Before we come to our readings today, let me unload a confession. A fortnight ago, as part of their last regular Sunday morning worshiping with us, Fiona & Gethin gave the sermon and as someone who doesn’t get to listen to that many sermons, it was a bit of a treat for me, especially as their reflections and challenges for us were insightful. Anyway – the confession – if I’m completely honest, I must confess that as the Old Testament reading was given, I sort of zoned out. I might have been thinking of the clicker at the time…or it could well have been what was I having for lunch…but I got distracted and before I knew it, the reading was over and we were into the sermon. Anyway, I confess this for two reasons –
Firstly, to reassure anyone who sways in and out of readings, sermons or prayers that it’s not just you who experiences such mind-meanders! Our brains are weird and wonderful things that we don’t always have control over so if you do sometimes switch off or get distracted – that is okay. If you doodle or want to make notes, that’s okay. If you can’t always remember the content of the sermon or get hung up on the opening anecdote, that’s okay. I think God’s got a handle on what’s going on and if you need to be comforted, challenged, or encouraged by something in particular, I believe the holy spirit will help out.
And secondly…I wanted to try and focus our minds before hearing this morning’s reading because this passage is an absolute belter. So to whet your appetite, I thought I’d highlight the characters and wider context that we’ll soon encounter…
We’re about to meet all the story’s players during a time of great upheaval in the Ancient Near East. The kingdom of Israel is currently enjoying a temporary and tense period of peace…or at least uneasy truce with its neighbours after many decades of violence and conflict, political intrigue and military machinations, bizarre musical prophecies and apparently successful child sacrifices within the international arena. We think that King Jehoram is on the Israeli throne – he who, we’re told, ‘did evil in the sight of the Lord’…words which are the Biblical equivalent of Darth Vader’s Imperial March theme. This clearly not supposed to root for this guy.
Just up the road is the kingdom of Aram, which we now call ‘Syria’ – a nation with a much better army than Israel’s and whose commander was called Naaman – a name which means ‘pleasant’ . Now Naaman was a good man and a great military leader, so much so that his enemies confessed that he seemed to be favoured by God in battle. But like all great leaders, Naaman had one significant weakness – he suffered from leprosy! Instantly, this character might tickle our imaginations, interest and sympathies for he was a walking paradox. A man seemingly favoured by God yet cursed by him through his leprosy. A man who would engender respect and revulsion in equal measure. A man who would be both celebrity and outcast in his own social circles. What a backstory!
And speaking of backstories, we’ve got Elisha – that weird and wild wonder-worker who, by this point in the action, has walked through parting seas and witnessed his boss be carried to heaven in a whirlwind; has displayed a knack for redeeming poisoned porridge and been the person through whom God has raised a child back to life, he’s overseen a massive dinner party through miraculous means and, in one of the most bizarre passages in the entire Bible, has brought about the mauling of 42 young boys by two female bears because of his thin-skinned attitude to his lack of locks.
And then sneaking into the panoply of personalities, there’s a number of unnamed slaves including one would have been considered the last and the least in the kingdom of Aram, for she is a child, a slave, a Jew and a girl…yet one who is catalyst to a incident of such significance that when God incarnate refers to it to demonstrate the extravagance of God’s love at the very start of his ministry, he nearly gets himself killed there and then!
These are the characters we’re dealing with here. This is the context. How can you fail to be intrigued by this story?! So let’s listen to it now, trying our best not to wander off and think about who’ll be in the dance off tonight, as we hear the tale of Elisha, Naaman and the servant girl who changed history…
Reading: 2 Kings 5:1-14
Wowser! And that’s just the start of the story! So I wonder which character, which part of the story stood out most for you. If we had more time this morning, I’d encourage us to spend some time teasing that out. In fact, when I first composed this sermon, I wrote hundreds of extra words looking at the actions of each of these fascinating, complex characters. This text is so rich that we could spend a month on each of them. But with time flying and the church meeting looming, today we will have to be satisfied with a morsel of meditation on two of the more often overlooked of the players – the first being the King of Israel. [click] He only gets a line of dialogue in the passage but like any character actor desperate for a starring role, he makes the most of what he gets. So, when receiving the letter from the King of Aram asking for his servant Naaman to be cured, the King of Israel, awakens his inner diva, tears his clothes and bewails, “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.”
