Surprising Prophets

July 7, 2013

Sunday, July 7
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme
Surprising Prophets

Weekly Prayer
God of fresh beginnings, you make all things new in the wisdom of Jesus Christ. Make us agents of your transforming power and heralds of your reign of justice and peace, that all may share in the healing Christ brings. Amen.

Focus Reading
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 mighty 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?" He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, "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, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

All Readings For This Sunday
2 Kings 5:1-14 with Psalm 30 or
Isaiah 66:10-14, with Psalm 66:1-9 and
Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16 and
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Focus Questions by Kate Huey

1. When have you transformed a situation by a simple observation or suggestion?

2. Who are the ones who exercise power in your community in quiet but important ways?
 
3. What miracles do you dare to hope for in your own life?
 
4. When have you felt powerless but then received help from the most unlikely source?

5. How is God calling you to be a surprising source of healing for others?

Reflection by Kate Huey

Like so many stories in the Bible, the story of Naaman is about power. But it's about "little" people, too, the ones who are so often missed in the larger scheme of things, especially in the way history is written. (Barbara Brown Taylor says that it's also about freedom, an apt subject on this Fourth of July weekend.) The little people in this story make it move, make things happen, so, in some interesting way, they have their own great power. Or, if they don't have the power, they at least don't stand in its way, as Naaman and the kings seem to do.

The movers and shakers in this story, Naaman the great general, two kings, and one prophet, are all men with names. They are big men in the eyes of the world; even Elisha, who mostly just sends messages here, is a "man of God." But the dramatic story of healing wouldn't happen if the "little people," the unnamed ones, didn't move things along. Wouldn't it be interesting to see the story through the eyes of these "surprising prophets"? They live their lives in the shadow of the king's power and magnificence, but Naaman is the star general of the king, a celebrity, if you will, even if he does have an excruciatingly painful flaw, his skin disease. Of all physical ailments, a skin disease is one of the hardest to hide, and it makes Naaman, the mighty warrior, strangely vulnerable. Barbara Brown Taylor re-tells the story by exploring what the great general must have felt like in the simplest of everyday encounters, when his success and fame and power meant very little before the awkward discomfort of someone who might stare too long at his disfigurement or not want to shake his hand.

Walter Brueggemann calls the mighty general, ironically, "an invisible nobody" whose commanding presence could not betray his inner struggles and heartache. Still, this humiliation doesn't prevent Naaman from having a certain sense of his own place above ordinary people, and ordinary rivers. He walks and talks with kings, he rides at the head of an army, and he has the wherewithal to assemble a great treasure to offer in return for a cure he thinks he can buy, "the best available health care, no doubt anticipating a private, luxurious room for his period of confinement," Brueggemann writes. Everything can be bought, after all, when you live on top of the world. 

That's how the king of Aram approaches it. He, too, is above working with a foreign prophet (probably not too well-groomed and definitely uneducated), even to get what he wants for his favorite general. So he does what comes naturally: he talks to his "own kind," his peer, and sends a message to the king of Israel; Brueggemann notes that this kind of letter from a king is unusual in the Bible, and he calls this "healing on demand, by royal memo." Power talks to Power--for what it's worth, in a situation like this one. So far, however, there is a whole lot of powerlessness on the part of such powerful men! James Newsome notes "the hollowness of such arrogance," no matter how impressive the general and the king might appear in all their trappings. Frank Anthony Spina calls the two different kinds of power in this story, "conventional and unconventional." In the life of nations, powerlessness and power are related to politics and fear, so the king of Israel immediately goes to the place of thinking that Aram's king is trying to find a reason to attack him. He rips his robe and cries out, and Naaman is left without help.

Of course, Naaman wouldn't even be standing before the king of Israel if an unnamed little girl hadn't ventured to suggest that he consult "the prophet who is in Samaria." She is undoubtedly a captive, one of the countless victims of war between the powerful, and she must have some memory of what Elisha could do and what he represented. People without power have to work between the lines and behind the scenes, and this little girl gets things started with her observation. But when Naaman finally finds his way to the prophet and "gets stood up," or at least left standing outside, waiting, we hear him talking out of his pride and sense of place when he takes offense at not being received more respectfully by the prophet and not being provided with a more impressive, dramatic cure, something that would reinforce his stature in the eyes of all who would witness such a miracle. Brueggemann's account is amusing: "Obviously, he has been watching too much televisionÖ.The prophetÖ.only sends an LPN out with a prescription," but it's not a prescription Naaman finds worthy of his standing.

The difference little things can make

Fortunately, his servants have a greater sense of the possibility that the moment holds, and these nameless folks, little ones in their own turn, coax Naaman into forgetting his own importance (or, as we would say today, his "ego") and going for what will really matter: a cure. Dianne Bergant points out the double meaning of the term, "to go down," not just into the waters of the river, but as a demonstration of subservience in obeying this humble (and foreign!) prophet. And in keeping with our focus on the importance of the "little people" in this story, we appreciate the way they encourage Naaman to make this one small gesture in order to be healed, when surely he would have been willing to do something much bigger, much more dramatic, for such a desirable outcome. The "little people" understand the great difference that "little things" can make.

