Sunday, November 6, 2022

Phil Kniss: The power of being present

Roots & Tendrils: God Grows A People
Healing and Community
2 Kings 5:1-15a; Matthew 8:2-3

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This healing story of Naaman the leper is a favorite of mine.
    I heard it in Sunday Schools,
        in Bible storybooks my mother read to me,
        and on a vinyl record we wore out, called,
        “Great Stories from the Bible,”
            narrated by Wendell P. Lovelace,
            with dramatic effects by a Hammond organ.
    This story is one of 12 tracks.
        One of the top 12 stories of the Bible,
            at least according to Word record executives.

But the high point of this story whenever it was told
    and the moment on the record,
        where the organ swells in a dramatic crescendo,
    was when Naaman stepped out of the Jordan River,
        his skin smooth as a baby, the Bible says.
That is, apparently, the miracle that puts this story in the top 12.

But I have come to believe that is not the only miracle in this story,
    nor is it, even, the greatest one.

There is astounding power in being present—
    thoroughly, calmly, attentively, present—
    to God’s activity in the circumstances around you,
        and in the lives of the people around you.

And this great power was wielded in this story
    by a young slave girl who had been ripped away
    from her home and family and community
        in a violent raid that destroyed the life she knew,
        and left her traumatized on multiple levels.
    Now she serves as a slave
        inside the house of the military commander
        who was the leader and mastermind behind that raid.

To think she had it within her,
    not only to be present to the possibility
        that back home there was a prophet of God
        who had the power to heal her enemy captor’s disease,
    but to actually approach her owner, the wife of Naaman,
        and offer a pathway to his healing,
        is beyond amazing.

It is a miracle
    that strikes me as even more surprising and awe-inspiring
    than a skin disease that was healed by 7 dips in the Jordan.

A traumatized, displaced, and enslaved young girl
    becomes the primary catalyst for the healing
    of the most powerful military officer in Aramea.

There are at least five strikes against her having any power in this story:
    and patriarchy.

    she was grounded enough in her own identity
        as a person loved by Yahweh,
    that she could be present to the suffering of others—
        even the one responsible for the suffering of her people.
    There is amazing power in the ability to be present.

As the story unfolds,
    we see the prophet Elisha
    also exercise the power of presence.

He could see the possibility that God might be at work
    in the life of an arch-enemy of Israel,
    and was open to facilitate Naaman’s healing,
        without making any sort of power play.

When an enemy is against the ropes, so to speak, as Naaman was,
    that’s the time to reposition,
    take advantage of the enemy’s weak spot,
    use it to your advantage.

But no.
    Elisha observed the situation, was present to it,
        and opened himself to God doing something unexpected.

The only way for us to be fully present,
    is to relinquish some control.
    I cannot, at the same time,
        be actively trying to exert my influence on someone,
        and be fully present and open to them.

    I may move back and forth between the two.
    And there may be legitimate times for both.
    But I can’t do them simultaneously, seems to me.

When it comes to healing of any kind,
    we need to let go of our urge to control
        either the process or the outcome.
    We need to open ourselves to the wholeness God has in mind.
    Which may or may not be precisely what we have in mind.

As we saw in scripture,
    there is a powerful connection
        between yieldedness and wholeness,
        between releasing and healing,
        between letting go of our pride and anxiety,
    and receiving God’s pure gift of wholeness of life.

Naaman would have never been healed,
    had he not been able, at least for a few minutes,
        to let go of his urge to control the circumstances,
        and give in to the muddy waters of the Jordan,
            and to the unknown God of Israel.

On this All Saints remembrance Sunday,
    we are, as a community, and as individuals,
    revisiting some points of loss and pain and grief and woundedness.

The experience we had, or are having,
    in regard to the death of these persons—
        the 9 persons whose pictures are here on the front table,
        and 260 additional persons listed in our bulletin today—
    run the gamut from beauty to tragedy,
        from hurts that have healed long ago,
        to wounds of grief that are still gaping wide open.

The stories of our lives in relation to these persons
    also spans the spectrum
        from love and goodness and wholeness,
        to complicated pain and tension, and even abuse.

These 269 are not all saints, in its classical definition,
    that is, they’re not all paragons of purity.
    But they are real people loved by God, given life by God,
        and redeemed by God.
    And so we remember them, and name them.

The road to healing for us,
    in regard to those we have lost,
    can also be found in the power of being present—
        being present with our grief,
        being present with our anger, confusion, sense of betrayal,
            and other complicated feelings we may have,
        being present with our deep continuing love for these persons,
            and their ongoing impact on our daily lives.

It’s a powerful thing to be able to let the varied feelings come,
    without judgement, without pushing them away.
    It’s the same power of being present
        that we saw in the slave girl and the prophet Elisha.

So today,
    in the rituals we are about to undertake,
    I invite you to be present,
        whatever that may mean for you today.

Be present to your pain and loss and grief.
Be present to God’s comfort and companionship.
Be present to each other.

Our time of remembrance has several stages.
    First, we will remember, and name aloud,
        all those from this congregation
        who have died since All Saints Sunday last November.
    Then the choral ensemble
        will sing the words of Romans 8, “Neither death nor life,”
        and you are invited to join with them on the refrain,
            the music is printed in the order of worship.
    Then all will be invited to make your way forward
        for candlelighting and communion.
        Instructions will follow.

Let us now hear the names of those who died in the last year.
    Read in unison the bold print of the scripture,
        as you see it projected on the screen.

We remember with thanksgiving those from this congregation whom we have entrusted to God and who now rest from their labors.

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