Sunday, July 07, 2013

Sermon at Martin Luther King Presbyterian Church, July 7, 2013

Simple Instructions
Scripture reading: 2 Kings 5:1–14

Naaman was insulted. He had leprosy, a dreaded skin disease, and he had come from Syria to Israel - a long distance to get cured,. He had received the blessing of his king to make the journey, he had brought gifts with him that were worth a huge fortune: thirty thousand pieces of silver, six thousand pieces of gold, and ten changes of fine clothes. He had gone to the King of Israel to be cured, the king of Israel sent him to the prophet Elisha, and when at last he had come to the home of the prophet Elisha, Elisha didn't invite him in to the house, Elisha didn't even come out of his house to greet him or to examine his skin or to treat him for his terrible illness. Elisha simply sent out a servant to deliver instruction. The instructions were simple, he told Naaman to “Go and wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River, and you will be completely cured of your disease.”

That was an insult to think that such simple instructions could be the cure for his disease. He was an important person, willing to pay vast sums of money for his cure. He deserved better treatment than such simple instructions. Elisha should at least see him in person, pray to the Lord his God, wave his hand over the diseased spot, and cure me! It is too simple, “go wash in a river” and not just any river, in the nasty dirty Jordan river. If I could be cured by dipping in a river I could have stayed home and dipped myself in the Abana and Pharpar rivers. They are much prettier and much cleaner than the Jordan river, or any river in Israel.

Now Naaman's servant had better sense than Naaman did. Isn't it the truth than often the servant his more sense than the master, the employee often has more sense than the employer, the poor and disenfranchised people have better sense than the rich and the powerful. It was a slave, a little Israelite girl, a captive of war who knew that there was a prohet in Israel who could cure all manner of diseases. If it hadn't been for this slave girl Naaman would have never come to Israel. Now Naaman's servant tries to talk some sense into his master who was being too proud and stuborn to follow Elisha's simple instructions. Look, the servant said, if the prophet told you to do some dangerous or difficult thing to achieve your cure you would do it wouldn't you? Why then can't you just do the simple thing the prophet told you to do, and be cured of your leprosy. Thankfully Naaman listened to his servant and did go and dip himself seven times in the Jordan and he was cured of his leprosy.

Medicine has advanced a long way since the days of Elisha, but it remains the case that sometimes the best path to health and healing is to follow some simple instructions. When we moved to Florida we stayed in the Manse while we were looking for a house to purchase. We noted that our neighbor, Betty Williams was a walker. Early in the morning before the sun got too hot to be outside comfortably and again in the evening when it began to cool down just before sunset she came out of her house and took off walking at a fast pace. No dog to walk, just Betty taking off down the street. Now I would never guess a woman's age, but let us say that Betty had retired several years before we met her. She told us why she walked regularly, it was a matter of following her doctor's simple instructions. She had been having some sort of heart problems and was under the care of a cardiologist, and he gave her simple instructions for better health, he told her to walk a mile twice a day and eat less. As far as I know that might have been the only treatment he gave her, and it worked. She had taken her car and measured exactly how far a mile was and she walked the same course twice a day, every day.

Now some people would reject such simple instructions. I mean modern medicine has so many tools to diagnose and treat illness; most people expect their doctor to use them all. Don't I need a cat scan or a MRI? Do you think I need angioplasty or a stent in my heart? What about open heart surgery? Aren't you even going to prescribe any medication? Not Betty, she was a person with a lot of good sense, she figured the doctor has spent all those years in school and knew what he was doing, so she did exactly what he told her to do. She walked exactly one mile twice a day and ate less food than she had been eating, and before you know it she lost weight and was in excellent health. Like Naaman the key to her health lay in following simple instructions. She didn't argue with the doctor, and she didn't follow instructions for a few months and then decide she didn't need any more exercise, she went out her door and walked her measured mile twice a day and ate enough less to loose the extra pounds.

A lot of people think that following Jesus is a complicated matter. Through out the ages the Christian faith has split into various factions over the most trivial things. The Catholics and Orthodox Churches split over whether the spirit proceeds from the father or if the spirit proceeds from the father and the son. There are two divisions of the Church of God, one believes in instrumental music for worship and the other division says that the New Testament doesn't mention organs or guitars or pianos, or tamborines people who follow Jesus should sing without accompanyment. The Presbyterian Church has split apart again and again, and is still fracturing into various denominations over whether ministers must be seminary educated, over whether women can preach in the pulpit, and now over whether homosexuals can be ordained as ministers, elders and deacons. We divide over how to interpret the Bible, whether the Church should be involved in social change, whether the Church should be involved in politics, whether Christians can drink or smoke or play cards, or work on Sunday.

