Sermon on 2 Kings 5:1-16 & uke 4:16-30 for Pentecost +7, July 3, 2016
2 Kings 5:1-16
[unless you know the story already, it’d be a good idea to follow the link and read it first]
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
I predicted the “Brexit” vote – the vote on whether Britan should exit from the European Union, only, I predicted that Britain would not vote to leave the union. I was wrong. It just seemed impossible to me. After the horrors of World Wars I and II, and after all these decades of peace and prosperity, why would anyone want to risk a return to the bad old days?
I guess they have their reasons, but it strikes me that it is always easier to undo unity than it is to create and maintain it. It is far easier to take you ball and go home than to hang in there, and struggle for a compromise over the rules; ask any 10 year old.
Tomorrow is the fourth of July, the celebration of our nation’s independence. I guess you could call it our original Brexit – we were exiting from the British crown. We had our reasons that we all know well.
And we all know how difficult it was for us to create a new union out of those 13 original colonies. But we did. We put the motto on our coins, e pluribus unum; out of the many, one. It is a fragile unity. We almost came apart. We had a terrible civil war. But our unity survived. At least, so far.
The American Experiment
Some have spoken of our country as the American Experiment. In many ways, we are an experiment. The nations of Europe are ethnic-majority nations. Spain is majority Spanish. Germany is majority German. America, by contrast has been, from the beginning, a voluntary amalgam of different ethnicities. Unlike the forced unions of empires, who gobbled up their neighbors and colonies, merely to exploit them, we came together based on a common vision of our common good.
Wave after wave of immigrants have come to our country over the years. The Irish came, the Italians, the Poles, the Chinese. Each wave was met with both welcome, by some, and resistance by others. Plenty of resistance. There were riots and violence. People got killed.
Now, however, we hardly remember many of the struggles of the past. Most of us have so many ethnicities in our bloodlines we have no sense of ethnic “purity.” Most of us also have enough education to know that speaking of “bloodlines” is simply a metaphor; a fiction; a social construct. In the hospitals, blood is blood; type matters, not race nor ethnicity.
The American impulse has been to keep adding, and stirring, and mixing different ingredients into this one gumbo unity. We are all free to celebrate our ethnic origins, if they are still important to us. No one minds a Scottish bagpipe parade or a Greek festival. We feel obliged to respect each others’ heritages. But the impulse we share is to participate in this common union, this American experiment.
Where does this impulse towards unity in diversity come from? Any number of sources, surely, but we, in this faith community, receive added energy for this impulse from our theological tradition. We begin with a singularity: God, as the common Source of everything. And from that monotheistic foundation, we build narratives that work it out in flesh and blood.
Elijah and a Trans-national God
That is what we have in the Elijah story we read. On the surface level, it is a healing story. Naaman has leprosy; he is healed by doing what the prophet Elijah tells him to do; dip in the Jordan River. But of course, to say only that is to miss major motifs in the narrative.
Naaman is not an Israelite. He is a Syrian, in fact a Syrian commander. He has conducted raids on Israelite territory. So, he is an enemy. He has captured and taken slaves. He is an outsider to Israel in almost every sense imaginable. Foreign, enemy, and diseased in a particular way, such that Israel’s law considers him impure; he is a leper.
So, when the captured Israelite slave girl suggests to her mistress that there is a prophet in Israel who has access to God’s power, a significant theological claim is being made. Israel’s God is not a local deity; not Israel’s pet. Israel’s God is the world’s God, and so has the power to act outside the bounds of ethnic Israel.
Another profound theological claim is made by the very assumption that Israel’s God is approachable in the interests of healing. Israel’s God, as every Israelite knows, characteristically “hears the cries of his people” and heals them, liberates them, sets them free; in other words, cares for them, loves them – and not only them, but also the stranger, the resident alien in their midst. What about non-Israelites outside the borders? This story answers that question.
So Naaman goes to see if it is true. He takes with him an enormous amount of money. In the ancient world, gods could be helpful and they could answer our pleas and prayers, but maybe not. You never knew. They could be coaxed, if not coerced, by providing what they wanted – which was primarily sacrifices – food for the gods. The cash Naaman brought could provide a life-time’s supply.
But, when the offer is made, Elijah rejects the cash. Another theological claim is being made. Yahweh, Israel’s God is radically free. Yahweh cannot be coerced. There is no one rich or poor who has an advantage or disadvantage, except that God does tend to be on the side of the poor, as God is always against oppression.
