PUTTING ON THE CLOTHES OF JOY:
PRESERVATION & COMPASSION
Rev. Naomi King
2 Kings 5:1-14
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
God save us from our impatience, expectations, and petulance! Give thanks to God for love, compassion, and forbearance! Today’s lectionary asks us to consider where we’re putting our emotional energy in living and striving for the goodness of God.
Our key texts here are 2 King 5:1-14, when the top general in Aram is brought very low with a terrible skin affliction, and Psalm 30, a song of redemption and restoration. (What most texts translate as leprosy is, it should be said, a variety of different skin diseases, not necessarily what we know as Hansen’s Disease.) Naaman’s skin disease makes him the opposite of what a general of Aram should be. He becomes petulant and irritated and can’t even hold still in the sweat of his body armor. The way his men plead with Naaman in verse 13 suggests to us just how unbearable Naaman is in his suffering. Naaman’s willingness to let his pride of status take precedence over his health, though, is an invitation to each and every one of us about our own expectations. Naaman’s angry about not being treated the way he thinks he should be treated, even though he begged to be able to consult with this prophet. Naaman really does not want to put on the clothes of joy and let go of his wailing and sackcloth. (Ps. 30:11) without the big show of deference he thinks is his due. He doesn’t just want to be saved from this debilitating disease; he wants to be saved in style and until then he’s stuck in resentment (Ps. 30:7).
How often have you become irritated or angry because someone hasn’t treated you the way you’ve wanted or expected? Come on, come clean. Few of us don’t have expectations of being treated in particular ways disappointed from time to time. Someone overlooks us or treats us a game piece or dismisses our personhood as less than their own. That we have a sense of our worthiness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A sense of self-worth can help us with evaluating and creating justice. But when that sense of entitlement gets in our own way for being helped and healthy, then we need a dose of humility, which Elisha doles out along with his instructions to wash in the Jordan. We’re invited to be like Naaman here, and to identify with his desire to be treated as a man of status, whom even healing prophets must indulge. We’re also invited to recognize the limits of this sense of self-worth, when it interferes with what is good and necessary. We’re invited to celebrate that weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning (Ps.30:5). But, man oh man, isn’t it easier to grumble about imperfection?
We even catch the seventy-two at that grumbling. Often, we read Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 as the key text here and invite ourselves to identify with the commissioned seventy-two that Jesus sends out to bring the good news, hope, and healing. But if we are all also Naaman, then how might our sense of perspective and compassion change as part of the seventy-two? The omitted verses here are curses and analogies to dire failures. I mention them because I think our desire to curse people for not accepting our best intentions and welcoming us with our message and good news and good works goes back to Naaman’s problem: our own sense of self-worth becomes overindulgent and interferes with the good we can be and do, our comfort with weeping and grumbling and our discomfort with singing songs of praise and wearing the clothes of rejoicing.
I find myself caught pretty regularly on my expectations. Why can’t people be nice to me all the time? How dare you fail to yield at that clearly marked entrance ramp? How uncompassionate of that person! Oh wait. Where’s my understanding, compassion, kindness, and appreciation? The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few, because, um, well, it is so much pleasanter to be a manager of the harvest, isn’t it and scorn the workers who are tired or have a different way of doing things or who resent us? How can we carry our own load when we’re busy carrying our tomes of prescriptions for everyone else or when we expect to be indulged and petted and cosseted and to have everyone else carry us? Why does Jesus have to whisper, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven? (Luke 10:20) Right. Where are those clothes of joy? (Ps. 30:11)
That’s what Paul is writing to the Galatians. Brothers, if someone is caught in sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law in Christ.(Gal. 6:1-2) I find the lectionary this week calls me back to radical humility, equality, and compassion as hallmarks of God’s love and goodness. Hallelujah! Darn it! Hail and hosanna our humanity! Drat these shortcomings I keep having to live through.
I’m going to guess you’ve met the advice that afflicts and the well-intentioned caring that scourges. If you’re anything like me, you’ve also been the deliverer of both. Empathy is this tremendous gift we’ve been given, and yet it takes so much work to do! I’ve been far more able to hear corrective help from a colleague who offers that within the context of their own struggles and failures than I have from colleagues who tell me I’m doing it wrong and need to shape up. How about you? Are you more likely to change how you’re going about your life when someone shares equally in their troubles and your own? Or are you more likely to adopt the recommended way when you’re written a prescription and sent along? I’m far more likely to put on the clothes of joy and sing songs of gratitude when those who are helping me are sharing in their own humility and burdens. I don’t know about you, but I can smell superiority at less than 1 part per billion, and I back right away from someone else’s tiny bit nto my own reservoir of the poisonous stuff.
Ps.66:1-9 is our repeated refrain, meant to draw us back to all the small and large ways God’s love cares for us, calls us, redeems us. There’s one story that stands out past all the others and is referenced in this Psalm: the Exodus from Egypt. Once we were slaves and strangers, but then we came through the waters. Ps.66:9: he has preserved our lives and kept our feet from slipping. Once we were petulant and demanding and yet we live. (Okay, more than once we were petulant and demanding). Once we were rejected and turned away. Once people said mean things and committed atrocities. Once…. Once we were in trouble, and we find ourselves through that time, here to be able to complain about it. Lay your burden down here and rest awhile. All of us here have burdens, too, and we know well how heavy they are. Each of us shares in these labors and these delights of being human. Find here the goodness and love of God. You made it this far. You might have a to-do list and a map over tortured mountains yet to go, but here you are, today. And if that’s not good news worth rejoicing, I’m not sure what is.
Prayer: Bless the Lord of Love for here I am! I am amazed and astounded that I can still be here to carry on and to bless another day! May I be with my brother who is weeping in kindness and understanding. May I be with my sister who is afraid in compassion and love. When I hear impatience and petulance and frank irritation with the imperfections of life, may I smile with recognition, gather up my heart, and offer myself with care and conviction. Then, when the music strikes, let me begin the dance, wholeheartedly and with abandon, rejoicing in this day and my chance to be part of it. Amen