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It’s That Simple

Rebecca Chancellor

July 4, 2010
2 Kings 5:1-14

This summer, we are using the Old Testament texts from the lectionary for a sermon series on some of the prophets.  Today’s Scripture, of course, is about the prophet Elisha in Israel.  But in this text, we actually hear more about the man named Naaman than we do about Elisha.

Last week we heard the story about Elijah ascending in a whirlwind to heaven and Elisha taking the mantle of Elijah.  And now, leading up to our story today, Elisha has been performing miracles… he has made water clean, brought a young boy back to life, purified stew so that it was healthy to eat, and fed a crowd with a small number of loaves.

So there’s this young girl from Israel who has been taken captive during a raid, and she is serving Naaman’s wife.  She has heard about this prophet Elisha.  She is the one who has heard what he’s been up to in Samaria.  And even though she is being held captive, she shares the news that a prophet in Samaria could cure Naaman of his leprosy.

And what do we know about Naaman?  The text tells us that he is an army commander for the king of Aram.  He is considered a great man, in high favor with his master, and a mighty warrior.  But he suffers from leprosy.  And he’s a foreigner; he lives in Aram.  He’s not an Israelite, and he does not worship the Lord, the God of the Hebrews.  And more than a foreigner, Naaman is an enemy to Israel.  Aram and Israel have been at odds with one another; the Arameans had been raiding and attacking the Israelites.  Even the slave girl who serves Naaman’s wife was kidnapped during one such raid.

But now it is because of this young girl that Naaman hears there is a prophet in Samaria who can cure him.  The king of Aram agrees and sends Naaman to the king of Israel, bearing many gifts of silver, gold, and garments.  Naaman, army commander, has traveled to Israel to find healing from the God of the Hebrews.  But his journey leads to a dead end: the King of Israel is unable to cure him and does not make the connection with Elisha the prophet at all.

The king’s reply to Naaman’s request for a cure is, “Am I God, to give death or life?”  The king of Israel assumes that the king of Aram wants to make a fool of him; he assumes that if he fails to comply, it will only provide an opportunity for the king of Aram to lead another raid on his territory. He feels like he is being set up for failure. He’s not God; he can’t do this.  He is so distraught that he tears his clothes—a sign of mourning or great distress.

But the prophet of our story—Elisha, a man of God—hears that the king is in distress.  He sends a message to the king, essentially asking, “Why are you so distressed? Just send the man to me.”  So Naaman, with all his wealth in tow, goes to Elisha’s house.  A messenger greets Elisha with a simple message: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”

Now, here it is: the message he had come to Israel to receive.  But Naaman does not run to the Jordan River rejoicing.  Instead, he becomes angry.  Naaman expected something different.  He had envisioned this day—the day when he would be healed by a man of God.  And Naaman doesn’t like the instructions he’s been given through a messenger.  (Is Elisha really too busy to give the message himself?)  Naaman is certain that he is worthy of something more.  “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’s expectations had not been met.  And then his anger grows… He begins to wonder why he had to travel to Israel at all.  If all he was to do was wash in the river seven times, then why shouldn’t he have just gone to the rivers back home?  Naaman cannot believe he hasn’t been healed and his anger has become rage filled with a bit of sarcasm.

It’s the servants who call Naaman’s attention to the situation at hand.  They ask Naaman to consider the instructions he’s been given.  It’s as if they ask, “Why aren’t you just doing what he said?”  They challenge Naaman, “Well, if the prophet had commanded you to do something really difficult, wouldn’t you have just done it?  Why are you making things so complicated?  The instructions are pretty simple: wash, be clean.  Just do it and stop making it more complex than it needs to be.”

And when Naaman finally stops and listens and agrees to wash in the Jordan seven times, according to Elisha’s instructions, he finds that his skin is healed and he is clean.

How many times do we make things more complicated than they need to be?  How often are we like Naaman, wanting things to go exactly as we have imagined, exactly as we expect?  I know at times, I can be the queen of making things more complicated than they need to be, and I too can feel distressed when my expectations aren’t met.

It is said that “there has never been a more complicated, cluttered, bureaucratic society than the one we live in today.” We often measure our success and our happiness based on how full, busy, and complicated our lives are.  You all know this—your families are running in ten different directions.  Our youth and college students are trying to do everything—church life, school, sports, music, arts, … the list goes on and on.  And they want to do it all really well.  They have high expectations for themselves.  And many of you probably feel the same way in your own lives and in your own contexts.

But what happens when our expectations aren’t met?  Do we complain and grumble?  Do we throw our hands up in the air and say, ‘It’s just not worth it—it’s a failure!’?  Is it suddenly no worth trying for the goal because things didn’t go as planned?  At first, Naaman certainly thought it wasn’t worth trying.  Dripping with sarcasm and drama, he begins to think he never should have left Aram in the first place.

Thankfully, Naaman’s servants cause him to stop and listen.  They encourage him to simply follow Elisha’s instructions?  Is it really that simple?  You know, I think sometimes, it is.  What if we just stopped, listened, and followed God’s instructions?

Jesus tells us, “Love God with everything you’ve got and love your neighbor.”  Sometimes it is that simple.

One of the things I have treasured most about being a part of the UPC family the last few years is our use of the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook[1].  The Elders, Deacons, and many committees used the book to practice different spiritual disciplines.  And for a time, Judy would send information on the practice to the whole congregation so that we could practice the disciplines alongside one another.  One of my favorite practices to reflect on and practice was simplicity.  Simplicity, according to the book, is the desire to uncomplicate and untangle my life so I can focus on what really matters.

To uncomplicate and untangle my life so I can focus on what really matters.  Simplicity brings freedom and with it generosity.  Practicing simplicity encourages us to set priorities that flow from loving God above all else.  It’s that simple.  Love God.  And the rest of your life will flow from that.  Love God.  Love neighbor.  Live your life to the fullest with those two things.

It reminds me of the fable where a rich investment banker taking a vacation meets a simple fisherman.  The banker begins a conversation with the fisherman asking why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more than just a few fish.  The fisherman replies that he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.  And the banker inquires, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The fisherman says, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life.”

The banker scoffs and says, “I am an Ivy League MBA, and I could help you. You should spend more time fishing; and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. Eventually you could buy several more boats, and then you would have a fleet of boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor; eventually opening your own cannery.  You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would of course need to leave this small coastal fishing village to go to a place where you could run your ever-expanding enterprise.  And this will only take  you 15-20 years.”

“And then what?” asked the fisherman.

The banker says, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would sell your company stock to the public and become very rich; you would make millions. Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos…”

Sometimes, it is simple.  Fish and eat.  Enjoy time with family and friends.  But we want to make it so complicated.  Like Naaman, we think that for big change to happen—like healing or communion with God—we must have to complete a list of rituals and tasks.  It cannot be as simple as “Wash, and be clean.”  Or, can it?

With the practice of simplicity, we can create more space in our lives for loving and serving God, we can experience freedom from envy and entitlement, we can let go of things that don’t really matter.  And we can stake our identity in God’s love, instead of accumulations and possessions.  We can focus on loving God and loving others.

But one look at the world around us, and you may be thinking, “But rarely is life that simple.”  Yes, we could talk for days about the complexities of life and death, of the mysteries of God.  We could wonder about how a powerful, authoritative God could let bad things happen to good people.  We could question God and question why things aren’t the way we had hoped, the way we expected them to be.  But at the end of the day, what is it that really matters?

How we love others is how we love God.  This was the theme of the Middle School mission immersion camp we had this past week.  How we love others is how we love God.  To practice this concept, 8 middle school youth, Rachael Bauman, and I did various projects, like making ribbons for cancer patients, greeting people at UPLIFT, sorting clothes for Manos de Cristo’s Back to School program, doing laundry for street youth, and delivering toys and homemade activity books to Dell Children’s Hospital.  None of these tasks were big and daunting; in fact, they were quite simple.  Gluing ribbons, washing clothes, saying “Hello.”  We spent time in community, and we practiced loving God by loving others.  And most of it was quite simple.  I was especially touched by the Volunteer Coordinator at Dell Children’s Hospital who was so impressed by the simple gifts we offered.  She went on and on about how the simple things can make such a difference in the lives of children in the hospital.  And it makes a difference in our lives too.  Suddenly, life is a bit simpler.  Love God.  Love others.

And sometimes we don’t understand all the details, but we don’t have to make it more complex.  Loving others is how we love God.  It really is that simple.  And we can love God and others wherever we are, whether it be in Texas, Oklahoma, or even Oregon.  We can follow God’s instructions.

And the really good news is that no matter where we are God is with us and God loves us. God even loves and cures foreigners, like Naaman.

Wash and be clean.  Love God.  Love others.

Amen.