A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
November 4, 2018
2 Kings 5:1-19
I love this story. It is full of conflict and juxtaposition and surprise agents. People who have—kings and commanders—are contrasted with people who have nothing—foreign slave girls and servants. People who are in the faith—like the king of Israel—are contrasted with people who are outside of the faith—like Naaman, and the king of Aram, or what today we call Syria.
The behavior we expect and presume from people within the tradition—like the king of Israel—is shown to be lacking when compared to the outsiders.
This text also disproves the notion of the “prosperity gospel”—that idea so popular in the American church today that says if you only have faith, you will be rich, successful, prosperous beyond measure. The person in this text who has faith is not the one who is rich and famous and king of Israel. The person with faith in this text is an Israeli girl who has been captured into slavery, taken away from her home and family, and living in servitude in what is today Syria. Cultural, political, economic, or other advantages don’t equate to spiritual advantages or faithfulness.
God is an equal opportunity grace bestower—no matter how much we wish God only liked the same people we do. No matter how much we wish it were easy to just look at people and decide if they are worthy or unworthy, in or out, good or bad. No matter the borders we put up between us to divide, God won’t be stopped by walls, identity, or nation.
This story also suggests that worldly advantages may get in the way of our faith.
When you can look around your life and rely on your own devices, gumption, and success—does that keep you from being able to rely on God?
The King of Israel didn’t seem to consider that God might have something to do in this situation. He panicked because he looked around at his resources—armies, advisors, gold, and authority—and realized that there was nothing he could do to heal Naaman.
It never seems to cross his mind that he could rely on God, or on the gifts of someone else. He understands that he can’t heal Naaman. It doesn’t occur to him that someone else might have different gifts, and might be able to do what he cannot.
To fully appreciate the King of Israel’s plight, let’s look at the context of this story. It is likely that the King during this time is Jehoram, son of King Ahab. Ahab, whom you might recall from the story with his wife Jezebel and the vanquished prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel, was killed by the King of Aram in battle. This same King of Aram then writes a letter to Jehoram, asking him to do the impossible—cure someone of leprosy. Now, I don’t know about you, but if someone who had killed my father asked me to cure someone of leprosy, I’d probably freak out a bit too.
And he isn’t asked to cure just anyone. He’s asked to cure the Dwight David Eisenhower, the biggest military commander, of their biggest military opponent.
So there’s no pressure.
But the King of Israel makes the mistake of presuming he knows the motives of the King of Aram. He reads into that letter ALL sorts of things that aren’t there. Jehoram reads the letter and thinks, “he’s trying to trap me! He’s sent me an impossible request! His commander is going to die and he wants to blame me for it!”
But here’s what the letter actually said, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
A simple letter and ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of designer clothes.
Perhaps the King of Aram could have given Jehoram a little more information, but it is as if the King of Aram was also making assumptions—presuming that if there was a prophet in Israel who could heal people of leprosy, that the King of Israel would certainly know about him and would automatically send Naaman to him.
And what does it say about General Eisenhower, I mean Naaman, that he is still the commander of the Syrian army even though he has leprosy? All of the other lepers we meet in scripture, if I recall correctly, are outcasts. They are marginalized and excluded. Naaman was clearly in high favor with the King, and was militarily that important, to still have his job and to be sent to Israel with those kind of gifts.
Naaman is sent to Elisha to be healed, but Elisha sends his messenger out to Naaman with some simple instructions. “Go wash in the Jordan River seven times and your flesh will be restored and you will be clean.”
Naaman wasn’t happy when Elisha stayed in the house. Naaman wasn’t happy with the instructions he was given.
I wonder what Naaman wanted from Elisha? A more impressive cure? A relational encounter? A challenging feat of strength to earn the cure?
Naaman’s slaves, people with no voice in society, much like the slave girl, speak wisdom to Naaman. “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’?”
Thank God for people who speak truth to us, especially when it comes with some risk to them. Slaves weren’t usually invited to point out their masters’ mistakes, I’m guessing. Yet, here, they did.
Who are the people in your life, trying to speak truths to you? Are you open to hearing truth from the people to whom society gives no voice?
