Saturday, July 03, 2010

A Sermon
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Kings 5:1-14

Naaman the Syrian general had a problem – one which was an embarrassment all around.

On the one hand he had proved to be very good value to his monarch who appreciated his services.

In ordinary circumstances, he'd have been both feared and envied by those below him on the pecking order. He would have reasonably expected to be seen at the King’s right hand and to have been in the inner circles of the court were it not for a devastating skin disease which caused people to keep their distance. Naaman the Syrian general, it seems, was affected by leprosy – a disease with a terrible social stigma attached to it – and people consequently gave him a very wide berth.

What was his king to do? An intractable problem presents itself and one must imagine the dilemma facing the king. He depends on the skill of men like Naaman – aggressive and opportunistic – able to command loyalty among the troops, able to analyse an enemy’s weakness, able to pick the right moment to pull back and the right moment to strike forward.

Valuable man, Naaman, but the King can’t shake his hand. He can’t have him over for supper. Or have him sit in the royal box at the victory parade. An intractable problem – one that doesn’t admit of any ordinary solutions or strategies - so intractable, in fact, that when a little slave girl in the in the entourage of Naaman's wife says that back home in her own country there’s this prophet who performs miracles and heals the sick, he tells the King who gives it both a first and a second thought. He has no choice. He listens to the little girl. His decision to act seems more forced than faith – more the result of desperation that it is a faithful step into an uncertain future – but whatever it is, it takes place.

And what does he do? He writes a letter to the King of Israel – which is the little girl’s home country - and he tells him that he’s sending him a this leprous general to be cured.

And that’s when the second intractable problem emerges. This time not for the Aramean King but for the Israelite King who reads the letter he’s received several time to glean its meaning. What does this mean that the king of a not always friendly neighbouring country is sending his favourite general – a man with an incurable condition – to the neighbouring country to be cured. This doesn’t seem like a request, it smells like a trap - this is an unfulfillable condition and an unmeetable demand issued by one country to its neighbour.

The Israelite king cries out to his ministers: “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”

What to do, then? Dig the moats deeper and reinforce the walls! Call up the reserves. Send out the spies. Get the beacon fires ready on all the hilltops so that they can be lit at a moment’s notice to let the army know when the enemy has crossed the frontier. All the automatic processes kick in which countries rely on to protect themselves from threats but at the heart of the nation, in the king’s court, there is anxiety and despair. The king tears his clothes with fear and rage.

You’d hardly notice the little messenger ushered in to corner of the room - a messenger from the prophet Elisha. Why, prophet asks, are there work companies on all the high places adding parapets to the earthworks? Why are there men in armour drilling in formation in the village square? Why are there diplomatic notes being sent to and fro across the borders. And your majesty “…why have you torn your clothes? Let (this Syrian general) come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel”

The king is surrounded by experts – experts in the defense of vital infrastructure, generals in command of troops, diplomats skilled in intrigue. And now the prophet, through the agency of this nameless messenger shifting his weight from one foot to the other and looking aimlessly around at the sweets on the table and the tapestries as he waits for an answer – is counselling a response which seems both faithful and hopelessly naïve. Meet the threat – treat it, instead, as challenge. Let Israel be a source of healing for the nations as it has claimed itself, since Abraham, to be. Simply say “yes” rather than drawing the shutters and calling forth the troops.

There is no record of the conversation which ensued, no “blow by blow” of the king’s decision to follow the prophet’s advice and to embrace and affirm the challenge that is presented to him and to the nation. How he comes to deal with this intractable problem we’re are not told but the very next scene opens with the chariot and the retinue of Naaman the Syrian General clattering up to Elisha’s front door and poor leprous Naaman climbing out and waiting there. And waiting until finally one of the servants appears with instructions to walk over to the river and wash himself.

And now we have a third important man facing a situation standing at a crossroads facing an intractable problem. This time it’s simple human and national pride which stands in the way. He is consumed by anger. A commander of thousands he has left his own country, his servants and underlings not only to be ordered around by a foreign prophet but, in fact, to be handed a few cursory instructions by a foreign prophet’s servant. The instructions sound like a recipe: “Go wash in the Jordan and you will be clean”.

Is he not an important general? Has he not left the greatest country in the world? Has he not just walked past the greatest rivers? Could he not, at least, have been greeted formally and had a solemn prayer? Could not the great prophet of Israel have done something with a little magic to it, could he not have waved his hand about and invoked the deity? He seems ready to turn around and leave until his own servants take of the risk of bringing him to his senses: had the prophet given him a difficult task to perform he would have done it without question – a monster slay or a difficult pilgrimage to accomplish. Why not, then, do something simple. Why throw away such an opportunity in a fit of pique? He goes to the river and washes. He emerges completely restored and makes a confession of faith in Israel’s God.

The voices in this story which provide the sense of the narrative come in from the side, obliquely. They are voices which can, potentially, be ignored. Powerful men are deliberating in the midst of crises and yet it is the voice of a child which provides opportunity, the voice of a prophet which brings the powerful back to first principles and the voice of an underling speaking “out of turn” beside us which speaks to us of common sense that our pride and anger will not allow us to see.

Subtle voices which we will ignore at our peril.

It may be that we need to run out of clear and easy answers before we will rely on them. Perhaps we need to be facing the wall before voices we would never listen to in a million years suddenly start ringing out loud and clear.

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