Sunday, July 4, 2010

Holy Humility (2 Kings 5:1-14)

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 might 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?” But his servants approached him and said, “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, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

Van Miller was the play-by-play announcer for the Buffalo Bills radio network for 37 years. Many of us in Western New York grew up with the sound on our TVs off during games and our radios tuned to WBEN so we could get Van’s commentary. Though he is now retired, he remains a beloved public figure throughout the Buffalo-Niagara region.

Van tells the story of being invited to speak at a breakfast at a local church. After mass, everyone headed to the church hall for breakfast, and the parish’s altar boys were serving as the wait staff. There were delicious sweet rolls from the neighborhood bakery down the street, and an altar boy came around serving one pat of butter to each person. Van asked him for a second pat of butter, and the server said, “I’m sorry sir, but you only get one pat of butter.” Van persisted: “I would like a second pat of butter.” “I’m sorry sir, but everyone only gets one pat of butter.” Van was getting a little frustrated and said, “Son, do you know who I am?” The altar boy didn’t, so Van began to explain: “I’m Van Miller, the voice of the Buffalo Bills, four-time New York state Broadcaster of the Year, a member of the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, Sports Director at WIVB TV, recipient of the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the keynote speaker at this breakfast, and I would like another pat of butter!”

The young boy thought for a second and said, “Sir, do you know who I am? I’m the guy passing out the butter.”

In this story, all the players encounter power and truth, but it does not necessarily come on the terms they were expecting. Gone are our self-imposed social strata, and we find that king and peasant, general and servant, male and female, insider and outsider, are brought to even levels in light of the work of God. May we pray.

Like much of the Bible, the story of Naaman is about little people, often misused in the larger scheme of things, especially the way history is written.

General Naaman commanded the entire army of the King of Aram, or Syria. He was a great favorite of the king – not the sort of General who would degrade the king in Rolling Stone. He was a good general, too – a Patton-Eisenhower-McArthur of a general. He was a national hero, and his home was filled with luxuries and the spoils of war.

His power came through the king, who comes from old money and is entrenched in power. No one in the kingdom is more powerful – after all, that’s why he’s the king! General Naaman has power because he’s plugged into the king. Both Naaman and the king are the consummate insiders.

But then again, they are both also outsiders. Remember that this story comes out of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we commonly call the Old Testament. According to that particular view, they are foreigners. They are enemies of Israel. They are not people of God’s covenant, they are not even participants in God’s salvation story.

Not only that, but Naaman suffers from a skin disease we wrongly translate as “leprosy.” His disease and disfigurement carried with it a social stigma: people would instinctively pull back their hand when he greeted them and others would stare at him just a little too long. His life was complicated by social, religious, and moral stigma. In Israel, people with such “impurities” were categorized as ritually unclean and therefore excluded from God’s community and its worship.

Naaman had tried everything, had probably spent great sums of money on all the creams and lotions, the laser treatments, the detox supplements and everything else. He had ordered Proactiv Solution and pretty much cleaned out Noxema of their entire skin care line. Through a very unlikely source, help came.

In those days and even still in many parts of the world today, some of those spoils of battle were the actual people who lived in the conquered area. One such person was a young girl whom Naaman had brought home as a present for his wife – a young girl to be her maid, to clean up around the house a bit and to serve her.

In the setting of our story, she is someone with no power at all. She doesn’t have a name. A child, a girl, owned but unable to own property, spoken for but unable to speak for herself, torn from her family and forced into slavery in a foreign country with foreign gods and a foreign language. She is powerless; she has no social power. No economic power. No political power. Snatched away from her homeland – poor, captive, undocumented. It would be different if she had been born in a different zip code.

And yet this powerless young slave girl is the one who comes to the rescue of great General Naaman. Back in her homeland, there is a prophet, Elisha. If anyone can call down the power of God to heal the General, it’s him. So the slave girl tells Naaman’s wife, who passes along the message to her husband. Naaman and his wife have just apparently returned home from a marriage enrichment weekend, because he actually listens to her and takes her advice.

Naaman goes through his power structures to get what he wants. He goes to the hub of his social network, the king, who does the kingliest thing he can do here. The king writes to the king of Israel to introduce General Naaman to him. Naaman takes a load of diplomatic gifts signifying status and wealth – he takes horse and chariots, silver and gold and ten sets of clothing. This is how rich and powerful people do these sorts of things – worldly power plays, leveraging influence, king to king, man to man, bank to bank, currying political favor with expensive gifts.

