The third sermon of my summer internship is in the books. And now it's online. As always, your mileage may vary.
The Anonymous Evangelists
7 July 2013
Ashland Presbyterian Church
2 Kings 5:1-14
A few weeks ago I made my way out to lunch, seeking food and drink but mostly in need of wi-fi, since I had a whole lot of emails that I needed to answer. As I settled in with my club sandwich and set about answering emails, I couldn’t help but notice the conversation at the table behind me; just loud enough that I could not ignore it or block it out completely, but not so loud that I could actually follow most of it. Short bits of the conversation would burst in against my concentration.
One of those short bits clued me in to what was going on; the conversation was between a staff member for one of this year’s gubernatorial candidates and a potential local operative. While the conversation suddenly seemed much juicier and more potentially provocative, I still had my emails to finish.
Finally, my concentration was broken when the subject of “religious outreach” came up. The operative mentioned that the candidate would seek to attend services at churches generally around the Richmond area; the local offered the opinion that it was distasteful and ugly when preachers started politicking for candidates, to which the operative agreed; the local suggested some other events of a religious nature at which the candidate might appear. The most striking moment came when the operative stated that the churches or other events would need to be of “at least” a particular size; going to an event with too few people in attendance, the operative said, would be a waste of the campaign’s resources and take away time from reaching the largest audience possible, a statement with which the local agreed as well.
Based on that conversation, I’m going to take the wild guess that neither Ken Cuccinelli nor Terry McAuliffe is likely to show up for a Sunday morning service here in the next several months. While it might be easy to joke that this is a good thing for Ashland Presbyterian Church, I’d say it’s probably not a good sign for the people of Virginia. The people suffer when leaders only listen to those from whom they can get something, or to those of equal power or prestige, and shut out those who do not carry sufficient power, status, money, or other tokens of influence. Lest you think I’ve gone politicking myself, I will point out that this is even more so outside of the political realm; religious leaders who lose touch with the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden are even more culpable, given how many passages of scripture tell us that these are the very people for whom God advocates and demands that we do likewise.
Today’s scripture from 2 Kings contains two different types of characters. One type is the powerful: figures such as Naaman, the foreign general and protagonist of the story; the king of Aram (or Syria) and the king of Israel; and Elisha, who though not politically powerful can claim at least the power of being God’s prophet.
If there are powerful people, we might expect there are some powerless people as well, even if we might miss them at first. In this case, there are some servants. As far as our author is concerned, that says just about everything that needs to be said. Naaman and Elisha get names, and also are identified by titles that suggest their significance. Curiously, the kings in this story are not named, but when you call someone a king you’re pretty clearly indicating they are kind of a big deal.
Not so for these servants. One of them, the young girl serving Naaman’s wife, is identified as being a captive Israelite, but that is all. The other servants are given no other differentiation whatsoever. Just anonymous, faceless servants, speaking one line of dialogue.
And yet, as happens in other stories in scripture, it is these otherwise anonymous servants who play perhaps the most pivotal roles in this story and in the carrying out of what strangely has to be regarded as God’s work in this narrative; the healing of a foreign general, a man who possibly represented the gravest threat to the nation of Israel at the time. Perhaps we should spend some time with these anonymous evangelists, unnamed bearers of a good word.
First, the slave girl. We know she is an Israelite; she was apparently captured, possibly after some large battle or maybe in a smaller raid against Israel; and after her capture she was assigned to serve Naaman’s wife (another figure who is not given a name in this story). We have nothing else to go by, no other information by which to understand this young woman. All we know of her in all of scripture is what we are given in verses 2 and 3; beyond what we know above, she tells Naaman’s wife of a prophet back in her home land, who would be able to cure her mistress’s husband of his particular ailment, which the text calls leprosy.
This term in scripture is a bit vague, and does not necessarily refer to the modern disease of that name. That illness would, however, have been enough to bring at least some social ostracism upon Naaman, even if he was a great warrior and favorite of the king. The text doesn’t make it entirely clear whether this was a long-standing issue for Naaman, or something new and getting worse. If the latter, one can imagine Naaman’s desperation to hold on to his position, to find some way of stopping the disease from ruining his standing.
The Israelite girl sees all this. She knows that Naaman is a threat to her own people in Israel. One might imagine that, if her fellow Israelites could have spoken to her at that point, they might have told her to keep silent about that prophet. He’s our enemy, they might say. If he’s gone, we don’t have to worry about the Arameans anymore. We can win. They might even suggest to her that letting Naaman fall in his leprosy would be the patriotic thing to do.
The young woman might have had those thoughts herself. If she did, she gave them no heed. She knew that the Lord had a prophet in Israel, a man touched by the power of the Lord Most High; she knew that her mistress’s husband could be cured of his disease if only he could see that prophet. She had good news to share, and she shared it, without regard to national politics or “security interests” or whatever term you choose. Her love, her allegiance was clear; hers was a God Who told her not to hold back her good news. She shared it, and thus was set in motion Naaman’s healing.
