God's Kingdom is here
Sermon: 4 Pentecost C 7 7 19
What Jesus had to say to his disciples as he sent them out to do ministry is reported differently in the four Gospels. In Luke, which we read today, he is quite specific and, at the same time, nuanced. We can look at it and recognize that he was trying to get his disciples to appreciate their circumstances, to be nimble in thought and action, and to roll with the punches, to accept what comes their way.
If a person sought to lay out a linear argument for how to behave based on this reading it would be difficult. It would be a little like a famous party game, where the first person whispers a phrase in the ear of the person on their right, then they repeat the phrase to the person on their right, until it gets back to the person who first whispered to the person on their right. The phrase at the end would be nearly unrecognizable as the first phrase.
That might be true concerning Jesus' instructions because they inspired and required imagination. Going out like lambs among wolves requires courage, strength, perhaps cunning. Meeting strangers calls for calm and care, listening and intuiting what is going on with the other person. Clearly both sets of instructions cannot be implemented at the same time. Jesus wanted his disciples to be prepared for all kinds of situations.
Luke's central message in this Gospel lesson is that the Kingdom of God has come near. Jesus didn't quite say, "God was here," but instead suggested something had happened that people needed to stop and notice. He suggests the phrase be used with people who are engaged with the disciples and with those who reject the teachings of the disciples. The reason for this is that unless people are looking for it they will miss it.
However, once people start looking for signs of God's involvement and presence they find it everywhere. I was chatting with a friend who visits prisoners in one of the area correctional facilities. She prays with them and says she feels God's presence there more than anywhere, partly because she thinks it is about all the prisoners have: their faith.
But for everyone, God's lively presence has to be called out. It has to be sought and noticed and named.
Naaman reinforces this idea in our Hebrew Bible reading this morning from the Second Book of Kings. First Naaman proves it by nearly missing the miracle of the healing of his leprosy. Naaman was so furious that Elisha wouldn't give him special, personal treatment for the disease, he almost passed up the cure. It took a lowly and likely terrified underling to bravely suggest that if Elisha had prescribed something difficult, Naaman would have done it, so why not try a simple prescription?
One thing that is curious about the story of Naaman the Syrian is how determined he was to be cured of his leprosy yet how ready he was to ignore the cure. His ego told him he was a great and powerful general and, for that matter, "...Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?" He couldn't believe that the prophet would not come out of his tent to heal him personally.
Worldly powers are not the same as heavenly or spiritual powers and the importance of this distinction almost rendered Naaman a leper for the rest of his life. If he had not heeded the suggestion from his servant, if he hadn't agreed to try something simple rather than demand a welcome and a consultation he considered worthy of his position, well, he might have died a leper.
This particular weekend we might pay special to this story. We have become accustomed in the US to Independence Day celebrations that are non-partisan and non-military. A decision was made this year to show off military might and hold up military heritage as a declaration of the greatness of our country, which theoretically it would seem, was intended to define what makes America great so we could again make our nation great. (I am parsing my words so as to, hopefully, not offend.)
Naaman kind of had this mindset also. He thought his military successes made him great and worthy of more attention than he received. Our Independence Day celebration in Washington DC reflected a like view: that our military power is our greatness or is representative of our greatness, not our ideals, not our Constitution, not our rule of law and not our Bill of Rights.
Elisha did not reappear in this morning's Hebrew Bible reading after he had a servant give Naaman the prescription. He believed that God would heal Naaman if Naaman would take the humble prophet's advice. We have no indication as far as our national celebration is concerned that anyone involved in the planning considered what God would like us to be doing in celebration of our independence. But it is easy to imagine that we are headed for the equivalent of lifelong leprosy because we seek power, we brandish might, and we give short shrift to the notion that we should "Love God and love our neighbor." This is especially ironic as we claim that our country was founded on God-given principles. Yet, like Naaman before he relented, we observe leaders who strut and brag and demean and victimize others.
When Elisha told his servant to tell Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven times he was full of confidence in God's mercy and that it would be visited on Naaman if he did as the prophet prescribed. This is comparable to Jesus in our Gospel telling his followers twice to tell those they encountered in their ministry, "The Kingdom of God has come near."
The news that people needed, have always needed and need right now is the knowledge that, as Jesus said, "The Kingdom of God has come near." This is analogous to the exclamation of "Emmanuel," meaning God is with us. If we believe God is with us, then we don't have to go far or do much to make our petition of God, to let God know what weighs us down or brings us joy or causes us pain or inspires us to love God and love our neighbor. Knowing God is near, that the Kingdom of God has come near, opens us to God's grace, and prepares us for God's involvement in our lives.
Whether we are seeking a miracle cure or expressing our gratitude, whether we are hurting or on top of the world, God's presence and the knowledge of it is a comfort, a delight.
Jesus wanted his disciples to make this clear to his followers. There would be those who wouldn't listen and those who didn't care. But for those who did listen and care there would be an abundance of experiences of God, experiences they could share with others, experiences they could relate to raise the awareness and hopes of those who were down.
This is the kingdom of God we're talking about. Not the kingdom of Naaman's majestic army, not the kingdom of tanks and missiles in parade. This is the kingdom of God where what matters is that we recognize it and share the good news.
Happy independence day weekend! Amen
A sermon preached on July 7, 2019 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY, by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector