Sunday, July 4, 2010

Responsibility: The Other Side of Privilege

Sheepscott Community Church July 4, 2010

2 Kings 5: 1-14

Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20

Responsibility: The Other Side of Privilege

What I have titled the sermon this morning, “Responsibility: The Other Side of Privilege,” is one message from this morning’s readings. What constitutes privilege in the readings, and what is the consequent responsibility?

Let’s start with Naaman, the protagonist in the first reading. The commander of the army of the king of Aram, Naaman was highly honored in the kingdom because of the victories he consistently wrought, but, he suffered from leprosy. It surprises me that he still moved among men with that disease because the common practice was to isolate those suffering from leprosy. I can only guess that the disease wasn’t that far advanced, that it was one of the lesser skin diseases classified underthat name, and/or that his prestigious position as head of the army stood him in good stead that way. More important that the king retain this best of soldiers than that he be put away because of disease. It may be that the king of Aram jumped so quickly at the prospect of sending him to Israel for a cure––not necessarily out of any great love for the man, but for the very reason that he wanted to retain an outstanding commander’s services for the sake of the kingdom.

Naaman’s privilege was his high position that gave him complete access to the king, which access resulted in the letter of introduction to the king of Israel. Naaman’s quest for healing brought him to the doorstep of the prophet Elisha. The prophet did not come out to greet him but sent the message that he was to bathe seven times in the River Jordan, which for the Jews is comparable to the Ganges River for the Hindus, viz., a sacred river. When he got that message, Naaman was furious on two counts: that the prophet did not come out himself to meet him––after all he was the commander of the army of the king of Aram––and that the cure was simple and foolish in his view. They had better rivers in Damascus. He didn’t have to come to Israel to bathe in a river.

Naaman’s pride was potentially his downfall, and could have prevented a healing. The Spirit of God in the prophet Elisha knew that and acted on that knowledge by prescribing what he did. If humility wasn’t native to Naaman, perhaps good sense was, as he had the good sense to listen to his servants who convinced him to go back and do as the prophet had ordered. When he did, he came up out of the water the seventh time entirely healed.

No fool, Naaman saw and believed that he had been healed by the God of Israel through the word of his prophet Elisha. This new understanding was a privileged understanding, and Naaman’s response to it was to bring home earth from Israel out of which he would construct an altar in Syria, where he could worship the God of the Israelites. He was responsible to worship the One who healed him.

The kingdom of God was near to Naaman as it was near to the disciples of Jesus, whom Jesus sent out in pairs to the towns where he was planning to stop. He told them that in the towns where they were welcomed, they should heal the sick, but for those places where they were not welcomed, they should shake the dust of those streets from their sandals as a testimony against the towns and move on. The disciples’ privilege was their proximity to Jesus and his teachings. They were the inner circle around the Messiah and shared with others what he shared with them: knowledge of the things of God and healing life.

But as with Naaman, pride was potentially their downfall as well. They were jubilant when they returned to Jesus from their forays out, exclaiming about how the demons were subject to them. Jesus admonished them and called them back to his perspective: rejoice not that the demons are subject to you but that your names are written in heaven. The privilege of association with Jesus and his life meant simply that they should continue to spread the word. It didn’t mean that they were particularly special, but that knowledge of the salvation of God in Jesus had to be preached, with healing of the sick as part of that package, and that they would do as well as anyone else, considering it’s God who is the sourve of healing, not they.

The word salvation itself means healing. Consider the word salve from the same Latin root salve. As a noun, a healing ointment for application to wounds or sores; figuratively, a remedy, especially for spiritual disease or sorrow. When used as a verb, to anoint a wound with salve or healing unguent; figuratively, chiefly to heal sin or sorrow, to heal a person of sickness or sin. Salve, salvation. Healing.

If we ourselves have been healed, whether in the body, in the mind and emotions, or in the spirit, and whether that healing is a result of the normal state of health acquired from good habitual practices––eating to live, not living to eat––exercising, sleeping, and so on; or whether that health and healing, that salvation is due to the interventionary prayer of others that brings the kingdom of God within healing distance, whatever reason or means for that healing, to God be the glory. Not to any man, woman or child, but to God who will employ any man, woman or child who is open to the Spirit of God to bring about his ends, to God be the glory.

