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Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost 

Readings: 2 Kings 5:1–14, Galatians 6:7–18 & Luke 10:1–12, 17–24

Central to the teaching of Jesus is the instruction to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength. In relation to this instruction, James J. Rawls writes that, “We are called to love God with our total being. Ranking just below is our second priority, to love our neighbour, to be mindful of the needs of others and to seek their welfare. And third, often overlooked, is the acknowledgment that we are to love ourselves, to take care of ourselves, to make intelligent decisions for our own welfare. All three priorities are important, but only one can be ranked first. Jesus teaches that our love of God comes first. If we place others or ourselves in first rank, our relationships will be skewed and ultimately unhealthy.” 

But just how do we make God the number priority in our life? It’s not easy to follow this teaching of Jesus. After all, we are human beings, and it seems to be human nature to want to satisfy what might be referred to as our “earthly desires”. The Apostle Paul describes these desires as the ‘way of the flesh’. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul sets before us two paths of life, the way of the flesh and the way of the Spirit. Following the way of the flesh is to have our priorities wrong. It leads to a distortion of all our relationships—with God, with others, and with ourselves. Our relationship with God, Paul says, is distorted by idolatry, putting our faith in false gods; our relationship with others is poisoned by enmity and strife; and our sense of well-being is torn apart by feelings of jealousy, anger, and envy. 

We see an example of this in our first reading this morning from the Second Book of Kings.  We heard the story of Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram, a respected man who was highly valued by his king. Naaman is sent by the king to see the prophet Elisha, because he’s heard that Elisha can cure him of his leprosy. 

Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house in grand style, with his horses and chariots, only to be met, not by Elisha, but by a servant of his. This servant relays the message from Elisha to Naaman about what he needs to do to be cured. Naaman feels insulted and angry. He’s a great man who is obviously used to having people treat him accordingly, but in this case, he believes that Elisha is not treating him with the respect that he deserves. Fortunately, one of Naaman’s own servants manages to calm him down, and convince him to follow the instructions from Elisha’s servant, and the end result is that he is cured. 

But let’s come back to the issue of Naaman’s pride, and how that initially gets in the way of him receiving God into his heart through the message which is delivered by Elisha’s servant. I recently read a spiritual reflection titled ‘Cloaks and Branches’, a reference to how people laid their cloaks on the road before Jesus, and also cut down branches from palm trees to spread on the road in front of him, to welcome him into Jerusalem.

The author (J. J. Rawls) uses the theme of cloaks and branches as metaphors to describe the ways in which we, as human beings, can build barriers that prevent God from entering our hearts. He encourages us to lay before Jesus our cloaks of fear. Fear, he argues, is the enemy of faith, because it causes us to focus on our circumstances rather than on the certainty of God’s unfailing love. 

Regarding fear, Rawls refers to a series of letters that C. S. Lewis once wrote to an American woman struggling with a life threatening illness. Lewis acknowledged that the woman’s pain must be terrible, but then he asked her, “Surely you need not have fear as well?” He counselled her with the following comforting (but challenging) words: “Remember, although we struggle against things because we are afraid of them, it is often the other way around – we get afraid because we struggle. Don’t you know Our Lord says to you ‘Peace, child, peace. Relax. Let go, I will catch you.’”

Rawls also tells us that we should lay down our branches of pride. He suggests that pride is the excessive belief in our own abilities, which prevents us from recognising our need for God. Pride keeps our hearts hardened and therefore unable to receive God’s love, like Naaman in our first reading. Rawls quotes C. S. Lewis as saying, “Pride is the chief cause of every misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Pride is spiritual cancer. It places an inordinate absorption of self at the very centre of our being, lodged in the very place where Christ seeks to dwell.”

So, we are to learn to put our trust in God and not in our own abilities. Which is probably the complete opposite of the messages that we receive in society today in the twenty-first century. There certainly seems to be a sense in our society that the needs and rights of the individual are more important than the collective needs and rights of community. And we are all encouraged to trust in our own knowledge, education, talents and skills, to solve any problems that we may be presented with.

In a way, this was what Paul was writing about to the churches in Galatia. His teaching had been opposed by Jewish Christians, who themselves had told the members of the churches in Galatia that they needed to be circumcised and obey Jewish law, in addition to following Jesus, if they wanted to be in relationship with God. But Paul told them that relying on “human” actions, such as circumcision and observing Jewish law, was not the way to relationship with God, rather people would come to God through Jesus.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus sends seventy disciples ahead of him to spread the Good News about the kingdom of God, and when they return, the disciples tell him (with great pride and joy) that even demons were submissive to them. But Jesus warns them of the danger of pride, telling them they shouldn’t rejoice that the demons submit to them, instead they should rejoice that their names are written in heaven. Theologian Brendan Byrne explains this by saying that, “Christian joy does not ultimately rest upon achievement. It rest upon a deep sense of relationship with God”.

So to come back to the question of how to make God the number one priority in our life, it would seem that a good way for us to start is for us to lay down our fears and our pride before Jesus – just like the cloaks and branches that were laid down before him as he entered Jerusalem. Cloaks and branches to welcome Jesus in!

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