July 5, 2010

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Taking Liberties?

2 King 5:1-14

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

As we celebrate the independence of this “sweet land of liberty,” this is a day to pause and reflect on the wisdom and foresight of our nation’s founders. Theirs has been a great gift to the world, the vision of freedom and liberty, safeguarded in the rule of law.

We have come a long way since 1776, transformed from a small collection of little colonies into one of the greatest power the world has ever known. It seems there is nothing we cannot do as a nation once we set our minds to it. It seems there is nothing we cannot have if we really want it. From science and technology, to democracy and education, we can be justifiably proud of many of our national accomplishments over these last two plus centuries. In a great many ways, the United States has been a force for good in the world, seeking to do what is right.

But this self-appointed task of global transformation is complicated by our independence and power. When you are able to do anything you want, eventually that is often exactly what you do: anything what you want. While some of you may have a different view, that is how I see the war in Iraq. It was something the United States did because we could. It was an exercise of power.

In a book titled The Superpower Syndrome, the author psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, explores our national mindset in the post 9/11 era. One of Dr. Lifton’s observations is this:

At the heart of the superpower syndrome . . . is the need to eliminate a vulnerability that . . . contains the basic contradiction of the syndrome. For vulnerability can never be eliminated, either by a nation or an individual. In seeking its elimination, the superpower finds itself on a psychological treadmill. The idea of vulnerability is intolerable, the fact of it irrefutable. One solution is to maintain an illusion of invulnerability. But the superpower then runs the danger of taking increasingly draconian actions to sustain that illusion. For to do otherwise would be to surrender the cherished status of superpower. (p 127)

Vulnerability is weakness, imperfection. Dr. Lifton defines it as “the antithesis of omnipotence,” and he says that whether we acknowledge our vulnerability or not, it is still there.

It is interesting to me to see how we how we have been forced to confront this in the past few months. Right now, there is an unrelenting flow of oil, fouling the waters and wild life of the Gulf coast. Perhaps you saw that iconic photograph of the oil-soaked bird, struggling on the sand, unable to fly, held captive by all that goo. That single bird (ironically, it was a laughing gull) has become a kind of symbol of our flawed approach to nature. That bird, like a silent witness to some hidden sin, has exposed our vulnerability.

And maybe the gravest flaw opened up for scrutiny is a pride that has slipped into arrogance. Because we wanted cheap oil, we did what it took to get it. We took liberties with the environment, with human lives and livelihood. We closed our eyes as oil companies took risks in the name of profit, following the dictates of supply and demand – the supply is out there and so we demand access to it. After all, it’s our water, our freedom to live the way we want, our liberty and independence. Who could imagine that we would get ourselves into such a mess and be unable to fix it? Who could imagine that we would be called to account by a captive bird?

And we have read this morning of another captive, a nameless Hebrew slave girl who, like the bird covered in oil, also speaks truth to power. She knows that Naaman can find healing for his flawed body in the land that he has conquered. And he must be desperate, at least at the outset, because he takes her word and he goes.

He doesn’t exactly go with humility, however. He goes with his power and his pride and a great pile of stuff: 650 pounds of silver, 105 pounds of gold, ten sets of garments, his horses and chariots, and his retinue of servants. After all, he is a powerful man and rich, too. He is used to getting what he wants, either with wealth or with war. And now he sets out to buy his healing.

But it doesn’t work that way. This man who is used to snapping his fingers and moving armies can’t even get a private audience with the prophet. And furthermore, the instructions passed along to him are insulting and humiliating. He is to go wash in the Jordan River seven times. Just like anybody else – nothing special about these instructions; they are common in the law and tradition of the day for those seeking healing (see Leviticus 13 and 14). He is to strip off his clothes, exposing his flawed body and then bathe in a muddy stream. And not even for the promise of wholeness can he bring himself to stoop that low. He stalks away in a rage.

And again, it is those with the least power, the unnamed servants, who call him back. “Father,” they say, “if you had been given a very difficult task, you would have done it willingly. Why can’t you do this small, easy thing?”

Naaman turns back, washes in the river, and is cured. And maybe he is healed also. Cure of course is the absence of disease, but healing is the restoration of wholeness and peace and harmony with God’s intention. Healing is shalom.

And part of healing is humility, perhaps. It does seem to me as I read this story that one of the first steps toward healing is a willingness to let go of pride – the kind of pride that often draws its power from a misplaced view of self-sufficiency and a corrupt understanding of personal liberty.

Jesus warns his followers about this. He has sent them out in pairs and they have had great success with their evangelistic efforts. “Even the demons submit to us!” they tell him. And how does he respond? “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven,” he says. Or to paraphrase: “Don’t be so proud of yourselves for these accomplishments.” “It is not your power that is changing the world, but rather the power of heaven. Whether you succeed or fail is immaterial. In either case, the kingdom has come near.”

This is not what we’re used to. It feels like the opposite of liberty and independence, doesn’t it? Whether we admit it or not, we are probably a lot more comfortable relying on ourselves than truly trusting in God – or even in each other. Trust requires vulnerability, and we don’t have a lot of practice with that. We’re more than willing to take on the hard tasks – why can’t we do the easy thing? Maybe we are too much like Naaman, afraid to confront our own vulnerability, afraid to let go of a flawed view of liberty that can lead to arrogance and isolation. Like him, we need to find the courage to admit that we are all in need of healing, from the least of us to the greatest. We are all in need of healing, in our nation, in our churches, in our families, in our deepest selves.

But remember that healing does not come to us on our own terms. All our power and personal liberty and freedom and independence cannot change the fact that shalom is something that God initiates. It is not up to us to change the world. Some of you will find this a great relief, and others of you will find it a personal challenge, an affront to your commitment and competence, perhaps even an offensive notion. In either case, it is still true: it is not up to us to change the world. God has already done that. It is up to us to be at work with God, doing the small things, helping create the conditions where healing can occur.

That requires humility. It requires us to be vulnerable. It requires us to stop taking liberties with God’s good gifts. It requires us to depend on God’s power more than our own. We are more than willing to take on the hard tasks. Can we also do the easy thing – even if it requires us to be humble and obedient, trusting in the liberating love of God more than our own self-sufficiency? For healing to happen out there, it also has to happen in here, in here.

So on this Independence Day 2010, instead of taking liberties with our world, let us vow to give liberty. Let us really mean the words we say in the pledge of allegiance: “liberty and justice for all.” And may the words of the hymn become our prayer: “America! America! 
God mend thine every flaw.” Let us pray for peace and the transformation of our nation and of our world. And let us pray for peace and the transformation of our own souls.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

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