I have stressed the application of the title of the sermon, responsibility being the other side of privilege. Continuing in this vein of healing, all of us who have experienced God’s healing in any way, sacramentally, interpersonally, or otherwise, we all have the responsibility to pass on salvation, to pass on healing to others who are suffering, whether in the body, the mind, the emotions or in the spirit. It is the wisdom behind the application of AA’s Twelfth Step: How to stay sober? Pass on the healing. Those of you associated with AA or any of AA’s offshoots know how that works.

Cyndi Brinkler and I have both known the healing of God in our lives. It has been a privilege to associate with people who have been God’s ministers to us, and we have now a responsibility to pass on what has been given to us. It seemed a good idea to offer prayer for healing on at least one Sunday a month. We have done that twice and will continue to do it after the coffee fellowship here in the church on the last Sunday of the month, and come fall, down at the Valley Church, with anyone who wants to come in for prayer. Neither Cyndi nor I are particularly special, but we have surrendered as best we can to God’s purposes for our lives, and part of that is to indeed pass on to whoever wants it some of what we understand to be the kingdom of God here and now, not there and then.

In this context, I would like to mention Francis MacNutt, a former Dominican priest, who almost single-handedly rescued the ministry of healing from the dusty archives of early church history, to which it would have been consigned by those who are embarrassed by the intimacy of a God who wants to heal. The immediacy of that form of salvation, of wellness, is embarrassing to some who want God to remain enthroned out there where he can be properly worshipped, not kneeling before human beings, where he is washing feet with a towel wrapped around him. Clean up your act, God. Stay out there in space where we have put you! Where you belong. You’re embarrassing us.

Back to MacNutt. The Episcopal Church has housed the Order of St. Luke, where prayer for healing has quietly gone on for decades and decades. One of the principle actors in that order was Agnes Sanford, the wife of an Episcopal rector. She was a quiet teacher with a great gift of healing and as great a gift of grounded common sense. In fact, it was Agnes Sanford who prayed with Francis MacNutt for the release of the Spirit of God in his life. He followed the same healing route as she did and now, with his wife Judith, runs a center for healing in Jacksonville, FL. This couple has also conducted annual healing retreats for the past 25 years in Vermont and Maine, and it is through that ministry that Cyndi and I learned about healing in the history of the church, but more importantly, healing as part of the kingdom of God here and now among us.

All of this is background for a little vignette about Francis MacNutt. I remember the first time I saw him at a conference praying with people. He might have his hand on someone’s head, but he was looking around the room and seemed to be counting people. I later found out that that was exactly what he was doing. A scientist, he was always interested in statistics. He had no illusions about his own personal importance in that kind of prayer. It was God’s doing. He was simply––as the disciples were learning to be at the time of this morning’s gospel––a well-disposed instrument, called particularly, in his case, to healing. A footnote to this kind of healing prayer is that it is not a replacement for healing through medical means, but a complement to it. Healing through prayer is another tool in God’s toolbox of salvation, of well-being for his people, and we’re denying ourselves when we don’t employ that tool.

Two things I’d like to leave you with this morning: an invitation to come to the next time of prayer for healing, if you are so moved, when Cyndi and I will be in church for that purpose, on July 25. The other is a suggestion to approach the sacrament of communion this morning, recognizing it for the gift it is: the Christ in our midst in one way he chooses to reveal himself––as food and drink, and the inherent health, the inherent salvation contained therein. The source of all life and healing feeds us his life. As we bring the dimension of our faith to this reality, we can experience healing through the presence of God in our midst in communion–– and in each other. A friend has told me he gets a dose of healing every time he comes to church, when he moves further away from sinful thoughts and behaviors.

A wonderful line from this morning’s lectionary reading from Galatians that sums up what I think we hope to be living out as church: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people.” And part of that good is to heal where and when God calls us to, like Elisha, like Jesus and his disciples, like Agnes Sanford and Francis MacNutt. Amen.

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