Sunday, July 04, 2010

Expect the Unexpected

Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

The United States of America is 234 years old today. That's a long time for a nation to remain free. But, when you look at our history in the context of world history America is just a CHILD among the nations. Egypt, China, Japan, Rome, Greece all make America's history seem so short. Consider what a brief time we've really been here as a nation: When Thomas Jefferson died, Abraham Lincoln was a young man of 17. When Lincoln was assassinated, Woodrow Wilson was a boy of 8. By the time he died Ronald Reagan was a boy of 12.


There you have it. The lives of four men can take you all the way back to the beginning of our country, 232 years ago. We are so young. And yet we stand tall among these nations because of the principles on which we were established: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.


Thus begins the Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate today. And do not let anyone fool you. Freedom ought and need be celebrated. So many churches and ministers today loathe patriotism in the pulpit. I am not one of those. As we recall some recent surprises such as 9-11, the bursting of the internet stocks bubble, the bursting of the housing bubble, last year's financial bail out of the "too big to fails" and the ongoing environmental disaster in the Gulf Coast, one thing we know from the past decade is that we can expect the unexpected. Nowhere is that more clear than in our story for today, the story of Naaman and the commander of the enemy's army.

Naaman was an important man. His disease progressed to the point where he could ignore it no longer. Perhaps it was the dreaded Hansen's Disease, a serious and contagious illness, or it could have been psoriasis or white patches or a bad case of acne. In the Bible, leprosy is a catch all term for many skin conditions. Clearly though, his disease cramps his style and everybody is affected by it.

Keep in mind that Naaman was the commander of the enemy army, the army that had just defeated Israel in a war and that one of the young girls of Israel had been captured and put to work as a ladies maid for Naaman's wife.

It is a perfect set up for God's power to be shown. The people of Israel had been defeated, yet a mere child, and a girl at that, was able to proclaim the good news that there was still healing to be found in Israel. The message was clear: even in face of their defeat as a nation, their God is stronger than their captors.

Now Naaman knew a thing or two about power and diplomacy, but very little about the God of Israel. Since he was second only to the king, he was able to pack up a whole Brinks truck with cash and expensive gifts and set out for the palace in Israel. Rules of diplomacy state that kings and generals spoke to kings and generals, they did not go to see clergy and session members.

The King of Israel was surprised and frightened by the King of Syria's request for Naaman's healing. He knew that he could not heal the man and he was concerned that there was an ulterior motive in all of this. Perhaps the King of Israel had forgotten about the Prophet Elisha. We know that prophets and kings in Israel were never the best of friends, probably because prophets had a rather uncanny way of telling the king what was what! At any rate the prophet heard about this request and sent word to the palace that he could do something.

Now Elisha was not going to take part in any of this diplomatic bowing and scraping. His actions spoke loudest of all when he sent a mere servant to tell Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan. That was nothing less than an insult. If all Naaman had to do was take a bath, he could have done that at home! There were plenty of rivers in Aram, certainly bigger, and likely clearer. Naaman wanted bowing and scraping. He wanted to deal with the head-honcho, not his servant. He wanted hocus- pocus and mysterious incantations. He did not need a bath in a muddy stream. He was about to leave in a huff, and un-healed when his servants talked some sense into him. They reasoned with him that if the task had been difficult, he would certainly have done that task. As a result of their intervention, he did eventually wash and he was duly healed. Notice what Naaman's servants said to him: "If you had been asked to do something difficult, you would have done it." Now that's an intriguing observation. He was put off because the task was too simple.

Yesterday afternoon I found myself watching the beginning of the The Wizard of Oz on the Turner Classics channel. Perhaps you remember the story. Propelled into a strange land by a cyclone, the hero of the story, Dorothy, inadvertently killed the so-called Wicked Witch of the East when her house fell on the woman. She was sent on a journey down the yellow brick road so that she could ask the Great and Mighty Wizard of Oz to send her home to Kansas. Along the way she befriended a heartless and rusty tin woodman, a cowardly lion, and a scarecrow in need of brains, who all decided that the Wizard could do something for them as well. As a condition of granting their requests, the wizard asked them to take a quest and kill the Wicked Witch of the West. No one expected them to return, but they did. Dorothy melted the witch with a bucket of water and they returned to Oz only to find out that the Wizard was not a great and mysterious being at all, but an ordinary man who had come to Oz as a result of a balloon accident. This small elderly man was forced to admit that he really could not do anything for Dorothy's friends, but assured them that they already had what they had been looking for all along.

As for Dorothy, she had to journey to see the Good Witch of the South. After a long journey, she arrived there only to be told that all she needed were the shoes which she had retrieved from the Witch of the East and had been wearing ever since. All she had to do was to click her heels together, make the appropriate wish, and she would be taken home. She did so and soon she was back on the Kansas prairie telling her Aunt and Uncle all that had happened. Published 100 years ago, this story continues to delight the hearts of children, and adults alike, and like all good fairy tales, it gives a solid message.

Healing and spiritual growth are found, not in far away and exotic places, but close to home - indeed, from within. They are found in the simple and common things of life, much more often than in the exotic and the mysterious. That is the lesson Dorothy learned and that is the lesson Naaman learned. Spiritual growth is to be found within as we make the journey of life.

How are we like Naaman, seeking God's healing in all the wrong places? Do we, like Naaman, discount the healing that is served up, not on a silver platter, but on a paper plate? Let us not overlook what is offered because we were expecting something more magnificent. God provides what we need not what we want. That is true both for individuals and for nations. Let's keep that in mind as we celebrate the 4th of July today.

French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting America in 1831, said, "I sought for the greatness of the United States in her commodious harbors, her ample rivers, her fertile fields, and boundless forests--and it was not there. I sought for it in her rich mines, her vast world commerce, her public school system, and in her institutions of higher learning--and it was not there. I looked for it in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution--and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great!"

As Americans, we are in the right place, a church sanctuary, on the 4th of July. May God help us and help America to be both good and great. Naaman teaches us we will be both better and greater when we realize healing and spiritual growth are found, not in far away and exotic places, but close to home, even as close as our hearts and minds.

~The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on July 4, 2010