The Letter Scene: Prophets and Kings
In the middle of the story is the almost comical scene in which the king of Israel receives the letter from Naaman’s king, along with the money and gifts of clothing, asking the king to heal Naaman of his leprosy. Why he got confused about who was supposed to have the power to heal, the king or the prophet, we do not know.
But this letter and its request terrifies the King of Israel. He cannot heal anyone, but to refuse would be to risk giving offense, possibly leading to armed conflict. So he tears his royal clothing, in an act of humility, and says the famous words:
“Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?”
Again another powerful theological claim is being made in bold letters. The prophets of Israel are far superior to the kings of Israel because they speak not from political or military power, but from God. In contests between prophets and kings, and there are many conflicts, lots of prophets suffer and die. But in the end, their words prevail. Political power is never the last word.
By the way, whoever wrote this story and the others with it concluded with the story of the king of rump Israel (Judah) being killed in Babylon, as the prophets had warned.
So, in this story, it is the foreigner, Naaman, the enemy, the impure diseased one who gets to announce the narrator’s primary theological point (albeit in a slant way, appropriate to his theologically foreign perspective). After he sees that he is cured of his leprosy he says:
“Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel”
Jesus and the Naaman & Elijah Story
This story is important for us. It is one of the two stories that Jesus references in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth, according to Luke 4. After reading from the prophet Isaiah at the synagogue gathering, Jesus said that today, they were witnessing the fulfillment of the hope Isaiah had given them: that Israel’s God would once again work for the liberation of his people.
God would announce the good news of Jubilee, the forgiveness of [monetary] debts, the restoration of land, sight to the blind, and freedom from oppression. The Spirit of the Lord was anointing Jesus, so this would be good news to the poor.
And then, after that wonderful and welcomed news, Jesus said something that spoiled the party and made them all angry. He referenced two stories, one of them was the one about the healing of Naaman, the Syrian leper. Jesus implicitly asks the question: why did God heal that man; a foreigner?
“There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
In other words, Israelites do not have an exclusive claim on God’s grace and goodness. God is not Israel’s pet. It is not the healing and the common good of Israel alone that God is concerned with, but humanity’s healing and common good.
So, expect God’s project not to be identical with a nationalist project. God’s project is much bigger. In fact it is global. From God’s perspective, humanity is one.
Well, for people whose project really is national and no more, this is the rhetoric of treason. And traitors must die. In this bizarre little story we read that after Jesus said that,
“When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”
How Jesus escapes getting killed, before he barely had a chance to begin is a mystery, not explained. This text is probably a Lucan creation, but it has been created to make theological claims that matter.
Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God is good news only to those who want the kind of kingdom that Jesus believes God runs: a world-wide kingdom. The God who wills healing and liberation for people is the Creator-God of all people. The God who wills the common good wills the common good for all. From God’s perspective, humanity is one. Not knowing that is part of the sickness he can heal.
The Oneness Goal: God’s Endgame
Oneness is not only the original condition of creation, it is also the biblical vision of the ultimate goal of creation. From the admittedly parochial Jewish perspective of the first century, there could be no greater disunity than that between Jews and Gentiles. And that is what Paul says is completely overcome by God’s messiah, the Christ. In Christ, the dividing wall of hostility has been demolished, according to Ephesians (2:14).
In fact, the end vision, God’s endgame, let’s say, is a final complete and universal unity in which God will:
“gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph 1:10)
How can we not hear, in that vision, a call to work towards that end? Our vision must be of a reconciled humanity in which the enmity has been erased. It is not at all that Jews have become Greeks nor that Greeks have become Jews, but that the wall of hostility has been eliminated. Jews and Greeks stand for all such animosities.
Celebrate the 4th
What does that mean for us? Tomorrow, on the forth of July, let us celebrate this American experiment. Let us celebrate that from the many, one nation has emerged, large-hearted enough to embrace great diversity.
And let us have eyes wide open to the struggles of our days, that mirror the struggles of former generations of Americans, to live fully into that vision of openness to strangers. The work is not finished.
In every conversation about “people coming into our country” let us stand up for the newcomers who are different so that we do not replay the hostilities that put an ugly blotch on the record of our past.
Let us rather be people who live into the vision of Torah, that God’s healing is for all people. Let us live into the vision of Jesus whose work extended beyond the borders of ethnic Israel, and whose kingdom knows no walls of hostility.
The theological and very personal question to reflect on this weekend is this: if our source and our final destination is union, then what kind of way of relating to others am I called to – both as an individual person, and as a part of this American experiment?