Friday, November 9, 2018

“The Gifts of Everyday Saints” - November 4, 2018

Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14

Last Sunday, we thought about wisdom and discernment as we looked at Solomon, known as the wisest of Israel’s kings.  Under his leadership, the great temple was built in Jerusalem, along with an ambitious program of public works, including a palace for the king.  Beyond that, Solomon lived lavishly.  He became fabulously wealthy and lived a life of luxury.  To support all of this, the people were taxed heavily, and by the end of his reign, the nation was nearly bankrupt.  He was known as the wisest of Israel’s kings, but he did not always make such wise choices.

After Solomon’s death, the nation was divided north and south.  It is during the time of the divided monarchy that the prophets Elijah and Elisha arose in the northern kingdom of Israel.  Elisha was Elijah’s protégé, and at the end of Elijah’s life, Elisha took up his mantle, or cloak - literally.  This is where the expression comes from for passing on authority from teacher to student.

It was in the time of Elisha the prophet that we come to today’s scripture.  Naaman was the commander of the army of Aram, an ancient country that is today part of Syria.  Naaman was a military hero and a powerful man. 

But there was a problem.  Naaman had a secret.  He had a terrible skin disease.  Presumably, he had gone from doctor to doctor seeking help for his affliction.  Unless one was born into the royal family, a person could not rise any higher than Naaman.  But his power and status did not protect him from illness.

Now, Aram was on the northern border of Israel.  There was a history of warring and raiding between the two nations, but at the moment they were at peace.  But during an earlier raid on Israel, an Israelite girl was taken captive, and she was now Naaman’s wife’s servant.

Inexplicably, this servant girl cares about Naaman.  It’s hard to imagine why; perhaps because this slave girl had suffered, she had compassion for the suffering of Naaman and his family.  And so she tells Naaman’s wife that there is a great prophet in her home country, back in Israel, who might be able to cure him.

Although this servant is unnamed and seems a relatively minor character in the story, there would be no story without her.  It is her suggestion that makes everything possible. 

It says something about the depth of Naaman’s desperation that he listened to the advice of this slave girl.  They were at peace at the moment, but the Arameans generally held the upper hand with Israel.  It would be humiliating for this great man to go to Israel, of all places, on bended knee.  But the leprosy threatened to take everything from him, and so he willing to try almost anything, even willing to listen to a Hebrew slave girl. 

Naaman mentions the servant’s suggestion to the king, and to his surprise, the king thinks it’s a great idea.  Of course, there were political implications to consider.  Naaman’s visit would create quite a stir.  The king sends along gifts: silver and gold and ten new suits, the latest in Aramean fashion.  And rather than sending Naaman to the prophet, he sends him to the king of Israel.  This needed to be handled at the proper level.  A person like Naaman wouldn’t just go hat-in-hand to an Israelite prophet. 

The letter sent to king says, “I have sent Naaman to you so that you may cure him of leprosy.”  And the king of Israel is scared to death.  “What, you think I can just cure leprosy?” he asks.  He was obviously being set up.  When he failed to provide the cure, Aram would have an excuse, a pretense, to beat up on Israel again.  It was a potentially dangerous situation, and the king tears his clothes as a sign of his despair.  But word of Naaman’s visit reached Elisha the prophet, who sent a message to the king of Israel.  “Send this guy on over to me,” Elisha says.

It’s interesting that this slave girl, a captive in a foreign land, has heard of the prophet Elisha and believes he can heal Naaman – but the king seems clueless about this.

Naaman and his whole entourage, with horses and chariots and servants, goes to the house of Elisha.  As commander of the Aramean army, he expects to be treated with dignity and respect. 

Naaman and his traveling group pulled up at Elisha’s place.  And they waited.  He was surprised that Elisha did not rush out to receive him.  But instead of being received with honor by Elisha, this Israelite prophet just sends out a servant.  Imagine that!  Naaman, the commander of the Aramean army, arrives at the home of an Israelite prophet.  This had to be the biggest thing that had happened in these parts in who knows when.  This mighty general arrives, and the prophet doesn’t even bother to see him!  A scrawny messenger boy tells Naaman to go dip in the Jordan River seven times, and he would be clean.

It was a slap in the face is what it was.  Elisha’s prescription was no better than his bedside manner.  The Jordan River was really not much more than a muddy creek.  It was shallow and at times rather foul-smelling.  I mean, if you dipped seven times in the Jordan River, you were likely to get a skin disease.

Naaman is infuriated.  He has come all this way, gone to all this trouble, brought expensive gifts, just to have the servant of an Israelite prophet tell him to go dip in a godforsaken mudhole.  If he were going to wash in a river, they had way better rivers back home.  Of all the nerve!

Naaman said, “I thought the prophet would come out, and wave his hands and call on his God, and say magic, mysterious words to cure the leprosy.  I thought there would be drama.  I thought there would be spectacle.  I thought it would be a big production!”  And Naaman stormed off in a rage.

And for the second time, it is not the mighty and powerful people, but a lowly servant who saves the day and points Naaman towards healing.  His servants approached him and said, “Look, if the prophet had asked you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?

The servant was right.  If Elisha had prescribed a vegan diet, or sent Naaman on a difficult quest, or asked him to do a dangerous mission for God, he would have done it.

