When it’s hard to do the simple thing


Naaman washes in the Jordan

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 12, 2012.  The lectionary readings are 2 Kings 5:1-14 , 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 Psalm 30 and Mark 1:40-45 .

I think I remember the exact moment that Ina Garten became my favorite chef.  For me, she moved from cookbook author and television host to good friend and trusted kitchen companion when she changed my cooking life.  It all had to do with pearl onions and beef stew. 

I had made beef stew before and the recipe I tended to use always included pearl onions.  I would buy a pack of the things and get to work. Peeling, peeling, and peeling.  It would take as long to peel those little onions as it would take to prepare all of the other ingredients.  I would use the best knife I could find.  I asked other people if there were any tricks to peeling these little onions.  I made sure I had plenty of time set aside to work on them.  That is the way I did things until a new book by Ina Garten came out, and there in one of her recipes, along with things I had assembled and things I had pulled out of the cabinet, it said very plainly “one bag of frozen small onions.” 

It had never occurred to me that there might even BE frozen onions. Who knew it could be that simple?  With tools, techniques, added know-how—I had complicated my beef stew situation beyond all proportion.  And yet the answer was unexpected and unbelievably simple. 

Though my beef stew and pearl onion example is a silly one, that sort of thing happens all the time in other aspects of my life.  I feel a certain ailment in my body, self-diagnose and convince myself that it’s a particular thing.  With the information overload of the Internet, I can quickly contract the most exotic sickness imaginable.  But then I check with the doctor, or mention my symptoms to someone, and the problem is different from what I suspected, and solved with a simple solution.  How many of the greatest illnesses have found remedies in simple things, combined in just the right way?

The main theme of today’s scripture readings is about people who are healed.  And a part of their healing comes when they are able to do the simplest thing—to let go of their own ideas, their own attempts to fix the problem, and to allow God room to work.  In the first lesson it’s Naaman who is healed.  And in the Gospel it is a leper whose name we don’t know.

In the Second Book of the Kings, word reaches Elisha the prophet about this man who is sick, and Elisha calls for him to come and visit.  Powerful Naaman gets to the opening of Elisha’s cave, Elisha sends a servant out to talk to Naaman.  The servant says, “Elisha says for you to go and wash in the River Jordan seven times.  That should do the trick.  You’ll be fine.” 

Well!  This great military commander Naaman is insulted.  Did he travel all the way to Israel only to be told by a servant go and wash in the river?  Does he not even get to see this supposedly great prophet? 

Naaman gets angry and criticizes Elisha.  He makes fun of Israel and its rivers, and on and on he goes, in an absolute rage.  Had he continued to mouth off, had he continued to try to fit things into his own way of seeing, he would have completely missed the opportunity before him.  He would have missed the presence of God, and the healing of God.  Just before they leave Israel altogether, one of Naaman’s servants pulls him aside and begins to talk a little sense into him. Naaman eventually goes down to the water, he bathes seven times, and he is healed.  Not only is he healed of the leprosy, but it also sounds like he might have been healed from a little of his arrogance and pride.

Our Gospel also tells us about another person who find healing.  This one is a leper.  This man sees Jesus coming, has faith, and begs for his attention.  Jesus responds and heals him, but then asks him to keep quiet about it.  Jesus says, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and make the customary offering.”  Hold your tongue, Jesus says.  Don’t try to explain this.  Don’t try so hard to understand it or control it.  Simply accept it, say your prayers, make an offering, and check in with the Temple priest. 

But the healed man can’t be quiet.  He begins to tell everyone what has happened, and this causes such a ruckus that Jesus is unable to help or heal anyone else in the area.  Jesus moves away and goes out into the country.
Whenever I read this story, I wonder why Jesus tells the man to be quiet.  Traditional reasons are that Jesus didn’t want to raise the attention of the religious leaders or mislead the people into making him their political leader.  I would think Jesus would want the power of God to spread throughout the area.  In our day, I would think Jesus might want the very best press agent, the most interactive web site, the slickest advertising possible.  But instead, Jesus asks for silence.  For quiet.  For reflection. 
But I wonder… It could be that Jesus wants the healed man to reflect on his healing, that while the leprosy may be gone, the healing God gives is really much deeper and much more involved.  I think Jesus wanted the man to be still, to try to absorb this contact with the Divine, to adjust to the life of Christ now alive in him, and to begin to live in a new way.

I think Jesus knew our tendency to label ourselves with one thing or another and to get stuck with that label.  Naaman had a strong sense of himself, and saw himself with a particular disease that (surely) needed a particular kind of cure. 

He KNEW what he needed.  In the New Testament, Jesus understood that for the leper to be healed and get used to his new health, it would take a while.  And in that time, the healed man is being invited to let go of his own self-understanding and to live in the present, to live in the moment. 

The Church often differentiates between healing that involves a cure, and healing that involves wellbeing, shalom, wholeness, acceptance, peace, and serenity.  The kind of healing that brings all those quieter things is the one that Jesus is leading the healed leper to discover. 

Sit with your new-found healing, Jesus seems to say.  Savor it.  It is here now.  It wasn’t yesterday. It might not be tomorrow.  So for now, show yourself to the priest, (do the smart, sensible thing, in that culture), but don’t cling too tightly even to your healing.  Cling to God. 

When Naaman reached the cave of Elisha and received instructions, he would have done well to be silent, take in the information, and listen for God.  In our Gospel, after the leper is healed, he would have done well to have listened to Christ and remained quiet.  Sometimes, if we don’t hold our tongue, we stand the chance of missing God’s presence. 

Sometimes it is through silence, by not speaking, by not saying everything that’s on our minds, in not over-explaining or over-defending sacred things, there is freedom.  There is freedom to hear God and to know God. 
The real gift of God is the presence of Christ.  He is with us.  He is in us.  And he never leaves us alone.  He meets us in the sacraments.  He meets us in prayer.  He meets us in one another.  He calls us by name.  He shows us the way to God. He leads us through death and into life again. 

With hesitation and awe, but with open hearts, may we be led through all mysteries and questions, into the very heart of God. And may we know the fullness of God’s healing in Christ.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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