When Naaman appears to the king of Israel, the old bugger is agitated, to say the least. Naaman has shown up with a prescription the king is unable to fill. How is he supposed to heal anyone? Is he God? Does he give life? The king thinks this is some sort of diplomatic trap or that the king in Aram is mocking him. All the other kings will know that he wasn’t powerful enough to grant the other king’s request. No one will sit with him at lunch. All the other kings will mock him as a second-rate king, and so he tears his clothes in anguish.

But hearing this, the prophet Elisha sends word to the king, “Send the General to me.”

Naaman rolls up outside of Elisha’s home with his whole entourage – all the horses, chariots, and silver and gold. Naaman is an important person, and he’s come to expect a certain sort of reception when he arrives somewhere.

For two summers in college, I interned in the Quality Control office on an air force base outside Niagara Falls. Our office was largely responsible for protocol adherence throughout the entire organization. Those of you who have served in the military or worked for the government know that there is a manual and procedure for everything. We had to know who was supposed to sit where at banquets, who was supposed to speak and in what order, the sequence in which the toasts were to be carried out. When members of congress or generals would arrive on base, there was a certain entourage on hand to greet them, and everyone had a very specific role to play. A few times, I was sent out by myself with a staff car to the tarmac to greet one of our guests. At first I thought this was pretty cool, but I soon realized it was the base commander’s way of snubbing whatever Washington insider had come to take a vacation on the taxpayer’s dime.

Back in our text, I don’t know if Elisha intended to snub Naaman or not, but at the very least, he didn’t know protocol. Rather than going out to meet his important guest, Elisha doesn’t even get out of his La-Z-Boy and instead sends an intern to the gate to deliver the message: “If you want to be healed, you need to go dip in the Jordan River 7 times.”

General Naaman has had enough. He gets sent to the prophet, but the prophet doesn’t even come out to greet him. Naaman is expecting some complicated and mysterious ritual, maybe some potions and smoke, some drama, some hocus-pocus and some razzle-dazzle, but the prophet can’t even be pulled away from the television to come out and give him the message. And then, there’s the message itself. A bath in the muddy, swampy, smelly Jordan River. Not the mighty and sparkling clean rivers back in his own country, but the nasty old Jordan River.

Naaman is too important for this, so he looks around at his companions, says, “Screw it –let’s go back home.”

But thankfully, the little people in the story aren’t quite finished with their work. Naaman’s servants reason with him and are able to get to the source of his discontent. Naaman feels insulted because he thinks he’s above the cure that’s been offered. But the story has come full circle. The faith of a servant girl started this whole venture. Now, it is the faith of his servants that assures its completion. They chastise Naaman for his pride, and he finally consents to go and do “according to the word of the man of God.” He concedes that he does not have the power to heal himself, and when he is able to humble himself enough to act according to the prophet’s instructions, his healing comes not as a result of his own power, but by his encounter with the holiness of God.

The story of Naaman’s healing seems an odd inclusion in the Hebrew scriptures. Why would the editors of this book include this particular chapter, a story about the commander of the enemy’s army, in the greater story of God’s covenant relationship with a particular people? Because: this story serves as a constant reminder of how God treats our false distinctions of insider and outsider.

In the Old Testament, Israel alone is God’s elect people: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2). All other nations are distinctly outsiders – in the language of St. Paul, “excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise” (Ephesians 2:12). Similarly, the early Christians proclaimed that “no one comes to the Father except through Jesus” (John 14:6).

But that’s only part of the story, and it’s easy to find many plot reversals. When God elects a single community, Israel, God’s intentions were universal in scope, that in Abraham “all peoples on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Those same early Christians who proclaimed Jesus as the only way also imagined heaven populated with “a great multitude without number, from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation 7:9).

