Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Significance of the Simple: A Sermon on 2 Kings 5:1-14

The following sermon was given at Holy Trinity Parish in Dayton, OH for their Lenten Prayer Service on March 29, 2012. I was blessed to get to share from God's word with this local body of Christ, which also has a good friend and colleague of mine as a member. The text of 2 Kings 5:1-14, which contains the story of the healing of Naaman the Aramean, was read in the service leading up to the homily. So, if you are unfamiliar with the passage, I recommend you read it here before reading the sermon.

The Significance of the Simple
2 Kings 5:1-14

A story is told of a German pastor in the sixteenth century who served as rector to a small congregation near his home in Upper Saxony. Some time after his ministry began there, a number of his parishioners came to him because they were troubled by his sermons. They said, “Pastor, why is it that week after week, you only preach the Gospel to us? It has been many weeks and every week you preach the same thing. Why do you continue to preach the Gospel to us every week? Isn’t it time for something else?” The pastor smiled and responded, “I preach the Gospel week after week because week after week you forget it. Every week I preach the Gospel and every week you live as those who don’t believe the Gospel. So, I will preach the Gospel week after week until you believe it.”

Now, I don’t think that I would advocate that your pastor preach the same homily week after week. I’m not entirely sure how effective that approach would be. But, that isn’t my point with this story. As I was preparing this message, I worried a bit about its sufficiency. Is it really “good enough”? Shouldn’t I be saying something more? I’m a doctoral student in theology, after all. Shouldn’t I being saying something more profound? But, as I reflected on this dilemma, I thought of the German pastor’s response to his parishioners. There are some messages that need to be said again and again. There are some elements of the Gospel of Christ that we need to hear over and over because they are things that we easily and quickly forget. And, I think this is one of those messages that we must believe. So, what I offer for us to meditate on tonight is this: God is manifested through simple people and simple actions.

Movement 1: God uses simple people.
As I explain my thesis and try to apply it to us tonight, I’m going to follow rather closely the story of Naaman’s healing, which we’ve had read to us already. The first thing I want to observe in the narrative is this: God uses simple people.

It is true that from a worldly point of view, the most important people in this story are Naaman, the commander of the armies of Aram, and Elisha, the world famous prophet of Yahweh. Naaman’s name, which means “delightful or gracious,” indicates that he was favored: a handsome army commander, powerful and authoritative, beloved by his people. All the more tragic, therefore, when the reader finds out that he has a serious skin disorder, translated “leprosy” in most Bibles. Now, the word translated “leprosy” in the Hebrew is a catch-all term for a lot of various skin diseases, so we can’t really know with any certainty what kind of skin disorder Naaman had. But, apparently it was troubling enough for him to travel to Israel to seek divine intervention to have it remedied.

The second really important person in the narrative is Elisha, God’s prophet. Elisha is the disciple of Elijah, who took his master’s place as prophet to Israel after Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind by the famous chariot of fire. The book of 2 Kings is filled with great stories of the mighty works of Elisha.

As I said, Naaman and Elisha are the obvious major players in the story, but the people who are truly responsible for moving the action along, the people who are key to ensuring that God’s power is manifested in this particular moment are the nameless servants: the young girl from Israel who serves Naaman’s wife, the messenger of Elisha, and the servants of Naaman.

First, there is the “young girl from Israel,” who appears in verse 2. Apparently, she was taken captive when a band of Aramean raiders plundered an Israelite town on the border between the nations. And, now, she serves as the personal attendant for Naaman’s wife. I don’t think I have to point this out, but I will anyway: How remarkable is it that this young girl, violently removed from her family and place of origin and forced to serve her captor’s wife, then offers counsel that will provide healing for the man ultimately responsible for her situation? This is really a remarkable act of charity. And, it is also remarkable that Naaman listens to her. The word of the “young girl from Israel” is what Naaman takes to his master, the King of Aram, and it is upon her testimony that both powerful men plan for Naaman’s trip to Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom.
So, the King of Aram sends Naaman to the King of Israel so that he may seek healing. The text says that Naaman carries with him “ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing” (v. 5) as a gift for the King of Israel—as payment for the services of Israel’s prophet. For those of you who are interested, that is the equivalent of 755 pounds of silver and 150 pounds of gold, plus ten sets of ornate, hand-made clothing. He really wants this healing!

