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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Thank God for Lawyers (Luke 10:25-37)

Just then, a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, & you will live.”

But, wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

One of my college professors allowed us to earn up to two extra points by sharing one clean joke at the end of every exam. It was completely subjective and based on the degree to which the professor laughed, and he might award as little as half a point up to the maximum allotment of two points. If the joke made fun of any group of people, he stipulated that you had to be a member of that group. So, only Polish people could make Polish jokes, only people from Arkansas could pick on Arkansas, only blondes could tell blonde jokes and so on. The exception to this rule was lawyer jokes. Lawyer jokes were fair game.

So, just to get them out the way, here are three lawyer jokes for you.

How does an attorney sleep? First he lies on one side, and then the other.

"You seem to be in some distress," said the judge to the witness. "Everything ok?" "Your Honor, I swore to tell the truth, the whole truth & nothing but the truth, but every time I try, some lawyer objects."

A new client had just come to see a famous lawyer. “Can you tell me how much you charge?” “Of course,” said the lawyer. “Well, how much?” said the client. “I charge $200 to answer three questions.” “Isn’t that a bit steep?” “Yes it is,” said the lawyer. “That’ll be $200.”

Lawyers are detail people. Then, as now, the presence of a lawyer indicates that complications are about to arise. Lawyers worry about the definition of terms. In today’s text, Luke introduces us to a lawyer who asks Jesus a question to “test” him, but as Jesus unfolds the story we have all come to know as the Good Samaritan, we find that it is the worldview of the lawyer that is put to the test. May we pray.

Let’s take a look at the story. Jesus was on his busy way to Jerusalem, where he had an appointment with some temple officials, the high court, and the Roman governor. And it is in that fray that a lawyer approaches Jesus with a legal question. Elsewhere in Scripture, we might find the word “scribe” instead of lawyer. The scribes were “Scriptural lawyers” who were based out of the temple. However, given that the temple was destroyed in the year 70 and Luke didn’t get around to writing this Gospel until nearly 15 years later, the term “scribe” had probably evolved into “lawyer.”

This lawyer does address Jesus as “teacher” – certainly a sign of respect, and Jesus returns the respect by answering the lawyer by asking another question – a common stylistic feature of debate at the time, particularly among rabbis and interpreters of the law.

The lawyer asks, “Teacher, from a legal perspective, in your view, just what do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” “You’re the lawyer,” Jesus responded. “Just what does it say in the law?”

Well, the attorney could quote the legal code, the law of Moses, and he quotes back the teaching we have come to know as the Great Commandment. “The law says, ‘Love the Lord your God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says, “There you have it. Right on. Good answer.”

But, you can feel that something is still unresolved in this story. We have two good questions, two good answers, and two men who agree. At this level, it’s pretty calm between Jesus and the lawyer, but you know that something is brewing just below the surface. And then it comes out. This detail-oriented lawyer begins his cross-examination. “Uh, back up there just a second Jesus.” “I’m a little unclear on your use of the word ‘neighbor.’ Could you define that for me? Who exactly is my neighbor?”

This is a limit-defining question. This loving your neighbor business is fine and all, but just how far are you supposed to carry this thing? State your terms, Jesus. Surely, at some point we can say there’s a dividing line between ‘neighbor’ and ‘stranger.’ Just give me your definition of neighbor, Jesus. Get me the most correct, clearest, most concise answer, and we’ll all be on our way.

Fred Craddock put it succinctly, “Having right answers does not mean knowing God. Students can make a 4.0 in the Bible and still miss the point.” Sensing this, Jesus doesn’t define the term ‘neighbor,’ but provides a description of what a loving neighbor does by telling the story we know as the Good Samaritan.

A man is on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho, on a perilous road that drops from over 2500 feet above sea level to 800 feet below in only 45 miles. The man is robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead. Some good, faithful, orthodox, Bible-believing, genuine, well-intentioned church members approach. But rather than stopping to help, they cross the road, going out of their way to not get caught up in the situation.

