“Sowing Seeds of Healing, Reaping a Harvest of Reconciliation”
Thursday evening, we arrived back from a week of traveling. Nate and I were both delighted to see how our garden had burst forth and was starting to bear fruit. As many of you have heard or seen, we spent the early spring hoeing up the grass in our front yard and adding compost to the soil. We planted herbs, we transplanted perennials from family and friends like Ruth Hoover, we carefully nestled vegetable seedlings into soil, and we tenderly placed seeds in little cups of soil to start some plants from scratch. We labored: preparing, tilling, planting, weeding, waiting, watering on occasion, more weeding, some propping up and containing, weeding, watering, and more waiting. And now, we have begun to harvest. On Thursday, we picked three tomatoes and several banana peppers. Friday night, we feasted on our first eggplant, served up as a Mediterranean dish complete with our home grown parsley.
Gardening is one of my favorite things. I find joy in working with the earth and caring for plants that bless me with food for my body and flowers for my eyes and nose. Beyond the hobby aspect of plants, I see that gardens are often symbolic for our spiritual lives as followers of Jesus. Following, working, tending the soil of our soils: all done so that we might grow up in Him, in the fullness.
As I’ve reflected on this past week at the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference in Charlotte, NC, I’ve come to understand the work of reconciliation in the form of a garden. Reconciliation is neither easy nor quick – it is the fruit of intentionality, safety, humility, vulnerability, and commitment. It requires willingness to confess, to hear the other, and to acknowledge that pain exists and that pain does not quickly dissipate. There is sowing, tending, and weeding needed. It is helpful to think of it as trying to have a continual crop; we keep sowing healing to that we might continue to reap reconciliation.
Some of you know that during Conference I served as part of the Ministry of Reconciliation. Ministry of Reconciliation (or MoR) is a team trained and available to create safe spaces, facilitate discussion on difficult issues, to mediate during difficult conflict, to listen, and provide help processing frustration and confusion. Following years of harm, of wounding each other, of even hate and the threat of violence at times, our denomination recognized the need to switch seeds. Rather than cultivating wounds, the Church of the Brethren has begun to sow seeds of healing. It began last year in St. Louis and continued this year in Charlotte. These seeds are being tended to, watered, and fertilized. Many would feel that, this past week, we not only sowed but also began to harvest some reconciliation. I believe that this is true. Yet, while we moved forward, we must patiently continue to tend our crops, for these were just the first fruits. Paul encourages us to do so in our passage in Galatians: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith’” (Galatians 6:9-10). “
I’d like to share with you this morning some reflections on sowing seeds of healing and reaping a harvest of reconciliation. Many of these thoughts involve our lives as part of the larger body of Christ in the Church of the Brethren, yet there are also many parts that speak to our lives as individuals, the relationships in our lives, and our community together as a congregation called Washington City Church of the Brethren.
Our Old Testament Scripture gives us insights and lessons on a process of healing. In the story, the focus is on physical healing and the parallels in general are not perfect. Yet there is much to learn from the healing of Naaman.
We meet Naaman, a commander in the army of Aram (also known as Syria). Naaman has been successful but is suffering from a skin disease. Our context is one of conflict. There is clearly a bad relationship between the nations of Israel and Aram (Syria). They have fought wars with each other and they have plundered each other. We meet Naaman in our story as he is benefiting from his countryman’s plunder: his wife’s servant is a captive from Israel.
Sometimes, healing comes through unexpected people and circumstances. The servant girl—low status in the Ancient Near East—suggests that Naaman visit the prophet Elisha. She knew that healing came from Yahweh and that Elisha was his servant. Naaman goes to his boss, the King of Aram, and tells him what the girl said. Though the countries have fought back and forth, the King encourages Naaman to go and see the prophet. The King of Aram writes a letter of introduction for his general, Naaman, asking for him to be healed. Naaman heads to Israel and presents the letter to the King.
