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Wednesday, February 08, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: II Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30:1-12, I Corinthians 9:24-27, Mark 1:40-45

Although I got in on the digital age early (qualifying with the programming language, Fortran IV, as one of the required languages for my 1973 PhD), I know that there is a huge gap between the experiences that shaped much of my life and those that shaped many of the texters and twitterers of today. One thing that I don’t believe has changed is the power of the human imagination. New possibility begins with the ability to see (and imagine) things as they might be, the ability to see more than the present dominant reality.

Among the many things that stimulated my imagination when I was younger was radio. I particularly remember a radio show called “Let’s Pretend,” sponsored by Cream of Wheat (whose jingles alone almost made it worth listening to). We who were listening, though, had to make up (imagine) our own pictures. No TV or computer screen projection; no DVD; just words. What places we went! Even today, before any images are projected or digitally transmitted, someone imagines a “what if?” world.

The Bible often does the same. One of Frederick Buechner’s books has the provocative title, “Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale.” The title is not meant to diminish biblical truth, but to push one to imagine deeper truths beneath the surface. Buechner writes, “Let the preacher tell the truth. Let him preach the overcoming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it that catch of the breath, that beat and lifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears, which I believe is the deepest intuition of truth that we have.”

The consistent message of the Bible is that things don’t have to be the way they are. If we take the Bible seriously, our perception of power and poverty may be turned upside down. We may find the lines of inclusion and exclusion are not what we think they are. The rising morning sun may bring new perspective to our suffering. We may find that the “prizes” worth having are not those doled out on “The Price Is Right.” We may even find a Jesus who is less a “superstar,” a Jesus less interested in flashy shows than in quiet inner transformation that opens now visions and possibilities in people’s imaginations. What if we took such imaginings seriously?

This Sunday’s lectionary readings are not all straightforward presentations of this “what if?” world, but once one’s mind begins down that road, the spin is there if one looks for it.

The story from II Kings is the strongest challenge to the commonly understood dynamics of power in our age (or most ages, for that matter). It starts with an unnamed woman who is not resentful of her captors. A daughter of Israel now held in Aram as servant of Naaman’s wife, she offers hope by suggesting someone back home, Elisha, who can cure Naaman’s leprosy. (II Kings 5:1-3) Naaman, as commander of the army of the king of Aram, is aware of his position and, following protocol, requests that his king send a letter with him as he (Naaman) goes to put his request for healing before the king of Israel. (vss. 4-6) The king of Israel, totally out of the loop on this, panics until Elisha says, “Send him to me.” (vss. 7-8) When Naaman arrives at Elisha’s doorstep, Elisha doesn’t even bother to come out, instead sending a messenger who tells Naaman to go wash in the muddy Jordan River seven times. (vss. 9-10) Naaman, taking it as an insult to his position and to the rivers back home, goes away angry. (vss. 11-12) Finally, at the counsel of his own servants, Naaman follows Elisha’s instructions and is cured. (vss. 13-14)

If we were to follow the story further, we would find that Naaman returns to Elisha offering to pay for the cure he has received. (vs. 15) Much to the consternation of Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, Elisha refuses Naaman’s offer. We don’t know whether Gehazi is upset that this powerful “enemy” has been treated so graciously, or if he is just greedy. We do know that he follows Naaman and extracts a generous payment from him. (vss. 16-24) Irony arises when Gehazi, supposedly one of God’s faithful servants, ends up with the leprosy Naaman had at the beginning. Jesus, at the time of his first sermon in Nazareth, enrages those gathered by mentioning Naaman as an example of God’s gracious response even to “Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:27)

What a world we find in this story. An unnamed woman who refuses to hate her enemy. An enemy humbled and healed. A pious servant of God consumed by jealousy and greed. What is this world coming to? Just imagine the world we might live in if old stereotypes didn’t work, if the “little” people of the world could set in motion healing processes.

Psalm 30 also deals with healing. “O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.” (Psalm 30:2) Whether it is physical healing or spiritual healing—or both—is not entirely clear. The Psalmist describes himself as having been among those who were down in the Pit. (vs. 3) Whatever the specifics, the message is that one doesn’t have to remain in the pit, that one doesn’t have to live forever with weeping and mourning. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning . . . You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” (vss. 5 & 11)

Perhaps the Psalmist was speaking out of an experience of depression. If so, I’m sure his words are a summary of a long struggle, that this is not a report of a magical moment when all depression disappeared. It speaks, though, of hope—hope rooted in a vision of another possibility. Only when the mind can imagine another possibility, can be touched by a power which offers another perspective, will joy and dancing begin to emerge.

I’m troubled by the image of life as a race in the reading from I Corinthians. (I Corinthians 9:24) It seems like our culture has gone overboard with the compulsion for winning. It’s all about winning whether it’s our favorite sports team or the latest military intervention. And winners imply losers. Outrageous salaries are shelled out to give our team a better shot at winning, driving ticket prices into the stratosphere. The passage also talks about punishing my body and enslaving it. (vs. 27) At my age, sometimes just getting out of bed and going to the grocery store is punishment enough.

So, what do we do with these few verses? The core truth calls us to imagine a different prize - one that lasts, is “imperishable.” (vs. 25) What is it that we are chasing after in life? What if we gave up our traditional visions of what it means to win? Some see the imperishable prize as heaven. We can start by living now for things and by values that have lasting consequences for us, for others, for the world. What if we were all racing to see who could do the most for peace and justice? The passage’s emphasis on not running “aimlessly” (vs. 26) similarly calls us to consider the purpose of our running. Sometimes we just go through life without any sense of purpose. What if we paid attention to the blowing of the Spirit, running from a focussed center? I take from this passage less an obsession with competition and more a call to living guided by purposes that matter.

Finally, the Gospel lesson on the surface is another story of a leper being healed. What, however, is the meaning of the exchange at the beginning, and then the warning to silence at the end? The first two verses imply that Jesus makes a “choice” to heal this man. “If you choose, you can make me clean.” “I do choose. Be made clean.” (Mark 1:40-41) That doesn’t happen in other healing stories, and do we really think Jesus could turn the man away? Is there the possibility here, though, that Jesus is a bit tired and irritated? One commentator suggested that in an original version of this story, Jesus was moved by “anger” rather than “pity” or “compassion.” (vs. 41)

Are we seeing here a human Jesus who is irritated that so many people see in him only magical cures. If they really understood and wanted to follow him they would be challenged deep within their souls to come to a new way of looking at and experiencing and living life. It’s clear by the end of the story that he has become a celebrity, a role he has shunned, and can’t even escape the miracle-seekers by going “out in the country.” Even there they “came to him from every quarter.” (vs. 45) Can we imagine that life is about more than chasing a miracle worker? Jesus’ call was about giving as much as as it was about receiving. Can we imagine purposes for our lives guided by a vision of hope and salvation for all aspects of human existence? What if?

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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