Sunday, July 08, 2007

In and Out: A Sermon on 2 Kings 5:1-17

“In and Out”
2 Kings 5:1-17
July 8, 2007

This week in which we remembered the founding of our nation would seem to be a good time to think about our history. Much of our history seems to have revolved around the question of who’s “in” and who’s “out:” which groups of people have power, and which groups of people are powerless. Though our nation was founded in response to religious and political intolerance, many groups have taken their turn being “out” as if by national consensus. Certain groups were suspect, not considered to be on quite the same level as everyone else, in some instances, not even considered to be fully human. Native Americans, African Americans, Irish Americans, Japanese Americans… these groups and others all have felt, at one time or another, what it is to be considered the “outsider,” the “other.” Sometimes that changes. But sometimes, people remain in the no man’s land of “outsider” for a very, very long time… generations, centuries. Change comes hard.

Much of the history of religion has to do with questions of who’s in and who’s out, as well. In this morning’s reading from 2 Kings, we see a story of the prophet Elisha. In one sense, this story tells us what stories about Elisha always tell us—that the power of God is supreme and that history unfolds according to God’s plan. But this story tells us some other things, too: about how God responds to outsiders, and even about God’s idea of who’s in and who’s out to begin with.

Our story begins with a description of someone who would seem to embody several ways both of being in and being out at the same time. Naaman is described as a great man, a commander of a great army, one who had been at the helm at a time of great victory. In other words, he is powerful and famous, or, in, in, in. At the same time, we are reading 2 Kings, a work whose focus is the people of Israel, their political leaders and prophets. And since Naaman is an Aramean, he is most decidedly not “in.” He is not one of the chosen people of God, but an outsider, a believer in other gods. Add to this the horrible condition that afflicts him, and we have a pretty complicated scenario. It’s hard to imagine anything that would make one an outsider more completely than suffering from one of the skin conditions which scripture lumps into the category “leprosy.”

The book of Leviticus devotes two entire chapters to the diagnosis of skin conditions and the community’s response to it. Essentially, there was no treatment aside from quarantine and the following instructions. According to Leviticus, if a person is diagnosed with a leprous condition,

he is unclean. The priest shall pronounce him unclean; the disease is on his head. The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. Lev. 13:44-46

It’s hard for those of us who have lived largely on the “inside” track to understand this kind of utter rejection. The individual is turned into a sign of his or her own outcast state, announcing with their frightening appearance and even their own cries that they are unclean, untouchable. Like other biblical characters we have known, they live alone, outside the camp, so that no one might be made unclean by association.

Enter the Hebrew slave girl. Once again, we have a character who is, strangely, both an insider and an outsider. She is a slave—the most powerless person in society, a true outsider. But she is also one of God’s chosen—safely within the sanctuary of God’s covenant with the children of Israel. And this young girl looks upon the suffering of her mistress’s husband, and points knowingly in the direction of “the prophet who is in Samaria”: Elisha. And the stories told in 2 Kings thus far certainly point in the direction she recommends: Elisha, the man of God, is also a man of godly power.

Naaman is a man of earthly power, of course, and all the forces of earthly power conspire to help him. True to his insider status, Naaman has access: the king of Aram writes a letter, and a fortune in lavish gifts, including about 150 lbs. of gold coins (I did the math: that’s a little over a million and a half dollars in today’s gold market)… all this is amassed on Naaman’s behalf. All this because, for a man accustomed to being powerful, to being an insider, persuasion in the form of royal requests and costly offerings is par for the course.

Naaman goes to Elisha’s house, where a messenger greets him with instructions that he is to wash in the Jordan River seven times. That’s it. Naaman is… relieved? Overjoyed? Not exactly. He is miffed. He is outraged! Evidently, the prophet’s response—and a response mediated through a middleman—is not quite what he expected. “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” [2 Kings 5:11]. Naaman seems bitterly disappointed at Elisha’s lack of showmanship. He never dreamed a simple dipping, a baptism of sorts, would take the problem away. He also never dreamed that his millions of dollars in gifts would not buy him even one minute in the company of the prophet. Naaman turns on his heel and leaves.

Once again, it is outsiders—those with less power, servants—who step in to steer the powerful man back on the right course. It’s so simple, they say. Why not just give it a try? Naaman, thankfully, listens to the words of the powerless, and, the text tells us, “according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”

What does this story tell us about how God brings “outsiders” into the fold? And what does this story tell us about how God’s views on “insiders” and “outsiders” in the first place?