Well, if people from every nation, tribe, people, and language are included, if God’s intent for God’s people was that through them all people would be blessed, we have reason to rethink how we treat the outsider. We are called to bless the world with the presence of God. To whom much is given is much required, so we who live in a land of freedom are called to close examination as to how we will use the freedoms and the privileges we have been given in service to all. While we are grateful to those who have sacrificed for the freedoms we enjoy, we must also plainly consider that there are those who have yet to enjoy those freedoms. Even as we hold these truths to be self-evident that all people are created equal, and that they endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, chief among them being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” we must plainly recognize that this remains an elusive ideal for there are those within our society who are still denied such rights. And because of this, we can only say “God Bless America” if we are also willing to be a nation of God’s covenant, working for the cause of justice in the world, using what we have to benefit others, eradicating the distinction between insiders and outsiders, and actively seeking a just and equal sharing of all that life affords. As Christians, when we say “God Bless America,” even louder should our actions say, “America, Bless the World.” We are blessed to be a blessing. The greatest among us will be servant of all.

When we read the Bible carefully, we notice how much it features prominent outsiders. The story of the Bible is that God continues to cast circles of inclusion that embrace the outsider. The wideness of God’s grace is, depending on our own position, either the Gospel’s greatest scandal or its broadest expression of God’s love.

Outsider becomes insider, and this is the work of grace. The playing field is completely leveled with it comes to our need for and dependence upon God’s grace. Great or small, significant or not, whatever category or classification we place upon ourselves or upon others fades out of importance when we consider our universal need for God’s grace.

The insider-outsider dynamic operates at many levels. Racism, ethnicity, national origin, an important job, a prestigious school affiliation, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, gender, age, body image, and politics are all identities we embrace, personas we construct to comfort ourselves that we are insiders and to scapegoat others as outsiders. Congratulatory self-delusion is never far away. Like the hypocrite who prayed in the temple in Luke 18:11, we say “God, I thank you that I am not like . . . fill in your favorite sin or marginalized people group here.

Presumption is the chronic temptation of the insider. To our own peril we ignore, shun, and vilify the outsider as strange, dangerous, and unclean. Yet perhaps Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best in his letter from the Birmingham Jail: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” When we think of ourselves as insider and others as outsider, when we are proud and not teachable, when we think that all others are not as important, not as righteous, not as holy, not as committed, not as visionary, not as worthy, we run the danger of losing the ability to humbly ask God that in his mercy we might be transformed by his truth. If we ever reach a point where we no longer think we need God’s grace, that we are just fine and dandy on our own, then it is at that moment when we stand more in need of God’s grace than ever we have.

Whether we are an insider or an outsider, a king or a peasant, a general or a servant, a long-time church member or sitting here today for the first time, we are all dependent equally on God’s grace for healing, wholeness, and restoration in our lives. Naaman was healed not because he was a great man, not because he was a mighty solider, not because he was wealthy, not because he was educated, not because he spoke and people listened. He was healed because he got over himself, he swallowed his own pride, he stopped believing his own hype, he stopped relying on his own abilities, and came in full humility to be changed by the holiness of God. Naaman’s life finally prefigured the third verse of that great Christian hymn, Rock of Ages:

Nothing in my hand I bring / simply to the cross I cling

Naked, come to thee for dress / Helpless, look to thee for grace.

Today, our time of worship is going to conclude with a healing service.

James 5:14-16 reads, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

Today, maybe you’re like Naaman and you need to be healed of your pride. Maybe you’ve been doing it your way for so long that you’re tired and broken down and ready to do it God’s way. Maybe you’re like the servants in today’s passage and you feel like nobody knows your name or cares about your story. Maybe you need healing in some other area in your life, in your body, your mind, your spirit, your emotions, or in your relationships. Friends, we all need healing. At times in our lives, we feel broken and incomplete, and we call upon God for healing.

In a few moments, everyone who wishes to come forward for healing prayer is invited to do so. Here’s what will happen. If you come forward, I will anoint your forehead with olive oil in the sign of the cross. I will lay hands on your head and pray for the Holy Spirit to work within you to bring healing and wholeness to all areas of your life. Friends and family are welcome to join anyone who comes forward for healing. You may linger at the altar for prayer as long as you wish. We’re in no rush this morning. We’re on God’s time, and this is God’s ministry of healing.

I have no expectation of what will happen. No one may come forward or everyone may come, and that’s fine. But if you desire wholeness in your entire being, after our brief prayer, I invite you to come forward. I extend that invitation on behalf of Christ, who reaches out to touch each of us with his healing hands, and in whose name all healing takes place.

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