Every few years, Disney brings one of its movies out of the vault and releases it for sale on DVD for a limited time. It’s a shrewd marketing tactic that limits the supply of Disney DVDs, and thereby drives the value of the discs up. Once the movies are put back in “the vault,” their resale price on eBay and other online resellers immediately goes up, as ordinary discs are transformed into collectables.
The idea behind the Disney “vault” is actually much older than DVDs, older than video cassettes. In fact, it’s older than television. It goes back to the days when people watched movies in the theater, or not at all – until they were sometimes re-released on a special occasion, like an anniversary. So, for instance, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which was originally released in 1937, was re-released in 1944 to raise money for the studio during World War II, and then again every seven to ten years until the advent of video cassettes, at which time it became the first animated Disney film to be released on video, and then again later the first to be released on DVD. It was a story that was born to make money.
However, like most of Disney’s animated movies, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is actually a much older story. Originally one of the folk tales included in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the original version of Snow White is a bit bloodier. You remember this story, right? After repeatedly trying to kill her step-daughter out of jealousy, a wicked queen poisons Snow White with an apple and leaves her for dead. In the movie she is discovered by Price Charming, and brought back to life with a kiss. In the Brothers Grimm version, the prince buys the casket holding her perfectly preserved body and, while transporting her home where he intends to keep her as his prize possession, trips over a tree stump, dislodging the poison apple from her throat and bringing her back to consciousness. Despite this unusual courtship, Snow White agrees to marry the prince in a grand wedding, at which the wicked queen is forced to don a pair of white hot slippers and dance until she drops dead.
My, my, my – how much Disney left out.
Something similar happens in this morning’s scripture from Second Kings. Did you hear it as Cynthia read the passage to us – it wasn’t very subtle. Look in your bulletin, and you’ll see that the passage assigned for this morning is listed as coming from the fifth chapter of Second Kings, verses one to three and seven to fifteen “c.” This means that the framers of the Revised Common Lectionary elected to skip over verses four to six, and to stop part way through verse fifteen.
That makes me curious.
So I went to my bible and began the story again from the beginning, but this time I read straight through, including the carefully excised verses, this is how it went:
You remember that Naaman was the commander of a great army, and in tight with the king of Aram. You know that despite all his power, Naaman was plagued with leprosy. Recall that a nameless slave girl, captured in battle, tells Naaman’s wife that there is a prophet in Samaria who can cure the commander. That’s what we heard read aloud.
Here’s the first part we skipped:
So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
This is important stuff, because in these passages both Naaman and his king make some significant mistakes. First Naaman assumes that the prophet of Samaria is in the service of the king of Israel. Next, based on this assumption, Naaman asks his king to call in a favor, to use his influence, to buy Naaman back his health. Naaman wants to be healed of his infirmity without showing any weakness. A man of power, Naaman wants restoration on his own terms.
The lectionary picks up the story with Naaman having arrived in Israel, and delivering the letter from the king of Aram to the king of Isarel, who is terrified – thinking that he’s being set up for a war. He has no control over Elisha, the prophet of Samaria, and he dreads sending Naaman back to Aram unhealed. So he rends his clothes in grief, expecting the worse to come.
But we know what happens next. Elisha steps forward and tells Naaman to bathe in the river Jordan. Naaman is reluctant, he wants something more difficult, something fitting his stature and accomplishments. Again, nameless servants come to Naaman and convince him to do what is required, and Naaman is finally healed. The passage we are assigned to read ends, “[Naaman] returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.’” The end.
Except that it’s not the end.
The scripture continues with Naaman saying to Elisha, “please accept a present from your servant.”
A ha! What a wonderful stewardship text! Like the ten lepers Jesus heals, only one of whom returns to give thanks, Naaman responds to the healing power of God by offering to make a donation to the ministry in Samaria. Why would we ever leave that last part out of the story?
And, let’s see, what does Elisha say to Naaman in response? Does he offer him an acknowledgement letter for tax purposes? Hmm… no, oh, this must be a mistake! The scripture reads,
But [Elisha] said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” [Naaman] urged him to accept, but he refused. Then Naaman said, “If not, please let two mule loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord. But may the Lord pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count.” [Elisha] said to him, “Go in peace.”
