Extraordinary Grace in Ordinary Things
Updated: Jul 4, 2022
2 Kings 5:1-14
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Our first lesson from the Old Testament that Hank Harder read is a rich story with far more to reflect upon than we have time for this morning. I am going to touch on two fly-over two details that are too good to ignore before I focus on our theme for the day that I mentioned in our “lesson from creation” at the beginning of the service: God’s most extraordinary truth is often encountered in the most ordinary of things.
First fly-over detail: it is noteworthy that God is giving victory to an Aramean general named Naaman. This is the same God of the Hebrew scriptures who so often appears strongly partisan in favor of the Israelites, and here God is: blessing Aramean foreigners. If we read closely, we see that the scriptures reveal – over and over again – that God’s blessing most often falls on unexpected people: the poor, the outcast, the foreigner, the “enemy.”
Second fly-over detail: it is noteworthy that Naaman’s initial attempt to curry favor with the God of Israel is a formal letter written by Naaman’s king of Aram to the king of Israel. This is highfalutin stuff. After all, not just anyone could get a letter from a king written on their behalf; Naaman is trying to impress the king of Israel with how powerful and connected he is. The irony is that this display of human power has the opposite effect from what Naaman had hoped. The formality of the letter intimidates the king of Israel, who assumes that it is a pretense for war. In this brief detail, we see the folly of human power on display. Too often, our posturing and power-plays alienate us from our neighbors in ways that we cannot see or anticipate.
In these two fly-over details, we encounter a God who blesses unexpected people, and we also see the counter-productive nature of human power-posturing. I am going to leave these two details behind, but I invite you to consider how they harmonize with the final piece of this story, which is our focus for today.
When Naaman is directed to the house of the prophet Elisha, he arrives with his entire retinue in a grand display of human power. You might imagine the scene as a stampede of chariots and soldiers in polished armor unfurl their banners outside of a ramshackle country house where Elisha lives. As the dust settles, the great general Naaman strides forth between frothing horses…only to be greeted by a messenger boy who tells him to go wash in the river Jordan.
It doesn’t take too much imagination to understand why Naaman might be offended by this. He has put his very best foot forward. He has pulled out all of the stops, rolled out the red carpet, put on an extraordinary display of power. I like to imagine that he spent some extra time in front of the mirror that morning rehearsing his speech to the prophet Elisha. He travels all that way, and he is told by a boy in dirty clothes to wash in the river. We ought to be able to empathize with Naaman at this point of the story. He has done everything in his power to meet his deepest desire, to be healed of his leprosy, and he is met with what he perceives as disrespect. He turns away in anger.
And here is the line I want us to focus in this story. Naaman’s servant, an unexpected messenger of God’s word, says wisely,
"Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something extraordinary, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, `Wash, and be clean'?"
This line resonates with truth. It is such a temptation for us to think that we will encounter God only in extraordinary acts of power. If God is real, we often think, let God prove it to me with something extraordinary. We expect God to show up in clouds of glory – not in the form of a servant, not in something or someone that appears to us to be ordinary. Similarly, like Naaman, we often think me might be able to prove our worthiness to God with extraordinary acts of devotion. “Let me go to church every single day for a year,” we might say to ourselves, or, “Let me travel all the way to Tibet and climb a tall mountain and drink from a pure stream…and then…then I will encounter something of the divine.”
And here we return to our theme of the day: God’s most extraordinary truth is often encountered in the most ordinary of things. Naaman doesn’t need all the pomp and circumstance, all the power-posturing; rather, he is asked to do something ordinary with an open heart, and his deepest desire is realized. In like manner, if we desire a grateful heart, rest for our souls, a reprieve from all the craziness of our lives, we don’t need to do something extraordinary. All we need is to accept our ordinary lives – the lives we so often take for granted – and see in them the presence of God’s extraordinary truth.