But then along came a third person, and Jesus tells us that this third person saw the man lying there and showed mercy toward him. He’s the hero who acted courageously and bravely, whose heart was open with compassion, who went above and beyond. There’s only one tiny little problem: he’s a Samaritan.

He’s all but a natural enemy to the man lying on the side of the road. Jews and Samaritans had a bitter history of racial and religious hatred. They hurled insults and took great pains to avoid each other. The man on the side of the road may have even preferred the slow painful death in the pool of his blood to being helped by this foreigner, this despicable and despised enemy.

But it is this Samaritan, despised and rejected, who is nevertheless moved with compassion and tenderly cares for the injured man. Having told that story, Jesus now says to the lawyer, “So, you define the term ‘neighbor.’ Who proved to be the neighbor in this story?” The lawyer can’t even bring himself to spit out the word ‘Samaritan,’ and simply mumbles “The one who showed mercy.”

“Go and do likewise.”

When we read the parable of the Good Samaritan, it would be easy for us to moralize this story. If ever there were a text begging for a good old-fashioned moralistic sermon full of “Thou shalt do this” and “Thou shalt not do that” with lots of guilt and coercion mixed in, this is the text.

But, our problem generally isn’t knowing what we should and shouldn’t do. It’s having the vision to see the person in need not as a burden, but as my neighbor, to recognize in the face of another their needs not as a hassle, but as an opportunity to show the mercy I myself have experienced in Christ. My problem isn’t a lack of information; it’s a lack of faith. What we need from the church is not an instruction manual or moral advice or a life-coaching session, but a cornea transplant. We need new eyes. We need the eyes of faith to see others as neighbors, other children of God loved by God just as I am loved.

A few months ago, I was driving in on a Sunday morning. As I rounded the curve near the Salvation Army on Marsh Road, a woman walked into the road from the other side, screaming, waving frantically, almost walking right in front of the car as I drove past. Now, I did not want to stop. She was just going to ask me for help, and I really didn’t want to get involved. She probably wanted a ride somewhere, and I could see that she was dirty and sweaty, I assumed she was also smelly, probably a little bit crazy, and who knows what I would have gotten myself into. And, did I mention it was Sunday morning? Kind of an important work day for me – most of you would notice if I didn’t show up! A few of you would be happy, but you’d all notice, nonetheless.

But, as I drove on by, I glanced at the copy of the sermon sitting on the passenger seat. In a few hours, I was going to stand here and tell you to love your neighbors, to go out of your way to show kindness and practice compassion, to look for the opportunities God places in front of us to be the hands and feet of Jesus. As I realized I really had no choice and pulled off into the apartments to turn around, I said out loud, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Well actually, I said something else, but let’s just say the sentiment was about the same.

I slowed next to the woman, rolled down the window to ask if she needed help and received confirmation that she was, indeed, both smelly and crazy. She told me her skin felt like it was on fire, and she was walking to the Emergency Room at CMC. You all know I like to keep my car immaculately clean, both inside and out, but by then, it’s not like I really had a choice. So off we went to CMC, because I really couldn’t stand up here and tell you to go out of your way to love your neighbor if I wasn’t willing to do the same thing.

Now, please don’t celebrate your pastor as some sort of sacrificial, heroic figure, or think that I’m telling you that story so you’ll think better of me or something silly like that. But, where I was different from the Good Samaritan is that I was still thinking about myself even as I carried out this act of kindness. “I hope this doesn’t make me late.” “I hope she doesn’t ask for anything else.” “I hope she doesn’t lose it in the car and do something crazy.” “I wonder if that smell is going to come out of the upholstery.” And, I’m not even sure I was operating out compassion. In the text, like the priest and the levite, we often ask, “What will happen to me if I help?” The Good Samaritan, however, asked, “What will happen to him if I don’t?”

