When I was in junior high, or sometime very early in high school, the guidance counselor gave us all a vocational aptitude test to get us thinking about what kinds of work each of us might be best suited for. When the results came back, my answers indicated that I might have the right set of interests and talents to be a performer, a politician, or pastor. I remember wondering what those three jobs had in common, then finding the answer in the lyrics of a song by the Police, “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da:”
Poets, Priests and Politicians have words to thank for their positions, words that scream for your submission.
That made sense to me. Even at a pretty early age, I’d figured out that words were my friends. I knew how to use them to get permission, to bring a smile, to avoid a fight, to win an argument. I saw how they fit together to direct lines of thinking and steer conversations. I could tell there was power in them.
In high school I joined the debate team. I loved doing the issue research and coming up with arguments, filed away on index cards with quotes and citations that could be deployed like pieces on a chess board to defeat the opposing team. That sense of power was irresistible to the brainy kid who did well at school, but not at sports, at an age when it seemed like real power was completely out of my hands.
We were all trying to find our power at that age. Some of us found it in words, others in fists, or in appearances. It’s tempting to look back and try to rank which kinds of power were more noble, more enviable. I think the truth is that power itself, no matter the form, was value-neutral. It was the ends towards which we used them that gave our powers their meaning and worth. Mostly, at that age, we were using whatever powers we’d begun to master to try and protect ourselves as we maneuvered through the treacherous path from childhood to adulthood, deploying them like a shield against the dangers of our neighborhoods, our schools, even our homes.
Childhood is such a terribly vulnerable time. Physically we are weaker than most of the people that surround us. Emotionally we are defined by dependencies to others who may or may not have the resources to nurture us or meet our needs. Intellectually we are always playing catch-up, learning the rules of an incredibly complicated game as we go. It is entirely understandable that we cling to whatever powers we discover early on, and begin to identify ourselves with them. They are our ticket out of the vulnerability of youth. We are no longer geeks or nerds, but techies and entrepreneurs. No longer jocks and cheerleaders, but managers and marketers, turning childhood pass-times into professions and careers. We learn to tell stories about ourselves in which we identify our personhood with our power as professionals or parents. What we are in charge of becomes what we are.
So I become a pastor, and you become a teacher, or a banker, or a lawyer, or a musician, or a nurse, or a manager, or a parent, or an editor, or a soldier, or a spouse and it becomes clear who you are…
… until the day you get called into the office and told that your position is being being eliminated, or your place of employment — a school, a factory — is being closed.
… until the day your doctor sits you down and gives you the diagnosis you’d spent your life dreading: the cancer your mother had, the virus that killed your friends.
… until the day your spouse dies, or your partner leaves you, and the relationship that defined you is now in your past.
Who are you then? Where is your power?
This morning is our last with the prophets of First and Second Kings, Elijah and Elisha, whose stories have formed the first unit in our summer school for prophets. Next week we’ll be moving on to the prophet Amos, then Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Last week we studied the transfer of power from Elijah to Elisha as the former was taken into heaven and the latter was left with the company of prophets to continue his work.
Today we are reminded that, for all his power, Elisha was a prophet to a conquered people. Israel may have had a king, but there were other kings in other countries with military forces far more powerful than Israel’s. Aram was one of those countries, and the commander of its army, Naaman, kept a slave girl in his house who’d been taken from her home on one of Aram’s successful raids of Israel.
Can we even imagine how powerless that girl must have felt in her position? Stolen from her family, taken from her land, forced to serve the very people who had invaded her home and destroyed her way of life. Even the story conspires to disempower her, robbing her of something as basic as a name.
By contrast, Naaman, the master of the house in which she serves seems blessed in a variety of ways. He has strength, he has wealth, he has connections to the king of a powerful nation. His victory over Israel is described as divinely ordered, yet this man has leprosy. His flesh is infected and he may well be contagious, which is why those with leprosy were quarantined away from the rest of the community, so that the illness would not spread.
Naaman, a man defined by his power, faces becoming a pariah. So he, like the unnamed slave girl in his house, faces having everything he knows and loves taken from him by a disease over which he has no power.
It not difficult to imagine the enslaved servants in Naaman’s house secretly delighting in their master’s misfortune. Perhaps they saw it as divine justice, humbling the man who had humiliated them. Or, perhaps they were terrified as well, since their well-being now depended upon their master’s well-being, their future on his future. However she felt about it, the young Israelite slave girl knew firsthand what it felt like to stand before your future feeling utterly powerless.
