a sermon on 2 Kings 5:1-14 for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
preached on February 12, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
There’s been a lot of talk about economics and class in our world lately. The Occupy Wall Street protests struck a nerve among many people last fall as they lifted up the striking inequality between the top 1% and the rest of us. The controversy has only intensified as the presidential campaign continues, where almost all of the candidates make more in a single year than I suspect we do among all of us in this room!
But I’ve also been thinking about class lately as I’ve become a fan of the television series Downton Abbey. This great British drama airing on PBS traces the life of the noble Grantham family and their servants beginning with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and continuing through World War I into 1918 and beyond.
While the interactions between the family upstairs and their servants downstairs were very closely regulated in those days, I’m constantly amazed at how those lines are so often – and so realistically – breached on the show. Most of the servants seem to genuinely care about the welfare of the Grantham family in the midst of their joy and turmoil, and the noble Grantham family shows a similar familial love for their servants, of course with a bit of a paternalistic streak, assuming that they do know what is best. The servants keep the family abreast of the latest developments in the personal lives of the household help, and the family even seeks out the advice of the servants sometimes when facing a difficult situation, sometimes trusting the hired help more than their own relatives.
All is certainly not perfect between these two groups. They all know that there is no real equality between them and that the family upstairs is always in charge. Some things such as romance and love are not to be breached under any circumstances. Yet the genuine care and concern they demonstrate for one another is always evident.
This mutual care and concern by those on both sides of class divides is also evident in our reading from 2 Kings this morning. At its core, this is the story of the miraculous healing of the great general Naaman at the hands of the prophet Elisha – yet his healing would not have been possible were it not for a young slave girl.
Like every episode of Downton Abbey, power, prestige, and class are prominent characters in this story of healing. The young slave girl’s presence in Naaman’s house was due solely to the victory of the army of Aram over the house of Israel. The king of Israel was scared out of his wits when the commander of the army that had just defeated his forces showed up on his doorstep asking for healing. And the powerful Naaman felt shunned and ignored when the prophet Elisha would not even come out to see him when he showed up at his doorstep – and he was even more offended when Elisha’s prescription for healing his leprosy was to bathe in the muddy waters of the Jordan River.
Naaman is just not supposed to have to face this kind of thing at all. His power and prestige as commander of the victorious Aramean army would surely imply that he was safe from a disease such as leprosy. And if for some reason he was affected, he could expect only the best and most effective treatments with the greatest respect along the way. But in the end he had an incurable disease, and his best hope for healing was the suggestion of a slave girl.
So when Naaman took action on the girl’s suggestion to seek out the prophet in Samaria, he returned to his natural position and perspective of power. He received the proper letter of reference from his king and made his way to the king of Israel, figuring he would certainly guide him through the proper channels to meet the prophet and be healed. He took loads and loads of gifts to smooth the way to his healing. Even when he was referred beyond the usual halls of power, Naaman still expected to meet with the prophet personally and receive some sort of magical, immediate healing from his disease.
Amazingly, though, all this didn’t matter. Naaman’s healing was not accomplished through the channels of power but only outside of them. The slave girl who suggested the prophet in Samaria spoke up outside the proper limits on her authority to do so. Neither the king of Aram nor the king of Israel had anything to do with Naaman’s eventual healing. The prophet Elisha didn’t follow the proper protocol for receiving a foreign general at all and communicated with the powerful Naaman only through a messenger. And the prescription Elisha gave insisted that Naaman humble himself enough to bathe in the great river of the enemy.
After hearing all this, I have to wonder if Naaman’s healing had anything to do with those strange, muddy waters of the Jordan at all. Did his path to healing go through the halls of power, or did was he healed somewhere along the journey to humility and openness to the other? Did Elisha understand something about the limitations of power, prestige, and dignity that Naaman did not? Was God working to heal Naaman of his disease as much through a journey to a different way of life as through those waters of the Jordan?
I don’t fully understand what God is really up to in these kinds of healing stories, but it sure seems to me that God is trying to say as much here about the attitude to bring to healing as the healing itself. God clearly could care less about working through the proper channels of power than about making healing real and possible for those who submit themselves to a different way of life. God seems to seek a humble and generous attitude toward others as part of the process of transformation and healing. And God makes it clear that everyone – even and especially those whom the world assumes are nothing – has an important and special role to play in making healing and wholeness possible.
In many ways, this is the same message as what emerges in our discussions of class today, in Downton Abbey, Occupy Wall Street, and so many other places. The people in power may not see it, but I think the overall message is pretty clear. Every person has something to contribute to the life of others. Everyone matters, even those whom the world implies have no value and worth. Death and infirmity strike the rich and the poor equally.
While we are in a very different from that of Naaman and his slave girl or even the household and servants at Downton Abbey, Naaman’s story reminds us that we still have more work to do. Even our best efforts at living out equality are fraught with our own prejudice and preference. Our health care system in this country alone shows a strange and sad preference for caring for those who are well off and leaving behind those who cannot advocate for or finance their own care. And too often our efforts to care for those less fortunate emerge out of paternalism or a personal desire to feel good and be useful rather than actually meeting the needs of those we are trying to help.
So Naaman and his slave girl are important reminders for us – not so much of the direct path to healing for the infirmities of our lives but that God’s path to wholeness for all of us involves giving up some of our deepest-held assumptions and recognizing that healing for one of us requires wholeness for all of us. May God show us the path to healing through all the difficulties and challenges of our life together so that we may live in the fullness of life that God intends for us and all people and offer even a little glimpse of that for all the world through Jesus Christ our Lord.