How many of us would have considered ourselves to be a master of calculus and advanced projective geometry walking into our service this morning? And yet, as we discussed in our lesson from creation, each of has the most advanced, nuanced, beautiful, and extraordinary body, able to do things in space that the most advanced robots cannot yet do. Something as “ordinary” as catching a ball is actually a miracle of almost instantaneous calculus and projective geometry!
The world may tell us that we aren’t good at Math class or that we aren’t an athlete…and just like Naaman, we can start to believe the world’s lies; it is so easy to believe that we only have value according to the values of this world. Human culture has always been obsessed with the extraordinary. American culture in particular manifests this sickness. We are told that we need to be “great” or “impactful” or “special” or “radical” in our culture – over and over again. Naaman’s story reminds us that we need to recover the holiness of ordinary life.
This same theme is picked up in today’s gospel lesson from Luke. Jesus sends seventy disciples out into the world, and he instructs them to be…well…rather ordinary. “Take nothing with you,” Jesus tells them, “enter houses and eat with those who feed you and cure those who are sick.” Jesus’ instructions are fairly ordinary. And yet, within that ordinary ministry, these disciples report extraordinary events. “"Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!" these disciples exclaim.
And here we see the disciples making the same mistake as Naaman. They overlook the “ordinary” ministry that Jesus gives to them and focus on the extraordinary results of their ministry. Jesus warns them against this saying,
“I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."
Rejoice that your names are written in heaven. That is true of everyone in church today.
No matter who we are, no matter how the world has told us that we aren’t enough, no matter what our shame may be, Jesus is telling us that our ordinary, sinful, broken lives are beautiful vehicles of God’s grace.
It is telling to me that the most life-giving things about this extraordinary place in the Adirondacks are often the most ordinary. Many of us travel extraordinary distances to gather here, and what do we do when we get here? We walk in the woods. We swim in the water. We listen to the birds. We eat with our loved ones. We drive to eat ice cream. We sit on a dock with a hot cup of coffee and take a deep, unencumbered breath of fresh air. These are ordinary moments of extraordinary grace that fill this place with God’s presence.
In fancy theological language, God’s incarnation is the moment in which God’s extraordinary presence comes to us in this ordinary world. And God’s ascension – the namesake of our church – is the moment in which our ordinary, flawed, bodily lives are lifted up (or “ascended”) into the extraordinary presence of God.
That beautiful hymn that we sang in a round extols us to, “seek first the kingdom of God.” This hymn begs the question, “Where is that kingdom of God?” Today, we are invited to see the kingdom of God all around us in our ordinary lives – in our mortgage and in our chores, in our eating and in our routines. As we demonstrated in our lesson from creation, if only we look with eyes to see, something as ordinary as catching a ball or eating some M&M candies can become nothing short of a miracle. These ordinary things can be the means by which we “ascend” into God’s presence.
Yesterday, I watched a gaggle of the folks at Spring Pond camp load into their boat to go skiing and wakeboarding. I remembered when I was a little boy watching Buzzy Hannum and Michael Poole slalom ski from their dock and thinking they might be the coolest people alive. Of course, now I know better, sorry Buzzy and Mike! But I had a moment, watching his daughters ski yesterday. My own daughter, now eighteen months old, was bobbing at my knee and pointing at their boat and cooing "Bo, Bo, Bo." My daughter, watching their daughters ski, a generation later. As their collective laughter and noise floated across the water, I glimpsed something eternal, something that cut across generations, something that is timeless, that can’t quite be put into words. This moment of grace grasped me through something so ordinary as laughter. That is something of how God works in our lives.
In a moment, all of us will participate in an ancient liturgy that centers arounds some cheap bread and wine. We will lift up those ordinary elements together and open ourselves up to the possibility that God is present in them, in the same way that God desires to be present in each one of us. We will do this same ordinary action that people have done for millennia around the world, that many of our friends and family have done in this place for more than a century, and in this ordinary action we will be invited to remember that God’s most extraordinary truth is often encountered in the most ordinary of things…in laughter and fellowship, in bread and wine, and in each one of us. Amen.