It is a surprise that Naaman was willing to take the word of a slave girl. Perhaps it is a sign of just how desperate he was. At any rate he appealed to his king, and in turn his king sent Naaman with a considerable entourage to the only person he could conceive of being able to accomplish such a thing; naturally, his counterpart the king of Israel. In turn, that king, suspicious of Arameans bearing gifts, assumes a trap is being sprung – Aram will punish Israel for failing to heal Aram’s best general. The king of Israel panics, and only word from Elisha, that difficult prophet out in the city of Samaria, prevents a full-fledged meltdown.
Naaman and his entourage arrive at Elisha’s home for a healing. Quite possibly Naaman was looking for a big, ceremonious event; after all, Naaman was, in modern slang, kind of a big deal – certainly a healing for such an important man would call for a serious demonstration of the power of this prophet and the God he served. Flashing lights, grand incantations, spells, potions, … who knows?
Nope. No spells, no potions, no big displays. Not even the prophet himself – just another anonymous servant with a good word; go dunk yourself in the Jordan River seven times and you will be clean.
Naaman goes nuts. Are you kidding me? I get some servant telling me to go take a bath? And in that podunk creek they call a river? We’ve got way better rivers at home. A man like me shouldn’t have to take this kind of insult. The man who was desperate enough to listen to the suggestion of a slave girl seems to have been overcome by the more powerful Naaman, or the prideful Naaman, the one accustomed to being the king’s favorite and to conquering other armies and nations in battle.
But, once again, he is saved by his servants. We know even less about these servants than we know about the Israelite slave girl. They are simply “his servants”; captive or not, native or not, we will never know. Yet again it is the servants who talk sense. “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?” If he’d told you to capture a thousand wild animals, or cross the great sea, or ascend the highest mountain, you’d have done it. Why resist when you have been told to do something easy? The desperate Naaman, or the sensible Naaman, comes to his senses and heads for the Jordan. He washes himself seven times, just as Elisha had instructed; and lo and behold, he is not only healed of leprosy but his skin was made “like the flesh of a young boy.” It wasn’t just the Jordan River, it was a virtual Fountain of Youth.
So much about this story might well offend our sensitivities these days. The Lord, the God of Israel, brings about the healing of the great military leader of Israel’s great enemy. Translate that into a modern setting and imagine just what kind of reception that would receive today. We have to acknowledge that our God is a God who will not be bound by the borders we draw today, whether between nations or individuals or religions or churches. God will heal whom God will heal; God will touch whom God will touch; God will use whomever God will use. And the only thing we better be caught saying about that is Amen. Praise the Lord. Even Jesus knew how offensive this story could be; remember that in the fourth chapter of Luke, when preaching to his hometown folk in Nazareth, he nearly gets himself killed by reminding them that in a time when there were many lepers in Israel, Elisha only heals Naaman – or as Jesus points out, “Naaman the Syrian.”
What strikes me most, though, is that the good in this story is not accomplished by the people in power. The king of Aram is clueless; the king of Israel is even more useless. But a servant girl from Israel, an unknown messenger from a prophet, and a handful of the general’s servants – anonymous, all of them – point Naaman to a source of healing, give him instructions on how to be healed, and pull him back from the worst impulses of his pride. Had Naaman not heeded those voices, those words from the powerless, the captive, the underlings, no healing could have taken place.
I don’t think anyone here will try to claim that this is anyone’s contemporary idea of a “powerful” church. Neither of the gubernatorial candidates will be coming by to sit in our pews hoping to sway your vote. We most likely won’t see any celebrities flocking to our doors. We don’t control a huge “worship center” with theater seats and the hottest praise band around, or a choir that can knock off Handel’s Messiah every Christmas with a full orchestra. We won’t even be hosting the Presbytery of the James meeting any time soon, most likely. I hate to tell you this, but there are people right here in Ashland who don’t even know we exist.
But we have a good word. We have good news. We know of a God in the land, one who heals, one who restores those who are broken, hurting, desperate. We know a God who knows the names of the anonymous, hears the voices of the voiceless, shows power through the powerless. God is not necessarily calling us to be a megachurch, or to control the balance of power on the Ashland Town Council. But we have a voice that needs to be heard, we have good news that all of our town needs to hear, we have a word of hope in a culture that calls hope foolishness, we have a word of healing and restoration and reconciliation that those who deny it most need to hear the most, even if they might happen to look like enemies and not friends. We may be small but we have a good word. Let it never be said we were afraid to speak it.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Hymns: “God of the Ages, Whose Almighty Hand” (PH #263); “Come Sing to God” (Psalm 30, #181); “Lord, You Give the Great Commission” (#429); “Rejoice, the Lord is King” (#155)