Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, St. Paul’s Ossining, NY. July 7, 2013
So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house…
I was reading a Fourth of July blog this week, entitled, “Why I love my Country.”
Its author is Jim Wallis, who is the editor of Sojourners magazine, and an evangelical pastor whose politics are quite a contrast to what we usually think of as the politics of evangelical pastors. I was struck by the following passage:
“…One night, I was staying in the Soweto Township home of Frank Chicane, the head of the South African Council of Churches. Late that evening, Frank wanted to show me something and spread some papers out on his kitchen table. He confided in me that Nelson Mandela, even while still in prison, had asked a few people to begin the drafting of a new South African constitution. And Frank was one of them.As he began to show me the work, I noticed two other documents on the table: the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Ironically, at that very moment there were two South African military vehicles outside Frank’s house: the one that always parked there to monitor Frank and one to monitor me, because the government had discovered I was in the country. The South African regime of apartheid was being supported at the time by the American government’s “constructive engagement” policy, but inside a little house in a black township, a dissident clergyman was drafting a new constitution based on the documents that announced American freedom. Despite the contradictions in all that, I loved that exceptional contribution from my country.”
I was in South Africa about a dozen years after the time Jim Wallis is writing about, shortly after the elections, and the South Africans talked about those military vehicles—they called them “Hippos”, because of their shape and size—they were armored and carried soldiers who could shoot from inside.
So as I read that Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram, drove up with his horses and chariots of war and parked them in front of Elisha’s house, I was struck by the similarity. Naaman was a powerful man, who was used to getting his way through the use, or at least the demonstration of that power. Note that he didn’t go to the prophet first, but to the King of Israel—who saw the lavish gifts as an assertion of power, indeed as a threat.
But Elisha plays it cool. He sends out a messenger—Go wash in the Jordan River and you’ll be clean. Naaman responds as if he doesn’t think Elisha is taking him seriously enough—‘I thought he would come out, wave his hand, call on the name of his God’—we’ve got bigger and better rivers back home! This very important person felt that he wasn’t being treated according to his importance. Which of course he wasn’t and that’s the point. The grace and gift of God do not come through power, or prestige, or connections. Not even cash up front makes a difference—though it’s not so difficult to find representatives of the Church who would do whatever was necessary to accept that.
This story is about how Naaman came to humility before God—he even had to accept advice from his own servants to be healed. The lectionary reading cuts off about halfway through the story, but if you read through the rest of the fifth chapter of Second Kings, including the tidbit about Elisha’s servant Gehazi, you’ll see that the point is further reinforced—we receive life and health only as the gift of God, and we can only see that by becoming humble.
The Epistle and Gospel lessons are also about humility—Jesus sent out pairs of disciples to make the way ready for him: “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals …say ‘Peace with this house’. Don’t move around, eat what is put before you, cure the sick who are there, and tell them, the kingdom of God has come near to you.” It’s not a grand strategy of changing the world: 35 pairs of people in these little towns, maybe even in a single household, attending to what is right there before them. The Kingdom of God is not a proposal for comprehensive solutions to every problem, but humble attention to what is put before us. In living in their humility, the disciples discovered tremendous things, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” Without fear and with nothing to lose, miraculous things could and did happen. Jesus’ response is: “I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will hurt you.” Of course this has resulted in people deciding that this means that should handle poisonous snakes in their worship services, rather than understanding that this is the setup for the concluding part of Jesus statement: “…do not rejoice, at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” The Kingdom of God, which the disciples experienced in humbly receiving and giving hospitality, that is the important reality—casting out of demons and so forth is but a consequence.
It has been twenty years since South Africa adopted its first democratic constitution, complete with a bill of rights. Nelson Mandela, whose strength as a leader was forged in humility, is now near death. As we remember this past week the declaration of our own country’s independence, we should remember that it takes great humility and strength to really understand the ideals of our country’s founding documents and still more to live them out.