A Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 9 – Year C – 07 July 2013
Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, `Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
2 Kings 5:1-14
What would happen if we put this morning’s story about the great warrior Naaman into a modern-day context? What would really change about the story? Let’s say Naaman is today’s version of a 4-star general who needs medical treatment. He is suffering from fatigue, headaches, a stiff neck, sore joints and muscles and a skin rash. He is sent to one of the best military hospitals in the country – perhaps Walter Reed in Washington, D.C.- for testing. While he is there, the President comes to visit him and wishes him a speedy recovery and assures him that he has personally put together a team of the best medical minds at the hospital – and that immediately comforts the General.
After a battery of tests, the consensus of his medical team is that the General must have contracted something strange during his last trip to theMiddle Eastand he is immediately started on some drugs to reduce pain and swelling. During his second night in the hospital, however, his condition worsens. A young nurse’s aide sponges him down to cool him off when she notices an unusual looking red mark on the side of his upper arm. It reminded her of one she had seen on her brother’s neck when he was in the hospital not too long ago.
The aide is still there when the General’s doctor comes in to see him later that morning. The young woman gets up her courage to points out the red mark on the General’s arm and suggests that maybe it is a tick bite. The doctor has to stifle a chuckle as he listens to the young woman but he thanks her for her diligence and tells her that she should go see to her other patients.
She is still in the General’s suite when his wife comes to be with her husband. Once again she gets up her courage and asks the General’s wife if by chance she remembers the General having pulled off a tick from his upper arm. At first she says she does not, but then she tells her that she does remember seeing him burn something which he later told her was a tick.
At this point, the General is awake and agitated because he isn’t feeling any better. He requests to see the Chief of Staff immediately but he is in a meeting and decides to send one of his Residents to see what the General wants which just irritates the General even more. The Resident, however, looks at the site of the tick bite and tells the General that she is going to order a blood test specific for a tick-born disease. The General is not amused and tries to dismiss the female Resident by insisting that something so little as a tick could not be causing him to feel so miserable. The problem is that the General is used to being in control of the situation and getting his own way and he just doesn’t believe that he is getting the respect that he deserves.
His wife finally calms him down and gets him to agree to the blood test that the Resident recommended. It comes back positive for Lyme disease. The General is given an antibiotic specific for that and finally starts to feel better.
So, what does change when our Old Testament story about Naaman is put into a present-day context? Except for my obvious stretches of the imagination, not much. And the reason for that is that both stories in their ironic twists and turns reveal the flaws of human nature – and then both stories reveal God’s ability to use prophets, -mostly unlikely ones – to help heal us with their wisdom and compassion.
Many of the flaws of human nature can be traced to the ego – that false sense of self that we create to protect us from feeling emotional pain. The ego is a main character in both stories and the way we know that is by the contrast in how it’s manifested in some characters and not in others. In this morning’s story from 2nd Kings, the King of Aram, the King of Israel and Naaman himself all are in positions of power and have well-developed egos. The servants and messenger are found in marginal positions of society and seem to have little ego. And the greatest irony in the story, of course, is that the marginalized characters had the greatest power to help Naaman be healed.
It took the wisdom of Naaman’s servants to break through his arrogance and convince him to go wash in the Jordan River and be clean. In the parallel story in today’s context, it took some convincing from the General’s wife and the Resident to break through the General’s arrogance to get him to agree to another blood test.
This clash between the powerful and the powerless happens all the time but it takes a prophet’s insight to navigate between the two and broker healing. That was Elisha’s role. He pointed the way forward when the King of Israel and Naaman clashed and he pointed the way forward when his messenger and Naaman clashed. And of course there wouldn’t have been much of a story had it not been for the insight and compassion of the servant girl of Naaman’s wife.
Who are the prophets pointing the way forward in our lives? Power struggles and disagreements are an inevitable part of life. I remember one time when my husband, Tenny, and I were arguing about something. I’m sure it was important although I can’t seem to remember specifically what it was about. Our then 3-year old daughter wandered into the room and looked at us both and said: “Your faces look really mean!” And I bet they did and she called us on it. Was she a prophet? Maybe not in the classic sense of the word, but she allowed us to stop and see what was going on. She pointed to the fact that our faces were reflecting a meanness inside both of us.
We both needed so desperately to be right about something, that we had stopped listening to each other and had dug in. The truth of what our 3-year old had said made us both laugh which in turn softened our resolve and helped us settle the disagreement – which, of course, meant Tenny’s admitting that I was right all along! No, just kidding.
To what are the prophets in our lives pointing? I think they are pointing to the way that God works. We have to look no further than Mary’s beautiful song which we call the Magnificat to know how God works. God…”scatters the proud in their conceit…casts down the mighty from their thrones…and sends the rich away empty…God looks with favor upon the lowly and lifts them up…and fills the hungry with good things” (Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55). Mary was just a lowly young woman and certainly an unlikely prophet when she spoke such truth about God.
And in today’s world, the meek and lowly rarely get noticed. People with credentials and titles and awards get our attention. We tend to gravitate toward them because we believe we deserve the attention of only the best and the brightest when we need help. But that’s our ego needing to be fed. That’s not who we really are when our ego is stripped away along with our need to be right and important and in control.
I can’t help but believe that God dreams for us to have compassion. The servant girl to Naaman’s wife had it. Naaman’s servants had it. The young nurse’s aide had it and so did the Resident at the hospital. Compassion seems to level the playing field of powerful and powerless and binds human beings together at a deep, almost imperceptible level – which is a good thing, because if we perceived it, we’d weaken its effectiveness by our own need to be in control.
Compassion in this morning’s story crossed long-standing political and religious boundaries. God’s healing power comes through compassion and each one of us has the ability to be compassionate – to be the agent of healing. Sometimes that’s easier for some than for others, but that may well be the reason why there are prophets of all kinds out there– likely and unlikely – to help heal us with their compassion when we can’t seem to find enough of it on our own.
Who are the prophets in our lives? What are they telling us? And most important, are we listening?