Reading the bible story of Naaman from 2 Kings 5 this morning, it seemed to resonate in some ways with the global health crisis, where we are being encouraged to distance ourselves from each other, wash our hands, stop some of the more ‘holy’ aspects of church life like Eucharist, and choose between hoarding stuff to ourselves on one hand or looking after vulnerable people in our communities on the other. I came across this old sermon I preached in Brighton in 2015, and thought I’d offer it here, in the hope that it might be helpful in finding God in some way in whatever your ordinary, perhaps dull, life looks like today…
For a great healing story, this story’s very dull. There’s is no great ritual, no glitz, glamour or theatrics, no hocus pocus, no shouting, no special words, no dressing up, not even an offering – at least, not one that’s accepted. A sick man has a wash in a river and is healed. We don’t even know the names of the real heroes of the story – the Israelite servant girl, the messenger at Elisha’s house, or Naaman’s servants – the ones who spoke the words that guided Naaman to his healing.
What makes this dull story a great story is how it shines a bright light on the way we expect religion to be and challenges not only our religious values but our values in general.
There is a tendency in religion to make God so special that he can only be found in special places and in special ways, using special words and special people. While we’re right that God is special, and more special than we imagine, the problem with this tendency of ours is that we end up confining God to this special kind of realm. This in turn means that there must be places and times that are not God’s, where God is not to be found. So if we have the Lord’s day, that leaves six that aren’t. If we have God’s house, that leaves a lot that aren’t. So for one thing we think that God just isn’t around in the bulk of our lives – our everyday lives. And for another, we might be tempted to think that God can’t see what we’re up to most of the time. It’s why many religious people are, practically speaking, atheists.
What this story tells us, amongst other things, is that God is not confined. Some Israelites 2,800 years ago (and later, when the book of Kings was compiled) were inclined to think God only loved them and no one else – that they alone were God’s special people. But here’s Naaman, who is not only a foreigner, but the commander of an aggressive foreign army that was attacking Israel and carrying off children to be slaves. He should be the bad guy in the story, but all through the narrative he’s treated with sympathy and mercy.
That’s a shock. It’s also shocking to see in verse 1 that Naaman’s foreign army was given success against Israel by the Lord, the God of Israel.
It’s a shock to find him getting healed in such a simple way. It was certainly a shock to Naaman, who wanted a bit of hocus pocus, a bit of special treatment, especially considering his status. Elisha doesn’t even speak to him directly.
Elisha’s servant Gehazi was shocked that Elisha turned down Naaman’s gifts. “My master has let that foreigner off lightly,” he says, as if Naaman was not entitled to any favours from Israel’s God without paying through the nose for them. Gehazi was confining God in a story that is full of grace.
There is another shock when Elisha condones Naaman bowing down with the king of Syria in the temple of Rimmon. Rather than telling him the evils of idolatry, Elisha simply says, “Go in peace”. This is a story of a big, unconfined and undomesticated God, the God of the whole world, who is not limited to nations or rituals or kings or commanders or prophets, but who is found in simplicity and trust, through the words of nameless servants.
Our culture has been designed to work around broken-ness. The divisions must be maintained or the world will stop working. Division is how some people can be richer than others, and how we get economic growth. Division lets us exploit animals and suck all the goodness out of the earth or fill the air and sea with our waste – and generally serve our own interests and be happy. Except that we’re not happy – we’re adrift in a sea of stuff, lonely and shallow and without purpose. The truth we dare not say out loud is that a broken, divided world does not work. It is sick. It needs healing.
What this broken, divided world needs is community, true and deep community that transcends all differences and includes all creation. A few big name, big leaders grasping power and prestige goes against the formation of community. And if the church wants to serve the coming of God’s salvation in the world that is coming, it is going to have to repent of the avarice shown by Gehazi in this story, and of the ways we’ve broken and divided the world through our hunger for power, money and razzamataz.
In the world to come, the heroes of the church will neither seek glory for themselves nor will they receive glory. People will not remember their names. They will not be noticed in the church or in the world, but because of them God will be noticed.
The heroes of the church to come will not seek power or act out of jealousy; they will genuinely put the needs of the other person first and seek salvation for others before they seek it for themselves.
The heroes of the church to come will not need to hide behind language or ritual. They will be quietly confident in God and have such a deep sense of the reality of God in every moment that they will simply speak the truth of God and God will act.
The heroes of the church to come will not drive bargains with God or with people. The heroes of the church to come will be people of grace, of generosity, of celebration. They will be the kind of people that for a long time no one has expected God to use – but the kind of people prophesied by Mary when the body of Christ was still being formed in her womb –
“God has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
The love of God is for the whole world – for Syrians as well as for Israelites, for Gentiles and Jews, for servants and masters, for children and adults, for black and white, for people and animals and plants, etc etc etc – the love of God is for the whole world – and the messengers of that love of God will not be its messengers if they seek its benefits for themselves first and try to hold on to it without giving it away, or if they try to use the message as a way of gaining status and power for themselves.
This story calls us to find God in the ordinary places and people. If God seems distant or absent, perhaps we’re looking in the wrong places – to holy places, special rituals or prayers, big names, famous people, razzamatazz and bling. God is the God of the trafficked girl, the servant, the messenger, the muddy river. God doesn’t make things as difficult as we sometimes make them. The story calls us to notice and value each other, to give and receive everyday love and care, and discover that God is just there in the ordinary, the everyday, waiting quietly to be noticed so that healing can come.
We may be dull and ordinary, but that’s why we’re going to change the world.