She in her slavery and Naaman in his illness had learned the same lesson: that despite all illusions our lives are not entirely in our own hands, and that we will all be forced to rely upon one another in this life.
So the slave girl uses what is, perhaps, her last remaining power — her faith — to assist the very person who has robbed her of the rest. She gives her testimony to Naaman’s wife, her knowledge that there is a prophet in Israel through whom God had acted to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, and to raise the dead.
In this act, this nameless servant of the Lord exemplifies the counsel Paul gives in his letter to the Galatians, where he writes:
“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith … for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (Gal. 6:10,15)
Circumcision, you may remember, is the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham. So, the point Paul is making to the Galatians is that we are called to work for the good of all our neighbors, local and global, those who share our faith and those who do not. Like Naaman’s slave, whose own vulnerability gave her compassion for the vulnerability of even her master.
But we are not quick to give up on our power. When Naaman hears that there is the possibility of a cure for his weakness in Israel, he gets permission from his own king to go to Israel, where he shows up with a royal letter of reference and deep coffers — ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. When he arrives at Elisha’s door he seems determined to hide his weakness behind his connections and his wealth, as he pulls up on his horse and chariot.
Now it is Naaman who is in a foreign land, among foreigners, even the very people who he’d previously conquered and defeated, and he has to ask one of their prophets for the cure to his illness. Even now, at his weakest, Naaman tries to cover up his vulnerability with the things he’d come to believe made him powerful.
Friends, I’ve been playing Naaman’s game since I was a child. The more trouble I was in, the faster I talked. Word after word after word. I know I’m not the only one. I wonder what power you’ve put your trust in, what source of strength you’ve relied on, even when it was clear to you and everyone around you that it was no match for the magnitude of your circumstances. At some point, all our strengths fail us: clever words, gruff exteriors, piles of money, beauty and charm, even hard work.
In that moment, let’s pray God sends us to someone like Elisha, who refuses to play Naaman’s game. Knowing that the deepest form of healing will not only cure Naaman of his leprosy, but will also relieve him of his isolating self-sufficiency, Elisha offers a treatment that forces Naaman to strip himself of his illusions of power and to learn to trust in God, the source of all power.
Elisha sends a messenger to tell Naaman to go wash in the Jordan river seven times. It sounds like a terrible bedside manner, but Elisha knows that Naaman needs to be relieved of his sense of exceptionalism. So he gives the military commander something to do that is so simple, anyone could do it.
This is the power the church offers to people like Naaman, to people like you and me. Washed in the same common water that bathed our parents and grandparents, our friends and neighbors, waters that have baptized enemies and allies, the elite and the unknown, we are sent with the power to relieve the world of its false distinctions and to heal the sickness caused by the false superiorities that infect us all and so quickly spread between us.
Here at St. Luke’s we are just a little more than one week away from the launch of a new project that will bring all our neighbors together, the hungry and the well-fed, for a weekly meal in Haberland Hall. The tagline for these Community Dinners is “hospitality, not charity,” because we recognize that the deepest form of healing we can work for is more than food in the belly, it’s freedom from the bondage of slavery to our separations from one another.
As we prepare to begin this work, we are challenged to reach out to our neighbors, some of whom will enthusiastically support this work, others who may be frightened by the presence of strangers, who are really unknown neighbors, showing up on their doorsteps. Our hope is to lay the groundwork for this project by showing up on their doorsteps first. Sent out in twos, just like Jesus sent the seventy, the company of prophets working alongside him throughout his ministry, we hope to knock on the doors of households throughout this neighborhood to tell them about the work we are doing, and to invite them to come and see this healing taking place right next door. We know that we will not be warmly received at every door on which we knock, but we refuse to be distracted from the work God has given us to love and serve our neighbors, all of them, hungry and well-fed.
My prayer for us in this coming week is that we will remember the lesson Naaman learned by the banks of the River Jordan, that we will take off our armor and let down our guard. That we will ring the doorbells of our neighbors’ homes, not armed with answers and arguments, but equipped with compassionate hearts and open minds, ready to listen to the hopes and fears of the people living all around us, each with their own stories of hurt and hope, each waiting for a cure whose form they might never have expected, for a word from an unknown messenger.
Maybe it will be you.