What kind of stewardship sermon is this?! Naaman returns to Elisha after having been healed in the waters of the Jordan, and wants to make a donation to the ministry, and Elisha refuses to accept the money? No wonder the folks who put together the lectionary leave these verses out – they’re a nightmare!
This is no help at all, and it gets even worse. After Naaman leaves Elisha, now healed, and still in possession of all his money and clothes, and now two mule-loads of dirt from the holy land, which we suppose he’ll plant in his back yard so that he can worship back home on holy ground, one of the prophet’s servants, Gehazi, goes running after Naaman.
Gehazi is like me, he thinks Naaman’s gotten off too lightly, having been cured without leaving any gift behind. So he decides to make a follo
w up call on the commander and takes off to catch up with him.
When Naaman sees Gehazi coming, he stops and goes back to meet him, asking if everything is alright. Gehazi fudges a bit here, and tells what is technically a lie, I suppose, but coming from the right place, or so he thinks. He says, “Yes, yes, everything is alright, but my master has sent me to say, ‘Two members of a company of prophets have just come to me from the hill country of Ephraim; please give them a talent of silver and two changes of clothing.” He’s just trying to raise the funds needed to support the clergy. Naaman, being wealthy and already inclined to make a gift says, “please accept two talents,” and sends Gehazi back with the money and the clothes.
No sooner does Gehazi arrive back in Samaria when he is summoned by Elisha, asking where he’s been. Gehazi lies again, “your servant has not gone anywhere at all.” But Elisha, being a prophet after all, catches him in the lie, saying,
Did I not go with you in spirit when someone left his chariot to meet you? Is this a time to accept money and to accept clothing, olive orchards and vineyards, sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves? Therefore the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you, and to your descendents forever.
And instantly Gehazi was struck with leprosy, his skin turned as white as snow.
How’s that for a biblical Snow White story? And why read it all to you, right in the middle of this stewardship season?
Because, as easy and as tempting as it might be, to tell the story of the healing of Naaman and the healing of the ten lepers simply as the set up to an ask for your money, that’s not what these stories are about. If anything, it’s the opposite. When Jesus heals the ten lepers and only the one returns, the other nine are still healed. When Elisha heals the wealthy foreign soldier, the one who has taken young women from their homes and made them into slaves in his own home, there is no amount of money that can pay for the gift.
What price would you have put on that gift? How much is a life worth? If God gave you the gift of your life, of your health, how much would that be worth to you? Ten talents of silver and six thousand shekels of gold, with some designer label clothes thrown in to boot? No, even that’s not enough.
You could give everything you had, and that would still not be enough, because your life is priceless. It is the most precious thing, without which there is nothing, and you paid nothing for it. It was a gift, and each day you are alive it is a gift, and in that we are all equally rich, because we have all been given these precious lives as a gift.
Here is the stewardship message in this counterintuitive stewardship sermon:
The healing and reconciliation that come to you as a gift from God aren’t like movies in the Disney vault, available for a limited time only, then locked up tight so that their value can continue to rise. Life is a renewable resource, there is enough to go around. But we are so enslaved by our desire for power and autonomy that we live our lives anxiously chasing after wealth like a sickness – affluenza it’s been called, the love of wealth that gets under our skin and rots us from the inside out.
God provides the ultimate contradiction to our diseased way of living by giving away that which is most precious, life itself, for free. That is why Elisha will take no money for the healing Naaman receives from God. That is why we do not place an offering plate by the baptismal font or communion rail. The gifts of time and talent and money that we ask you for are truly offerings, that which you offer because you want to support work of the church here in Logan Square, and collectively with other Christians around the world. Offerings, not payments, because what you get here isn’t for sale, it’s for free.
This worship service, this community, is not an entertaining diversion that can be given a market value, money traded for so many minutes of wisdom dispensed on demand. This worship service, this community, is another way of seeing the world. It is a story being told over and over again, down through the ages, with words and wine and water. Signs and symbols that are trying their hardest to get under our skin and heal us from the inside out, to convince us that indeed, there is no God in all the earth aside from the one that made it and everything in it, the powerful and wretched, and you and me. A God who loves us and wants us to be whole and to be free.
That is a wonderful story, a story born to make not money – but believers. It is a story I want to know from beginning to end, without skipping any of the verses.