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Keeping It Simple

July 8, 2013

“Keeping It Simple” 2 Kings 5:1-19 © 7.7.13 Ordinary 14C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

An episode of the classic TV comedy “Frasier” has the radio psychiatrist trying to come up with a jingle to introduce his show. The station manager, Kenny, wants all the on-air personalities to have a signature tune, but Frasier can’t provide one. He puts together a chamber orchestra, hires a choir, and gets his brother Niles to read a monologue as part of the effort. What is supposed to be a simple 30-second ditty turns into a production. Kenny is not pleased, and Frasier is frustrated. His dad, the former cop, has come up with a little song that is exactly what the manager would want, but unlike his father, Frasier “doesn’t do simple.” The line is delivered not arrogantly, but sorrowfully. The failure with the song is yet another evidence to Frasier that he is not a regular guy. Instead, he’s a snob, aloof, able to construct long sentences with big words but not a little tune for his listeners.

It’s funny that one blogger has suggested that if the Old Testament text were made into a TV show, it would be none other than Kelsey Grammer who would play General Naaman (http://jointhefeast.blogspot.com/2009/01/feb-15-2009-2-kings-51-14-catherine.html). The Aramean officer is the same sort of self-absorbed snob that Frasier was. He expects special, personal treatment wherever he goes, and he’s not satisfied with simple solutions. That’s not because they are ineffective, but because to his mind, simple doesn’t match his rank, his level of influence, his status as a favorite of his king. Such people as he should get spectacular miracles and awe-inspiring rituals performed by the prophet himself. He may be a diseased man embarrassed by his condition, but he deserves respect.

So being met by a kid who tells him to go wash seven times in an inferior river is hardly what he wanted or expected. Offended so much that he flies into a rage, Naaman storms off.

Fortunately for him, his servants, perhaps junior officers, are more level-headed and humble. Naaman is at least wise enough to let them speak. They remind him that if the solution had been hard and challenging, he would have embraced it, no matter who relayed the message, underling or prophet. So what’s so wrong with a simple strategy? What can it hurt to try it?

The general takes their advice and goes to the Jordan to wash seven times, the ritual, almost mystical number that shows up again and again in the Bible. His skin becomes as soft and pure as a baby’s, as the Hebrew says.

So grateful is Naaman for the healing that he converts from his storm deity, Hadad-Rimmon, to the worship of the God of Israel. Elisha won’t take anything for the miracle, so Naaman requests a couple of loads of Israelite dirt on which he might offer sacrifices to Yahweh.

It’s a rich story that Jesus uses at the beginning of his ministry. In the synagogue in Nazareth, our Lord’s point was how God cares for outsiders like Naaman, who was an enemy of Israel.

This morning, though, I’m going in a different direction. This text functions as a kind of extended reflection of what later would be known as “Occam’s razor.” That principle says that all other things being equal, the simplest solution is usually the right one.

We may be more familiar with another maxim, the acronym KISS, for “keep it simple, stupid.” Whether KISS or Occam, avoiding unnecessary complexity and complication is hard to do sometimes. Of course, some things in themselves are complex, like legal and real estate matters or our bodies and minds. But other times, we add a level of complexity to what should be a straightforward task. For example, I can rarely roll up or unroll a garden hose or a guitar cable without causing a lot of kinks and knots. And speaking of which, how often do we tie ourselves in knots worrying about matters which, if we stopped and relaxed and thought just a bit, might work themselves out without so much trouble and handwringing? The young man or woman obsesses over how to impress a date and ends up trying too hard, which comes across as awkward and unattractive. How much better simply to be oneself? Or do we have friends over or go out and miss the point, which is to be together, in favor of some fancy meal or other elaborate effort? How have we complicated relationships because we read someone’s meaning through the lens of our fear or anxiety, like the Israelite king?

The story recommends three specific ways we need to and can keep it simple. First, pay attention to ordinary people. The slave girl who served Naaman’s wife was about as low in status as anyone could be: young, female, captured from the enemy, a slave. Yet she had insights that the kings and generals did not have. It was her courage to speak up and offer a solution that set things in motion for Naaman’s healing.

In a similar way, the general’s staff risked his wrath to speak with common sense. They were humble men not concerned with their status, not afraid to look foolish. As I said earlier, fortunately Naaman overcame his pride and took their advice.

This text lifts up people like the servant girl and the general’s staff. They are the sometimes, often, nameless people, way down the social ladder, who really get it, to whom we can turn when we want solutions to problems that won’t go away, for which the so-called experts have no answers.

But if the story invites us to trust the voices of ordinary people, so also does it call us to recognize and practice what religion and ritual are about at their most basic level. Naaman expected some impressive hand-waving and magic words. What he got was instruction to go take a bath in an ordinary river.

We would do well always to remember that our sacred rites arise out of everyday life, ordinary things we do, like bathing and eating and talking. Baptism is getting cleaned up after being dirty. The Eucharist is at its heart an everyday meal shared with friends. Prayers and confessions of faith and vows are all things we say, not with special words in some other language, but with plain talk in our common tongue. Even the marriage service really doesn’t need all the trappings. All that’s necessary is the answer to the question: “Do you?”

So why all the pomp and ceremony? Why the vestments and the stoles and the vessels and long prayers? Those are good questions, and they point to how often all that overshadows the simple meaning of the rituals. We could answer that worship is also about beauty and dignity and tradition and symbolism. But one unexpected response is that the complexity is there to protect the simplicity!

Take the ancient confession of faith “Jesus is Lord.” Three little words. But as someone has written, “the church discovered very early that in order to protect this simple confession from misunderstanding and misuse, it had to talk about the relation between Jesus and the God of Israel, and between Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The earliest Christological confession became a Trinitarian confession. That led to further reflection on biblical witness to the reality and work of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the past, present, and future history of the world in general, in the particular history of the people of God, and in the life of every individual Christian. Moreover, the church could not talk about the ‘lordship’ of Jesus without also talking about the claim the triune God has on the lives of people in their personal and social relationships in the church and in the world. The confession ‘Jesus is Lord’ necessarily led to the development of a full theology and ethic” (Book of Confessions: xiii).

So it’s not easy to keep things simple when it comes to theology and worship! Maybe the best we can do is to keep reminding ourselves of what our core beliefs and practices really are and where they come from.

But finally, not only are we to listen to ordinary people and not let ceremony overshadow simple origins of rituals. We are to stay rooted and grounded, connected with the very dust of the earth from which we came.

We laugh at Naaman’s unsophisticated theology in which he can confess that Yahweh is God of all the earth in one breath, then take two mule loads of Israel back to Aram with him so he can worship his new God, as if God is confined to one nation. But the story reveals a deeper truth. God is indeed connected with a place, a people, a planet. Remember: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We know God most fully in a human being, Jesus of Nazareth. He was born in simple surroundings, pursued a humble trade, befriended ordinary and all kinds of people. The paradox of spirituality is that the most spiritual are not those with esoteric knowledge or their heads in the clouds, but those rooted and grounded in the earth, in their origins, in connection with real people. They are humble, and remember “humble” comes from the word “humus,” “ground,” “earth.” They are not those who know the biggest words or pastor or belong to the largest churches, but who have the most expansive and open hearts. They are not necessarily those with the most education, but who show the most dedication to hospitality and caring. As the Second Helvetic Confession put it, they may be simple in worldly wisdom or philosophy, but outstanding in true theology.

“ ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free, ‘tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.” Keep it simple.

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