Harrowing Of Hell
July 3, 2022

A Life of Downward Mobility

The Rev. Nathan Kirkpatrick

He had our attention from his first sentence,
which isn’t something you can say
about every graduation speaker
or every graduation speech.

But he started this way:
“I wish for you a life
of downward mobility.”
Many of us thought we had misheard him.
We turned to the people next to us to check.
Surely, he said “upward mobility,” right?
But then he repeated it:
“I wish for you a life of downward mobility.”

Didn’t he know
That that isn’t
what a graduation speaker
is supposed to say.
She or he is supposed to tell the graduates
that they are the future,
that they are going to change the world,
make a difference
that they should follow their passions
and chase their dreams,
be true to themselves, and whatever they do,
never ever, ever give up.
Those may be cliches, but
That’s what most of us expect
to hear from a graduation speaker.
But not then. Not that day.
“I wish for you a life of downward mobility.”

For a moment,
Imagine if you had been a graduate sitting there –
Knowing how hard you had worked,
Sitting there, with all your dreams and ambitions,
All your hopes for the future —
Maybe you had worked multiple jobs
to put yourself through school
maybe you had willingly taken on debt
because you were confident this degree could change your future or your fortunes.
And downward mobility didn’t really factor into your plan.

Or, imagine if you had been a parent or grandparent in the room —
thinking about your own dreams for your loved one
perhaps thinking about tuition checks you had written
each with one more zero than you thought should be there —
but every one was written
because you were investing in your child or grandchild’s future.
Downward mobility wasn’t on your mind either.

Yet, “I wish for you a life of downward mobility.”

Now, before we award him the title
of worst commencement speaker ever,
Perhaps the story of Naaman
the story we heard from Kings a moment ago
might help us hear his graduation wish in a new way.

You remember,
Naaman is quite accomplished.
He’s risen through the ranks to become
the commander of the army of the king of Aram,
today that would be central Syria, around Damascus.
And Naaman is in charge.

The challenge for Naaman is that he is also ill —
and the significant symptoms of his illness
are accompanied and compounded by real social stigma.
And perhaps for the first time in his life,
The one who is used to giving orders
cannot command his way out of his situation.
For the first time,
the power broker finds himself
strangely powerless.

Until one day,
He hears that there might be healing in Israel,
that there is a prophet there who might be able to help him.
But, for Naaman,
the idea
that some local prophet
could help him
was absurd.
In his mind,
It is always the person at the top of org chart
who has the power to make things happen.
So, Naaman goes to the king.
But, when he asks the king for healing,
the king is floored by his request.

In fact, he thinks it’s a trap.
That Aram is setting Israel up so that it can launch an attack —
“See, we sent you our general who had a real need.
You could have healed him, but you chose not to.”
That’s the king’s fear.
But Elisha the prophet overhears the king’s worry
and volunteers to see the visiting general.
And so, the king sends Naaman to the prophet
that he had been told to see in the first place.

But you heard the story …
when Naaman gets there, the prophet won’t see him.
Instead, Elisha sends a messenger out
with a bizarre message
“Go wash in the river seven times.”
And Naaman is stymied
first, by the fact that the prophet won’t see him —
who does this prophet think he is —
and then, by the fact that the prescription is so simple.
“Go wash”
“If that was all it would take for me to get well,
we have better rivers at home,” Naaman says.

But it’s then that his assistant
saves him from himself.
Maybe with a hint of insubordination,
The assistant speaks up:
“If the prophet had told you to do some grand thing,
you would have done it in a second.”
The translations vary here.
Some say “if the prophet had told you to do something heroic,”
Others say, “something great,”
Others, “something daring.”
The point is the same —
Naaman, if the prophet had told you,
to do a big thing, a hard thing,
you would have done it in a second;
you would have moved heaven and earth.
But because the prescription
is simple and small, you resist it.

The problem for Naaman is that all those words —
great, heroic, grand, daring, bold —
that’s how he saw himself,
but now, he was being invited to do the simple thing.
And Naaman thinks it’s beneath him.
And if his assistant had not changed his mind,
Naaman would have missed out
on the healing that he both needed and wanted.

“If it had been some grand thing…”
It’s an interesting glimpse into human nature, isn’t it?
It’s also an interesting continuation of our theme from last week —
The way we sometimes get in our own way?
The way we sometimes block our own spiritual path?
The way that, even though God
is always offering love and grace and forgiveness,
we sometimes resist.
Oh, if love and grace and forgiveness
Were hard things …
we would strive, we would work for them,
We would summa cum laude them,
but no, they seem so simple.
We are told
“God is always more ready to forgive
Than we are to confess;”
We hear that
“God loved us before we knew to love God.”
We are invited to follow in the way of Jesus
With a pretty simple packing list.
And it all seems too simple.

But, what if this is the life of downward mobility
That that graduation speaker had in mind?
Maybe the professor
wasn’t shaming ambition or determination
or judging a desire for financial success.
What if his wish for those graduates
– and really for all of us –
Was for us to live a life humble enough
To ask for help when we need it,
A life brave enough
To accept help when we find it,
A life generous enough
To give help when we can offer it,
A life courageous enough
To say yes
When the call of God
Feels different than we imagined,
Confident that God can do remarkable things
Through simple acts.
“I wish for you a life of downward mobility.”

Perhaps Naaman reminds us
that in that kind of downward mobility
we can find the hope and healing we most want,
the hope and healing we need.