Monday, February 13, 2012

The Choice

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
February 12, 2012 - Epiphany (6B)
2 Kings 5:1-14
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

One of my favorite scenes from the movie The Jungle Book is the one with the Buzzards sitting on the tree trying to figure out what to do. They ask each other, “Hey! What do you want to do?” “I don’t know. What do you want to do?” over and over because no one wants to make a decision.

In the corporate world this is called paralysis by analysis. In the book Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, he describes a situation in which our military staged war games in the Persian Gulf in 2002 - just prior to invading Iraq. Paul Van Riper, a retired Lieutenant General and a Marine with experience in Vietnam, was asked to play the part of a rouge dictator bent on destabilizing the Gulf and threatening US interests.

He was given limited resources and challenged by the full weight of the United States military - and he won. Why? Well, according to Gladwell, it was because the US Forces (the Blue Team) analyzed and expected every situation except the one Van Riper (the Red Team) responded with. The Red Team decentralized their communication, gave objectives to the commanders, and empowered the units to figure it out for themselves.

Van Riper asked people to make choices based on an assumed set of goals with the added expectation that they would coordinate their efforts and work together to meet their goal. That may seem elementary, but it is a lot harder than it sounds. Most of us would rather have someone tell us what to do - and then choose whether we want to do it or not.

Following orders is one thing, but making the choice to be responsible for something that affects others - that’s tough. Yet that is what we do every moment of every day. We choose to act or to stand aside. We choose to shop in ways that supports some and neglect others. We make a thousand choices and more every day, many of those choices being the choice not to decide.

Naaman had a choice to make - or at least one might assume that he had one. Military leaders that show weakness have never been well received, and his skin had become a display of weakness. So his wife's servant boasts of the Prophet Elisha, and the King of Aram sends him on a state visit - expecting the King to act as a god and order the prophet to heal his top commander. The distress of the King of Israel becomes the dramatic opening for Elisha to say, "Let's show them that we have someone who speaks the word of God!"

So Naaman goes to see the Prophet Elisha - or at least he tries to. He must have been at least a little confused. After seeing the King tear his clothes in anguish and being snubbed by a prophet who seems not to understand what a state visit was all about, he must have been wondering how these people had not been conquered already. Kings had authority over life and death - many of them claiming to be gods themselves. Prophets, wise men, and conjurers always made sure that the King got his way; it was part of their function - giving legitimacy to the weight of the King's words.

None of this made sense. He was prepared to pay - anything from treasure to live stock to people. Instead an unnamed messenger told him to take a bath - ridiculous! Fortunately the real heroes in this story are the servants. Again he is approached by a servant - this time to be confronted with the obvious.

How often do we find ourselves facing an obvious choice and deciding that it just does not fit in with our expectations of the way the world works? We want things to be simple, but we just can't help making them complex. Occam's Razor - the idea that the simplest solution is the best - seems easy to look past in matters of faith. We want to set up expectations that we know we can't meet - or that we know others can not - just to feel good about feeling bad or even to feel secure about the space we keep between us and them.

So it was with Naaman, who became humble enough to follow orders from servants and messengers, was healed by faithful participation in God's decision to heal him, and moved from bargaining to reverence and praise. Naaman learned that success does not come from dominance, but only from faithful participation with God.

Now, at first glance, faithful participation and humility does not seem to gee haw with Paul's encouragement to be fiercely competitive. Of course Paul is not suggesting that Christianity is about beating others so much as he is trying to let us know what is at stake - or rather, what we are pushing toward.

Although there have been multiple examples throughout the years of runners racing gloriously and breaking records, there are also many stories of runners finishing in pain and brokenness. One of the most memorable for many was the story of Tanzanian marathon runner John Stephen Ahkwari. There was even a documentary made about his epic success in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Mr. Ahkwari was injured during the race, but he kept on going. Hours after the race had finished - long after the award ceremony - he hobbled across the finish line in pain and agony. When he was asked later why he bothered to finish he said, “You don’t understand. My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start a race, they sent me to finish it.”

We have not been given faith in order to compete with one another - or anyone else. We have been given our faith in order to endure, to become more humble, and to finish what God has started in and through each of us.

That's what the servants are trying to teach us today. That's what the Leper is trying to tell us when he says to Jesus, "If you choose, you can make me clean." And Jesus says to him, as he does to you and to me, "I do choose!"

I must admit some frustration here. Anyone who has ever sat by a bed and prayed for healing that did not come can tell you that these healing stories can be hard to swallow. It reminds me of a friend in seminary who, while checking her insulin levels, said, "You cannot tell me that the reason I am a diabetic is because I have not prayed enough or asked in the right way."

Yet I will say that I have known others who can find no other explanation for their miraculous recovery than prayer. The thing is - God is going to do what God is going to do. Trying to fathom how or why healing comes or does not come will just drive you nuts. Personally, I believe that God's choice is the same as it always has been and always will be. God's choice is to love us into becoming what we were created for - to finish the race!

The Leper was told to tell no one of the healing he had received. Yet he could not help himself. How will it be for you? What will your healing cause you to race toward? Or perhaps you are still waiting for Jesus to heal something you have held deep inside for a long time. Rest assured that you are not alone. Rest assured that Jesus will always choose to make you clean. Rest assured that the simplest answer - loving and trusting God to love and trust you - is the correct answer. And to God be the glory for that, now and always. Amen!
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