Barbara Brown Taylor's sermon on this text provides a moving description of what it must have felt like for Naaman to plunge slowly into that muddy river, the place of healing and power, a most unexpected thing. While God works through the unexpected, the little ones, the unnamed, the muddy river, the mighty are not only humbled but healed. Isn't it interesting that the young girl at the beginning of the story is the agent for the great general being given skin like that of a young boy? In his own way, Naaman is healed of being "a big deal" (at least to himself) and renewed by his openness to the power of the One True God. Because the lectionary text ends at verse 14, we miss a very important part of Naaman's story, including his gratitude and his acceptance of the One True God of Israel (even though, oddly, Elisha seems to give him permission to appear to be worshipping the "required" god of his homeland, as was customary in those days--it was, after all, the politicallly expedient thing to do). Naaman may have brought treasure as a kind of payment for the cure he needed, but Dianne Bergant says that his offer of a gift in verse 15 was simply his way of giving thanks for being healed. Brueggemann, on the other hand, suggests that Naaman is saving face, in a way, before those lowly servants and foreigners, after all of that subservience and humility, and "a folk remedy" that actually works; Brueggemann notes that the general moves "from leprosy to wholeness," a miracle so amazing that "we do not easily notice the drama and the wonderÖunless we have had leprosy lately."

Gifts from outsiders

Bergant says that this little story "champions monotheism and universalism," not only because Naaman professes faith in the One True God of a different nation, Israel, but also because his healing demonstrates that God's love does not stop with Israel but embraces all of God's children. It's thought-provoking to approach this story from both directions of "outsider-hood." Yes, Naaman was an outsider in Israel, a military leader from an enemy land as well as ritually impure because of his skin condition. But it's even worse, because verse 1 tells us that Naaman was helped by Israel's own God in vanquishing Israel.

On the other hand, Naaman humbled himself before the prophet of a God not his own, so, for him, Israel was the outsider. The great general had to go way outside his comfort zone and cross some serious boundaries, deep into the land of his enemy, to receive the healing he needed. Just as we want to think that we offer hospitality, justice, and healing to "outsiders" (one expression of "the haves and the have-nots"), we are called to be open and humble enough to receive in turn the gifts and hospitality, justice, and healing that "outsiders" bring to our lives and communities. Brueggemann echoes Karl Rahner's "anonymous Christians," calling Naaman, when God earlier helped him defeat Israel, "an 'anonymous Israelite,' doing the bidding of the God of Israel, all the while thinking he is only a good Syrian military man." How ironic is that? After his healing, Naaman is no longer "anonymous" in his relationship with God, except for those times he will have to bow before his own nation's god, out of deference toward his king. (Brueggemann provides a more thorough reflection on outsider-hood by viewing each character in that role.)

Surprising gifts

This text makes me think about our own power, yours and mine, and how God speaks through us to other people. Do we often think we can't do anything because we're not "in charge"? Do we realize the power that we do have, the power to move things along, to speak up, to make things happen, to be part of a great process of healing not just in our lives but in the lives of other, very surprising people? (Our 2013 UCC stewardship theme, "Surprising Gifts," comes to mind.)

God still speaks in and from the most unexpected places and through the most unexpected people, prophets in their own right, really. Perhaps it's a word of possibility and hope, like the words of the young slave girl. Perhaps it's a word of clear command, like the instruction from Elisha, that supplies a reality check on our own sense of importance when we've gotten a little carried away with ourselves. Or perhaps it's a word of persuasive reasoning spoken for our own good, a word that redirects us and puts us on the right path toward healing and wholeness. What I sense is that in each of these words from God, in all situations and from whatever source, however unexpected, however ordinary, in each of these words from God are the movement and the power of compassion in our lives. God's healing comes from surprising places and in most unanticipated ways, but it comes nevertheless. And you and I, along with "nameless servants" and mighty generals all the same, are free to move into the river, step into the deep waters of God's own care, and emerge restored and renewed. Let's pray for the good sense and the good grace to say yes when we hear those words, no matter the source, and to know God's healing in our lives.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/july-7-2013.html.

For further reflection

Drew Barrymore, 21st century
"My whole life, I've wanted to feel comfortable in my skin. It's the most liberating thing in the world."

Tori Amos, 21st century
"Healing takes courage, and we all have courage, even if we have to dig a little to find it."
 
Hippocrates, 4th century B.C.E.
"Healing in a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity."

Simone de Beauvoir, 20th century
"I wish that every human life might be pure transparent freedom."

Frederick Buechner, 20th century
"Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too."

Joseph Campbell, 20th century
"We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. The old skin has to be shed before the new one can come."

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer is from The Revised Common Lectionary ©1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.

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Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey
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Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3855
hueyk@ucc.org