Jesus doesn’t present the story of the Good Samaritan as a moralistic tale. Jesus isn’t saying, OK, everybody – go out and be just like the Good Samaritan.” For one thing, if Jesus were just giving this story to us as a moral example, he would have left out the Samaritan altogether. He would have just said “Two people passed by, but the third person stopped to help, so everyone should be like the third person. Go and do likewise.”

If this were just a moralistic “Help your neighbor” story, Jesus wouldn’t have made the hero a Samaritan – there was no need to do that! If a Samaritan were introduced at all, it would have more sense for the Samaritan to be the one in the ditch. Then we’d have a classic “love your enemies” story. You know the rules: help those in need, and hey, look, you get bonus points because the guy in need is your enemy. Good for you!

But there’s another problem with an overly moralistic reading of this story. If Jesus’ point is that he wants us to imitate courageous compassion, the sad fact is that we can’t do it. It is simply not in our nature to forget ourselves and risk everything for a stranger. We may know it’s the right thing to do, but simply knowing the right thing in our minds doesn’t mean we can we do it. This isn’t mind over matter. This isn’t “Put your mind to it and you can do anything.” If we are going to be good Samaritans, this will require more than just a change of mind. It will take a change of heart. And that’s what this story is about: a change of heart.

When we read this story through a moralistic lens, we are all inclined to cast ourselves as one of the travelers on the road. We may identify with the priest or the levite who passed by – they’re the bad example – or we may identify with the Good Samaritan – he’s the good example. But when we read this story as the change that God works in the human heart, we realize that we are the one left half-dead in the ditch. We are the one who needed rescuing. We are the one dependent upon the compassion of another, and sure enough someone has come along and rescued us, and because of that encounter, our hearts have been changed.

That is the point of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. What the lawyer discovered, and what we must also discover, is that we cannot stand on the sidelines and figure out how to be good, getting our doctrine in order, defining our terms, figuring who exactly is and is not our neighbor, figuring out the best loophole or the most efficient route to eternal life. Because no matter how religious or virtuous we are, we still can’t do it. We are helpless to be Good Samaritans on our own strength, because you and I are the person in the ditch, the one who lies helpless and wounded beside the road, the one who needs to be rescued. And along comes a Good Samaritan, a Good Samaritan named Jesus – despised and rejected – who comes to save us, speaks tenderly to us, lifts us into his arms, and takes us to a place of healing. As St. Paul said, “while we were still God’s enemies,” God saw us in the ditch and had compassion, and Jesus came to save us.

And perhaps that’s why Jesus never answered the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” The real question is who has been neighbor to you? The crucified one has been neighbor to you. Have you felt his mercy make your own heart merciful? If so, you will know what this means and you won’t need me to explain it any further: Go, and do likewise.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Holy Humility (2 Kings 5:1-14)

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a might warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”

So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”

He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “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 when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 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.” 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! 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?” But his servants approached him and said, “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’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

Van Miller was the play-by-play announcer for the Buffalo Bills radio network for 37 years. Many of us in Western New York grew up with the sound on our TVs off during games and our radios tuned to WBEN so we could get Van’s commentary. Though he is now retired, he remains a beloved public figure throughout the Buffalo-Niagara region.

Van tells the story of being invited to speak at a breakfast at a local church. After mass, everyone headed to the church hall for breakfast, and the parish’s altar boys were serving as the wait staff. There were delicious sweet rolls from the neighborhood bakery down the street, and an altar boy came around serving one pat of butter to each person. Van asked him for a second pat of butter, and the server said, “I’m sorry sir, but you only get one pat of butter.” Van persisted: “I would like a second pat of butter.” “I’m sorry sir, but everyone only gets one pat of butter.” Van was getting a little frustrated and said, “Son, do you know who I am?” The altar boy didn’t, so Van began to explain: “I’m Van Miller, the voice of the Buffalo Bills, four-time New York state Broadcaster of the Year, a member of the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, Sports Director at WIVB TV, recipient of the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the keynote speaker at this breakfast, and I would like another pat of butter!”

