Sermon Seeds: Surprising Prophets
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 9
2 Kings 5:1-14 with Psalm 30 or
Isaiah 66:10-14 with Psalm 66:1-9
Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
2 Kings 5:1-14
by Kathryn Matthews 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, in her beautiful sermon on this text, “The Cheap Cure,” 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’s re-telling of this story explores 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 not want to shake his hand or stare too long at his disfigurement (Home by Another Way).
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 that puts him 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 (Testimony to Otherwise: The Witness of Elijah and Elisha). 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” (The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith). 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” (Texts for Preaching Year C), 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” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament). 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 television….The prophet….only sends an LPN out with a prescription,” but it’s not a prescription Naaman finds worthy of his standing (Testimony to Otherwise: The Witness of Elijah and Elisha). (Brueggemann’s study of this text is particularly engaging.)
Fortunately, his servants have more 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 (Preaching the New Lectionary Year C). 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 (Home by Another Way). Again, God works through the unexpected, the little ones, the unnamed, the muddy river, while 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 expected thing to do, politically). While Naaman may have brought treasure as a kind of payment for the cure he needed, Dianne Bergant says that his offer of a gift in verse 15 was his way of giving thanks for being healed (Preaching the New Lectionary Year C). Brueggemann, on the other hand, suggests that Naaman is saving face, in a way, after all of that subservience and humility, and “a folk remedy” that works, before lowly servants and foreigners; Brueggemann notes that the general moves “from leprosy to wholeness,” a miracle so amazing that “we do not easily notice the drama and the wonder…unless we have had leprosy lately” (Testimony to Otherwise: The Witness of Elijah and Elisha).
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 (Preaching through the Christian Year C). 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” (Testimony to Otherwise: The Witness of Elijah and Elisha). 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.)
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.
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.”
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.
I will extol you, O God,
for you have drawn me up,
and did not let my foes
rejoice over me.
O God my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
O God, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life
from among those gone down to the Pit.
Sing praises to God, O you God’s faithful ones,
and give thanks to God’s holy name.
For God’s anger is but for a moment;
God’s favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
As for me, I said in my prosperity,
“I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O God,
you had established me as a strong mountain;
you hid your face;
I was dismayed.
To you, O God, I cried,
and to you I made supplication:
“What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O God, and be gracious to me!
O God, be my helper!”
You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you
and not be silent.
O God my God,
I will give thanks to you for ever.
Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her — that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom. For thus says the Lord: I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bodies shall flourish like the grass; and it shall be known that the hand of the Lord is with his servants, and his indignation is against his enemies.
Make a joyful noise to God,
all the earth;
sing the glory of God’s name;
give to God glorious praise.
Say to God,
“How awesome are your deeds!
Because of your great power,
your enemies cringe before you.
All the earth worships you;
they sing praises to you,
sing praises to your name.”
Come and see what God has done:
God is awesome in deeds among mortals.
God turned the sea into dry land;
they passed through the river on foot.
There we rejoiced in God,
who rules by God’s might forever,
whose eyes keep watch on the nations –
let the rebellious not exalt themselves.
Bless our God, O peoples,
let the sound of God’s praise be heard,
who has kept us among the living,
and has not let our feet slip.
Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16
(My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.
Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.)
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’
“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”
The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading (Series 1) through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings (Series 2). It is suggested that a congregation choose one option and follow it.