Saturday, 12 October 2019

The story of Naaman.

2 Kings 5:1-14           

We heard the story of the healing of Naaman the Syrian. One way of approaching this or any Bible Story is to ask where you see God acting in this story, where you are in the story,  and therefore where you might expect to see God working in your life.

It is easy to see God acting in this story. Naaman, the commander of the army of Aram – what we would call Syria – is a war hero, but he has leprosy. His wife’s slave-girl tells her mistress that Elisha, the prophet of God, would be able to cure him.
Naaman pulls strings and gets the King of Aram to send him to Israel with a huge amount of money and a letter to the King of Israel. The king thinks this is a trap – that the King of Aram is trying to find a reason to pick a fight, after all no-one can cure leprosy !
But Elisha knows that God can cure  - even leprosy – even someone who is not from God’s people – even without the prophet of God leaving the house to see Naaman.

Elisha sends Naaman a message telling him to wash in the Jordan. After a bit of a tantrum, Naaman does that, and God cures him. His skin is like that of a young child again.
God cures absolutely.

We could just stop there, with praise for the God who cares and who cures.
But this is our God.. in some way this is our story.. so where are you in the story?

You might relate to Naaman.
Of course we don’t know what Naaman looked like, or hear much about his personality, but we know he is the commander of the army, he must have had an authoritative presence - and yet he was ill with leprosy, which could have led to him being isolated by others who feared his disease. Maybe you feel like Naaman - perhaps to the outside word you are strong or successful, but you know you have a deep need.
It may be physical, like leprosy, something visible to others, or it may be internal, hidden, an illness or a flaw
no-one can see, or a mental or spiritual problem that only you know about. But you know you need healing. You need God’s healing.
The good news is that you don’t need riches or a letter from the Queen, or even mystical waters to bathe in to receive God’s healing. It’s very simple.
Elisha sends Naaman to the waters of the Jordan.

Back in March I was fortunate enough to see the River Jordan for myself.
It isn’t hugely impressive, to be honest, though the part where I went is very popular with Pilgrims who buy special baptismal robes to go into the water & completely immerse themselves in something that looks a bit like weak tea.
I’m afraid I wimped out, rolled up my trousers & just stood with the water coming up near my knees. It’s not very inviting water – it’s really not an impressive river at all.

I can imagine why Naaman was put out. ‘Go and wash in the Jordan’ was the message from Elisha.
He wanted to say ‘is that all?’.

You might feel the same, if you feel like Naaman in this story. You need God’s healing. And in Jesus, God says ’your faith can make you well – get up and go on your way’ – is that all ?
A simple prayer, a brief moment, can be all we need to access God’s healing in our lives.
Or talking to the person God send to us, or benefitting from medical services.
The God of Elisha longs to heal you, as he did Naaman, through his power and also through other people.

You might relate to Elisha in the story.
Perhaps you know what your ministry is, how you are called to serve God. You are here on this earth to do what God tells you to do and to say what God tells you to say. You might stop short of calling yourself a prophet – but a prophet is someone God uses to talk to his people, someone who speaks out about the God who made all things and who loves us all things and who wants to save all things.
When we tell someone how we thank God for something in our lives, we are being a prophet, we are pointing to the God to whom we give gratitude for everything in life. When we are giving advice to someone and we help them to consider what God wants them to do, we are being a prophet – remembering the God who gives our lives purpose and meaning. When we agree to be any work on behalf of the church,  we are being prophets, showing that we are listening for what God is calling us to be and do, and responding by offering ourselves in God’s service.

And if you are a prophet, you need to be a prophet like Elisha.

Did you notice what Naaman expected of the prophet?
“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!”.
Naaman expected a spectacle, a show. If this was a person of God surely they would bring a bit of drama to the act of healing? But a real prophet, someone who really is speaking out on behalf of God, doesn’t have to be showy – they just have to be faithful. God tells Elisha to tell Naaman to bathe in the Jordan – Elisha just passes on the message – the glory belongs to God, not to Elisha. When we are faithful prophets we point to what God is doing and don’t seek glory for ourselves.

Or perhaps you think you are just too insignificant to figure in an amazing story like this. Your life is very ordinary – not a bit like a Biblical epic! – but there is a part for you in this story too. Hidden away in this story are some unnamed people without whom the healing would never have happened.
Of course there’s Naaman, the big war hero, who is healed, there are the kings of Aram & Israel, with their commands and riches, there is Elisha, the great prophet..
but the whole story only starts because a girl whose been carried off as a slave tells her mistress that there is an amazing prophet in Israel, who can cure Naaman.