Naaman, to his credit, recognizes the truth when it is spoken by his slaves and he goes to the river to be cleansed.
His flesh was restored. He was cleansed. He was healed. He was saved. And his healing led to faith. His response to being made clean was to acknowledge, before Elisha and all of the hangers on that “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel”.
His claim about God is a big claim. This Syrian General, commander of the armies, announces that the one true God isn’t from his hometown. He has to let his partisan allegiances go to make this claim about God. He could have said nothing, taking his healing and going silently back home to Aram.
He could have said, “thanks for the healing. For a bunch of Israelis, your God is alright, but now I’m going back to Aram where the gods are awesome!”
He doesn’t. He makes a public claim for a god who is not backing his particular candidate. While Naaman was certainly involved in the politics of his day, his faith was a much bigger issue—one that rose far above his politics.
One thing that makes America great is the political and civic involvement of her people. Each of us are called to be involved in this political experiment that has been underway in this country since the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. And how that looks to each of us is different. And the diversity of our views was built in to the system, meant to be preserved, not extinguished. If you read about the ‘founding fathers’, they didn’t get along. They viewed the world very differently. And they built space for that disagreement into our republic.
We each will vote this week, for many different candidates, and on both sides of the issues. And our differences at the ballot box doesn’t make us enemies. It makes us Americans. We can disagree on policy and still claim a common identity, seek the general welfare, and claim our allegiance to God.
Because, our ultimate allegiance is to God, not to any human leader, institution, or idea. Which is what allows us to gather here together each week, as family, despite our different understandings of economics, military involvement, or social safety net programs. Our differences on those issues don’t make us enemies. They make us Americans, free to hold our own beliefs and opinions. Don’t let people tell us that our differences should keep us from loving or caring for each other.
Naaman claims allegiance to God, over and above his Syrian political and religious claims. We, too, are called to something higher than the American political process.
Our interests are not only national, they don’t end at the borders of our country, no matter how patriotic we may be. God has called us to see everyone as neighbors—the slave girls who know about prophets, the king of another country, the military leader with leprosy. And our call to love each other as neighbors does not stop at the border. Claims to be nationalist are incompatible with God’s instruction to us to see each other as family in God’s kingdom.
We are called to proclaim like Naaman, even if it might be politically risky, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel”.
We are called, like the slave girl, to care more about Naaman than we do about nation. Had she not spoken in concern for someone from another country, how would he have been healed? How would he have known of God?
This past week, in the aftermath of the domestic terror/hate crime at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, it was revealed that the doctor who treated the gunman was Jewish, as was one of his nurses, who is the daughter of a rabbi. The shooter was yelling anti-semitic slurs at them, as the doctor was treating his wounds. They continued their care of him, despite the hate he was spewing. They recognized his humanity, even if he denied theirs.
Nationalism keeps us from connecting and showing concern across the borders of our lives. God’s work of healing won’t be stopped at borders, and so our concern for each other can’t be bound or limited.
As we prepare to share communion this morning, I invite you to consider that here we gather as people of many nations, many ideologies, many understandings, and many differences. But we will gather as ONE because it is through Christ we are connected. Listen to the words of the apostle Paul from his letter to the Galatians:
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Naaman lived before the time of Christ, but his declaration at the end of his healing reminds me of Paul’s words. Naaman, having been washed and cleansed in the same river that would one day baptize Jesus, could have said, “in God there is no longer Israeli or Aramean, there is no longer slave or king, there is no longer clean or unclean, for all of us are one in God”.
So, friends, it is right for us to be proud to be American and to wear our red, white, and blue as we prepare to vote. It is right for us to celebrate that for over 200 years, our nation has stood for freedom, giving voice to the voiceless, and being an advocate for liberty and justice around the world, often at the cost of American lives.
And I hope we’ll also remember Naaman, who took earth from one side of a border and carried it with him to the other, in order to remember, to be connected to God, who had healed him and who would not be contained by our divisions. May we remember Naaman, and the Naamans who may be in need of healing today, still crossing the borders and boundaries of our lives. I’m challenged by, and grateful for, our calling as Christians to serve a greater kingdom, coming together despite our differences to be united in a common purpose, that there may be healing for us all.