general of his disease.”
The king of Israel was faced with an impossible task. “How does the Syrian king expect me to do this? he asked. Does he think I am God? He wants to start a war.” When Elisha heard about this concern of the king, he sent word to him, “Don’t worry. Send this man to me. I will show him that there is a prophet in Israel.”
Naaman arrived at Elisha’s dwelling in his magnificent chariot and the great prophet of Israel sent a servant to greet him. He said, “You must wash seven times in the Jordan and you will be healed.” This was not a complicated task until Naaman’s feelings got in the way.
“What? He sends a servant? Where is the prophet? Has he no respect for me? One would have thought that he would come out, wave his hand over my diseased skin, pray to his God and I would be healed. I can’t believe this. Wash in the Jordan? The rivers in Damascus are far better than the Jordan!” He left Elisha’s home in a rage.
Immediately some of Naaman’s servants surrounded him and said, “Surely had the prophet told you to do something very difficult, you would have done it. Why make things complicated? Just do as he said and see what happens.” Naaman was brought to his senses and went to the Jordan as directed. Sure enough after coming out of the Jordan for the seventh time, his skin became firm and was restored to complete health. He was cured.
Naaman returned to Elisha’s home and tried to persuade him to accept the gifts he brought. Elisha knew that God’s love is not for sale nor could it be rewarded by material expressions. He simply told Naaman, “Go in peace.” Naaman returned to Damascus and as far as we know the path of the two men never crossed again.
As we examine this lesson for its relevance to our lives, how often do we stand in our own shadow because of how we feel during any given moment? How often do we miss the mark? How often do we fail to perceive the presence of God because we are looking elsewhere? How often do we allow our spirit to be sabotaged by others because someone hurt our feelings, someone failed to meet our expectations, someone did not give us the respect that we believed we deserved, or someone did not accept our gratitude or say, “Thank you” for something we did for them. So often it is the little things that ruin marriages, that destroy relationships, that cause us to place a bushel basket over our light and chase smiles from our faces.
This entire drama never needed to happen. Naaman, however, had made assumptions. He had expectations. He doubted that washing himself seven times in a river of another country would heal him. Had it not been for his servants who were insisting that he was making his life very complicated, Naaman might never have been cured.
Because of his feelings Naaman was not able to get himself off the stage. He was not looking for God’s presence working in his life because he lacked patience. He even had in his mind the methodical formula Elisha should use for healing him. Even divine seeds need time to grow.
I remember as a young teenager that I felt I had outgrown the need to attend church services. It was not like I was involved in soccer or baseball practice on Sunday mornings; I just did not want to be there. The service was boring. Nothing that was said appeared to apply to me. The service was the same format every week and my attention span is much like it is today – not good.
However, I quickly learned that church attendance was one of those things that remained non-negotiable in our family. My mother would say, “How would it look if the minister’s children did not come to church?” So, guilt was the motivation for my continued obedience and endurance.
I have no idea how many of Dad’s words stayed with me. I could not estimate how many hymns I memorized or whether or not any of the Bible readings or prayers meant anything to me, but one thing happened. Regardless of what I thought about it or what feelings I had developed, God, the church and all the symbols of faith were placed in front of me once a week. Sunday School and Youth Fellowship were part of the package as well. I could not get out of those activities either.
I have little doubt that had I stopped going to church as a young teenager, I might not be in front of you this morning. Even divine seeds need time to grow. I was not patient. Naaman was not patient. Only Elisha had the awareness of God’s presence every day.
A statistic that appears very impressive is that 92 percent of Americans believe in God. How many of us make room for the remembrance of God’s presence in their lives once a week? To me it is very similar as Elisha’s servant saying to Naaman, “Go bathe yourself in the Jordan 7 times and you will be healed.” We need to bathe ourselves everyday in the river of remembrance because life is filled with distractions that can bring leprosy to our character, our integrity and our values. Our emotions color much that we perceive.
The guidance offered by God’s presence is there for all of us but it may remain invisible when our emotions and our responses to them are in the driver’s seat. Sometimes without constant spiritual nourishment and reminders all we have are our beliefs. Sometimes they only surface in some believers during Christmas and Easter.
One of my favorite discussions took place on a golf course a number of years ago between two friends. The one never played golf on Sunday because he was committed to being in church. One day he gave in to the constant badgering by his friend to play golf. As the two began to play the last nine holes, the subject of church attendance came up.