She may be small and we don’t even learn her name, but she is the vital spark for this story of healing.
And when the great Naaman is about to storm off in disgust because Elisha hasn’t impressed him and the river Jordan looks feeble in comparison to the great rivers back home, it is his servants then who say “if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?”.. and encourage him to wash as the prophet has instructed.
Without the slave-girl, without the servants, Naaman would have remained a leper. If you think you are ‘only’ an un-noticed, unimportant part of this or any story, take heart. Your name may not go down in history, but you might just change someone’s life for ever by being faithfully in the right place at the right time and speaking out as God leads you.

We are worshipping as God’s chosen people today:

Chosen, like Naaman, to receive healing
Chosen, like Elisha, to give the glory to God and not ourselves
Chosen, like the servants, to be faithful in speaking out , wherever we are, not because we are great, but because we serve a great God.

You are chosen, and this day God will bless you
In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Banquet etiquette – or something more?

Proverbs 25: 6-7    Luke 14: 1, 7-14

I have a confession to make. (don’t get over-excited, it’s not the sort of thing you can use to blackmail someone). Before this week I hadn’t realised that Jesus’ words of advice to a guest at a banquet – don’t assume you should have a top spot and get demoted, but take a humble place so that someone will say ‘come up higher!’ – were based on a little snippet from Proverbs.

Do not put yourself forward in the king's presence
or stand in the place of the great;
for it is better to be told, "Come up here,"
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

Jesus is giving good practical advice about not thinking too highly of yourself & not being embarrassed as a result.

But since when did the Son of God come to dispense good social advice?

Just last week the lectionary reading from Luke’s gospel told us the story of the woman bent double – a ‘daughter of Abraham’, healed on the Sabbath. If you turn over a few pages in Luke’s gospel you’ll find (in ch 19) the story of Zacchaeus, a ‘son of Abraham’, turned from his crooked life by an encounter from Jesus who says “the son of Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost”.

Jesus does not want to give us better manners, or help us avoid social awkwardness, he wants to seek and save us.
So what does Jesus say here which seeks us and saves us?
Jesus uses the banquet as a metaphor for the kingdom of God – how to live in the broadest sense, how to have God’s priorities as your priorities.
Jesus is at a banquet hosted by the leaders of the Pharisees. Everyone is watching Jesus closely because he has just healed that woman bent double in the Synagogue on the Sabbath, causing the leader of the Synagogue to angrily tell the people to get healed on the other 6 days. Jesus’ rules for the Kingdom of God are a bit different to that leader’s interpretation of the rules of the synagogue – healing is God’s will, whenever it happens and people are more important than rules.

So now Jesus arrives at the house of one of the most important Pharisees.
Immediately (in the part of the chapter the lectionary leaves out) a man with ‘dropsy’ stands before him – what we call oedema or a swelling of the legs caused by fluid retention.
Jesus asks the Pharisees and other teachers of the law who are there ‘Is it right to heal on the Sabbath?’, but none of them can answer, and so Jesus heals the man.

Jesus wants those who are watching him – and that includes us – to know that love and care for people should come before our rules about what’s ‘proper’.

Then, as we heard, Jesus turns his attention to the seating plan at this banquet.
His audience of Pharisees and teachers of the law should know perfectly well what Jesus says next about where to sit – because there it is in Proverbs.
It’s better to be ‘promoted’ (‘come higher!’)  than ‘demoted’ (‘who do you think you are?’).
But Jesus is not just concerned with seating plans at any banquet, he wants to talk about the Kingdom of God.
“If you humble yourself you will be honoured”, says Jesus. In the kingdom of God, honour is given to those who show humility, rather than those who think they are important and deserve a high position.

What is there here for you as you continue to celebrate your 50th anniversary as a United Church?
Perhaps a reminder about the importance of humility. I know you have achieved many things since you united here, and I know too that relating to 2 different denominations has its frustrations and its tests. But when the ‘other’ way of doing things seems inexplicably strange, remember ‘not to think too highly of yourself’ as Jesus says.
There is a movement which Churches Together in England has been promoting in recent years called ‘receptive ecumenism’. Instead of asking what other traditions need to learn from us, we ask what our tradition needs to learn from them, what we can receive which is of God.
In God’s kingdom, Jesus tells us to be humble – to ask what we still have to learn from others, what things about the church we haven’t grasped yet – even from ‘that funny lot’ – whoever that is for you. You have been united for 50 years, but there is still more to learn about how to be the church.

Jesus teaches about humility, and then he turns to the host of the banquet: “don’t invite all your rich friends to a banquet – invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.”

