This sermon is based on the story of the curing of Naaman in 2 Kings 5:1-19.
I just love this story of Naaman from the Book of Kings. Every time it comes up in the lectionary, I learn more from it. And every time it seems to shed light on the purposes of God in a way I really need to hear in light of the events of the world. This year is no different — A great story breaking into our crazy world to remind and convict. So here we go:
Naaman is a distinguished military leader of the Arameans. They live in what is now Syria. The Arameans and the Israelites have been at war, and God (interestingly) has used Naaman to humble the Israelites. This fact, coming quickly in the telling of the tale, should draw us into the story a bit more. Isn’t God always on the side of Israel? How could God have been with Naaman, who doesn’t even believe in this God? Something is going on here to disturb our assumptions about where God is and whom God loves.
So back to the story: Naaman is “high and mighty,” but he also has leprosy. This could mean a lot of things, but given that he is functioning well as a military leader and highly regarded in society, probably means he had some kind of skin condition that barred him from worshiping God at the temple. This would be a religious crisis in Aramean society, one that Naaman would want to fix for social more than medical reasons.
Enter the servant girl. She is from Israel – a Jew. The text emphasizes her low social status: she is a slave, she is a girl, she is very young. In Hebrew, some scholars explain, it reads “little, little girl.” But she has a big idea: There’s a prophet in Israel who can cure Naaman.
Before long, Naaman is rushing off to find him. He takes with him a note from his king, and (we learn in verses left out of today’s reading) a ginormous gift: 10 measures of silver, 6,000 units of gold, 10 changes of clothing.
The King of Israel thinks this is a ruse, a plot to get Israel in trouble. So he tears his clothes and rails against Naaman. But the prophet, Elisha, hears about the visitor and says, “Send him to me.”
So, in a scene right out of Monty Python, the powerful, mighty Naaman pulls up in front of Elisha’s house with his chariot and his horses and his 10 measures of silver, 6,000 units of gold, 10 changes of clothing. Elisha doesn’t even come out to greet him, let alone invite him in. He sends out a messenger with a bad-news cure: Go dip yourself in the river Jordan seven times.
Naaman is furious. He had a different vision in mind – more Cecil B. deMille than Monty Python. He had assumed Elisha would emerge in glory, call up to God with a booming voice, wave his hand dramatically, and Naaman would immediately be cured.
Her turns away in a rage, cursing Elisha and his lousy river, which he can’t believe is any better than the rivers back home. But again, as at the start of the story, it is a voice from the lower ranks of society that offer direction. Naaman’s servants point out that this plan isn’t very hard, so why not try it?
And he does. And he is cured. And his skin is like the skin of a young boy. He becomes like the little, little girl who had been the messenger of hope who brought him here.
Who has dignity? Where and in whom is God at work? Naaman is so caught up in his pride and his riches, his honors and his reputation that he almost misses the healing available to him – healing that comes from a God who has already worked through him, even though he doesn’t know it. And the kind of people he disdains – people he would never want to be like, people even more ritually unclean than he is – these are the people he needs to be whole.
All through the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian scriptures run stories of outsiders bringing healing to insiders, of God working through those who are despised or excluded or feared. The biblical narrative, over and over, challenges the whole idea of us and them – over and over shows God reaching across the conventional borders of the day, insisting that no one is truly safe or saved until all are safe and saved. God is for all.
We live in a time when we are encouraged to fear otherness. We are socialized to maintain our apartness, protect our people, critique, avoid, demonize, or denigrate “them” – The “them” varies, but there is always a them.
Christianity has “a nauseating, infuriating, depressing record when it comes to encountering people of other religions (and not much better record when encountering people of other brands of Christianity, either).” Most Christians we know are very nice but our track record in history isn’t great. We can look to the story of US westward expansion in relation to the native peoples (and on this Columbus Day weekend, we should remember that history). We can look to the brutal warfare between Catholics and Protestants in Europe in the 17th c. With Banned Book Week not far behind us, we can look to the tendency for libraries and schools through history to ban books that tell this history honestly.
Like Naaman, Christians have been unable to affirm the dignity of other people, expected others to roll out the red carpet when they roll into town, and resisted the healing and wholeness what comes from learning from, living with, and respecting all people with dignity.
We have misread Jesus’s words so that they reinforce our own prejudices and ignored passages like today’s readings – of which there are many in both testaments – that point towards God’s purpose of joy and healing for all.
Minister and author Brian McLaren speaks to large audiences of Christians all over the country. He often says to them something like this: “Our first responsibility as followers of Jesus is to treat people of other religions with the same respect we would want to receive from them. When you do this, you are not being unfaithful to Jesus; you are being faithful to him.”
But then, he recounts, “as often as not, someone, like a gunslinger going for his revolver, will reach for John 14:6 and draw it in a flash. ‘But didn’t Jesus say he was the way, the truth, and life and the only way to the Father?’ they ask, implying that if Jesus is the only way then we cannot show Christlike love and respect to our neighbors of other traditions?
Why do so many sincere, well-meaning, and well-trained Christians put aside a hundred other relevant verses and pull out this one? Why do they respond to this issue with the identical script, in a kind of quotation reflex, as if they’ve been struck by a rubber hammer on the knee?” The answer, McLaren says, is that there’s a gap between the mind of Jesus and our cultural training, which makes no room for the other.
We need to repent of our “imperial, kingdoms-of-this-world ways and move firmly in the direction of the way of Jesus,” he writes. “I fear what we will do in the future, especially in light of what we have done in the past.” (All quotes from A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren).
To that, I would add: Look carefully at what we are doing now. Right here in Watertown, there are immigrant families, Muslim families, who feel afraid. I was told this week by a man from the Middle East that the person next to him in line at BJ’s recently yelled at him to “Go back to his country.”
On the night before the election, we’re going to have a prayer service here at CGS. We’re inviting people of all faiths. We will pray, and sing, and keep silence, and prepare our hearts for the day ahead. This non-partisan gathering will not be for or against any candidate, but it will be a time to affirm, together, our hope for a just and peaceful future for all who call this land their home. It will be a time to pray for the safety of all candidates and all voters, for fair and transparent elections, and for whomever is elected to govern with wisdom and compassion. We will do so together, as a sign that we need one another to be healed, and that we are all called to be little children, sharing sources of healing and hope across all boundaries.