Saturday, July 07, 2007

Sermon for July 8: Lambs Among Wolves

Proper 09, 2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, Galatians 6:1-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Naaman has leprosy, which makes him untouchable, and shame will keep him in hiding at all the banquets and parades. But his nameless slave girl has compassion. The powerful are supposed to have compassion on the weak, but here the weak has compassion on the powerful. Isn’t it true that the people on the bottom are able to love the ones on top, and not the other way around? I call it "trickle up."

Now Naaman is so important to the king of Aram that the king asks for help from his enemy, the King of Israel, and he sends along lavish gifts of gratitude.

There’s a joke in the story. They are assuming that if there is a powerful prophet in Israel, then of course the king of Israel will honor and support him. But the king of Israel hates the prophet and has cut himself off from the prophet and from the power of God. So when he reads the letter he is terrified. He makes himself unable to accept the lavish gifts. The joke is on him, the king of Israel is the loser here. The humble slave girl knew better than the proud king.

But just as the slave girl had compassion for Naaman, the prophet Elisha has compassion for the king of Israel. He sends a message, "Let him come to me, that he may learn there is a prophet in Israel." Another joke. Even if our own king refuses to honor the prophet, as least the pagan will see it. There is an underlay of irony and humor in this story, and much of the Old Testament.

The mighty foreign general pulls up in front of Elisha’s house, horses and chariots, a retinue of servants, wagons loaded with 700 pounds of silver ingots, 130 pounds of gold, and twenty royal robes. This guy is somebody.

Elisha, however, is doing a crossword puzzle. He never comes to the door. He sends out his servant with instructions: "Go, wash seven times in the Jordan, your flesh shall be restored, you shall be clean."

Naaman is twice insulted here. That Elisha never came out to show him honor, and that he should have to wash in a dirty river with everybody watching him. That was very shameful. You never showed your nakedness. And Naaman is angry because this is no decent kind of miracle. Miracles are supposed to be about power, like his own military power.

Well, two things. First, the power to heal is not Elisha’s, the power is God’s, and healing happens by obedience to God’s word. Indeed, healing is obedience to God’s word. To obey God’s word is to be healed. If you can obey God’s word, you are perfectly healthy enough. Second, you can’t have God’s healing without an experience of God, and that experience must also be a conversion, a repentance, a dying away of your old self and the coming to life of the new. (Heidelberg Catechism 88.) You strip off your armor and your robes, exposing your condition, and entering the water as naked and helpless as a baby.

Nobody wants to repent, nobody wants to be converted, nobody likes to die to one’s self. In one sense it’s very easy, washing in the river, on the other hand it’s almost impossible. Undressing ourselves, becoming so vulnerable, so exposed, and to be seen as powerless.

When our circumstances are difficult, then we ask God to change our circumstances. But what if we have to change ourselves as well?

Once again, it the servants who are compassionate and wise. They’re used to being near the bottom. "Look, Father, just swallow your pride and do it." How hard it was for him. To be a great man, and to show his skin to other people who don’t have leprosy, people way beneath him who pity him, he doesn’t want their pity.

They help him take his clothes off and they see the shame of his disease. And up on the banks the locals are watching, curious onlookers, whispering what’s going on, turning their heads whenever he looks up. In he goes, and bathes, and comes back out. What a process this is. Will he go through with it? This gives him lots of time to think.

Six more times. Everything he stands for counts for nothing. now

Five more times. "Then I am crucified to all the world and all the world is crucified to me."

Four more times. He can imagine what his servants are thinking. What an insult to his office and his station, what an ordeal this simple washing is.

Three more times. Maybe he got angry.

Two more times. Maybe he got scared.

One more time. Maybe this might not work.

The last time is the hardest, but he comes out clean.

More than that, he is converted, he is a believer. He has passed through the Jordan, like Israel in the days of Joshua. He is one of God’s people, not by virtue of his birth, not by circumcision, but by his faith, by believing in the promise of God’s word. He has joined the people of the slave girl in his house. This was Naaman’s baptism. He was born again into the people of God.

What is faith? Faith is investing your life in the promises of God. (Heidelberg Catechism 22.) Faith is when you risk your life with God’s promises. Faith is not your own religious courage, or your own religious power, it is rather trusting in the power of God, God’s will, God's judgment, God’s time, God’s patience.

In this story the humble servants all live by their faith. The King of Israel does not, and that leaves him living in fear. Naaman has to learn to live by faith; he almost blows it by giving in to his pride. So when he conquers his pride and surrenders to the promise and enters the waters, that was his act of faith. Of course he doubted, but he invested his life in the promise of God.

I preached on this story three years ago, and much of what I have just said I told you then. But this year I see something new, and that is thanks to the Gospel reading we have also read. I want to say more about that little girl.

You know when I was a kid in Sunday School, we were always told that the point of this story was for us kids to be like that slave girl, and witness to our faith in every situation. They were always trying to get us to be young evangelists, junior Billy Grahams.

Well, this time round I have a new appreciation for that nameless girl. She is an example of what Jesus was talking about in the gospel, she was a lamb among wolves. She was an agent of peace in the house of war. She was an agent of peace in the house where she had been put against her will. She had no power except her word. And her little word is what got it going, and just her word is what brought this pagan general into the sovereignty of the Kingdom of God.

We are sent into the world like the seventy in the Gospel, freely choosing where we want to go. And we are sent into the world like the little girl, captured, against our will, bought and sold, compelled. Either way, we are to speak a word of peace. We have no power but our word of peace, the peace that comes from God. The powers of this world need conversion, yes, the powers of this world need to be unmasked, and the suffering of this world needs healing, and we have so little actual power to accomplish this except our word of peace.

At the end of every service, I speak the Benediction, which is a word of peace. I speak it as an instrument of God’s own speech, because I believe that God’s word of peace is more than information, that when God speaks peace it brings peace. And in every service we exchange the peace. We do this not just to say hello. When we say, "The peace of God be with you," it’s more than a wish, it’s more than information, it’s a gift, it’s the beginning of an energy and movement that you can keep in motion through the week, whenever you repeat the words, whether in places where you choose to be, like the seventy sent by Jesus, or in places you are compelled to be, like the little girl.

Jesus gives us fair warning. If you represent Jesus in speaking peace, you will live like a lamb among wolves. Peace is dangerous for those who speak it. Peace means you will not be on top. Peace is risky, peace is counterintuitive, peace is impossible. You can’t do peace in your own strength. You have to risk it, you have to risk peace as a promise of God. But we invite you to believe it and speak of it. And where and when you speak of it, that word begins to be.

Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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