Jesus wants to teach the ‘teachers of the law’ about who they should befriend, care for, help. Not rich people who will reward them, but the poor, so that God will reward them.
Jesus takes the opportunity to point out that the crippled, lame and blind should also be invited.
Jesus wants this banquet he is attending to be more like the kingdom of God – where the blind, lame & crippled are not told ‘come back tomorrow if you want your healing, don’t bother us on this holy day’ – but are welcomed, fed, healed, cared for.

This is Good news for any of us who have ever wondered if we are good enough to be welcomed by God and loved by God. Jesus has come to seek and to save the lost, not to turn us away until we are better people, but to welcome us exactly as we are and then offer us healing and wholeness.

This table for communion is like a banquet in God’s kingdom – it is for all, it excludes no-one, it offers a place of welcome and healing for those who feel like the dregs of society and those of us who have just had a bad week.
Come in all humility to receive what Jesus wants to give you – bread and wine as a sign of the coming of God’s kingdom of love, mercy and peace.
Come with your hunger, and be fed.
Come with your brokenness, and be healed.
Come … everyone. Amen.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Luke 10: 25-37 the Good Samaritan

Today’s Gospel passage has to be one of the most memorable in the Bible.
Even people who know almost nothing about the Bible often know the story of “The Good Samaritan”. When Chad Varah was looking for a name for his telephone listening service to help people who were feeling suicidal, he settled on the name “Samaritans”.

But of course, when Jesus first told the story a ‘Samaritan’ was something quite different. A Samaritan was the person you least expected to help – the sort of person a self-respecting Jew would cross the street to avoid, not a person to help or to expect to receive help from. Remember how in telling the story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well, John’s gospel (4: 9) states:
The Samaritan woman said to Jesus, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans).

Jesus tells this story of the man beaten up on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and sets up a scenario where the Priest and the Levite – the ones you would think most ‘holy’ and most likely to help, pass by the victim, and the Samaritan, whom you would least expect to help, turns out to be the one who does the right thing.
At the end of the story, the Jewish lawyer to whom Jesus tells the story, is asked by Jesus ‘' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?".
The lawyer can’t bear to say the words “The Samaritan” and so answers "The one who showed him mercy."
‘He who must not be named’ turns out to be the good and righteous one.

So good and righteous is the Samaritan that all good and righteous people after that might earn the title “Good Samaritan”.

But if we really want to recapture the force of the story, we need to think about those whom we would least expect to help us – those (let’s be honest) we least like, or most suspect, or find hardest to live with. I’m guessing that that person might be different for each one of us, but it’s worth spending a moment thinking about it, and I’d like to do that now in 2s or 3s. You don’t have to say the name of the person who would be the Samaritan for you, but think about how you would feel if that person, the most unlikely person, came to help you in your hour of need.
And then how do you feel to hear Jesus say ‘this is your neighbour – the one who helps you and who loves you.. go and do likewise’. How do you feel about loving this most unlikely, most unlikable person?

…5 minutes pause…

Share thoughts about how hard it is to accept help from someone we dislike.
How hard it might be to offer help. How hard it is to love some people.

About now you might be feeling a bit beaten up yourself. I have asked you to imagine the person you most dislike, and then told you that Jesus tells us to love that person, to accept the love of that person, and to treat even the most dislikable person we can think of as a neighbour. Ouch!
Well, if you’re reeling from that blow, what you need is a Good Samaritan.
And here’s a picture of one

The painter of this icon has imagined Jesus as the Good Samaritan. It is Jesus who rescues, heals and restores the wounded man. It is Jesus who can help us when we find it hard to love others.

Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan is not just a story which tells us that we should be good neighbours, it reminds us that the grace of Jesus Christ can make us better able to serve others and to accept their service.

In this icon Jesus lifts the wounded person – that could be us – onto ‘his own animal’, which looks like a very strong horse to me – and leads us off down the road to the very welcoming-looking inn in the top right corner.
I don’t think it’s coincidence that the inn looks a lot like a church. If the Good Samaritan in each of our lives is Jesus, rescuing us from all that could make us a bad neighbour, then where else will he bring us but to the safety of the church? Here in the church we can rest and heal & be restored by the care of others, until we are fit once more to go out into the world.
In October 2013, Pope Francis said this:
“The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. ... And you have to start from the ground up.”

We are here today to be healed, to be restored.
It might seem almost impossible to love all our neighbours, but the grace of Jesus Christ, shared with us through our brothers and sisters in Christ, can make us whole again.

I pray we will all feel the healing touch of God today, and be enabled to love others with the love Christ gives us, in the power of the Holy Spirit,