The King of Israel responds to his guest’s gifts and request with almost comical melodrama. Apparently, he doesn’t understand that what Naaman really seeks is the prophet of God—not him!—for healing. The King tears his clothes, in great distress, and wails that the Aramean king is setting him up for failure. He thinks that the King of Aram is looking for a pretext for war. Here, I think we find an implicit contrast between the simple faith of the young Israelite servant girl and the sensational faithlessness of the King of Israel. The one who has the least reason to trust in God and his prophet is the one who does so, while the one who has the most reason to trust in God and God’s prophet does not. Luckily, Elisha somehow gets word of the king’s despair and sends a message that has an implicit rebuke in v. 8: “Why have you torn your clothes? [You faithless, melodramatic king!] Send Naaman to me. I’ll show him that there is a true prophet of God in Israel.”

This is where the second simple person in the story appears: the “messenger” of Elisha, who shows up in verse 10. Naaman approaches the home of Elisha in a way you might expect from a self-important, military leader in this period: with great pomp, circumstance, and fanfare. He comes “with his horses and chariots” (v. 9) to the entrance of Elisha’s house, certainly expecting Elisha to come out and “Oooh and ahhhh” over Naaman and his entourage. No doubt, an encounter between this celebrated military leader and the illustrious prophet of God would have been an ideal “photo opp” for The Northern Kingdom Times. But, instead, we are told that Elisha sends Naaman a “messenger.” Naaman was sent to Elisha through the urging of a simple servant girl and now Elisha sends the Naaman the cure he needs through a simple messenger, most likely a young apprentice or disciple. The messenger boy delivers the directions for Naaman’s cure: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean” (v. 10).

Naaman, as it turns out, isn’t pleased with this turn of events. He just had an audience with the King of Israel. He should now get an audience with the world-renowned prophet of Israel! But, instead, he gets a little pipsqueak, messenger boy with a very simple admonition: wash seven times in the Jordan River. The text tells us that Naaman “became angry and went away,” and in stark honesty he confesses: “I thought that for me he would surely come out…” Here, Naaman admits that he was looking for some attention. Surely, his level of importance demanded an in-person demonstration of the prophet’s power: “I thought that for me he would surely come out…” But, that’s not how it works this time. Elisha doesn’t even bother showing up for this healing. He just sends a simple messenger to tell the commander of Aram’s armies to go jump in the Jordan. And, in response, we are told that Naaman, seized by the conviction of his own importance, turns away in “a rage.”

This is where nameless servants appear for a third time: in v. 13. In response and in contrast to Naaman’s sputtering, self-important indignation, his servants offer humble and wise counsel: “Father [a term of respect for a superior], 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’?” The wisdom of this counsel is so convincing to Naaman that he responds immediately. The very next verse, we see, “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” (v. 14). One would hope that Naaman rewarded his servants for their boldness in confronting him. Because without the intervention of his servants, Naaman’s pride and arrogance would have prevented him from receiving God’s healing.

So, what we have seen in this story is that God uses simple people to do his work: the young Israelite servant girl, the messenger of Elisha, the servants of Naaman. Where one would expect, along with Naaman, that God’s prophet or even royalty—like the King of Israel—to be the agents of change, what we have instead is the nameless servants moving the action along. It is their humble faithfulness that provides the opportunity for God’s power to be manifested.

I think we know this truth about the Gospel and the Christian life on a cognitive level. It was a central message of Jesus, of course: The first shall be last and the last shall be first. The greatest in the Kingdom of God is the servant of all. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. In an age of reality TV stars, twittering politicians, and 24-hour cable news—all of which are working together constantly to tell us who and what is really important—you have the biblical testimony that it is the plain, the humble, and the poor in spirit who manifest God’s presence and work in the world. The truth is, I don’t think anyone here would deny this truth. Still, even with our cognitive recognition, I’m not sure it has made its way down into our guts. I don’t think we always live this truth, as we should. With our mouths we say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but with our hearts I think we say, “blessed are the successful and important.” With our mouths we say, “The greatest in the Kingdom must be the servant of all,” but in our hearts we say, “The greatest in the Kingdom are those that have the most, give the most, and do the most.”