The King thinks it is a trap and has no idea how to heal Naaman. In an act symbolizing his hopelessness, the King tears his robes to pieces. Elisha hears of the King’s symbolic and sends a message. Elisha reminds the King that Yahweh is still present. A prophet exists in Israel and, through him, Yahweh can bring healing.
Naaman gets his entourage together and heads to the house of Elisha. The prophet tells Naaman, via a messenger, to go, to wash in the Jordan River seven times, and then God would bring healing. This is not satisfactory for Naaman and he loses his temper. Naaman says, “I thought he’d personally come out and meet me, call on the name of God, wave his hand over the diseased spot, and get rid of the disease. The Damascus rivers, Abana and Pharpar, are cleaner by far than any of the rivers in Israel. Why not bathe in them? I’d at least get clean” (the Msg, 2 Ki. 5:11-12)
The servants of Naaman approach him in his anger and gently help him consider the situation. They encourage him to process the circumstances: “Father, if the prophet had asked you to do something hard and heroic, wouldn’t you have done it? So why not this simple ‘wash and be clean’?” (2 Ki 5:13). Naaman considers their reasoning, goes to the River Jordan, washes as the prophet instructed him, and is healed.
Lessons on Reconciliation from the Healing of Naaman
In times of relational difficulty in the church, of intractable conflict, and of pain, there are several principles that we can use that come out Naaman’s story. These principles can give us guidance as we seek to sow seeds of healing, so that we might reap a harvest of reconciliation.
At times, we need to be spurred on by others to seek healing.
From what scripture indicates, Naaman had not yet sought out divine healing. Someone needed to recognize a bad situation and say that things could change, that healing was possible. Quite often, we allow bad relationships to fester. We stop speaking to one another; we assume that “bad blood” between us and another person is always going to be that way. When there is conflict in the church, we might avoid it (or certain people), not acknowledging that a problem. At times, the body of Christ can be rotting and we just assume that there is no other option.
Sometimes, we need to hear the voice of others saying that change is possible. Yes, we can better reflect the love of Christ in our relationships with one another. Sometimes, we need someone to speak up and say that there is hope, that there is a better way.
At times, we need to act as agents in the healing process.
In our passage, the servant girl sees the need for healing and speaks up. She is the agent of healing by saying to Naaman—there is a prophet in Israel who can heal you. Restoration is the business of all of us. If we see things that are not right, if we see people hurting one another, if we see sisters and brothers in pain because of the body of Christ, we need to act. The apostle Paul writes this in Galatians 6:1-2, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” This is the role of the Ministry of Reconciliation in Annual Conference. Yet the body as a whole has an obligation to create safe spaces, to facilitate discussion on difficult issues, to find mediators during difficult conflict, to listen, and to provide help processing frustration and confusion. How can we continue this as a denomination outside of Annual Conference? How can we as a congregation facilitate this?
We need to prompt our sisters and brothers to enter the reconciliation process, regardless of stature or power.
A servant girl (maybe even a slave) somehow had the chutzpah to prompt a powerful man to seek God’s help. At times, we may feel intimidated to encourage others towards reconciliation because of their (or our own) status, gender, position within the church, age, or orientation. Yet God is present in all of us. God can use all of us to prompt our sisters and brothers in the denomination or in our congregation, so that they might enter into the hard labor of reconciliation.
Those in leadership need to be mindful that power exists and find ways to reduce power disparities in the church, so that there might be humility, openness, and an atmosphere of equality. We as a body understand that all are equal before God. Ephesians 4:4-6 says, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Our passage in Galatians says that no one has legitimate reason to boast, aside from boasting in the cross of Jesus. What does that mean? That we can only boast about love, forgiveness, and nonviolence triumphing over hate, bitterness, and violence.
Our past experiences color how we perceive current interactions. We need to focus on the situation of the present and whether a person is currently acting in good faith.
The King of Israel is appalled when he receives the letter from Naaman. He thinks that he is being set up for failure and to be attacked. Considering the past relationships between Israel and Aram, this is not unrealistic. Yet, Naaman was approaching in good faith. There was no intention of plundering. Naaman genuinely desire to be healed.
