6th Sunday after Epiphany—February 12, 2012—2 Kings 5:1-14
Let’s all be honest: We like things the way we like them. We have our habits, and even the bad ones we usually hold on to. We value routine, much as we say otherwise. We say things like, “Change is just as good as rest.” But really, at the end of a long day, we are seeking out familiar things, something that requires less energy and enterprising thought. That’s why fast food took off. It’s why formulaic television shows – that begin and end in predictable ways – are so popular. Why we love the classic narrative that ends well. We like things the way we like them – and there’s a safety in understanding the rules of society, even if they don’t serve us particularly well. As one of the bluebloods says of the help in Downton Abbey, a television show I dutifully watch out of a routine with Erin each week, servants are always more conservative than their employers. When we feel unsettled, or uncertain, or when change comes at too much of a cost, we hold to things the way they are. But this is the way it’s always been done. Change, is, well, exhausting. And our routines are already pretty exhausting all on their own.
That’s really the story of our first lesson this morning. An army commander – we can imagine him as a kind of tough and beefy George Foreman Schwartzkopf type, perhaps – has been stricken by leprosy and seeks out healing. He is expecting that to happen a certain way: after all, he is the rich and prominent man, and in his world, that means he gets healing on his own terms and in a way that’s convenient for him. But this time he is told to do something as simple as bathe in a river. He is clearly put out: bathing in a river seems beneath him; at the very least it’s wimpy. He expects to be treated a certain way. So he’s miffed when the rules of the game are changed. And even dealing with a disease like leprosy, he decides to pointlessly stand his ground.
What a waste of energy. Routine may feel easy, sure. And doing things the way they have always been done may just be simpler. But sometimes, what’s really exhausting – and what we fail to see – is intransigence. We spend our time complaining about something – like homework, for instance, or chores – when we could get it all done in the time we have spent grumbling about it. We keep up the same approach with our loved ones out of pride or stubbornness even though it doesn’t work. A song I like has the line, “The definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” How often do we fall into that trap, failing to see that a little tweak here or there – a bath in a slightly different river – might achieve much better results?
Of course, in our first lesson, the real character flaw behind our stubborn leper is hubris. He feels entitled to special treatment. I often hear people refer to entitlement as a posture of the poor or less fortunate – those people, they say, who always have their “hands out.” But in fact, those of us among the middle and upper classes can be just as “entitled” and often with much more negative impact for society. That’s because we have the ability, the education, and the political influence to change things. It may be true, as the character in Downton Abbey puts it, that her servants are more conservative than she, but if so, it’s because they have so much to lose, families to feed, and one step from homelessness they can’t risk it. A failure to change for the better on the part of the relative privileged is much more insidious: the reason we like things just as they are is because that reality puts us in a pretty good place, compared to most.
In the end, of course, it’s the commander’s servants who make him see reason. It’s clear they think he’s being ridiculous. Just go, already, they tell him. (And stop whining about it, they no doubt muttered to themselves.) After all, it’s no real inconvenience to him to make the trip to the river in question. If it had been something he considered worthy of his station – fasting for 30 days, or some act of bravery – he would have gotten all puffed and done it – and then no doubt boasted to all around him about how he managed his own cure. I guess that’s part of the point of the story: once we hold to that posture, we make the story more about ourselves than about God.
I suspect there are many times in our lives when God might like us to see a better path – and be humble enough to accept it – but we let our pride get in the way. Earlier this month, we heard Paul caution against the knowledge that puffs us up, and now we have the example of someone who seems as puffed up as they come. Puffed up pride prevents us from hearing the truth about our own failings, from showing vulnerability to others that might help us grow as a person; it prevents us from taking risks. That is the difference between confidence and pride: a confident person can accept they have faults, can consider their mistakes, can humble themselves before God.
So ask yourselves this question when you reflect on that first lesson. Is there some personality trait, some mistake that’s burdening you – something that might be fixed with an easy, if humbling, act? I bet you already know what it is. I bet you know you might easily wash yourself clean of it in the river. God is saying to all of us: sometimes it doesn’t take a grand or heroic feat to make a change. Sometime it is as simple as a word, a gesture, an act of generosity, a metaphorical bath in a river. Listen for what that is. And don’t be so proud that you don’t hear it. Amen.