Making Things Harder Than They Need to Be

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
February 12, 2012
2 Kings 5:1-14

Illustration by Kathleen Kimball

2Kings 5:1-14 ¶ Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” ¶ He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” ¶ But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

 

I. BEGINNING

Life in faith is not easy.  And rarely simple.

If you have any doubts about this, read through the book of Leviticus and the rules for sacrifice.  Or consider the food laws of the Old Testament. Or the laws of manslaughter and cities of refuge.  Or the various laws of sexuality and property.

If that seems too ancient an example, consider Robert’s Rules of Order that are used to run Annual Conference, or consider the Catholic rules on, well, anything.  Or perhaps you’d like to respond to God’s call to the ministry and would like to go through the ordination process.  All you have to do is get a recommendation from your church’s Charge Conference, get your District Superintendent to schedule a meeting with your District Committee on Ordained Ministry (or DCOM) as an “Inquiring Candidate”, after which, you are assigned a candidacy mentor with whom you go through an inquiry process at the end of which a report is written and you go back before the DCOM, where, after approval, you become a “Certified Candidate”. You stay a Certified Candidate for a minimum of two full years, and after you finish seminary, you can be invited to an examination retreat for which you prepare pages of written answers, and at which you answer questions asked of you by multiple committees.  After you are commissioned as a provisional members of the Annual Conference, you serve a minimum of three years in a ministry setting, and then are invited to the ordination examination retreat for which you prepare even more pages of written materials and at which you’re asked even more questions by more groups.  If you pass that (and have satisfactory medical, psychological, and criminal examinations), you can finally be ordained as full member and elder in The United Methodist Church.  Easy.

Well, I guess nothing in religion is ever easy, is it?

II. TEXT

Clearly, that’s the assumption underlying our Old Testament lesson for tonight.  So, here we encounter the story of Naaman, a commander in the Syrian army, suffered from a skin disease. One of the captives taken by the Syrians is an Israelite woman who tells him that there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him.  The king of Syria sends Naaman to the King of Israel with a request to heal Naaman of his leprosy.  This frightens the king, because he doesn’t know how he can possibly bring healing to the man and fears that the Syrians are just trying to pick a fight with Israel.  But then Elisha the prophet sends word to the king that he will heal the man.  When Naaman arrives at the prophet’s house, he is stunned to discover that the prophet doesn’t even come out but just tells him to wash in the Jordan seven times.

Now this perplexes Naaman, not just simply because the Jordan–which is a muddy river and often has runoff in its flow–is not as clear a river as the rivers of Damascus. It’s also because it seems so… uncomplicated.  He says as much:

“I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!”

What perplexes Naaman is the simplicity and ease with which he is to be cured.  No hocus pocus, no long convoluted ritual, no pomp and circumstance.  The prophet doesn’t even bother to come out.  He just tells Naaman to go dip in the Jordan seven times.  Naaman can hardly believe it.  What kind of supernatural healing is this?  He comes all this way to have this prophet heal him of this affliction and the prophet just sends him a messenger saying to jump in the river.  He’s furious.

Now, his servants say to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”  He does as they suggest and dips in the Jordan seven times and is cleaned, his flesh restored to that of a young boy.

Naaman not only couldn’t believe it was that easy—he was angry that it might have been so simple.

III.  WE OURSELVES

But Naaman’s not alone in that, is he?  We do that, too.

We do that in ways small and great.  Early in the space program it was realized that on account of being in a microgravity environment, ball point pens would not work normally.  NASA spent years and all kinds of money to develop a pen that would write upside down or in a microgravity environment.  This was a landmark achievement and the NASA pen that writes upside down was even a minor plot point in an old Seinfeld episode.

Interestingly, the Russians had the exact same problem in their space program. How did they solve it?  They just used pencils.

Of course, it’s not just overeager NASA scientists making things harder than they need to be.  We do this all the time.

Hunter told me that he once took a toaster entirely apart in an effort to find out what was wrong with it only to discover that it was just the circuit breaker that had popped.

But we don’t always do this accidentally, sometimes we do it on purpose.

IV.  WHY WE DO IT

Some times we make things harder than they need to be to give us an out. That is, if something is difficult and we should happen to fail at it, we have an excuse for not succeeding.  The easier something is, the fewer excuses we have for failure.

Sometimes we make things harder than they need to be because we enjoy the drama.  This seems to be part of what is going on with Naaman–he wanted Elisha to come  out, wave his hands around, call on God, and heal the leprosy.  He was expecting something showier.  But we do this not just because we enjoy drama in general but also because we used this manufactured drama to generate stress, and then we use that stress to motivate us to get the job done.  The more complicated we make the task before us, the more likely it is going to generate stress, and thus the more we can use that stress to generate the motivation and energy we need to do the work.

Sometimes we make things harder than they need to be in order to avoid the task altogether.  If we can imagine that the task is complicated we have a great excuse for not even attempting the task in the first place.