The young boy thought for a second and said, “Sir, do you know who I am? I’m the guy passing out the butter.”

In this story, all the players encounter power and truth, but it does not necessarily come on the terms they were expecting. Gone are our self-imposed social strata, and we find that king and peasant, general and servant, male and female, insider and outsider, are brought to even levels in light of the work of God. May we pray.

Like much of the Bible, the story of Naaman is about little people, often misused in the larger scheme of things, especially the way history is written.

General Naaman commanded the entire army of the King of Aram, or Syria. He was a great favorite of the king – not the sort of General who would degrade the king in Rolling Stone. He was a good general, too – a Patton-Eisenhower-McArthur of a general. He was a national hero, and his home was filled with luxuries and the spoils of war.

His power came through the king, who comes from old money and is entrenched in power. No one in the kingdom is more powerful – after all, that’s why he’s the king! General Naaman has power because he’s plugged into the king. Both Naaman and the king are the consummate insiders.

But then again, they are both also outsiders. Remember that this story comes out of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we commonly call the Old Testament. According to that particular view, they are foreigners. They are enemies of Israel. They are not people of God’s covenant, they are not even participants in God’s salvation story.

Not only that, but Naaman suffers from a skin disease we wrongly translate as “leprosy.” His disease and disfigurement carried with it a social stigma: people would instinctively pull back their hand when he greeted them and others would stare at him just a little too long. His life was complicated by social, religious, and moral stigma. In Israel, people with such “impurities” were categorized as ritually unclean and therefore excluded from God’s community and its worship.

Naaman had tried everything, had probably spent great sums of money on all the creams and lotions, the laser treatments, the detox supplements and everything else. He had ordered Proactiv Solution and pretty much cleaned out Noxema of their entire skin care line. Through a very unlikely source, help came.

In those days and even still in many parts of the world today, some of those spoils of battle were the actual people who lived in the conquered area. One such person was a young girl whom Naaman had brought home as a present for his wife – a young girl to be her maid, to clean up around the house a bit and to serve her.

In the setting of our story, she is someone with no power at all. She doesn’t have a name. A child, a girl, owned but unable to own property, spoken for but unable to speak for herself, torn from her family and forced into slavery in a foreign country with foreign gods and a foreign language. She is powerless; she has no social power. No economic power. No political power. Snatched away from her homeland – poor, captive, undocumented. It would be different if she had been born in a different zip code.

And yet this powerless young slave girl is the one who comes to the rescue of great General Naaman. Back in her homeland, there is a prophet, Elisha. If anyone can call down the power of God to heal the General, it’s him. So the slave girl tells Naaman’s wife, who passes along the message to her husband. Naaman and his wife have just apparently returned home from a marriage enrichment weekend, because he actually listens to her and takes her advice.

Naaman goes through his power structures to get what he wants. He goes to the hub of his social network, the king, who does the kingliest thing he can do here. The king writes to the king of Israel to introduce General Naaman to him. Naaman takes a load of diplomatic gifts signifying status and wealth – he takes horse and chariots, silver and gold and ten sets of clothing. This is how rich and powerful people do these sorts of things – worldly power plays, leveraging influence, king to king, man to man, bank to bank, currying political favor with expensive gifts.

When Naaman appears to the king of Israel, the old bugger is agitated, to say the least. Naaman has shown up with a prescription the king is unable to fill. How is he supposed to heal anyone? Is he God? Does he give life? The king thinks this is some sort of diplomatic trap or that the king in Aram is mocking him. All the other kings will know that he wasn’t powerful enough to grant the other king’s request. No one will sit with him at lunch. All the other kings will mock him as a second-rate king, and so he tears his clothes in anguish.

But hearing this, the prophet Elisha sends word to the king, “Send the General to me.”

