Sometimes things are big and complicated and overwhelming. And sometimes things are gracefully simple.
There is this restaurant in Lecce, in Italy, called Bros’. By any objective standard, it is a good restaurant. By any objective standard, it is an excellent restaurant. It has reviews that call it Amazing! and Innovative! and Outstanding! It has a Michelin star.
You may have seen this floating around the internet. A travel writer went there with a group of friends, and wrote a review, and that review went viral. And this is the line that stuck out to me:
It’s as though someone had read about food and restaurants, but had never experienced either, and this was their attempt to recreate it.
Over the course of four-and-a-half hours, this writer and her friends were served twenty-seven tiny courses: six cold noodles and a single slice of bread, a tablespoon of crab, a sliver of oyster loaf, citrus foam served in a mold of the chef’s mouth, a teaspoon of olive ice cream… and so on.
And I am not saying that Bros’ is a bad restaurant. Again, by any objective measure, it is an excellent restaurant. It has glowing reviews. It has a Michelin star.
And I am sure that the kitchen is clean and the ingredients are fresh. I am sure that every dish is prepared with the utmost care and that the chefs are trying to provide their guests with an experience that they will never forget.
But even the best reviews make that experience sound big and complicated and overwhelming.
I have never eaten at Bros’. But I have had meals that are big and complicated and overwhelming. I have had experiences that are big and complicated and overwhelming. And I don’t think that any of them have been bad. Some of them might even have been good.
But, honestly, most of them have been… fine.
And the best meals of my life have not had the most impressive ingredients, or been prepared using the most expensive ingredients, or been made by the world’s best chefs. Michelin has never been near them.
The best meals of my life have been nothing more than the right humble ingredients, put together in some simple way, and served with love.
Because sometimes things are big and complicated and overwhelming. And that isn’t wrong. But most of the best things in life are gracefully simple.
We’ve jumped ahead a bit since last week, and the world has changed.
The kingdom that David ruled and that Solomon ruled has fallen apart. And now the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob—now the Israelites—live in two kingdoms: Israel, in the North, with its capital in Samaria; and Judah, in the South, with its capital in Jerusalem.
And those two kingdoms are surrounded by all sorts of other kingdoms, filled with all sorts of other people: Edom and Moab and Ammon and Aram and more.
And in our reading today, we meet Naaman, who is a good soldier and a mighty warrior—and an Aramite—as he stands in front of the house of a prophet.
Naaman traveled from Aram to Samaria because a young Israelite woman told him that there is a prophet there who can cure this skin problem that he has. He got a letter from the king of Aram, and he brought it to the king of Israel, and the king of Israel here… to this prophet… named Elisha.
And now he is standing in front of Elisha’s house… with horses and chariots and a retinue… and his expectations are high… and he is imagining something big and complicated and overwhelming.
This prophet is going to come out of this house and meet me right here. He is going to call on the name of the Lord his God and wave his hand over these spots on my skin. He is going to pronounce an invocation and perform a series of mysterious gestures. He will say the words and do the thing. And I will be cured by the power of the foreign god.
And so it’s all a bit of a let down when Elisha does not come out of the house. It’s all a bit of a let down when a messenger comes out of the house, and walks up to the assembled crowd, and tells Naaman, “The prophet says that you should go to the river Jordan—over that way—and wash seven times. And then you will be cured.”
And Naaman things,
That can’t be right. That can’t be it. That can’t be all there is to it.
I could have washed in a river—I could have washed in a better river, like the Abana or the Pharpar—at home. What an absolute waste of time!
And Naaman storms off in a huff, the crowd trailing behind him, toward Aram.
It is easy to think that this whole thing has to be big and complicated and overwhelming. It is tempting to think that this whole thing has to be big and complicated and overwhelming. And I will admit that I have, sometimes, fallen to that temptation.
It is tempting to think that worship should be a production… with a sixty voice choir and a ten piece praise band and a four manual organ… with a hip young pastor and beautiful motion graphics and lights that change to fit the mood of the service… with a sanctuary that is full to the rafters and dozens of children and a passing of the peace that goes on for twenty minutes.
It is tempting to think that the pastor—or, better yet, the pastoral staff—should be busy… always available and responsive, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week… constantly ready to meet in the office, and visible at every community event, and making time to visit with every congregation member over coffee at Sunrise Cafe… crafting epic sermons and leading enlightening Bible studies and invoking the name of the Lord our God!
And it is tempting to think that the gospel has to go on for volumes… with sections and subsections on the one true God and the deity of Jesus Christ… on the fall of humanity and the salvation of our souls… on the mission of the church and the sanctification of its people… on the things that were, and are, and are yet to come.
And there’s nothing wrong with any of that. I have been to some of those churches. And some of them feed some people’s souls. But…
I have also been to some of those churches… where it felt like people had read about Christ and the gospel… but had never experienced either… and this was their attempt to recreate it.
And I want to be clear: it’s not just big churches or evangelical churches or whatever churches who fall to this temptation. We are not a big church or an evangelical church or a whatever church, and it is easy for us to fall into this temptation.
After Naaman storms off in a huff, the crowd trailing behind him, toward Aram, one of his servants comes up to him and says,
If that prophet had told you to do something difficult—to find a prickly plant at the bottom of the sea or steal a sacred fire from the top of a mountain—you would have done it. So why not do the simple thing? Why not go wash in the river?
And we don’t know why Naaman listens to his servant; we don’t know why Naaman washes in the river. But he does. And through that simple act—and even though he is not an Israelite, and even though the Lord is not his God—he is cured. And it’s not in our reading today, but he changes: he vows not to offer sacrifices to any god but the Lord.
The truth is that all of this… is simple.
Worship does not have to be a production. Worship is simply a sincere thanksgiving and an open listening for the voice of the still-speaking God. Worship is simply the loosing of the bonds of injustice, the breaking of every yoke, the sharing of bread with the hungry, and the invitation of the marginalized into fellowship.
And the gospel does not have to go on for volumes. The gospel is simply the truth that the kingdom of God is at hand… that good news has come to the poor and release has been proclaimed to the captives… that the blind see and the oppressed are free… that a new world is right there—right here and all around us—and all we have to do is step into it.
(And the pastor—and all of us—probably still need to be a little busy. But healthy human levels of busy.)
And what feeds people’s souls… whether it is in a warehouse-sized megachurch, or a majestic cathedral, or a little country church… whether it is Michelin-starred restaurant’s Calotte de Boeuf or grandma with a grilled cheese and some soup… is love.
There is a trick here, of course.
We are called to love. We are called to love God with everything that we are. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are called to love complete strangers. And we are called to love our worst enemies. We are called to love. We are called to feed people’s souls.
But we are also called to invite people to the source of that love.
And this whole thing is not about calling on the name of the Lord our God and waving our hands over the places where it hurts. This whole thing is not about pronouncing an invocation and performing a series of mysterious gestures. Even though that is exactly what God might, sometimes, call us to do.
That is just the show. And the show can be important. But… still… it is just the show.
This whole thing is about inviting people to the river… where they can wash themselves clean… and meet God.
And that might be hard; but it is gracefully simple. It is loving people enough to invite them meet the source of the love that we show them.
And when we do that—when we love and invite people to meet the source of our love—we fill the world with love… a little bit at a time… until the whole world is flooded with love… and the kingdom that is at hand… blossoms.