When we are working through difficult issues, we need to assess whether a person is well-meaning (honestly seeking healing), to detach from some negative emotions, and then to move forward in good faith. This does not mean putting one’s self in harm’s way; those who have been wounded need to feel safe before entering the process. It means that we acknowledge vulnerability with vulnerability; that when approached with an extended hand of fellowship, we extend an open hand in return.
Healing involves recognizing God’s presence and God’s power to work a miracle
The King of Israel didn’t consider that healing was possible. He had forgotten who Yahweh was, forgotten that God was present and acting in Israel through his prophet Elisha. When faced with broken relationships, with relationships that need healing, we must remember that God is present and able to work a miracle. The Spirit of God—the Spirit that raised Christ Jesus from the dead—is the same Spirit that wells within us and empowers us to put on love and work towards healing.
Healing involves a synergy of our (sometimes simple) efforts and God’s power.
In the passage, Naaman wanted the prophet to wave a hand over him so that he could be healed. Instead, the prophet said, “Go and do this…” Naaman was angry that he himself had to act. He was also upset that the method of healing wasn’t something elaborate.
Like Naaman’s healing, reconciliation is not something that we can just wait for God to do, whether at the snap of a prophet’s fingers or in response to a single prayer. Like most things, God works his power in and through us. Reconciliation involves stepping out in faith, in choosing to start the process. It involves acting and trusting that God can change hearts and bring healing.
Sometimes the path to healing and reconciliation is simple. We may disregard certain acts because we expect something elaborate or a showy expression of forgiveness, pain. Seeds of healing may be sown through eye contact, a “How are you?”, a simple conversation, or an extended hand of fellowship. Sometimes the little things moved us forward so that we can get to a place where we can hear each other’s pain, where we can address the root causes which divide us.
Healing involves working through our emotions and allowing people to walk beside us.
Naaman was really angry after Elisha gave him instructions on how to find healing. Naaman walked away in a huff – but his servants came after him. It took the proactive efforts of his servants to help Naaman realize that his emotions were overcoming his reasoning.
When we are on the journey toward reconciliation, we often need people to help us work through our emotions, to process pain, and to shed light on the underlying issues. This, sisters and brothers, is an important ministry of the church both for the church’s good and even a way that we can minister to our society at large. Dealing with conflict constructively is not something that we come readily skilled at. It is something that we can learn through the help of others. We all need people to speak to our lives, to help us process things constructively.
Sowing Seeds of Healing, Reaping a Harvest of Reconciliation
As I said at the beginning of my sermon, reconciliation is neither easy nor quick – it is the fruit of intentionality, safety, humility, vulnerability, and commitment. It requires willingness to confess, to hear the other, and to acknowledge that pain exists and that pain does not quickly dissipate. There is sowing, tending, and weeding needed. It is helpful to think of it as trying to have a continual crop; we keep sowing healing to that we might continue to reap reconciliation.
Just because we have moved forward, we cannot assume that all others have as well. The work of reconciliation, of healing, is not a one-off act. It requires creating safety, allowing opportunity to express pain, to do truth-telling. We can’t just say “get over it” or rush through the pain of others. We are called to bear one another’s burdens—not simply those who are nearby or those who are present. If we are one body, then we should be grieved when members of the body are grieved—whether they are physically near to us or far, whether they are theologically near to us or far. Distance does not preclude the need for healing and reconciliation.
Perhaps we as a denomination need to work throughout the year to bring healing. Is it enough to just hope that we can get along for five days a year? Perhaps we as a congregation also have work to do. Maybe there have been people who were pushed away. They may no longer be close physically, but are we as a body called to bring healing where there has been great pain?
Sisters and brothers, the work of reconciliation is the work of the church. Let us take it as our task to bear one another’s burdens, to bring healing and understanding where there has been wounding and division. “ Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”