(click above to listen along.)
About 15 years ago I had just a touch of hypochondria. It wasn’t long-lived, thank goodness, but for about 9 months when I was a 32 year old college student slash stay at home mom of a baby and a toddler, I kept getting sick all the time and I was just SURE that something was wrong with me. I was in my doctor’s office just about every month asking that he run tests since I had recently been sick so often. My life was overwhelming me at the time and so in this weird way I was secretly hoping something was wrong with me, because if something was really wrong with me… if I was like, really really sick, then I’d get a hall pass on life. No one would expect anything from me. Maybe someone would even offer to bring in food or do our laundry. Because I was tired. And being a stay at home mom and also taking college classes, and living on public assistance was hard. So after about my 5th or 6th visit to my Primary Care physician, he finally just closed my chart, took off his reading glasses, looked at me and said “Nadia, nothing is wrong with you. You just have to deal with your life”. I was like, Hmmm…that doesn’t sound right. You should totally check your test results again. It was NOT the cure I was hoping for. But it was the truth.
I kept thinking about that humiliating, but also liberating moment in the doctor’s office while I was studying the story of Namaan this week.
I’m a total sucker for the story of Naaman the leper. It really doesn’t get near enough air time if you ask me. Maybe we should take Noah’s ark out of rotation for awhile and let Naaman the leper take up some ink on children’s wall paper.
The basic story is that, Naaman was a big deal Syrian military leader I don’t know, like General Patraeus – an impressive dude with an important job….but the thing is, he had leprosy. His people had conquered the Israelite people and as was the custom in those days, the conquerors could enslave the conquered. So Naaman had an Israelite slave girl, who was really little more than war spoils, who, in an act of graciousness I’m pretty sure I could never muster up, tells him that there is a top notch prophet in Israel– who could definitely help him out with that there leprosy. The thing is, Elisha the Prophet of Israel was not in Naaman’s preferred provider network so it got a little tricky. Anyhow, Naaman pulls up to Elisha the Prophet’s house in his Bentley, expecting the prophet to come out and do some kind of big fancy magic show and heal him…maybe wave his arms over his head, call on the name of the Lord, you know…something impressive suiting such a “great man” as Naaman. Instead, Elisha sends some raggedy old servant out to tell Naaman exactly how he will be healed: Naaman needs to do nothing more than wash in the Jordon 7 times. The Jordon. As though washing in some off-brand river will do anything. Naaman was like, Hmmm…that doesn’t sound right. You should totally check your test results again. That was NOT the cure he was hoping for. Until his servant (note that the only reasonable people in this entire story are those without any status whatsoever)… his servant called him out saying “Hold on. If the Prophet told you to do something difficult wouldn’t you do it? How much more if he only says wash and be clean?” Well Naaman follows Elisha’s directions to wash in the Jordon, and is healed of his leprosy. He was physically healed, but I started to wonder this week if perhaps he was healed in anther way too. Maybe his healing was also somehow connected to God disabusing him of his grand ideas. Perhaps he was healed of thinking he knew what would heal him.
I wonder how often we are attached to an idea of what we think will make everything ok for us. What conditions need to be met in order for us to feel safe, cared for, rested, whole.
When I make $10,000 a year more I will be ok
When I find a partner I will be ok.
When I lose 20 pounds I will be ok.
When I get one more graduate degree I will be ok.
When my parents or my children treat me the way they should I will be ok.
When everyone in my life acts the way I think they should I will be ok.
Naaman the Leper, despite his ideas about what he needed or deserved, his healing was somehow connected to just showing up and encountering God not in the extraordinary or exceptional but in the ordinary waters of an off-brand river. He had to let go of what he was waiting for in his life in order to receive what was already there.
We see a similar struggle in today’s Gospel text when Jesus sends the 70 out on their mission. It’s kind of amazing Jesus even got that many people after giving what amounts to the worst recruitment speech in history. Basically Jesus sells this mission by saying “OK. The first thing you need to know is that we are under staffed. Second, there’s a high wolf danger so watch out for that. Third you can’t take any money or change of clothes or bag or even sandals. Forth, stay with whoever will share the peace with you and don’t try and trade up and if there are sick people around take care of them and fifth, the food might stink but eat it anyway” I imagine that the 70 he appointed (yes, they were appointed … because honestly being a follower of Jesus has always been a lot more like conscription than volunteerism) well, my guess is that they swallowed hard, and said “Ok. We can deal with those working conditions. Now, what’s the mission?” And Jesus just looks at them like Jesus does and says, “Yeah….that IS the mission!”
And they were like, Hmmm, that doesn’t sound right. You should re-check your work assignments Jesus. That was not the work assignment we were hoping for. Maybe they already had ideas about what it would look like to be agents in God’s kingdom. Waving their hands about and calling on the Lord. Yet Jesus said all that is needed is to walk the road with one other person, allow yourself to give and receive hospitality, break bread, and bless stuff.
I understand if they were a little freaked out. I mean….who am I without my credentials and credit cards? And who wouldn’t want to negotiate for better accommodations? We all want to trade up in some way. Get the better apartment, the cooler church the younger looking wife, the newest iphone, the next level of veganism. But there’s almost a counter-cultural trading down that happens in discipleship. The kingdom of God comes near in the mundane. in the not-special. in the very much not-cool. It’s always been like that. Which, incidentally is why the Gnostic Gospels weren’t included in our New Testament. The Gospel of Thomas and others like it were rejected not because they were too cool, or because the powers that be didn’t want us to know the “real” truth. The Gnostic Gospels were rejected because of spiritual elitism – the idea that only some people were special and chosen to undergo impressive esoteric spiritual teaching and become enlightened. That’s foundationally not Christian. Because Christianity is about story and water and bread and wine – things that are offensively common: showing up in life, sharing stories, being the stranger, welcoming the stranger, breaking bread, swimming in rivers.
My former bishop says that the greatest spiritual discipline… is just showing up. Showing up for our lives (which I was trying to avoid doing 14 years ago) and showing up for our community and our family and friends. Of course just showing up is not as sexy as yoga, or praying the daily office or doing the Master Cleanse or a 10 day silent retreat. But showing up means being vulnerable in that empty handed sent out by Jesus without sandals sort of way. It’s the vulnerability of having nothing to offer but what we have been given by Christ… the vulnerability of receiving hospitality. The vulnerability of having difficult truths spoken to you.
I had thought that when a doctor gave me an extraordinary diagnosis that came with a hall pass then I would be ok. But what I needed was just to show up in my life and realize even though it was overwhelming, I was already ok. Or as I like to say to you guys sometimes in pastoral care “you are actually doing much better than you feel”
We as followers of Christ don’t have some kind of special super power. We are not the spiritually elite. We just have the authority to show up. To show up and proclaim the nearness of God that scatters the darkness. And we can show up for life and for each other and for the world because what we need for healing and sustenance is always the same as the simple, ordinary things right in front of us – that’s just the way God works. Thanks be to God.