Thursday, June 30, 2016

Naaman Sermon from 2013

2 Kings 5: 1-14
Did you have a favorite board game growing up? Guess Who is a favorite game at our house. Some of you may be familiar with this game. Each player has a board that looks like it is filled with doors and behind each door is a picture. Each player chooses who they will be and the other player gets to ask 5 yes or no questions to figure out who their opponent is. The questions are often, do you have blue eyes or do you have brown hair. The winner is the one who first correctly identifies the other person. This game was a favorite of mine as a child too! It teaches children to ask questions, to see that people may be similar, but not interchangeable. All in all it’s a good game.
But the more often we play this game the more I find that I want to change things about it. For example, there are not enough women. There are not enough people of different ethnicities. And while you see an image of the people you don’t know who they really are. It doesn’t really show us their identity. You can’t tell just by looking if Joe is a single parent of three, one of which has special needs. You can’t tell if Debbie is a cancer survivor on her way to her next check up.
We have to learn to look beneath the surface to see who people really are and to learn what they really need.
Identity is something that is at the very core of who we are as human beings. We are more than just our occupations, our hair or skin color. We are more than the sum of our various parts. But identity is something so many in our world struggle with, seeking to find their place in a chaotic society.
In the lesson from 2 Kings this morning we have to look closer than outward appearances. At first glance we have a high ranking solider, 2 kings, a prophet and some slaves. With this list of characters one expects the action to really happen with those in power, the kings and the officials, and if we are listening only to them we miss where God is at work in the scripture. It’s through the cast of supporting characters that the work of God becomes known.
Naaman is a high ranking officer in the Aramean army. He is described as a great man, a mighty warrior, but he has fallen victim to leprosy. Leprosy was a huge issue in biblical times. It characterized a host of skin diseases from what we call leprosy now to eczema or rashes. This disease often led to being cast out from among the people. So here we have a high official with the disorder. No doubt there was panic in the household. This kind of thing could ruin the reputation of anyone and Naaman was enjoying being on top. We are not told how many cures he tried, how often he was kept awake by fear, but the issue was serious enough that the slave girl heard about it.
This brave young girl stepped up and offered healing words to someone out of her “sphere of influence.” Naaman, under normal circumstances would not have noticed the girl. She was after all a slave girl, taken from Israel in the Aramean victory. There was no reason for her to share with her captor this good news. But she did. She knew that there was a prophet in Israel who spoke the word of the Lord – Elisha – and she knew that God was in the business of wholeness and restoration. So the slave girl told her mistress about Elisha. Something in her led her to speak of the prophet of God and the healing possibilities.
How often have we been nudged to give words of healing to another, but stopped short? What is it that stops us? Is it doubt? Is it fear? Is it a lack of understanding our own identities? I’m sure that each of these plays a small part in it. By speaking up this girl took a small step that began the journey that would alter and indeed save Naaman’s life.
Naaman went to his king and requested to go visit this prophet for healing. In that time, people believed that if one army defeated another, that army’s god had also defeated the other.  So it was incredible that Naaman would seek the help of a God who apparently couldn’t defend his people.  Of course Naaman didn’t yet know that God works in unexpected ways and shows up in unexpected places. Naaman must have been very important to the king for he agreed and sent a letter to the king of Israel explaining what he wanted to happen. Naaman brought an enormous amount of wealth with him to the king of Israel. It is not clear from the story if it was given by the king or from Naaman himself, but the intent is clear, these items will pay for his cleansing. Naaman was a man of the world and knew the way the world worked. He wanted to make sure there was no reason to deny his request. Naaman did everything in his power to secure healing.
In his power. Power had become a key point in Naaman’s identity. He was a powerful mighty man and he approached another king with the words of his king and treasure to assure he would be listened to. If we had any doubts about Naaman’s reputation the reaction of the king of Israel should clue us in.
When the King heard of Naaman’s request he tore his own clothing. He was convinced this was a military ploy to take him out of what power he has left. He was worried this was a way to begin fighting between their two nations once more. This king’s identity is also found in power, but he had learned that his power could be taken away.
When we place our identity in things like rank, power, prestige we will spend most of our time and energy to preserve those things. To be on top, the top of the class, the top of the pyramid, top dog, top gun these things are goals, glorified by our society. Yet once you attain these heights you must spend time looking over your shoulder waiting for someone to attempt to knock you back down.
Elisha, the great prophet who had picked up the mantel of Elijah, stepped forward and told the king to let Naaman come and see that there is a prophet in Israel. And so the King agreed.
But while Naaman was on his way a messenger was sent out to him. Naaman was not happy with this news. He expected at least a little special treatment from the prophet. Naaman’s pride was wounded by the low-key, if not outright rude, reception he received from Elisha. Naaman clearly had an idea of how things would play out and was angry that the prophet didn’t make a big production out of calling on God. He was a big man, important, wealthy; a big deal should be made to save him.
What’s worse, all that the servant told him to do was go dip in the Jordan River – that muddy insignificant creek – 7 times. What junk.  What insult.  Just wait till the King of Aram hears how his favorite general was treated!  Naaman turned to go.
 Naaman couldn’t see the God might just work in a different way.
Naaman was so upset by the simplicity of the prophet’s directions he almost missed out on the opportunity for healing. It again took the words of servants to tell him to try even though it is unexpected.
His servants called out to him –if the prophet had asked you to do something great, wouldn’t you have done it?  This is such a simple thing – why not do it?”

