Thursday, July 1, 2010

The 5th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 14)

Leaving Your Baggage Behind

Readings: 1 Kings 21:1-3, 17-21; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 6:7-18; Luke 10:1-12, 17-20

The message of the gospel this week is that sometimes in life we feel powerless and must seek a power beyond ourselves. We must learn to depend on God’s grace, our need of it, and our need to share it for the empowerment of others and ourselves. A bumper sticker that I saw the other day brought it all home to me. It proclaimed, “When the world ends the one with the most stuff wins!” It caused me to reflect that most of us don’t travel through this world lightly. We carry a great deal of baggage, emotional and otherwise. It is a big learning for most of us to trust that God can meet our needs. As Christians we know that God’s grace is abundantly available to us. We know how much we need that free gift. But to really depend on God’s grace and God’s grace alone, to follow God’s agenda, is contrary to all that our self-reliant society stands for. It is very difficult for us to even acknowledge that we are in need of God’s grace. We are often unaware of the needs of others. We don’t even see our own neediness. It comes from the self-indulgent behaviour that is so prevalent in our modern day society.

If you don’t think we are self-indulgent, simply walk through a mall observing how people react. People these days expect doors to open for them. They walk around with cell phones to their ears, oblivious to the effect they are having on other people. Most of us give little thought to how dependent we are on other people, never mind on God. When we find ourselves in need, it is very difficult to ask for help.

Not that it is unique to our society or era. I suspect it is part of human nature. It comes through loud and clear in that wonderful narrative that we heard in the Old Testament reading. Naaman is the commander of the army of the king of Aram. He is a great man, honoured in his country because of his leadership. This man who possesses great power has to learn the hard lesson that he is human and vulnerable, and that there are other kinds of power beyond his own. He has leprosy, probably not the virulent disease that would have banished him into exile, but difficult all the same for a man of his position to deal with. He tries every cure possible, but nothing works. His wife’s maid, a young woman from Israel, tells him about the prophet Elisha who may be able to cure him. He doesn’t take any chances. He gets a letter to the king of Israel, lots of money and clothing, and sets off for Israel. He arrives with all of his entourage at Elisha’s house. After all that, Elisha doesn’t even come out to see him. Instead he sends a messenger, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” He might as well have told Naaman to go jump in the lake! Naaman is beyond angry. After all, he wants a performance equal to his self-importance. His pride is deeply wounded. He refuses to do as Elisha has told him.

Once again it is one of his servants who persuades him to come to his senses. “If he had told you to do something difficult, you would have done it.” Finally he is able to hear the good sense of what the servant is saying. He does as Elisha has told him. He immerses himself seven times in the Jordan, and he is made clean.

It is a wonderful story that reminds us of the struggle most of us have in accepting help. It is a wonderful reminder that there are sources of grace other than those we know in our public lives.

Jesus’ disciples too must learn to depend on God’s grace for their needs. Jesus empowers them to go out into the society around them, to share the good news of what they have come to believe and experience. They go out trusting that God will provide. They don’t pack a lunch. They don’t take money – not even an extra pair of sandals. They stay wherever they are welcomed. And they come back filled with stories and experiences of God at work in and through them. They are happy, not because of their new found power, but because they belong to God. They know that the glory belongs to God, not to them. They know that they are utterly dependent on God, and that they can trust God to be there in all of their needs.

How do we learn to be grace-filled people, dependent on God for our needs? How do we put God’s grace into action in our world? For most of us it begins with learning that we need God and that we can depend on God meet our needs. I can certainly think of times in my life when it became abundantly clear to me that I had a share in God’s grace and that God would be there in my needs. It has usually been times when I needed God and made an active decision to trust that God would meet my needs.

When I was studying theology I spent two years in urban ministry. The first year I worked in a Food Bank. Most often my job was at the intake desk. I would interview people and make recommendations for how to help them. The desk was at the entrance to the building. I would watch people walk back and forth in front of the building, sometimes for ten or fifteen minutes before they came in. I wondered what kept them from just coming in. We always helped them. For many people, just to say ‘I need’ was very difficult.

Then I did a course that required a ‘plunge’. To pass we needed to spend a weekend on the streets. “Take no money, no sleeping bag, no food!” we were told. We could sleep outside, or we could find a hostel to stay in. I felt like a lamb amongst wolves. It was a terrifying but life-changing experience! I found myself walking back and forth outside a hostel trying to get up the courage to go inside and ask for a place to stay for the night. It was just so difficult to say, “I need”! When I did I received the help I needed. I learned a great deal about myself that weekend. I learned a great deal about people, about how dependent we are on one another, about how kind we can be; and I learned that I could trust God to take care of me.

We don’t all need to take a ‘plunge’ to learn that God takes care of our needs. We do need to learn to depend on God’s grace. We do need to get rid of some of our baggage. We do need to the grace of God with others. Like the seventy Jesus sent out, we are called to seek out people who will respond. We are to listen to them, to share with them in their pain and their joy. We are to meet their needs. We are to relate to them the gospel message that God loves them and is the answer to their deepest needs. We are called to allow God to work through us. We are called to responsible action, to finding the ways and means that others can know God. We are called to live out the Gospel message in our lives. It is a call to respond in the way we live and work. May we know the urgency of that call! May we respond and live in love as God has called us. Amen.
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