It is well worth our while to take note of exactly how God brings those on the outside into the fold. You know, there is a lot of talk in churches about evangelism, which is pretty much the same question—how do we share the good news of what we have found here, how do we bring outsiders into the Christian faith—or to look at it another way, how do we increase our church membership. And it is a hard truth that, much of the time we act as if the only folks we will welcome are the ones who are already just like us—the ones who believe as we do, and the ones who live as we do. These folks, we’ll let in. Someone has called this, “Believe, Behave, Belong.” Believe a certain set of tenets, behave in a certain way, and we’ll let you belong to our church. But again and again throughout scripture, God reverses this order. God does not ask for a certain standard of behavior or even a certain set of beliefs before extending welcome, mercy, and redemption. God shows mercy first, and asks questions later, if at all. God shows us, again and again, belonging comes first. First, we embrace the strangers in our midst. We welcome them, as they are. We make them part of the family. We extend them our hospitality and nurture and even, sometimes, our healing. And then, if the gospel looks good on us, it begins to attract the notice of our visitors. That’s the point at which they find themselves asking the question: who is this welcoming, merciful, loving God, the One I see mirrored in these followers? Instead of Believe, Behave, Belong, it’s Belong, then Behave, then Believe.

Notice, too, how God uses unexpected people to point us towards salvation. In the story of Naaman and Elisha, God uses slaves and servants, the least valued people in society, to point Naaman towards that which is of the greatest value: healing and wholeness and welcome into God’s embrace. God uses “the least of these”—the ultimate outsiders—to show us the way in.

Perhaps we have to acknowledge that the categories of “insider” and “outsider” are more complicated than we think. Nearly every single character in this story is both insider and outsider in some way or another. The ultimate outsider—Naaman, a non-Israelite, a man afflicted with leprosy—is made the ultimate insider—he is cleansed, and even brought to faith in the one true God of Israel. We are accustomed to thinking of God’s special relationship with the chosen people, the children of Israel. But the story of Naaman shows us another view of God.

In Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he spoke of the curious contradiction we experience when it dawns on us that we might not be the only ones who think we’re God’s chosen people. Speaking at a time when the nation was torn in two in a conflict that was very much about who was in and who was out, Lincoln spoke these words. "Both sides read the same Bible, pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other…" When we think we are the insiders, we can be absolutely sure that there are others who are just as fully convinced that they are the insiders. And when we think we are the outsiders, we can, likewise, rest assured that there are others who are similarly convinced about their status. And when God reveals by the unfolding of history exactly who is embraced in God’s all merciful love, we are almost always surprised. You see, God does have a chosen people… and God goes on choosing. God chooses and chooses, until God chooses us all.

Maybe, in the final analysis, this is a story that urges us to drop for good the distinctions of who’s in and who’s out. Maybe those distinctions are no longer helpful. Maybe God has been trying to reveal this to us for a long, long time… at least since Naaman took his seven dips in the Jordan. Maybe, despite God’s embrace of the tribe of the Hebrews, ours is a completely untribal God… open, ready to embrace each and every one of us with baptisms of love and healing and mercy. Amen.

Addendum, September 20, 2007: I have added a hot link to a Christian Century article about Jacob's Well, and its pastor Tim Keel. It is Tim who articulated the phrase "belong-behave-believe." My apologies for not doing so when the sermon was first posted.


Fred said...

That was an absolutely wonderful assesment of the story of Naaman, and I was profoundly inpacted by the underlying message you discovered - - belong, behave, and believe - - insiders, outsiders - - God goes on choosing.

Beautiful stuuf. Thank you. I think this story which is mentioned by Jesus in Luke 4 is the at the core of why they run him out of town. They can not accept the fact that more than they are chosen, and even the o.t. stories point to that. Instead they say "doctor, heal thyself" meaning - heal us here, we are your people, stop doing miracles for all those outsiders.

Anyway - just really lovely stuff. Thanks so much for your musing. I was deeply blessed.

Rev. Fred

Magdalene6127 said...

Fred, I thank you for the kind words. I agree wholeheartedly about Luke 4... that's the issue, right there.

I hope I made it clear that the "belong, behave, believe" bit is not my original thought, but of the person whom I cited. (Hoping I did cite him...)

If you are a pastor, I wonder if you have ever had this experience: I write the sermons and deliver them and when i look back-- even as little as two months later-- I barely recognize them. Is that normal?



Magdalene6127 said...

Ack! I saw that I had not in fact included the information. Now there is a hot link on the phrase, "belong-behave-believe", which will take you to a Christian Century article about a thriving example of an emergent church community. The phrase is from Tim Keel, of Jacob's Well.