Confounding Expectation

Proper 9 Year C, 7 July 2019 2 Kings 5: 1-14, &  Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20   

Linda Mackie Griggs

Six years ago, in the summer of 2013, I stood on the bank of the Jordan River. And wondered what in the heck I had been thinking.

Backing up a little bit: I was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land between the second and third years of seminary, and our itinerary for that day was to renew our Baptismal vows at the Jordan. How cool is that?

I was so excited, picturing it in my mind: Walking in the footsteps of Jesus and John the Baptist–the beautiful expanse of cool clear water sparkling in the morning sun. The gentle breeze proclaiming the presence of the Holy Spirit. Maybe even a dove would perch on a nearby branch—what a story that would make for my journal—right?  I was ready. Bring on the transcendence.

The bus pulled up next to a beat-up old car in a dirt parking area next to what looked more like a big creek than “Jordan river, deep and wide.” Pieces of trash and an old tire littered the ground. Music issued from a boom box near where a few young Palestinian fishermen smoked cigarettes, talked, and laughed. We swatted at bugs as we walked toward the muddy water, suspiciously eyeing a couple of red 55-gallon drums floating offshore.  I kid you not, we sang, “Shall we gather at the river; the beautiful, the beautiful, river…” I wasn’t the only one feeling the irony.

Where was the holy? Where was the transcendence? How did it get so cluttered with—reality? Faced with the prospect of being sprinkled with that muddied water, we all wanted to duck and cover.

This was a prime example of my latest favorite aphorism: expectations are resentments under construction.

I remembered all of this when I read about Naaman, a general from Aram, the country right across the Jordan from Israel, in modern-day Syria. In his latest military victory Naaman was probably responsible for the death of the father of the king of Israel. So when a captive slave girl suggests that Naaman go to that same king of Israel to see if his prophet might heal Naaman’s leprosy, you can imagine that it didn’t go over well.

“Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”

But the prophet Elisha overrides the king’s suspicions because, rather than smelling a plot, he smells an opportunity—to show the power of his God to an unbeliever. So Elisha sends for Naaman.

But when Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house, suffering with lesions and sores and bearing a massive co-pay of silver, gold and garments, the famous prophet doesn’t even come to the door—he merely sends a messenger with instructions to bathe, not in one of the gleaming rivers of home, but the puny Jordan–the dividing line between Israel and Aram. The border between Chosen People and Not Chosen people.

Naaman is insulted, and furious. He had expectations for this healing. He wanted something else in return for his journey, for his silver and gold and ten suits of clothes. He wanted something powerful—flashy–magical. And instead he’s told to take a muddy bath—not once, but seven times.

He’s so angry his servants have to calm him down enough to follow Elisha’s instructions. And when he does—when he surrenders to the water– the healing grace of God flows over this leper of Aram—this doubly Not Chosen person—and his wounded skin is restored “like the flesh of a young boy.”

Aram and Israel. Kings, and prophets. Chosen and Not Chosen. Power and vulnerability. Mud and mercy. And all unexpectedly saturated with grace and healing; the blessing and presence of God. The Holy foundamong the complications and contradictions that clutter reality.

Centuries after Naaman’s story Luke wrote of an Israel that had not lost its capacity for complication, contradiction and conflict. Jews and Gentiles, Romans and Judeans,

Samaritans, Pharisees, and Sadducees, Pure and impure, Powerful and vulnerable,

Chosen and Not Chosen. Things really hadn’t changed much.  And into all of it Jesus sends the Seventy ahead of him, not in style but as lambs among wolves. He sends them to wade into a muddy conflicted world without bag, purse, or sandals. They are figuratively as naked and as vulnerable as Naaman—forced to rely on the grace of God and hospitality of others in a world that may—or may not—welcome them. The only thing they carry is the Good News of the inbreaking Kingdom of God. They are instructed to heal the sick—to restore people to shalem—the Hebrew word for wholeness. Jesus warned them that they would not always be successful—they would sometimes need to shake the dust off of their feet  when they left a place that did not accept the peace that they offered.

They were metaphorically being thrown into the deep end and told to swim. What would they encounter? What dangers might they face? The odds of success in these circumstances seemed pretty slim—more likely that they would return at length, dispirited and disillusioned. But no: “The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’” With joy. They were sent out to do God’s work and they did it. They didn’t necessarily find it to be easy—but they did find it in the long run to be energizing and fulfilling in spite of the challenges—or perhaps because of them. They found blessing—they encountered the Holy–through God’s sustaining presence as they were sent into a hostile world.

Encountering the Holy doesn’t depend on our expectations. It confounds them. And these stories articulate a narrative of hope that is crucial in our own day—in our own world of complication, contradiction and conflict. We need to train our eyes to see where God is nudging God’s way into the mess, and drawing our attention to something new amidst the chaos.

During the pilgrimage I mentioned earlier I met Fr. Fuad Dagher, the parish priest of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Shefa ‘amr in the West Bank. His little church had recently opened a cultural center and school serving those in need regardless of faith tradition—Christian, Muslim, Jew. The mission of the church is to serve joyfully as the hands and feet of Christ—to bring shalem to the broader community.

I was really impressed with Fr. Fuad and his clear-eyed view of the complexity of his world—a part of Israel no longer occupied by the Roman Empire, but occupied nevertheless. The situation in Israel/Palestine grieved him. But he knew the difference between grief and despair, and he had no time for the latter. He embodied the complication of the world in which his community pursues its ministry, describing himself as: An Anglican, but not English. An Israeli but not a Jew. An Arab but not a Muslim. A Palestinian but not a terrorist. In short, what I encountered in him was a source of God’s grace and healing in an unexpected package. He was a conduit for the Holy, sent out seemingly as a lamb among a political wolfpack.

That was six years ago. Six years on, and the world has just gotten more complicated, more conflicted, more dangerous. I thought again about Fr. Fuad. Is it possible that he is still there? Surely things have gotten too complicated. Surely reality has muddied, if not destroyed his dream. Surely he has given up—disillusioned, disappointed.

But I thought, what can it hurt? So I emailed him. He is now Canon Fuad. Canon for Reconciliation for the Diocese of Jerusalem.  Serving, with joy. Still involved with the flourishing ministry of St. Paul’s in Shefa ‘amr, but also working with the wider community to spread the Good News of peace, justice and reconciliation. This somewhat sums up his mission: “We as a Church in a wounded Land, [have] a role to play, a role of Love and Acceptance, which does not mean relinquishing One`s own right and accepting defeat, but [instead] saying the truth in great courage and working for the truth in order to Reconcile [within] it.”

Canon Fuad and his ministry are thriving. With joy.  Against the odds.

The narrative of hope calls us to expect to be surprised and confounded, even bemused and discomfited by the fact that the Holy thrives in places where we could not have imagined. The narrative of hope calls us not only to see it, but to embrace it.

I know I left you hanging back there on the banks of the Jordan—so what did happen there? Well, to be honest, in the end we felt pretty much as awkward when we got back on the bus as when we got off. But here’s the crucial point: when the muddy river water had been sprinkled and splashed in our direction, as much as we may have been tempted, we didn’t duck. As those drops landed on our heads –and hands—and feet–we became part of the narrative of hope–part of Naaman’s story, the story of Jesus and the Seventy, and of Canon Fuad’s story as well.  We are all part of the often complex and disturbing Holy story—of human nature’s need for healing, of yearning for the Kingdom that is already and not yet, and of God’s ever-flowing grace and invitation to shalem,–however and wherever it may lead us. Amen.

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