The one said, “I seldom miss church. It’s a good habit that I started when I was a youngster. My week isn’t the same when I miss.” His friend said, “That is interesting. I don’t feel that way. I used to attend mass all the time. Right now, I cannot remember one thing from any homily delivered by one of our priests.” His friend nodded and said, “I think that might be true for me as well.” “Well, then, why do you go? Why waste your time?”
His friend thought for a minute and then responded, “I have been married for 36 years. During that time I have probably eaten over 12,000 dinners that my wife or I have prepared for our family. Right now I can’t tell you what many of them were like. But I can tell you this, had I not eaten them I would have died years ago.
There is a difference between believing in God and participating in God’s presence everyday. Those who begin their day believing that most of their experiences are ones where they can bring God’s presence, will not bring the same responses and decisions if their lives are being governed by their emotions.
We have to remember that our emotions are often determined by self-interest, i.e., what pleases us, and what does not, or what seems fair and what is unjust. Naaman proceeded to make his life extremely complicated because he had no experience of God. He had no idea how God works. He was looking for a prophet to come out of his dwelling, pray, wave his hands over the affected area and dispense some kind of snake oil before healing would come. For this service, Naaman was prepared to pay with gold, silver and fine clothing. His healing was like a business transaction.
Life does not become complicated when every experience is viewed as an opportunity to demonstrate charity, sincerity, patience, humility and kindness. We do not need to have all the answers before we participate in God’s presence. We do not have to be happy all the time because some things in life are painful, but we can be at peace when we remember that God is in charge.
Remember the Israelite king in our story. No doubt his belief was that he had God at the center of his life. Yet, his reaction communicated something else “How can the King of Syria expect me to cure this man? Does he think that I am God?” It took a prophet who was aware of God’s presence to say, “Calm down, your Majesty. Send him to me. I will show him that there is a man of God in Israel.”
Remembering God’s presence makes all things new. We do not have to bring old responses to life’s encounters of success and failure. Such a calmness of spirit can remove our anxieties and stress. Such a remembrance can change painful memories into stepping-stones that enabled us to get across the river on dry land. There is never a need to feel that we have been abandoned.
God’s presence instills in our minds and hearts these words, “Be still and know that I am God. The world’s survival does not depend on your decisions today. There is no need to make life complicated. Relax and remember that I am in charge of how creation unfolds.” That remembrance can save our lives from becoming complicated by our emotional responses. Elisha still has a lot to teach us about ourselves.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving and always faithful God, we thank you for the remarkable surprises that life’s uncertainties often bring to us. Yet we recognize how often we find ourselves doubting and standing in our own sunlight. How often we allow memories of past hurts, mistakes and perceived failures to define us. How often we cast blame on others for the person we have become. Heal us, loving God, from the cross currents that can erode our effectiveness as disciples of Jesus. There is so much about life that remains a mystery. Help us base our understanding on our trust and confidence in you. Even though episodes in life frequently frustrate us, help us to learn that they have come to increase our skills of spirit. Inspire the infinite, timeless qualities that dwell within us to grow wings that would help us to fly. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Merciful and always loving God, we thank you for the abundance of your presence each time we gather as a community of faith. There are times when life overwhelms us. There are moments when our spiritual cups need filling. There are occasions when concerns come into our minds about others who have lost everything in the floods in the Midwest, or are suffering from heat exhaustion because their vocation takes them outside as temperatures soar. As we come together, we celebrate your magnificent loving presence even when life appears unfair, unjust and so exacting in what it can remove from our lives in the blink of an eye. Spare us, O God, from establishing our identities in the things of this world that change.
Open our eyes to how truth was slowly dawning through a baby born in a stable and by verbal seeds sown by a carpenter to listeners who may have only been mystified by what they saw and heard. We are aware today that much that we believe came from handwritten letters to small groups in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Phillipi, and Ephesus. We may never see your creative brush stokes as they are taking place. We can only view them from a distance through the eyes of faith. Help us understand, O God, that we only keep what we give away. Help us step out during the darkest periods of our lives knowing that you created us to be light. Allow our lives to radiate leadership and courage in ways that inspire others to do the same.
Thank you for guiding us to be at St. Matthew’s during this time of our lives. Together and individually, may we make your presence visible. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . . .