Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay
October 14, 2007
Proper 23C

Imagine a road blocked by a fallen tree. Not just a small branch that you can drive over or move out of the way – but an old tree with a thick trunk lying across the entire width of the roadway. Now imagine you are in your car or bike and you encounter this obstacle. You might call the police department to let them know of the problem so they can send someone out to take care of it. Or, if it is in your own neighborhood, you might gather together with some of your friends and, with the help of a chainsaw, get it moved out of the way. Or, maybe you’ll turn around and find another route to your destination. So, there are all kinds of things you might do when you encounter this road block, but what I expect none of us would do is just sit there, waiting for someone to come along and notice the problem, and move it out of our way.

Or, do you remember that wonderful encounter between Dorothy and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz? Dorothy and Toto are following the yellow brick road and they come to a crossroad. Dorothy speaking as much to herself as to Toto, I suppose, says, “Now which way do we go?” And a voice responds, “Pardon me, this way is a very nice way.” Dorothy, a bit surprised, says, “Who said that?” and Toto barks at the scarecrow hanging on a post. Dorothy replies, “Don’t be silly, Toto. Scarecrows don’t talk.” And then, the scarecrow, pointing in the other direction says, “It’s pleasant down that way, too.” At this point, Dorothy inquires of Toto, “That’s funny . Wasn’t he pointing the other way?” To which the scarecrow replies, “Of course, some people do go both ways.”[1] Still surprised by a talking scarecrow, but now also frustrated by such an unhelpful guide at the crossroads, Dorothy does not sit down and end her journey, convinced that she will never make it to the Emerald City. Instead, after a bit of song and dance, she, the scarecrow, and Toto continue on a path that they hope will ultimately lead them to the Great Wizard; and, indeed, it does. What a different story we would have had, if Dorothy instead just sat down or turned back the way she had come, convinced that there was no point in trying to reach the Emerald City – the obstacle was simply too great.

Now maybe this sounds a bit farfetched to you. Of course, we don’t just stop in our tracks or turn back when we encounter a roadblock or a challenge. That would be ridiculous and yet, for most of us, at one time or another, this is precisely what we do. Because, for you and I, many – if not most – of the roadblocks in our lives are not physical obstacles. The roadblocks in our lives are rarely as obvious as a tree blocking the road or the intersection of two paths. Instead the roadblocks we encounter throughout our lives include obstacles that we often cannot see and obstacles that we may not even be aware of.

Consider Namaan, the commander of the army of the King of Aram, in this morning’s reading from the book of second Kings.[2] Namaan suffers from leprosy and wants nothing more than to be healed of this dreadful disease. So, upon the advice of his wife’s servant, he travels to Samaria to see the great prophet Elisha who may cure him of his ailment. Upon arriving at Elisha’s house, he is greeted by one of Elisha’s messengers who tells him to go and “wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” Infuriated that the great prophet himself did not come out of the house to greet him and annoyed by the simple instructions – if all he needed to do was wash in a river, wouldn’t the rivers of his own country have been sufficient? He begins to leave for home – still suffering from leprosy. There are obstacles in his path to healing. In the first place, his pride: Namaan is convinced that because of his status – the commander of the army in his own country – he ought certainly to be greeted personally by the great prophet. Next, his anger: Namaan becomes so angry by this perceived lack of welcome and the too simple solution – go wash in the Jordan – that he is ready to return home. Has he forgotten that the reason he came to Israel in the first place was not to meet Elisha but to be healed? It is only at the wise urging of one of his servants that Namaan acquiesces and does as the messenger tells him to do and we are told, “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”

What are some of the obstacles in our lives – in our individual lives and in our life together in community – that prevent us from seeing the reign of God breaking through in our lives, in our homes, and in our congregation every single day? How is it that we seem so able to see and focus on the proverbial cracks in the ceiling and the very real financial concerns of St. Barnabas and yet are so often blind to the wonders of the vibrancy of the children in the Sunday School, the quiet work of the altar guild, and the countless persons fed at our breakfast and dinners each year? Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest, contemplative, retreat leader, and spiritual director, suggests that this is not uncommon because so often we serve as our own obstacle – we keep ourselves “fearful and imprisoned in our own skins, unable to reach out to the bottomless vastness of divine love.”[3] In other words, you and I, like Namaan in today’s story, are adept at creating our own obstacles – our own emotional and spiritual barriers.

What are the obstacles you create? Are they the pride and anger of Namaan? Are they fear and insecurity? Whatever they are, we need to find a way to break these barriers down so that the vision God has for us may be restored and renewed in our hearts and in our minds, so that we can see clearly the love God has for each of us, and so that we can move forward in ministry with all the enthusiasm of the psalmist who wrote, “Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart.”[4] Breaking down the barriers, moving past these obstacles, this is holy work and it is work that God calls each of us to do. One way we can begin to do this is through prayer. Those of you familiar with 12-step recovery programs, may recognize in this the seeds of Step Seven: “Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.” It is a prayer that ultimately can help us “to move out from ourselves toward others and toward God.”[5] One prayer suggested by the 12-step program goes like this:

“My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character [every obstacle] which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen.”[6]
If you tend to be a more visual person, let me share another prayer with you. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, an Episcopal priest and writer, tells the story of an Easter Sunday sermon she recalls in which the preacher suggested each of us is entombed and we need to ask God to roll the stone away from the entrance of our tomb so that we might be more fully ourselves, more able to see God’s ways in the world.[7] I invite you to try this when you are praying. With your eyes closed, imagine yourself in a dark tomb and see the stone blocking the way out. Imagine that your fear, your anger, your insecurity, your worries – whatever your obstacle – imagine that obstacle is the stone and boldly ask God to give you the strength and the courage to move that stone away.

Whatever prayer you choose, one of these or one of your own creation, remember that you are doing holy work. And remember that holy work is often hard work. For most of us, it has taken years and years of practice for our inner obstacles to become as solid and as resistant as they are. So you will need to be patient with yourself and you will need to be open to unusual answers to your prayers. Namaan’s obstacles were so powerful that he was willing to return home still suffering from leprosy – completely forgetting that the whole reason for his trip to Israel was to be healed. Yet, God sent an unusual answer to Namaan’s prayer for healing. That answer came first in the form of Elisha’s messenger who provided simple instructions – go, wash in the Jordan – and then in the form of Namaan’s servants who offered guidance in humility – “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?” - so that Namaan could receive the healing that he sought. Restored to health, Namaan was able to see God clearly as he proclaimed, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” And this, my friends, is ultimately the Good News: God wants to bring about healing and restoration in our lives, in our communities and in our world. God will work through the obstacles we put up[8] – those seen and those unseen – so that we can glimpse God’s reign breaking into our lives this day and every day. Pray for it!

[1] “Memorable Quotes from The Wizard of Oz (1939)” on IMDd: The Internet Movie Database, accessed online on October 13, 2007.
[2] 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c.
[3]Cynthia Bourgeault, “Hobbling (Walking, Flapping) North,” in Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo, (New York: Seabury, 2007), p. 65.
[4] Psalm 111:1a.
[5] Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous® World Services, 1981), p. 70, 76.
[6] Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism [commonly referred to as “The Big Book”], 4th edition, (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous ® World Services, 2001), p. 76.
[7] Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “When Heaven Happens,” in Heaven, p. 75-6.
[8] Sharon Benton, Mark Lee, and Ken Pilot, “Thriving on the Edge,” Out in Scripture Commentary (Human Rights Campaign, October 14, 2007) accessed online on October 9, 2007.