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The Reverend Kathleen Killian 

Proper 9C/22

2 Kings 5:1-14

Psalm 30

Galatians 6:(1-6)7-16

Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20

Simplex, simplus, simple 

Sometimes in life we need to take a step back to move forward, and this is how we’ll begin this morning, turning back a few chapters from our gospel passage in Luke (4:16-30) to where we find Jesus preaching at the synagogue in his hometown. His listeners have heard of the work that Jesus’ has been doing and are captivated. But they also wondered: isn’t this the son of Joseph? How can this be? And so, they wanted to see for themselves a healing miracle.

Jesus doesn’t oblige, but rather says to them: a prophet is never welcomed in their hometown. He then makes reference to the Old Testament story we heard this morning, saying: There were many lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha, and yet none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.

The people in the synagog became so enraged at what he said, they dragged him out of town to throw him off a cliff. Jesus slipped out of their grasp and went on his way working wonders and healing many people.

Jesus referred to the story of Naaman’s healing to make the point that no-one, not even the religious elite or those “chosen” by God are divinely entitled; a story in which a young Israel girl, captive of the Arameans and servant to Naaman’s wife, and Naaman’s own slaves act as messengers of God’s healing power, though they themselves were without freedom or power; a story that models Jesus’ ministry that is to extend beyond Israel to the least and the last, the outsider, the foreigner, and to all nations. In the kingdom of God, systems of power, privilege, and status are subverted.

God comes and saves not as we expect but of God’s own choosing; and as our scriptures attest, we’re not always so happy about this. Sometimes, like Naaman, we get angry and enraged at our unfulfilled expectations, when faith doesn’t deliver as we expect. Sometimes, as with the psalmist, God’s saving grace is hidden from us; we don’t understand and are filled with fear, crying and pleading with the Lord. Sometimes what God chooses for us seems too hard as it did to the Galatians, St. Paul writing to them in his “large letters” not to grow weary in doing what is right and not to give up. 

But sometimes what God chooses for us seems too simple as in our Old Testament story today: to cure his leprosy, the prophet Elisha tells Naaman to go dip in the river Jordan seven times, that’s it; it’s that simple. But rather than being grateful to be have been given an easy task, and jumping at the chance to jump in the healing waters, Naaman is infuriated and storms away, shouting: it can’t be that easy! Don’t I, the great commander of the king of Aram’s army, require something more, something special, something better?

For some unknown but inspired reason—because Naaman could have had his slaves killed for speaking to him in the way they did—his slaves say: Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much simpler then, when all he said to you was, Wash and be clean? 

In our gospel today, Jesus also gives his disciples something seemingly “too simple” to do; go on your way, Jesus says to them: take nothing for the journey, no purse or bag or sandals; no staff, no bread, no money, no extra tunic (also Luke 9:3). Just go. 

Several pre-pandemic years ago when Fr. John and I were still living in Maine, I felt called by the Spirit to go to Holy Cross Monastery on retreat. I set out with a purse, a bag, and shoes; no staff, but some money, no bread but snacks, and some extra clothes, thinking I had probably packed too much. But when I arrived to the monastery and began unpacking, suddenly my too-much was not-enough: I had forgotten to pack a toothbrush or toothpaste; I had no belt for my pants; I suppose because I was coming from Maine, I had packed long sleeve shirts and sweaters, but the Hudson Valley was in the middle of a gruesome heat wave, and I was left with one shirt I might comfortably wear. I had brought a blow dryer for my hair but no brush, and after I sprained my foot during the retreat, I was reduced to wearing one shoe, hobbling around on crutches in my sticky disheveled state. The monastery provided me with a toothbrush and toothpaste, but like Naaman, I felt disgruntled at having less than more, and with what God has “chosen” for me. 

We aren’t told how the seventy disciples felt about going with less than more, though I would imagine they felt a whole host of feelings. Initially, they must have been filled with excitement at being sent out into their Lord’s field to harvest where he himself had intended to go. What an honor! But when Jesus said, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves, things got a little scarier. With a lump in their throats and their hearts beating faster, their excitement turned to fear and then fear to confusion as Jesus continued: Take no purse, no bag, no sandals, greet no one on the road—no money or luggage or conviviality—don’t move from house to house or book a hotel or an airbnb, and don’t make a reservation at a nice restaurant—eat whatever is put in front of you. 

I can imagine the disciples furtively exchanging glances between themselves: that’s it? we’re not ready, it’s too simple. But Jesus goes on: whether you’re welcome or unwelcome, keep doing God’s work and proclaiming that the kingdom of God is near. At this point, more than a few must have felt the impulse to run as far away as they could from such a mission! But like Naaman, who was made clean from leprosy after washing in the river Jordan, and myself who was yet uplifted at my less-than-more retreat, theirs also was a happy ending and the disciples returned with joy at having cast out demons and successfully labored in the field—though Jesus quickly puts to rest any sense of prideful gloating or resting upon their laurels. 

As we all well know, life is rarely straightforward or simple as in being effortless or presenting no difficulty. Things of this world are a complicated lot—built up by pieces and combinations—a multivalent amalgamation—creation and its creatures a glorious mash-up of compounds, constituents, particles, and elements. And yet in classical theology God is simple, meaning that God is not built up or a result of any process. God is utter being, pure presence, and unadulterated or absolute activity or life. 

A few months ago, Fr. John and I listened to a marvelous talk by Rowan Williams and Br. Laurence Freeman (WCCM) about the simplicity of God. In it, we learned that the word “simple” comes from the Latin simplex, a word that was used by Roman tailors: a “simplex” was a piece of cloth not folded at all but fully open and whole, while a duplex was a piece of fabric folded once, and a complex was cloth folded many times over. In my own etymological inquiry, I learned that centuries later simplex became “simplus” a word which referred to a medicine made from one constituent or one plant. The heart of God is indeed simple in that it is one: without parts or partiality; unfolded, undivided, whole and perfect. 

As a people made in the image of the Holy One, we are meant to continually unfold and open ourselves from complexity and duplicity to simplicity. Scientists estimate that this simplicity of God—this effortlessness of unity—is expressed on this planet alone in nearly one-trillion life forms, including us humans. God’s purpose for life and creation is one: unity in diversity; one love, united. 

Radical but simple; simple but not easy. 

Simple but particular; we are to love God first, foremost, and always, not whenever we feel like it, giving only parts of ourselves; Naaman was told to dip himself in the river exactly seven times, not however many times he wanted to; Jesus told the disciples exactly what not to take, and precisely what to say and what to do. 

Simple but vulnerable and unarmed; we are to travel lightly as did Jesus, without pride, power or preference, or excessive attachment to possessions or bodily concern. As in the story of Naaman’s healing, let us also remember that God’s guidance often comes to us through the humble and small, the overlooked and undervalued—those “un-essential” parts of ourselves and the world.  

When we are sent out this morning at the end of the service, let us go forth with simplicity of heart, disciples of Jesus after the heart of Father. God does not want our lives to be harder or more complicated. Simply, God desires our freedom, joy, and peace as the old Shaker dancing song affirms: t’is the gift to be simple, t’is the gift to be free. 

You have turned my wailing into dancing, sings our psalmist; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy. Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.