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Polarize or Compromise

Jarrett McLaughlin

January 19, 2020

2 Kings 5:9-19

 

Pre-Scripture:

If you were here last week – I told you we would be doing two weeks on one text.  Last week we grounded ourselves in the story of Naaman, the Aramaean General who went to the prophet Elisha for healing.  We zeroed in on the slave girl serving in his house who should have plenty of reasons to let the leprosy take Naaman’s life, but she remembers who she is – a daughter of Abraham, called to be a blessing – and she speaks the possibility of healing into being.  This week we get the rest of the story.

What I love about Scripture is that you have these odd little stories that seem so foreign – like they belong to another time and place – but in my experience, when you scratch at it a bit, I almost always uncover some way that these bizarre stories connect so deeply with my own and with yours as well.

Week before last I was talking with a church member – a retired doctor.  By the way, I find it endlessly amusing that in this Church I can say “I was talking to a retired doctor” and there are 42 people who lean forward: “Is he talking about me?”

This gentleman was sharing about that moment when he decided to retire from a demanding career that he loved very much.  He said a phrase that struck me as common at the time but it keeps coming back to me this week. He said “I just wanted to be home.”

I think we all want to feel at home – but living in this world, sometimes it feels like we’re an awfully long way from home.  Will you pray with me:

In the reading of this peculiar story, God, draw our hearts and minds to our true home, but give us courage to live our faith when we are far from it.  Amen. 

 

Scripture

So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. 13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.15 Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” 16 But [Elisha] said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” He urged him to accept, but he refused. 17 Then Naaman said, “If not, please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord. 18 But may the Lord pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count.” 19 [Elisha] said to him, “Go in peace.”

The word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Sermon:

Dennis Byrd was a defensive end for the New York Jets.  He is probably best known for the story of his paralysis.  He collided with one of his teammates while trying to sack the quarterback and his fifth cervical vertebra shattered, leaving him unable to move anything below his neck except his right bicep.

It was doubtful that he would walk again – but, like Naaman, he had this remarkable story of recovery.  Three months later he took his first step, and though he would move with great labor until his death in 2016, this was still a miraculous comeback.

But that’s not the only thing he has in common with the Aramaean general of our story today.

When he traveled with the team, Dennis always packed a small leather bag that his dad had given him as a gift.

Before he left for his first training camp, Byrd filled the bag with dirt from his backyard in Mustang, Oklahoma.

This was the backyard where he trained and trained, ramming his frame into a wooden post dug into the ground, dripping more than a little blood and sweat into the dirt below.

He filled the leather bag with that red dirt.

Byrd said: “My teammates constantly asked me, “What’s with the bag? What kind of voodoo are you working?”

I’d just tell them “It’s my roots.  It’s where I’ve been.  It’s who I am.”

Each time he played on a new NFL field, Byrd would untie the bag and sprinkle some dirt into his palm. Then, running onto the field, he’d open his fingers and let the soil fall onto the grass.

“Anaheim. Seattle. Pittsburg. Houston. Denver. Chicago. Cleveland.  Artificial turf or natural grass, everyone of those stadiums has some Oklahoma dirt on it.[1]

Sometimes you need to carry some dirt with you because it is your roots, where you’ve been, who you are.

Last week we left Naaman right at the moment of his healing.  He goes into the Jordan river as a man stricken with leprosy.  He comes out with the skin of a young boy.  But that is just the beginning of his transformation.

Did you hear the shift in his language about God?  When he’s angry at Elisha for denying him a personal audience he says “I thought for sure he would call on the name of the Lord HIS God.”  But after the healing he rushes back to Elisha, saying “Now I know that there is no god in all the earth except the Lord.”

Naaman has changed.  He’s different now.  He’s all in with the God of Israel.

Which means that Naaman has a big problem.

He has to go back to his life now – back to the house of Rimmon – but how can he go back there now?

The House of Rimmon is the temple where he used to go and worship those Aramaean gods.

He used to feel at home there, but it’s not home anymore.

His new-found faith has changed all of that.

This experience, this conversion, has re-arranged his priorities.

Now, he’s a man in conflict.

So he asks Elisha ‘can I please take some dirt with me?’ – two cart loads.  I like to imagine that – in spite of the prophet refusing to take any of his silver or gold as payment – Naaman had to dump out two cartloads of his riches to make room for that prime, Palestinian soil.  It’s that valuable to him now.

Who knows what he did with that dirt?  Did he dump it in a sandbox and fashion a makeshift altar?  Like Dennis Byrd, did he spread it all over his Syrian zip code to sanctify his homeland?  Did he take a pinch every morning and sprinkle it into his shoes to remember that he was still walking on holy ground?

Who knows?  But Naaman desperately needed that dirt to feel at home, because now it is his roots; it’s where he’s been; it’s who he is.

Knowing that he is destined to be a man in conflict, though. he ventures one more request of the prophet.  “When I am back in Aram,” he asks, “…back to being Naaman the mighty general; when I escort my King in to the house of Rimmon, when I must bow down in the house of Rimmon, even though I am faithful to Yahweh alone, do you think the Lord will forgive me for making that compromise?”