My mom was 27 years old when she had me. She was a single mother and working in Washington, DC, trying to begin a career in construction science. At the time, she had a demanding job at NASA with long hours and an erratic schedule. She got time off for maternity leave, but when I was only six weeks old, she had to return to work. Understandably, she was distraught about having to leave me at such a young age and even more distraught about finding someone she could trust to care for me. All of her family lived in upstate New York, so there was no one to fall back on. Mom placed an ad in the newspaper—there was no Craig’s List or Internet postings back then!—and Ilia was one of the people who answered. Ilia was a young Colombian woman who didn’t speak a word of English when they met. My mom had interviewed a number of people, but she says that when she met Ilia and watched her cradle me carefully in her arms, she just knew that Ilia would love me like I was her own child. So, despite the fact that they couldn’t share a word of verbal communication between them, Ilia became my caregiver.

For my mom, Ilia was truly a Godsend—an angel sent to provide comfort, peace, and safety in a time of great stress and difficulty. In our culture, you couldn’t find a more marginalized person: a young, Spanish-speaking woman, with no advanced education; and, as my mom was surprised to find out later, she was also an illegal immigrant. After about ten months working together, my mom got a frantic late night phone call from Ilia. Her husband, who worked as a janitor in a building downtown, had accidently set off a fire alarm one night. When the police came, they quickly discovered his illegal status. Within a week, Ilia and her husband were gone. We aren’t exactly sure what happened but it is more than likely that they were deported back to Colombia. Twenty-eight years later, my mom still wonders about what happened to Ilia and still wishes their relationship had continued. Ilia was a someone whose faithful love and care for me proved infinitely valuable to my mom’s life and my own. And, truth be told, Ilia has forever changed the way my mom and I perceive people who live and work on the margins of American society.

Movement 2: God call us to simple actions.
The second thing I want us to observe in the story of Naaman’s healing is this: God calls us to simple actions.

Now, in this story, Naaman’s trip to Israel from Aram isn’t exactly a simple thing. He apparently had a caravan of people accompanying him, with servants, horses, and chariots. They would’ve also had tents and various elements to make travelling in such conditions comfortable for the commander of Aram’s armies. And, of course, there’s all the food and animals they would have taken along. So, the actual process of travelling to Israel for healing would have been a complicated endeavor and taken some time to accomplish.

But, what Elisha’s messenger tells Naaman to do—that is truly a simple thing. “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean” (v. 10). All he has to do is go down into the river and wash his body seven times. The number seven is used throughout Scripture as a symbol for perfection; so, washing seven times is symbolic here of total healing.

But, this instruction doesn’t impress Naaman. In fact, he is insulted by Elisha’s direction. Naaman protests in response: “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?” I think his point is clear: “Did I really come all this way just to be told by a messenger boy to take a bath in your piddly little Jordan River?” Naaman is taken aback by the simple instructions of the messenger and we are told that, “he turned and went away in a rage.”

Naaman’s expectation of a miraculous, awe-inspiring work of God is clear from his words: “I thought that for me he would… stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot and cure the leprosy!” As I said already, he is admitting that he was looking for a really good show. What he describes sounds like what one might see in a televised charismatic healing ministry. Naaman wanted Elisha to utter some magic words, “Abracadabra alakazam,” and instantly zap the leprosy away.

Now, if you think about it, this isn’t entirely a misplaced expectation. We know that God is capable of such jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring miracles. Moses met God in a burning bush and parted the Red Sea. The children of Israel were fed manna and quail from heaven in the wilderness. The walls of Jericho fell to the ground with the shouts of Joshua’s marching armies. And, Elisha’s former master, Elijah, was taken up bodily into heaven in whirlwind. So, why can’t Elisha produce a fantastic, show-stopping miracle for Naaman, when he is so important and has come such a long way?

