The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
Please pray with me. Gracious God, help us always to seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will. Amen.
The story of Naaman, which you heard in the reading from Hebrew scriptures, is possibly one that is lesser known to you. We only hear that story once every three years. And yet, it has so much to teach us. It is a story filled with irony and offers us an extraordinary and lifelong lesson in humility and God’s grace. This morning I invite you to enter into the story with me, to engage it and wrestle with it and what it was saying in Naaman’s day and what it continues to say to you and me today.
First, for context, we understand from the story that Naaman is a very powerful person with tremendous prestige and so many resources at his fingertips. He was in his day sort of like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or maybe even the Commander in Chief. He has been tremendously successful in his career. As I said, he has power, prestige—seemingly, he has it all—with one exception. He seems to have this skin disease that he can’t get rid of, that is the source of shame and pain. Being the sort of man with the resources he has, you know he had to throw everything he had at that problem and he couldn’t fix it. All the best dermatologists of the day, everyone he could pray to, he’d probably prayed to, and yet he had a problem he couldn’t fix. Perhaps that’s something that you can relate to. Have you ever had a problem and you tried everything at your disposal to fix it and you couldn’t fix it and you were desperate and you would have done almost anything to fix that problem? It’s not just an ancient story.
No, it’s quite contemporary. When I think about people who have a problem they can’t fix and the lengths that they go to try and fix them, we know what desperation looks like. I watched a story this week about families who either themselves or have a family member who suffers from type 1 diabetes and they can’t afford the medicine. So they get in caravans and go to Canada to buy the drugs they need for their very lives. We see the story played out day by day of people coming from Central America and other trouble spots across the world fleeing because they know if they stay, they face almost certain death and they go out of desperation and the hope that they might find a better life wherever they’re going—even knowing the risks.
In Naaman’s case, we know how desperate he is because—listen to the story again: he’s consulted everybody he can consult and he’s kind of to the last straw on this problem. Just to underscore that, can you imagine how desperate he must’ve been to listen to a servant girl from an enemy country who maybe was 12 and is at the lowest rung of the social strata talking about some unnamed prophet in her homeland who she’s confident can heal Naaman? Based on her telling her mistress, Naaman’s wife, he goes to an enemy country, goes to the king to get a letter of introduction. This wasn’t like taking an afternoon sojourn to Bethesda from Washington, DC. It was over a 200-mile journey. He takes with him about 900 pounds of precious metals, which in today’s market would be about three and a half million dollars’ worth of stuff. One can only imagine its worth in that day. He loads up a whole entourage to go with him to an unnamed, unknown prophet on the off chance that he might get healed.
You know the story. He arrives in Samaria, has a misunderstanding with the King of Israel, but nevertheless, the unnamed prophet Elisha shows up, and tells the king, “Send him to me.” So, the great and mighty Naaman shows up with his whole entourage and loot at Elisha’s door and Elisha sends a messenger to Naaman and says, “Go to the Jordan River, wash yourself seven times and you’ll be healed.” Naaman is furious. I mean, doesn’t he know who I am? Powerful, prestigious. Look at all the stuff I’ve got with me! He almost misses it, folks. And in another ironic twist in the story, it is his lowly and faithful servants who stop him in his tracks and say, you know, if you would have been asked to do something really dramatic and difficult, would you have done it? Why don’t you just give it a try?
So Naaman has to park his ego, his pride, and his self-importance on the bank of the Jordan to receive what God intended. Naaman thought he knew what he needed, which was healing, which was essentially skin deep. But God had another plan. God wanted so much more for Naaman. We know that because the story continues. If you were paying attention, I asked the reader to go on four more verses than you have in your leaflet, because the real miracle of the story is what comes next. Naaman receives God’s grace and restoration and relationship, and he finally understands that there is the one true God to whom he offers his lifelong allegiance, someone who knows him, someone who has the power to restore him and redeem him and to hold him close no matter what. He goes then to Elisha and offers all his stuff and Elisha says, no, I don’t need that.
Naaman asked for something that he didn’t know he needed. He loads up dirt from the Holy Land, if you will, that he can take with them back to Damascus so that when he’s worshiping the one true God, he’s standing on holy ground. You see my friends, God’s grace is free and available for each and every one of us. You can’t earn it. You can’t buy it. You can’t power your way to it. It’s a lesson in humility. Saint Paul writes about how he was afflicted by a thorn in the flesh or thorn in the side and he asked God three times if he would take it away, if God would take it away. And God’s response is reported by Saint Paul to Paul and to Naaman and to you and to me is, “My grace is sufficient, for power, is made perfect in weakness.” My grace is sufficient.
The story of Naaman almost missing it—and how many times folks have you, and I almost missed it— reminds me of that old joke story, which you’ve all probably heard a million times of a man of faith who finds himself in a flood situation and the waters are rising. He climbs up to the roof of his house and he prays to God: “God, please save me. Please save me the waters are rising.” And along comes a neighbor in a canoe and says, “get into the canoe. I’m here to save you.” The man goes, “No, no, I prayed to God. I’m waiting on God to save me.” Along comes a boat. A first responder says, “The water’s rising. Get in the boat. Come with us. We’re here to save you.” “No, no. I prayed to God. I’m waiting on God to save me.” And then finally, here comes a helicopter that drops a lifeline. “Grab the rope.” “No, no. I’ve prayed to God. I’m waiting on God to save me.” So you know the story, the floodwaters rise, the man dies. He goes to heaven and he says, “God, what happened? I’m a man of faith. I prayed to you.” Then God says, “I sent you a canoe, a boat, and a helicopter. What were you waiting for?”
What are we waiting for? God works in mysterious ways and sometimes sends us the most unlikely messengers to receive the very help and the words and the wisdom that we need. If you are in need, don’t miss the boat. And if you are in a place where you have a boat, go out, seek someone in need. We have so much work to do because at the end of the day, the lesson is to love God with all that we are and all that we have and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our world needs it. You and me and Naaman, too. Amen.