Sometimes we make things harder than they need to be because we want attention for ourselves.  If we were just quietly working away at relatively easy tasks, no one would pay us any attention.  But if we’re in the middle of some complex, difficult, and burdensome task, well, then we are martyrs, deserving of other people’s pity, empathy, and most of all… attention.

But is any of that what’s going on here in the passage from 2 Kings we read tonight?  Is Naaman looking for an out?  No, he wants to be healed.  Is it that he likes the drama to fire him up?  That doesn’t seem to apply here, either.  Nor is he seeking to avoid work, in fact he seems prepared to actually go through with the more elaborate rite that he was expecting. Now, it’s possible that Naaman is seeking attention—he is something of a big shot in the Syrian army and may be used to it.  But I don’t know that that is mainly what is driving him and mainly why he reacts so badly to the prophet Elisha’s simple instructions.

No, the reason that Naaman was prepared to make his healing more complicated than it needed to be was the same reason we all do that when it comes to our spiritual healing: we are suspicious of grace.  We don’t trust things that are free.

Every fall semester, during finals, as many of you know, I table in Mary Graydon and give out free chocolate. We call it “Spiritual Therapy Through Chocolate.”  We put up big signs that say “Free Chocolate”.  And every year the same thing happens: people walk up and ask, “Is it alright if I have a piece of chocolate?”  “It’s free,” I usually say.  “Help yourself.” Or they’ll say something like, “Do I have to sign anything?”  And I’ll usually respond, “If you had to do anything to get the chocolate, it wouldn’t be free, would it?”

But, it’s an interesting object lesson in grace and how suspicious people are of grace. And probably for the same reason: it’s free.

Naaman is suspicious of this healing because it’s too easy.  And so many Christians are suspicious of God’s grace for the same reason.  We talk all about God being the free gift of God, but we like to add all kinds of conditions to it.  Well, there’s God’s grace, but you also have to believe the right things. Or do the right things.  Or be really, really repentant.  Or any of a myriad things that we like to attach to God’s plans for salvation.

Things that have usually more to do with us and less to do with God.  It’s almost as if we don’t trust God to really take care of everything.  We want to make sure that our paperwork gets through and that we show up with our resume intact.  Just in case it’s not really all about grace, we want to make sure that we can demonstrate to God just how busy, or faithful, or pious, or theologically correct we are.  If we’re suspicious about bowls of free chocolate, how much more suspicious are we about freely offered salvation and eternal life?

So we make things a lot more difficult than they need to be.  We add all kinds of human impediments onto what is a fairly direct divine offer.  God is the one who takes the initiative.  God is the one who makes the free offer of grace.  God is the one who takes action through the cross.  God is the one who grants us the assurance of salvation.  But we are the ones who create systems, and creeds, and canon laws, and disciplines, and orthodoxies, and principles, and all manner of things that we attach deep spiritual significance to.  And we also like to create lists: lists of things to be done, be believed; and lists of people who aren’t believing right or doing right and therefore are outside of God’s plan.

But see, God tells us “dip in the Jordan” and we say, “Surely, it’s not so easy.  Why if it’s that easy, then other people–people we don’t like–might get in, too.”

We make things more complicated than they need to be primarily because the more complicated it is, the more we can feel that we’ve worked to earn it.  It’s not just something given to us, like some kind of government handout.  We’ve earned our way in.  It doesn’t do to be told that God’s offer is simple, uncomplicated.  We need to know that we had something to do with it.

V. END

But it’s not really about us.  And never has been.  It wasn’t about Naaman, but what God was doing for him.  It wasn’t about those cleansed from leprosy, but those Jesus sought to heal.  It wasn’t about broken, mortal humanity, but about the God acting through Christ for our salvation.  Our salvation has always been God’s initiative, but we, unwilling to trust God to take care of everything, insist on adding our own complications.

This is not a new phenomenon.  Naaman did it.  The people of Israel did it.  Paul’s congregants did it.  We continue to do it.

But in spite of our efforts to make the Gospel complicated, it remains simple.  It remains good news.  The good news of a God who offers salvation and life to us, without price.

Life in faith is not easy.  And rarely simple.

Being  a Christian is hard enough.  We are called to make self-sacrifice, to work for justice, to reach out to the marginalized, to share love with those whom others will not love, to engage in radical hospitality that is welcoming of all.  That’s hard work.  It’s difficult work.

But there is one thing that is not difficult: the love and grace of God.  That is there available to us now, as we are, right here, without our having to do anything about it.  In our busyness and self-centeredness we often imagine that there’s more to it than that, and probably cause ourselves a lot of grief in the process, worrying about whether God truly loves us.

But remember, folks, the Gospel is good news.   And the good news is that no matter who we are, no matter where we’re from, no matter what we’re going through, no matter what we’ve done or not done, no matter what we believe or what creeds we ascribe to, God’s healing love is available to us now.  Simply.  Easily.

You may not be suffering from a skin disease as Naaman was, but the invitation to dip in the Jordan and be healed is as straightforward as it ever was.

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