As is always the case when inquiring about the mind of God, the best and fullest answer truly is: We don’t know. We don’t know why God does “signs and wonders” in some cases but not in others. We don’t know why some people are privy to these fantastic works of God while others go their entire lives with very little departure from the mundane routine of life. How many of us would admit to feeling like Naaman at one time or another? How many of us have wondered why God doesn’t just show up in power and make his presence known in a clear and unmistakable way? Here’s where we really instruction: the miraculous is not within our control. God is not on our payroll and does not answer to us. As we seek to serve God faithfully, we must accept the fact that most of the time, in most circumstances, God calls us to simple actions.

This is an important message in the season of Lent—especially the last few days of Lent! Many of us have taken on the burden of a fast, an exercise in self-denial that is intended to draw our hearts to repentance and expectation for Easter. Going without something—usually choice foods or drinks—is intended to remind us of and cultivate within us our hunger and thirst for the body of Christ, the bread of heaven. And, most of the time, it is simple actions like these that God calls us to. The truth is, while the fantastic stories of God’s power are what we remember most vividly from the Scriptures, most of God’s people throughout most of history have exercised their faith in the midst of the normal and mundane actions of everyday life: a morning jog, cooking breakfast, cleaning house, diaper changes, grocery shopping, bedtime stories, conversation over coffee, a walk to the store. God is present in all of these mundane moments.

And, if you really think about it, even the sacraments of the Christian community, the chosen vehicles of God’s grace to his people in the New Covenant, are rather ordinary and unremarkable. They constitute simple actions, too: the pouring of water, consuming bits of bread and wine, touching the forehead with oil. These are all simple elements: the work of God and human hands. And, these are all simple actions: we wash with water regularly (or most of us do!), we eat regularly, and we “anoint” our bodies with various things: make-up, perfume, or cologne. But, we are told to take some simple elements and use them in simple actions, believing and trusting that it is in those moments that God’s grace is available to us in a unique way.

So, in this Lenten season, I think we all can find ourselves in Naaman’s place. We are all in need of healing in various ways. Or, perhaps we know others in need of healing. In these times, God usually calls us to simple actions to facilitate that healing. Fasting. Service. Meditation. Scripture reading. Solitude and silence. Prayer. Giving. Unlike Naaman, we have the power of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments of the New Covenant, and the promise of Christ to be with us. We live out our faith imbued with even greater power from God. The question is, will we, like Naaman, balk at the simplicity of God’s instructions? Or, will we humble ourselves and accept the simple task or tasks that stand before us? Day in and day out, week in and week out, will we perform the simple actions of faithfulness that open us up to the healing power of God?

Movement 3: God is manifested through the simple.
By now, I think the final point I would like to make from this story is self-evident. It has been stated in various ways already. God uses simple people. God calls us to simple actions. And, therefore, God is manifested through the simple. In the story of Naaman the Aramean, we find ourselves both comforted and confronted by the fact that simple people and things are how God has chosen to be made manifest.

On the one hand, we can be comforted by this truth because many of us need assurance that we matter and what we do matters in the Kingdom of God. Although many people are prone to speak of life in terms of sacred things and secular things—holy things and worldly things—the Christian faith does not allow for this kind of dichotomy. The eternal Word, or wisdom of God, has become incarnate in human flesh. God has become a man. The divine has been united with the earthly. This infuses all of creation and all of life with the presence of God. Everything good thing is now capable of manifesting God and God’s power. The simple things that we do are places where God can be truly revealed and honored. Making spaghetti and meatballs for your family and sharing it in love. Laying bricks for a garden wall and tending to the tomatoes and lettuces that grow there. Reading a favorite novel to a hospitalized friend. All of these things are simple actions, most often performed by simple people. But, we can find comfort in the fact that it is through these things that God appears to us and is revealed to others.