Naaman rolls up outside of Elisha’s home with his whole entourage – all the horses, chariots, and silver and gold. Naaman is an important person, and he’s come to expect a certain sort of reception when he arrives somewhere.

For two summers in college, I interned in the Quality Control office on an air force base outside Niagara Falls. Our office was largely responsible for protocol adherence throughout the entire organization. Those of you who have served in the military or worked for the government know that there is a manual and procedure for everything. We had to know who was supposed to sit where at banquets, who was supposed to speak and in what order, the sequence in which the toasts were to be carried out. When members of congress or generals would arrive on base, there was a certain entourage on hand to greet them, and everyone had a very specific role to play. A few times, I was sent out by myself with a staff car to the tarmac to greet one of our guests. At first I thought this was pretty cool, but I soon realized it was the base commander’s way of snubbing whatever Washington insider had come to take a vacation on the taxpayer’s dime.

Back in our text, I don’t know if Elisha intended to snub Naaman or not, but at the very least, he didn’t know protocol. Rather than going out to meet his important guest, Elisha doesn’t even get out of his La-Z-Boy and instead sends an intern to the gate to deliver the message: “If you want to be healed, you need to go dip in the Jordan River 7 times.”

General Naaman has had enough. He gets sent to the prophet, but the prophet doesn’t even come out to greet him. Naaman is expecting some complicated and mysterious ritual, maybe some potions and smoke, some drama, some hocus-pocus and some razzle-dazzle, but the prophet can’t even be pulled away from the television to come out and give him the message. And then, there’s the message itself. A bath in the muddy, swampy, smelly Jordan River. Not the mighty and sparkling clean rivers back in his own country, but the nasty old Jordan River.

Naaman is too important for this, so he looks around at his companions, says, “Screw it –let’s go back home.”

But thankfully, the little people in the story aren’t quite finished with their work. Naaman’s servants reason with him and are able to get to the source of his discontent. Naaman feels insulted because he thinks he’s above the cure that’s been offered. But the story has come full circle. The faith of a servant girl started this whole venture. Now, it is the faith of his servants that assures its completion. They chastise Naaman for his pride, and he finally consents to go and do “according to the word of the man of God.” He concedes that he does not have the power to heal himself, and when he is able to humble himself enough to act according to the prophet’s instructions, his healing comes not as a result of his own power, but by his encounter with the holiness of God.

The story of Naaman’s healing seems an odd inclusion in the Hebrew scriptures. Why would the editors of this book include this particular chapter, a story about the commander of the enemy’s army, in the greater story of God’s covenant relationship with a particular people? Because: this story serves as a constant reminder of how God treats our false distinctions of insider and outsider.

In the Old Testament, Israel alone is God’s elect people: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2). All other nations are distinctly outsiders – in the language of St. Paul, “excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise” (Ephesians 2:12). Similarly, the early Christians proclaimed that “no one comes to the Father except through Jesus” (John 14:6).

But that’s only part of the story, and it’s easy to find many plot reversals. When God elects a single community, Israel, God’s intentions were universal in scope, that in Abraham “all peoples on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Those same early Christians who proclaimed Jesus as the only way also imagined heaven populated with “a great multitude without number, from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation 7:9).

Well, if people from every nation, tribe, people, and language are included, if God’s intent for God’s people was that through them all people would be blessed, we have reason to rethink how we treat the outsider. We are called to bless the world with the presence of God. To whom much is given is much required, so we who live in a land of freedom are called to close examination as to how we will use the freedoms and the privileges we have been given in service to all. While we are grateful to those who have sacrificed for the freedoms we enjoy, we must also plainly consider that there are those who have yet to enjoy those freedoms. Even as we hold these truths to be self-evident that all people are created equal, and that they endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, chief among them being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” we must plainly recognize that this remains an elusive ideal for there are those within our society who are still denied such rights. And because of this, we can only say “God Bless America” if we are also willing to be a nation of God’s covenant, working for the cause of justice in the world, using what we have to benefit others, eradicating the distinction between insiders and outsiders, and actively seeking a just and equal sharing of all that life affords. As Christians, when we say “God Bless America,” even louder should our actions say, “America, Bless the World.” We are blessed to be a blessing. The greatest among us will be servant of all.

