Sunday, July 7, 2013

Giving Up Control

A familiar verse from Psalm 30 (v. 12) jumped out at me again this morning: "You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy." I say "again" for that verse was vivid in my heart on the June day in 2001 when my son came to visit me in Ukiah, he walked across the lawn to embrace me. For the previous year and a half, he'd been struck down suddenly with an autoimmune disease called Bickerstaff's encephalitis, the effects of which he still copes with today. For some time during the last two months of 1999 and into 2000, he was partially paralyzed, in a wheelchair, and I, at least, was fearful that he might never walk again, much less dance again on the ballet stage. God and he proved me wrong, and he eventually resumed his dancing career for another six years before retiring. His loss of control in the use of his body, and my loss of control in be utterly helpless to help, was a hard lesson, indeed.

The liturgical readings today hint at the difficulty and the necessity of giving up control. In the lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures (2 Kings 5:1-14) Naaman a highly decorated military officer and commander faced losing control on two counts: 1) he was unexpectedly struck with leprosy, a huge embarrassment, and 2) he was sent into an adjoining territory to the prophet Elisha for a cure, only to have one of Elisha's underlings be sent out to greet him instead of the prophet himself, and to instruct Naaman to go wash seven times in the Jordan River. Interestingly, Naaman got to Elisha through the savvy suggestion of one of his wife's servants who knew of Elisha's reputation for healing in Samaria.  

Military brass don't take readily to second-rate treatment. Naaman was angry and insulted at Elisha's perceived snub, to say the least. The writer says that "He turned and went away in a rage." In another remarkable instance of simple servants' wisdom, Naaman's own staff pushes him to reconsider: "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!'" Touché! Naaman swallows his pride, relinquishes control, goes down to the river and, voilà!, "his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean."

In the Gospel passage (Luke 10:1-11; 16-20) Jesus commissions 70 new disciples, to whom he's presumably given some training, and sends them in pairs as a sort of advance, preparatory cadre to those places he intended to visit. If anyone wants to learn about giving up control, just listen to Jesus' explanation of their required modus operandi: "I am sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves..." No purses, no bags, no sandals, no greeting anyone on the road. When you enter a house, wish them "Peace" (shalom) and you'll know you're welcome if they return the wish. If you're not welcome, well, they'll for sure let you know! Stay with those who volunteer to put you up, and accept room and board. Don't move from house to house. Do the same to the towns you visit and who welcome you, accept their hospitality, and in return heal their sick and assure the folks there that God's reign has arrived. On the other hand, if the townspeople send you packing, go out into the middle of the street and wipe off the dust of the town from your feet as a sign of protest, then remind them also that God's reign has arrived.

Can you imagine what it felt like to give up control, simply based on Jesus' word, and to venture out among complete strangers to spread the Word, without the benefit of all the props, the reassuring comforts, and all the "stuff" with which we surround ourselves? Apparently, though, after they'd gotten the hang of it, the disciples eventually returned to Jesus "with joy", Luke says. But the thing that tickled them most was the fact that "even in your name the demons submit to us!": the kind of response you might expect from teenagers with a new X-Box! Nothing about the honor of sharing God's Word, nothing about all the different and good people they met along the way, nothing about the renewed hope of those who were healed...just that they seemed to have some control in zapping demons! Jesus provides a reality check by reminding them that it's God who is in control, and that without Jesus' empowerment they'd be able to do nothing. He says that what they should really be shouting about is that "your names are written in heaven". The reason for that is hinted at in the succeeding verses (21-24), namely that the Father has, intentionally, hidden the marvels of which they've been a part from "the wise and intelligent and [has] revealed them to infants..." One wonders if Jesus' use of the reference to "infants" was lost on the disciples! He impresses on them how blessed they are: "I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it." In Jesus, who is speaking to them, God's reign is embodied. It's here and now. And these disciples are blessed to have the reign of God in them, in their hearts and actions, by the grace of God present in their Master.     

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