February 15, 2009
Edwards (Knox) United Church
Sixth Sunday After Epiphany
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The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson
Paul gives us the image of spiritual training in the metaphor of the discipline demanded of an elite athlete. There is no quick and easy way of preparation. However, in our world the demand on people is such that some do seek a faster method. We see this in the issue of enhancing drugs that hit the news and how testing for such drugs is now an ethical issue in sports.
This suggests there is a tension of how one forms habits of discipline, and how they flow over to other aspects of life. There is an inner discipline that is needed which works for performance and also in how one lives in daily life. It is the inner stuff that allows one to withstand the pressures of our commodified world, and when one fails, to begin again.
This is a life project for all of us. We seek to find the images and messages that can carry us in daily life and also in the big issues. This inner work of spiritual reflection is for the sake of the world. It requires deep self reflection, and deep reflection on the issues of the world. The inner work is always to drive us to world solidarity. If it has no impact on the common good than it has no impact on the inner reality.
Our world does offer short cuts to inner peace. There is a new book called Confessions of a Self-Help Junkie by Linda Pruce.* In it she describes how she neglected her kids in order to read about how to be a better parent. She watched Oprah to find the latest guru. And she ended with 50 tiles on her bookshelf and found no satisfaction. Her transforming insight began when she realized that “self-help junkies prefer to read about topics instead of learning by trial and error.” She says, “Your procrastination is disguised by research,” which delays doing much of anything. This stands in place of doing hard inner work. Inner work is digging deeper into a spiritual discipline and that is tested by action.
Illustrations or phrases that offer some insight can carry us only so far. An illustration is: a popular book - Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. It is only a beginning idea and it is not sufficient. We know this through another expression, God is in the details, or a variation of the phrase. That insight comes from the world of architecture to remind us that often it is the small stuff and the details of life that are both difficult and rewarding.
Our story of Naaman can be a template for us in how details bring healing. Let me walk you through the metaphors to find what the author was teaching.
Naaman is hero. Heroes are not to be blemished and he is. He is to be feared and yet in his time of need a foreigner, a slave, a girl tells him what to do. This may not seem to be a big deal to us, however in the time of honor/shame, of tribalism, of having no exchange with the enemy, this is a transformational action. This action should not be, it is not how things are. The very fact of healing coming from the source - an enemy and slave will be inner challenge. Naaman has to change and it is a tough demand on him.
We see this in how the King of Israel responds - fear. He thinks this request is a trick for why would an enemy ask for help? And then the king receives unexpected help from a new spiritual reality - the prophet Elisha. This offer suggests a change in the religious framework of Israel - the role of prophets to call the nation to its better self. Two sources of the sense of God now, priest and prophet.
Naaman goes off to the prophet not to the priest. Here again the mighty man is faced with a difficult and unexpected action. It would be expected that there would be a face to face encounter, but it is not Elisha who speaks to him, for he sends his man to speak to him. This would be humiliating to a powerful man. Thus a new demand of humility is added to his inner work. And no big magical show happens - just go an dip yourself in the Jordan.
It only gets better, from a story point of view, for it gets worse for Naaman. The Jordan is not a mighty river, in fact it is not much of a river, dirty and small. It is like comparing the Castor river to the Ottawa. Again, in the time of the story, this would be an insult.
Again, who brings the transformational information? Again from a servant/slave. The power arrangement is stood on its head, for it is from an unexpected source that healing comes.
To be healed Naaman had to go through some demanding inner work. All of his power images challenged and changed. What is interesting in the story, which we did not read, Elisha expects no reward but tells him to go in Peace - which is code - live your life in gratitude and peace - live as a changed man.
We hear the echo of this in Mark’s story of healing. The healing is how one lives.
This is the miracle, changed attitudes. Leprosy is a metaphor for the things in our world that break and destroy community. To heal is a matter of taking care of both the small things and the big things. One is freed from the thing that holds one back - the fear, the small mindedness that inhabit us. It is to live with what is, and to work to change the contours of existence. The healing comes when one faces that which is the most fearful.
There is a story of St. Francis who loved all things yet he feared meeting lepers. He says he cannot abide lepers. Yet in a dream he is told he will face a leper and embrace him.
This a bit too much for even Francis. He wakes up in horror. He tells of all things he has given up and says that ought to be enough. Yet it isn’t. The story goes on, he is on the road and in front of him is a a leper. He is tempted to turn around, and his companion suggests running from the leper is the best course of action. After some inner struggle Francis says - “If we run away from this, there will be leper bells on every road we choose.” He goes to the leper and kisses him on the lips. The inner work he has done prepares him to meet the big challenges. In the book the author has Francis say this - “No don’t you see - it means - it means that every time we kiss a leper on the lips he becomes Jesus Christ!” *
A friend who teaches Yoga says the rewarding outcome comes through time and when the inner work changes how one acts in the world. The fun is in the details. The work of spiritual reflection is finding our walk with God, and to live for the common good. This means naming those things that are the lepers in our life and world and then to kiss the leper.
* Macleans - Feb. 16
* Transcending Trauma - Ruth Morris with Ruth Bradley-St -Cyr.