When we read the Bible carefully, we notice how much it features prominent outsiders. The story of the Bible is that God continues to cast circles of inclusion that embrace the outsider. The wideness of God’s grace is, depending on our own position, either the Gospel’s greatest scandal or its broadest expression of God’s love.

Outsider becomes insider, and this is the work of grace. The playing field is completely leveled with it comes to our need for and dependence upon God’s grace. Great or small, significant or not, whatever category or classification we place upon ourselves or upon others fades out of importance when we consider our universal need for God’s grace.

The insider-outsider dynamic operates at many levels. Racism, ethnicity, national origin, an important job, a prestigious school affiliation, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, gender, age, body image, and politics are all identities we embrace, personas we construct to comfort ourselves that we are insiders and to scapegoat others as outsiders. Congratulatory self-delusion is never far away. Like the hypocrite who prayed in the temple in Luke 18:11, we say “God, I thank you that I am not like . . . fill in your favorite sin or marginalized people group here.

Presumption is the chronic temptation of the insider. To our own peril we ignore, shun, and vilify the outsider as strange, dangerous, and unclean. Yet perhaps Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best in his letter from the Birmingham Jail: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” When we think of ourselves as insider and others as outsider, when we are proud and not teachable, when we think that all others are not as important, not as righteous, not as holy, not as committed, not as visionary, not as worthy, we run the danger of losing the ability to humbly ask God that in his mercy we might be transformed by his truth. If we ever reach a point where we no longer think we need God’s grace, that we are just fine and dandy on our own, then it is at that moment when we stand more in need of God’s grace than ever we have.

Whether we are an insider or an outsider, a king or a peasant, a general or a servant, a long-time church member or sitting here today for the first time, we are all dependent equally on God’s grace for healing, wholeness, and restoration in our lives. Naaman was healed not because he was a great man, not because he was a mighty solider, not because he was wealthy, not because he was educated, not because he spoke and people listened. He was healed because he got over himself, he swallowed his own pride, he stopped believing his own hype, he stopped relying on his own abilities, and came in full humility to be changed by the holiness of God. Naaman’s life finally prefigured the third verse of that great Christian hymn, Rock of Ages:

Nothing in my hand I bring / simply to the cross I cling

Naked, come to thee for dress / Helpless, look to thee for grace.

Today, our time of worship is going to conclude with a healing service.

James 5:14-16 reads, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

Today, maybe you’re like Naaman and you need to be healed of your pride. Maybe you’ve been doing it your way for so long that you’re tired and broken down and ready to do it God’s way. Maybe you’re like the servants in today’s passage and you feel like nobody knows your name or cares about your story. Maybe you need healing in some other area in your life, in your body, your mind, your spirit, your emotions, or in your relationships. Friends, we all need healing. At times in our lives, we feel broken and incomplete, and we call upon God for healing.

In a few moments, everyone who wishes to come forward for healing prayer is invited to do so. Here’s what will happen. If you come forward, I will anoint your forehead with olive oil in the sign of the cross. I will lay hands on your head and pray for the Holy Spirit to work within you to bring healing and wholeness to all areas of your life. Friends and family are welcome to join anyone who comes forward for healing. You may linger at the altar for prayer as long as you wish. We’re in no rush this morning. We’re on God’s time, and this is God’s ministry of healing.

I have no expectation of what will happen. No one may come forward or everyone may come, and that’s fine. But if you desire wholeness in your entire being, after our brief prayer, I invite you to come forward. I extend that invitation on behalf of Christ, who reaches out to touch each of us with his healing hands, and in whose name all healing takes place.