Based on 2Kings 5:1-14, Galatians 6:7-16, Luke 10:1-12
Last August, Lucinda and I vacationed in Portland, Maine. Friends of ours had recommended that we spend time up there and we split a two-week rental with them. One day while the four of us were wandering the streets of downtown Portland, we happened to see an advertisement at the public library for a “Rube Goldberg” art exhibit. Seems that the library had received a traveling show of cartoons from this icon of silly inventions. Some of you will remember Rube’s drawings, both fanciful and political. The exhibit was free and so we wandered down into a land of uninhibited creativity and sheer fun. It was a great way to spend a couple of hours, and I was amazed and amused the whole time.
For those who don’t know of Rube Goldberg, his name is synonymous with making the simple complex. If you search online using his name you will be led to the home of wacky inventions…rubegoldberg.com. Here you can find more about this creative genius who designed countless unnecessarily complex machines to do simple tasks. You and a group of friends can compete in the 2020 competition to design a funny machine that has as many steps as possible to change a lightbulb! Sounds like a really good Youth group activity to me! Rube was born in the early 1880’s and died in 1970 – so he lived through the development of airplanes and cars and the military-industrial complex as well as travel to the moon. He looked around at life and the growth of the industrialized age and saw that we were getting too complex for our own good. So, like all good humorists and social critics, he decided to poke fun at the dis-ease which is the way we choose to live our lives.
Religion is often too complex, and at times, harms more than it heals. All the rules, regulations, commandments, theologies, hierarchies and pomp. I wonder, do these things enable us to connect with God’s grace and healing power, or are they a barrier which leads to disconnection and injury? Our scriptures for today point us back to a simple approach to find God’s healing for ourselves and all of creation. Let us go to our Great Physician now in prayer and thanksgiving that our relationship with our God can really be quite simple…
Paul is winding up his letter to the believers in Galatia and has some final teachings to squeeze in before signing off. In this last chapter of the letter, Paul reiterates how those who would require the new converts to become circumcised Jews are totally missing the point of the Resurrection. Jesus’ death and resurrection killed off the need to live imprisoned by the Mosaic Laws and instead offered freedom to live in and through the Spirit. Paul insists that the Galatians give up worldly ways and the harvest of corruption that brings and instead sow in the Spirit and reap eternal life. His final exhortation is simple, “…May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world….”
Jesus sends out 70 disciples in 35 pairs to prepare the way of the Lord. He sends them out with only the clothes on their back and the simple but powerful blessing of “peace” to whatever house will shelter them. While they are abiding in that home they are to cure all who are sick and to declare the message of Jesus, “…The kingdom of God has come near to you….” When and if a town does not welcome them, then they are to declare simply and in a direct manner that the kingdom of God was near to them and they missed it. Simple, direct, with divine consequences for choices.
The prophet Elisha has been performing miracles and uttering prophecies since taking over from Elijah. We pick up his story today with a healing of a solider of king Aram. Naaman the commander of the army was great in battle, but he was an outcast in society because he had “leprosy”. A captive Israelite girl tells Naaman’s wife about the power of Elisha to heal. Naaman asks his king if he can go and be healed, and the king of Aram misunderstands and makes things much more complicated with the king of Israel. Once it is all sorted out and the kings (and their egos) get out of the way, Naaman travels to Elisha to be healed. Elisha directs a messenger to tell Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven times and he will be healed. Naaman gets all uppity, believing that such a simple task, delivered by a servant, in an insignificant river certainly cannot cure his skin disease. He was enraged until his servants pointed out that he would have done much more complicated tasks if required – why wouldn’t he do something simple?
Christianity started out simply as a reform movement within Judaism. Jesus came without fanfare (with the exception of the angels’ hallelujahs and wise men gifts) and lived without notice until he began his public ministry at about age 30. Following his Ascension, the movement known as “The Way” grew with a simple message of inclusion of and equity with all persons – especially Gentiles and other persons marginalized from Jewish and Roman societies. This message of sharing equitably and welcoming the outcast resulted in explosive growth. The twelve disciples couldn’t keep up with all the demands and started adding another layer of persons (see Acts 6). This process of layering ultimately resulted in the complex, hierarchical and male dominated structure that we know as the Christian Church in all her dimensions.
By the time that Christianity reached the late 300’s, in the wake of the decision by the Emperor Constantine to make it the religion of the realm, it had lost much of its early vitality and counter cultural voice. Persons within the religion sought to regain the simplicity and focus on God, which had been lost. They left the world and went out into the deserts of North Africa, Arabia and Persia to seek after God by becoming hermits (ascetics). Future movements away from the institutional Church would result in monasteries and nunneries where persons religious could go and sequester themselves and live a simple life dedicated to God, to study, and to living in peace with the world. Though they fled public life, as people swimming away from a sinking ship, they realized that their mission was to get to the shore where God resided and throw a lifeline back to the world to rescue and heal it. The goal of the life of the desert hermit was described by Abbott Joseph of Thebes in this way, “…There are three kinds of people who find honor in the sight of God: First, those who, when they are ill and tempted, accept these things with thanksgiving. The second, those who do all their works clean in the sight of God, in no way merely seeking to please other people. The third, those who sit in subjection to the command of a spiritual father and renounce their own desires….”
Having an attitude of gratitude to God even when life gets tough, doing what is right in the sight of God, and renouncing worldly desires…simple right? The difficulty is not in the simplicity, but in the daily reality of living in the world but not being of the world (to paraphrase Jesus). Paul says it at the end of the Galatian letter, “…let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith….” Additionally, Elisha, Jesus and Paul all instruct us to speak peace, to go in peace, and to live peaceably with one another to the best of our abilities. Spiritual healing comes when we find our true selves and our mission/purpose in this world. We do this through the simple acts of prayer, sharing Holy Communion, putting others needs before ours, living together in a community characterized by servanthood. The Rube Goldberg-esque complexity which surrounds us is a human-created distraction to using our God-given gifts to live in peace with one another and all of creation. We are healed by God when our lives are exorcised of our possession by worldly things, which is then replaced by love of God and a non-judgmental and forgiving love of neighbor. The essence of our call as disciples of the Christ is to live the two great commandments and in them find the simplicity of life that will heal us and all creation. The choice, dear friends, is not easy, but it is clear cut. Do we continue to live the overly complex and injurious life parodied by Rube Goldberg, or the simple healing brought about by living a counter cultural life in God, with God and through God? May God’s grace heal us and lead us all to the life-giving answer. Amen! C