That kind of prescription would have been easier for Naaman because it would have meant that he had earned his healing.  It would have meant that he himself was responsible for it.  Likewise, he wanted to pay for the treatment with gold and silver and fine clothing.  But Elisha would not take it.  For Naaman, to simply accept a gift was a lot harder.

But the servant’s words were true.  He would have done anything.  So it made sense to at least give Elisha’s prescription a try.  He goes to the muddy waters of the Jordan, and he immersed himself seven times in the water.

Naaman had to set aside his pride and humble himself.  The text says, “He went down,” and he really did have to go down.  He had to stoop to taking advice from an Israelite slave girl, then he went down to Jerusalem, and then even further down to the prophet in Samaria.  He had to lower himself to the point of being set straight by his own servants, and finally he went down into the muddy Jordan, washing with the very common people of an enemy nation, before he found healing.

“The Doctor” was a movie starring William Hurt as a physician who is diagnosed with throat cancer.  As a teacher in the med school, he is used to people following his commands.  He is in control and in charge, and he is not used to being a patient.

As a patient, he finds that he has to do a lot of waiting.  He is treated like anybody else and has to go by other people’s schedules, not his own.  He is not used to feeling unimportant; he is not used to all the indignities of being a patient.  In the course of his treatment, he becomes friends with a fellow patient who teaches him a great deal about living and about dying.  He makes a full recovery, while she does not.

When he returns to his teaching position, one of the first class projects is to assign a bed to each student and to attach a hypothetical disease to each of them.  Each make-believe patient has to undergo all of the tests associated with that disease.  The nurses, much more familiar than doctors with the day-to-day care of patients, seem pleased.

This doctor was not only cured, he was healed.  He experienced a conversion of sorts, and returns to his profession, both a changed man and a much better doctor.

It may have been that way for Naaman.  He was cured of his illness, and we have to hope that in the process, he was healed as well, that he learned humility, learned to listen to others, and was a changed man after the experience.

November 1 was All Saint’s Day, and today is celebrated as All Saints Sunday.  This is not necessarily a major emphasis of our Baptist tradition, but it strikes me that the story of Naaman is fitting for today.

We recognize, of course, saints of the Church, and we might mention someone like St. Francis from time to time.  But our understanding is that all Christians are saints – meaning not that we are all perfect or especially godly, but we are all God’s people, all loved and called by God.  At Helen Sassaman’s memorial service a couple of weeks ago, she wanted to have “When the Saints God Marching In” as part of the service, so Mindy played it.  That song is talking about all of us.

Two of the characters in the story of Naaman that might seem like minor characters are actually crucial to Naaman’s healing.  First, a slave girl points him toward the prophet in Israel.  And then one of his servants encourages him to follow Elisha’s instructions, again pointing him toward healing.

There is even more.  The slave girl was taken from her home, from her family, from her community.  She was a captive in Aram.  She had every reason not to help Naaman.  Yet she does.  Naaman’s servant who tells him to follow Elisha’s instructions is likely also a slave.  How do you wish good and healing upon one who has done you evil?

The last couple of weeks have been awful, filled with hatred and violence.  But in the midst of that there have been rays of hope and love.

After the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the shooter, a man who had murdered 11 Jews and injured many others, was taken to Allegheny General Hospital.  Even while in the ambulance and in the emergency Room, he kept yelling that he just wanted to kill Jews.

Well, in the ER, his attending doctor was a Jew.  His nurse was a Jew.  They cared for him as they would anyone else.  Jeff Cohen is the president of the hospital.  He lives a couple of blocks from the synagogue, where he is a member.  He heard the gunfire.  He was concerned for his mother, who he thought ma have been in the building.  Yet Cohen went to the shooter’s hospital room.  He asked how the man was doing and if he was in pain.  The man said that no, he was fine.  And then the man asked who he was.  He said, “I’m Dr. Cohen.  I’m the president of the hospital.” 

The FBI agent guarding the patient told Dr. Cohen, “I don’t know if I could do what you just did.”

As I think about the story of Naaman today, in light of all that is going on in our world, I’m thinking that instead of Naaman or Elisha, maybe the slave girl, who does good for one who has done her evil, who points Naaman toward healing, is the person for us to focus on.  This girl may help us to think about the idea of everyday saints.

We are not great military leaders.  We are not national heroes.  We are not amazing, miracle-working prophets.  We are not superstar saints.  But we can do what this young girl did.  We can do what Naaman’s servant did.  In small acts of compassion and caring, we can make a difference.  In our own way, we can try to emulate what the doctors and nurses at Allegheny General Hospital did.  It’s not easy, but we can act justly and we can show kindness and we can follow the way of Jesus even in the face of hatred and opposition.

Each act of kindness and compassion and unexpected goodness contributes to the healing of both ourselves and others – as well as our community and our world.  Each time we care for our neighbor or choose to be generous or help a person in need or express concern for a friend or act to protect the earth or welcome a stranger or give of our time to make our community a better place, we are contributing to healing.  In this season that we think about stewardship, it strikes me that such acts of kindness and caring and compassion are powerful acts of stewardship.

It is not just the big names and superstars.  It is the gifts of everyday saints who make a difference in our lives.  Who are the people that have blessed you, who have made a real difference in your life?  We can look around and see some of those people, some of those everyday saints, here in this place.  And we can give thanks to God.  Amen.


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