Sunday, July 3, 2016

Sermon: Remember Whose You Are First

Grace Presbyterian Church
July 3, 2016, Pentecost 7C
2 Kings 5:1-19a; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Remember Whose You Are First

One thing you are taught in your preaching classes at seminary is that an effective sermon focuses on one scriptural passage. “Passage” here refers to a block of scripture that is “complete” in some way – it tells a full story or some block of it, contains a unit of teaching that is coherent and well-rounded, or somehow can be understood as a whole. That’s not how preachers have always been taught; at one time the emphasis seems to have been on preaching a single verse of scripture, a process I find impossible to imagine. Anyway, the idea is that you pick one such unit of scripture (a “pericope” if you want to know the fancy seminary word) and concentrate on it in your sermon. Normally that’s what I do in a sermon. While I might briefly refer to other scriptures as a way of supporting or drawing a contrast to the principal reading, there is one primary scripture that is the focus of the sermon.
I can’t do this week, though. Two passages are demanding my attention, and neither one will give way to the other. And yet, oddly enough, both of these readings are telling me the same thing.
We were introduced to Elisha last week, as he doggedly held on to Elijah until the very last, taking up Elijah’s prophetic mantle in the process. As we come to him this week he has been in that role for a while now, and aside from one angry cursing at a group of young boys who taunted him over his baldness, his prophetic term has been rather calmer than his predecessor’s. He has his quirks; when a trio of kings came to him for an oracle in 2 Kings 3, he refused to speak until a musician was provided to play – perhaps making Elisha the first beat-poet prophet.
In today’s reading from 2 Kings, Elisha remains almost a background character, only appearing in person at its close but deeply involved in events nonetheless. While a powerful army commander and multiple kings are involved in the story, some of the most important roles in the story are played by people who are anonymous to us, and of least significance in the social strata of the time; the servants of the general Naaman and his wife.
Take the young servant girl who served Naaman’s wife, for instance. She had apparently been taken captive from her home in Israel, presumably during one of many military battles between Israel and Aram. She would have been well aware both of Naaman’s military prowess and of the skin condition that threatened his stature, no matter how successful he was in the field. It would have been easy for her to say nothing. It would have been easy for her to rejoice in Naaman’s potential downfall; after all, he had led an army that defeated her homeland. How the mighty hath fallen and all that, you know.
But this servant girl remembered who she was, or whose she was. Such gloating, or even simple refusal to offer help in that time of suffering simply was not reconcilable with what she knew of Israel’s God. Yahweh was a God who heals, and she remembered the prophet in her homeland who healed others. Because of whose she was, she spoke up to her mistress, telling her about that prophet in the region of Samaria, which set in motion the events of today’s story.
Elisha himself also shows us what it is to remember whose we are. By reaching out to Israel’s king at a moment when that king was apparently forgetting whose he was, Elisha helps avert a potential disaster between Israel and Aram, and incidentally reminds that king that there is indeed a prophet of the one true God in the land. Later in the story Elisha will also demonstrate whose he really is as well, refusing Naaman’s very generous offers of reward for his healing.
For Naaman, though, first he has to learn whose he is. He was a man of power and accustomed to wielding authority over others even as he also served his king. The humiliating spectre of his disease threatened all that. Being brought so low as to take the advice of a foreign servant girl was bad enough, but to get shuffled off from the king to some prophet out in the backwoods, only to be handled by some messenger boy was almost too much. Fortunately, more of those anonymous servants appear on the scene to save the day, persuading Naaman that it only made sense do the simple thing that the prophet asked of him. Finally he takes his Jordan River bath and is “over-healed”, his skin being made like that of a young boy.
It seems that a lot of people overlook an important point in this story: Naaman converts! He declares his profession of faith in verse 15 – “there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” He’s still a little confused about some things, not realizing that that same God would be with him even in Aram and wanting to take along some Israelite dirt, but it’s a start. After Elisha rebuffs his attempts to pay, Naaman confesses his dilemma; his job required him to support his master, who still worshiped that foreign non-god, and seeks pardon of Yahweh through Elisha, who sends him on his way in peace. Whatever else he may have had to learn, Naaman had picked up one important thing: he knew whose he was, he knew the Lord who held not only his healing but his very life in his hands, and that this Lord would still be whose he was, first and foremost.
The reading from the gospel of Luke for today seems different on its face, but that same idea runs through this story like a fierce undertow out at the beach.  Jesus is commissioning seventy of his followers to go out into the towns and cities that were ahead on his own itinerary. Luke doesn’t go into much detail about exactly what Jesus is commissioning these seventy to do, but we get little snippets – extend peace to the houses they enter; be good guests, eating what they’re provided even if it’s not kosher; cure the sick; proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God; if a town doesn’t receive you, move on – but not before you proclaim that the kingdom of God is near.
The challenging part, though, is the way Jesus sends them out. Jesus himself describes it as sending them out “like lambs into the midst of wolves.” No bag, no sandals, no provisions of any sort. They are being sent out vulnerable and at the mercy of others. They are totally reliant on the goodwill of those to whom they are sent.
So they are sent, and it seems that things go well. The seventy are excitedly reporting that “even the demons submitted to us!” and Jesus is celebrating right with them.
Note that ending, though:
Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.

Remember whose you are first.
It isn’t about doing end-zone dances over fallen demons. It isn’t about tossing power around as though you’re drunk with it. It isn’t even about shaking the dust off your feet and telling a town where to go if they don’t receive your message.
Remember whose you are first.
It isn’t about being Warriors for Christ or members of the Power Team, or any of the ways Christians have tended to want to gloat over the centuries. It isn’t about anything that we do, in the end. It is, for the servant girl or Elisha or Naaman or the seventy, about whose we are first.
We claim a lot of different identities. We identify ourselves by our careers or vocations, by membership in this club or that group, by our hobbies or activities, our circle of friends, by how we vote or what music we listen to or goodness knows how many different ways. There’s nothing wrong with these things, but remember whose you are first.
You are God’s own. You are called and commissioned and sent out by Jesus. Your name is written in heaven. You are a servant of God before you are anybody else’s servant.
Remember whose you are first.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

#331                  God of the Ages, Whose Almighty Hand
#8                      Eternal Father, Strong to Save
#500                  Be Known to Us In Breaking Bread
#719                  Come, Labor On

Cure of Naaman in the River Jordan, 1150 (British Museum collection)

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