The Jewish faith, the faith of Jesus and his people was no different. Jews delighted to argue and debate over which of the hundred's of commandments and ordinances in their scriptures were the most important. Is it ever permissable to eat unclean food? How strictly do we need to keep the Sabbath? Were there ever circumstances when you can work on the Sabbath? You remember many people condemned Jesus because he healed people on the Sabbath.

The leaders of the Jewish faith came to Jesus and tried to involve him in these arguments, hoping to diminish his popular support by making him answer questions that would alienate one or another faction however he answered. They asked him which was the first and greatest commandment and he answered by giving them simple instructions for right living. He said (Matthew 22:37-39) ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

Now there are pretty simple instructions for Christian living, or for Jewish living, or for right living. Love God and love your neighbor. What could be simpler than this? On this hangs all the law and the prophets. If you follow these simple instructions you will be able to figure our what is really important in all the whole of the scriptures. It all depends on these two simple directions. But of course this was two simple for the religious leaders. They couldn't argue about the loving God part of it, but they asked. But who is really my neighbor? Your certainly don't mean I have to love someone simply because he lives in my neighborhood. I have enemies who live in my neighborhood, you certainly don't mean I should love them. I mean I do love my family (at least most members of my family) and I love the people who are my close friends, but there are other people in my village who aren't even Jews. I certainly don't love the Romans who Lord it over us. The bum down the street who is always wanting to borrow my things, who doesn't work hard for a living like I do, I certainly don't love him. It's not so simple as you say, to love your neighbor as myself.

So Jesus told him a story. He said that there was a certain man who was making a journey and on a lonely stretch of road he was set upon by theives, who beat him up and robbed him and left him all messed up and bloody on the side of the road with no wallet or money or anything. It happened that there were two religious leaders who came down the same stretch of road and each of them saw the man, but neither one of them wanted to get involved. They would get bloody themselves if they did anything to help the poor man, and then they would be ritually unclean and couldn't lead worship or whatever. Maybe they thought they better hurry on down the road before they got set on by the same band of thieves. What ever their reasons they passed by on the other side of the road and left him lying on the side of the road, bleeding and dying, helpless and needing help. Maybe they thought I don't know him, he is not a part of my congregation, he doesn't live in my neighborhood, he is not my responsibility.

But there was a third man who came down the road and had compassion on the poor fellow who had been beaten and robbed. Do you know what compassion means, it means you feel with the other person. Maybe he felt with the poor man on the roadside because he too had been mistreated at some time, or maybe many times in his life. We don't really know much about the man who had compassion, except that he got of his donkey and helped the man, cleaned out his wounds, bandaged them up to stop the bleeding, and took him to the nearest village and found an Inn. He paid for the man's stay, since the poor fellow had been robbed and had nothing, and asked the Innkeeper to take care of him during his recovery, see that he got fed and promised to pay the rest of the bill if what he had already given was not enough.

We do know more thing about the man who had compassion, Jesus tell us that he was a Samaritan. If you have done any Bible study you may remember that the Samaritans and the Jews were enemies of one another. The Jews regarded the Samaritans as unclean, as pretend Jews. The Jews said the Samaritans' religion was not pure. They were people who had intermarried with the heathens when the so called pure Jews were taken into exile.

Since we don't have any Samaritans in our community I think Jesus would tell the story differently if he were to come to Mason Square. When Clarance Jordan told this story to his white congregation in rural Georgia some 40 years ago he said that the third man, the man who had compassion and helped the poor man who had been beaten and robbed, the third man to come down the road was a Negro. I guess if Jesus came here this morning to tell the same story he might say that this third man was a homosexual, or maybe a transsexual. Maybe Jesus would say the third man was a homeless drug addict. Maybe he would say that the man who had compassion was an undoccumented immigrant. The point is that the compassionate person was the kind of person who none of Jesus listeners would have thought of as a neighbor. The Samaritan, the undoccumented immigrant, was one of those people that we would want to exclude from the category of neighbor when we hear Jesus say to love your neighbor as yourself. When Jesus finished telling his story he asked his hearers. Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

When you understand the meaning of Jesus story then we can re-write Jesus simple instructions and hear him say that the first commandment is to love God with everything you are and all that you have, and love everybody.

Jesus would surely give his approval to this little poem by Edwin Markham

He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In !

That is all I have to say this morning. Life may be difficult and complicated, but there are some simple instructions that we can follow to greatly benefit our lives and the lives of everyone we meet.

1. Love God

2. Love Everybody

3. Take a walk every day.

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