If we can find comfort in this truth, at the same time we can also be confronted by it. Many of us may also need gentle rebuke for the various ways that our thoughts and approach to the world around us do not match what God has said about this world. Perhaps we easily tire of, and wrongly despise the simple routines and humble actions of daily life. Perhaps we overlook and push aside the people we encounter who apparently cannot contribute anything to our lives or give us any quantifiable benefit. We need to be reminded that the whole world is alive with the presence of God and that everything and everyone matters. The boy who happily sacks your groceries, the woman at the dry cleaners who irons your shirts with a scowl, the teenage girl talking incessantly on her cell phone in line behind you—these people should make us think of the Israelite servant girl, Elisha’s messenger, and Naaman’s servants. All of them are the intended recipients of God’s love and all of them are capable of working in God’s story in such a way that God is manifested and glorified. We do violence to God’s world when we do not recognize that they too have a part to play in God’s story.

In this way, another look at Naaman might be helpful. Even though he is a man of great means and importance in the region of Aram, the truth is that in relation to Israel, the chosen people of God, Naaman is really an outsider. For many early readers of this story in the Hebrew Scripture, Naaman (even more than the servants) represents “the other”—a Gentile worshipper of false gods who should not be benefiting from God’s mercy. And, yet, he does. Naaman is included. As Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel: “And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:27). Naaman has a part to play in God’s story, despite the prejudices and biases of God’s people that might say otherwise. I wonder then, who are our Naamans? Who are our servant girls and messenger boys? Who are the people that we are intentionally or unintentionally leaving out of God’s story and Christ’s embrace? I want us to take hold of the truth that God is manifested through simple people and simple actions and allow this truth to get down into our guts, becoming something that moves us, guides us, and changes how we see and act in the world.

In the end, then, as we conclude our consideration of this text, we discover something of a twist in the whole story: There really are no simple things. There really are no simple people or simple actions. Not really. God has been joined to the world in Christ and the Kingdom of God has come near to us. What we call simple people and simple actions are really the most common tools of God’s work. In our world today, simple people and simple actions are the primary way that God is made manifest.

It has been mentioned that I have two toddlers. They are a beautiful gift of God and I love them. But, I don’t have to tell you that toddlers can also very trying. I am in the doctoral program at UD and my husband, Ronnie, is a youth minister. Between our two vocations and our two kids, we have very full and busy lives. One night a few months ago was particularly difficult. I had had a long day at school, teaching undergrads and studying, while Ronnie had had a long day at home taking care of Will and Emme. As we gathered around the table for dinner, Emme was wailing to take her shoes off and Will was whining for his favorite truck book and Ronnie and I were bickering about something meaningless.

We sat down and began to eat, but Will interrupted with a simple question, “Pray?” My eyes met Ronnie’s eyes across the table and we both smiled. Ronnie said to Will, “Yes, brother, let’s pray.” We bowed our heads to pray, but rather than listen quietly to Ronnie praying, as it had routinely gone for our mealtime prayers, Will piped up with his own spontaneous prayer. I can’t tell you what exactly he said. We couldn’t understand much more than “Father” at the beginning and “Amen” at the end, but it was a beautiful, soul-nourishing moment—the first time he had ever prayed out loud by himself. By the time he was done, Ronnie and I had misty eyes and we had forgotten our stress and our bickering. What had been a loud and tense evening—what I would imagine to be the exact opposite of God’s presence—turned into a holy moment. The simple, spontaneous prayer of a two and half year old child stopped us in our tracks and turned our attention to our heavenly Father who cares for us.

And, so it goes. Every day, God is being revealed through the mundane, ordinary, worldly aspect of our lives. God is at work in our midst, bringing healing, restoration, and peace to those who search for it. The question is whether we have the eyes to see and ears to hear what is happening all around us. And, whether we will shed our misunderstandings and prejudices in order to embrace the world as God says it is and live as though what God says is true. Because it is true.

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated unto you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. (BCP, 1979.)


Gary Snowden said...

Beautiful reflections. Thanks for sharing them.

Christiane said...

I loved this post. Thanks, Emily.

Paul Burleson said...


That's good stuff.

That's using a gift and calling for the benefit of the Body..even the extended Body. I join the others in saying thanks.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Thanks, everyone! I very much enjoy the opportunities I get to preach and teach in the local church--of any tradition. I hope I have more chances in the future.

Allison said...
This comment has been removed by the author.