Elisha’s verbal response is fascinating.  Of course I want to know what his face looked like.  I want to know what the tone of his voice sounded like.  But all we get is Elisha’s vague response: “Go in peace.”  It’s every bit as non-committal as it is non-judgmental.  Go back to your life but go back to it in Shalom.

Is Elisha offering tacit approval for any and all of Naaman’s activities as a general in an imperial army?  That’s doubtful.  But nor does the prophet polarize the situation by insisting Naaman pledge absolute allegiance to the Lord alone.  It’s ambiguous.

Another thing that I love about Scripture is that sometimes you just have to let go of the word “know” and embrace the word “wonder.” Scripture invites us to imagine that which it refuses to spell out for us.

So I wonder if Elisha understands something that I imagine we all feel to be true deep down inside: we all live in the house of Rimmon.

We all live our life torn between the lofty calling of our faith and the weight of the real world where countless other good things make a bid for our allegiance.

We all live in that place where we are asked to compromise our deepest held values just to keep from being pulled apart.

That’s the house of Rimmon.  Nobody is spared from that tension.

It may not be our true home, but we do live there.

My friend Carl is a Colonel in the United States Military.  Every day he sends out a daily Bible reading to a group of men – Scripture is often on his mind.  Carl takes seriously the call of Jesus to be a peacemaker in this world.  And he is a patriot who has devoted his life to the defense of this nation.

Carl would be the first to say that there are times when he is in the room and difficult decisions are being made – about identifying and neutralizing potential threats.  In those moments it’s hard to balance being a Christian and being a soldier.  Which means that Carl lives in the house of Rimmon.

Christie is a policy analyst in Washington DC…she spends her days reviewing healthcare legislation – especially policies effecting children living in poverty.  Her job is to inform decision makers how a proposed policy change will affect the Federal budget but also the well-being of those who most closely affected by the change.

Christie has shared with me a growing sense that decisions are being made with little regard to their reports.  Instead, there’s pressure to have the reports support the political narrative that is most convenient.

Christie lives in the house of Rimmon.

Jonathan is a mortgage lender and as much as he wishes to inhabit a world where there is a clear sense of right and wrong that guides the market and all who work within it, he is increasingly aware just how much grey there is – that decisions are made in a constant balancing act between what’s good for the investor and what’s good for the entire web of individuals and families who are connected to that investment.  Jonathan lives in the house of Rimmon.

Naaman knew he was going back there – back to the house of Rimmon.  Some might say to him “Don’t go back – choose this day who you will serve.  Polarize and make your allegiance complete.”

But Elisha doesn’t say that…and I don’t believe I would either.  For I am convinced that we really have no choice but to live in the house of Rimmon.  There is no other place to live.  We each must proclaim the Gospel in a world that is not shaped by the Gospel.

So no matter our zip code, we all live in the house of Rimmon –

which means none of us are home; not really; not yet.

So we better take some dirt with us – because that is our roots, our true home.  It’s where we’ve been.  It’s who we are.

I hope that’s what we are doing here – in this Church, in this zip code, among these friends.

I hope we are learning to carry a little bit of holy ground into these compromised lives we lead.

Grace has gifted us with two cartloads of earth from another kingdom.

Put a pinch of it in your shoes and see if you walk a little differently.

But above all – remember the words of the prophet, ambiguous though they may be – “Go in peace.”[2]  Amen.

[1] http://www.oklahomatoday.com/documents/1993DennisByrd.pdf

[2] The wording for the last few paragraphs of this sermon is adapted and inspired by a sermon entitled “Pardon For a Necessary Compromise” preached by Tom Are on June 20, 2010 at Village Presbyterian Church.

Jarrett McLaughlin , Pastor

Email: jarrett@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 112

Bio:

Jarrett grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina where he had a pretty regular childhood – riding bikes around the neighborhood, muddling through school, trying to play various sports (emphasis on try), going through a phase of wearing lots of black in high school, and through it all, always finding a place of welcome in the Church. Jarrett became a “traitor” to his NC State traditioned family when he went to UNC-Chapel Hill for college.  Missing youth group terribly, Jarrett quickly discovered Presbyterian Campus Ministry where, in addition to exploring his call to ministry, he also met Meg. After college, Jarrett served as a youth minister for one year and then spent another year traveling, spending a great deal of time in Port-au-Prince, Haiti living in community with disabled children at Wings of Hope. He then went to Union-PSCE Seminary (now “Union Presbyterian Seminary”) and then went on to serve as an associate pastor for mission and young adult ministry at Village Presbyterian Church in Kansas City.  In June of 2013 Jarrett and Meg accepted a call to serve as co-pastor Heads-of-Staff at Burke Presbyterian Church. In July of 2013 they learned that they would be expecting. In August of 2013 they learned they would be expecting twins.  In September of 2013 they moved and told the Church all of this on their second Sunday. Jarrett is very much looking forward to NOT repeating that pattern as they accept the call to serve University Presbyterian Church. When not engaged at Church, Jarrett enjoys running and hiking.  He is also an obsessive music fan intent on keeping up with independent music of all kinds – reading blogs and record reviews, scoping out live shows and constantly spinning tunes in the car, home or office.  Most of all, Jarrett has a deep passion for the Church as a place of radical welcome and hospitality and tries his best every day to honor the ways he has experienced that in his own life as grace upon grace.