I feel some sermons would be greatly enhanced by the selective use of music.
This sermon, for example, is fine. I love the story of Naaman and the Downton Abbey-esque intrigue with the servants, and his meltdown over having to bathe in the (apparently really objectionable) Jordan River.
But I would like you to imagine the sermon as scored by the Decembrists and Gillian Welch:
See? Epic sermon!!
February 12, 2012
Epiphany 6, Year B
2 Kings 5:1-14
In the Episcopal Church, there was no reading from the Old Testament in
the Eucharistic service until the 1979 prayer book, (otherwise known as the
‘new’ prayer book.)
Prior to this, Eucharist required only a reading from the Gospel, and a short
snippet of Paul’s letters, if you were lucky, or unlucky, depending on how
you felt about Paul.
The Old Testament really only got read during Morning Prayer…which was
fine, since Morning Prayer was what most people did most Sunday
mornings anyway. But as far as the Eucharist went, that primary form of
Christian worship, well, why on earth would need to read the Old
Testament then anyways? There’s no Jesus in that!
It’s been pointed out that in Christian history, we’ve tended to do one of two
things with the Old Testament: we’ve ignored it altogether, or we’ve just
crammed Jesus on in there, anyway he would fit, like that Marx Bros-
Night-at-the-Opera-stateroom-bit. Early Christian commentaries of this
reading talk about Namaan being cleansed by baptism! Though he didn’t
know it! And its a foreshadowing of John at the Jordan through faith!
One of the things I strongly believe is that, just as it is wrong to make an
idol of Scripture by freezing it in time, so it is wrong to entirely mangle a text
to death. Attempting to send Elisha and Naaman forward and back through
a time machine is a fascinating sort of violence, but it is equally impolite,
And what a great story we miss, if we reduce what’s happening here to
Naaman has been excelling in his job, as a general in the Aramean army,
when a minor inconvenience pops up: he gets leprosy. Now while you
might picture this as a dire circumstance in which pieces of Naaman start to
drop off suddenly as he’s on the battlefield one day– be not afraid.
Leprosy is basically a catch-all term in Hebrew for any rash, or
discoloration at all. “Leprosy” could come and go all the time. Much ink is
spilled in Leviticus on what to do in the event your house develops leprosy,
or what we would call–mold. So Naaman most likely has a rash. But even
so, it’s embarrassing for him, and throws a definite wrench into his army
So he stews about it. Lucky for him, his wife’s plucky slave girl, lately
stolen from Israel on a raid, tells him all about this great prophet they have
back home who would definitely take care of that leprosy in a heart beat, no
problem, you bet.
And, it’s convoluted, but Elisha ends up hearing about Naaman from the
(defeated and annoyed) king of Israel and agrees to help the enemy
general. He sends word to go wash in the Jordan River.
And Naaman has a cow. An Ancient Near East equivalent of a temper
It’s a stupid, ugly river! He says, basically. And he couldn’t have come out
here himself? And I don’t have better rivers back in Syria?!?!
Naaman’s having a rough time.
Remember, Naaman is an Aramean, not an Israelite. Not Jewish. The fact
that he’s asking for help from a prophet of YHWH, and a king he’s just
finished defeating is very strange. This whole story is, in a sense, a death
spiral of shame for Naaman.
So far, he’s sought help from a slave girl, a defeated king, and a foreign
heathen prophet to cure his shameful skin ailment. Naaman has now hit
rock bottom, and to top it off, he’s being told to do something he finds
insultingly easy and beneath him.
As much as his skin disease is a problem– so is his conviction of his
specialness. So is his conviction that all these people who so far have
helped him, can have no real help he could possibly need.
The tipping point for Naaman comes when he has to acknowledge, in
however small a way, that help might come from foreigners, not from
himself. And healing might come from a really dirty foreign river.
Annoying as it seems to him, his salvation comes from the people he
dislikes, from the actions he considers beneath him. And it’s when he
finally admits the thing he’s been afraid of all along, that he’s healed.
Because, my hunch is– Naaman spends so much time in this story insisting on his
specialness, his high status, precisely because he’s petrified it isn’t actually
true at all. He’s a high-ranking general, but anyone with leprosy was an
immediate outcast, seen as cursed by the gods.
He’s not really special at all– if anything, he’s the reverse. And he’s trying
hard to cover it up his conviction by denigrating everyone else.
What is it that convinces us that worth is zero sum? That in order for me to
be right, everyone else has to be wrong. In order for me to be valuable,
everyone else has to be worthless.
It’s a sort of panicked mindset that blinds us to so much.
This story of Naaman is one that Jesus will tell when he preaches his first
sermon in Nazareth– how in the days of the prophets, Elisha was sent to
no one in Israel but a foreign general. His point is actually that the love of
God is not zero-sum at all, but all inclusive,
But the crowd listening to Jesus becomes enraged, and tries to throw him
off a cliff, because they don’t like the suggestion that their God could love
foreigners and heathens too.
And thirty five years or so ago, this isn’t even a story we would have read,
out of the conviction that the scriptures Jesus cited could have nothing to
say to us. Because if we were right as Christians, then we were special,
and the Hebrew Bible was only competition
But if we have faith in the infinite, and abiding love of God for everyone, like
we say, then we can’t compete for value and for truth like prizes. God loves
us, completely unconnected to our accomplishments, or intelligence or
wealth of sarcasm,much to my chagrin. And however much God loves us,
that’s precisely how much God loves everyone else. This is not a contest.
We have already won.
The prizes are here all around us, once we come to truly believe it and go
to the smelly old river, and
Finally take a bath.