It’s quite the reaction, isn’t it? And from the King’s perspective, perhaps it was a reasonable one. The kingdom’s enemies in Aram weren’t best buddies with Israel so when the King of Aram sends his favourite soldier over with a request, the King of Israel bemoans the intrusion, assuming it to be a trap. In the world of politics and power plays, the King can only see Naaman’s visit as a doom-laden meeting. So he immediately thinks the worst, makes it all about him, and sways from anger to desolation. His self-absorption and self importance have made him blind to the scandal in front of him – that a mighty warrior has come to him in vulnerability and need, has crossed national and religious boundaries to seek hope and healing in a foreign land. What an opportunity to build up good will between nations, what potential to share the good news of God’s grace with those desperate to hear it…but he squanders all this and ruins some fancy togs, all because of his inability to see beyond the end of his nose.
Compare this, then, to the unnamed servant girl whose faith instigates this whole affair. This girl’s life couldn’t be in greater contrast to that of the King. A prisoner of war snatched from her land and her people, forced to serve strangers in a strange land, she is nameless, she is powerless, she is anonymous. And she has reasons aplenty for resenting her captors. So who would blame her if she was quietly pleased, or at the very least unmoved, about Naaman’s leprosy? After all, why should she be the only one to suffer; why shouldn’t he get his share of bad fortune especially when he’s a soldier serving a foreign god and king and one who’s been the cause of humiliation and suffering to her people?! Why, like the great king of Israel, shouldn’t she view Naaman’s presence in her life as a cause for anger and sorrow and self-sympathy?!
Yet this remarkable girl does none of this. In spite of her own troubles, she is compassionate and generous, seeing Naaman not as an enemy but as a suffering human being whom she can direct to a source of healing. In doing so, she throws the worldly understanding of power on its head. For when the King of Israel with all his political prowess and military muscle looks on Naaman he throws a strop and declares himself powerless to do anything yet when this forgotten slave girl looks on Naaman, she displays the power of compassion, empathy and faith as she sets him on the road to healing. Though hers had been denied, she saw the humanity in him.
Time for another confession – there are times when I find it all too easy to act more like the King than the girl because life can be busy and messy and difficult so when something a little awkward turns up to disrupt the equilibrium, you might find me weeping and wailing and speaking words not fit for the pulpit. When someone outside of my immediate circle of care turns up wanting something from me, I find it easy to ignore them and stick to my own to do list or roll my eyes and tut loudly. And when someone comes along challenging my idea of how God works – of how I think God acts or how I want church to be – I find it all so easy to think the worst, to come to a quick judgement, to ignore the person in front of me and make it all about me. I fear I’m not alone on this.
As friends of Christ, we are called to confront injustice and challenge oppression and so we must reflect on how we can fight for the rights of those who are still treated like slaves today for all people, regardless of gender or race, sexuality or status, age or outlook are beloved children of God. If the slave girl from our story could see the humanity of Naaman, then we have no excuse for not to see and celebrate the humanity of all of our brothers and sisters.
So I wonder how it would be if we all acted a bit more like the servant girl. What would it look like if instead of judging someone for the hurt they cause us, we might try to imagine what might be going on in their lives, of the suffering they might be experiencing and of how we might help to alleviate it? What would it be like if instead of looking at a scenario and thinking of how it affects us adversely, we instead looked out for where God might be in the situation, of where healing and grace and new life might come? Instead of viewing others as enemy, obstacle and the cause of our problems, how might we seek to see them as friend, gift and a potential recipient of God’s blessing? God calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. The slave girl lived out this calling, what might it look like when we do?!
For if the grace of God can cure lepers, reach beyond human boundaries and give slave girls more power than kings, then surely it can help us be a people who encourage and praise one another; who seek to bless others, not judge them; who can transform a broken world with good news of God’s extravagant, eternal love for all of creation. Thanks be to God. Amen.