And that was the exactly the issue.  There was not spectacle, no magic, no pomp.  It was too simple.  It was too easy. It was too good to be true.
Naaman had built an identity for himself of power and prestige and he expected others to respond to it. Elisha does not play into Naaman’s ego. Neither does God.
It was so unlikely – a slave girl has an important message for her master, giving him the information to get the thing he most desired.

It was so lowly – not a king, not even a prophet, but a servant gives him the message that can heal him.

It was so improbable – a dirty creek, not a mighty river, is the means to his healing.

Naaman saw the wisdom in his servant’s words.  There really was nothing to lose.  And if this worked…
He dunked down in the muddy waters – once, twice, three times…seven times.  And when he came up on the seventh time – he was healed.
            And more than just physically – because Naaman knew in that moment that God was God.

 God had opened the mouths of the servants and the heart of Naaman to the real possibility of healing, and once Naaman was healed he then professed faith in the only God, the God of Israel.
It’s a powerful story, taking twists and turns that would not have been expected. And it leads Naaman to a new identity, that of a child of God. You see my friends, that is the identity that we need to claim in ourselves, that is the identity that we need to recognize in others, that is the identity we need to help others see in themselves. We are children of God, joint heirs to the servant’s kingdom.
Here in an act strikingly similar to the sacrament of baptism Naaman begins to see his need for God and responds with a profession of faith. This moment was not the end of Naaman’s journey, but rather the beginning of his new identity, his new life in God.
Are we, like Naaman, looking for God in all the wrong places?
 Are we looking for fireworks and miracles, and miss the little daily ways grace comes to us?
 Are we expecting mighty prophets (or preachers) when God sends servant girls, and apprentice disciples, and healed demoniacs, - and us - to spread the good news?
 We find God in the unlikely, unexpected places when we open ourselves up and look beyond our expectations.
 In the words of a slave girl and a message from a prophet, and a dip in muddy water,
In the song of a expectant mother and a baby wrapped in swaddling and the shepherd’s story,
In the cry from a cross and an empty tomb,
In water poured over a baby’s head,
In a bit of bread and sip of wine,
In a listening ear, and a burden shared,
In laughter, and a child’s joy,
 In the words of a holy hymn or even song on the radio that touches your heart,
In the smallest moments, the simplest things,
God speaks healing in our souls.
When we look beyond the goals and dreams of our society, when we set aside the roles assigned to us, when we seek to see ourselves as children of God, nothing more, nothing less, we begin to change. It is the beginning of our journey to healing and wholeness. We will be made new.

With this new identity may we boldly proclaim the good news, just as the slave girl and the servants proclaimed it. May we claim our identity today and help lead others on their journey. Amen. And Amen.

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