4 Pentecost C—7/7/19
2 Kings 5:1-14; Luke 4:22-30; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Pr. Scott Kramer
So—what was the miracle in the story of Naaman?
Naaman, the powerful foreign general, was healed of the one thing he had no power over: a skin disease. But when Jesus told the story of Naaman, his own people almost killed him. Something else must be going on here; you don’t get killed for telling a healing story!
Today’s readings, as usual, involve insiders and outsiders. Although Naaman was a powerful general, he was an enemy of Israel and therefore a big-time outsider. A second miracle in this story is that he turned to his enemy for help. A third miracle is that this powerful man listened to his servants, including the advice of a servant girl who had been captured by Naaman’s army.
This is what got Jesus in trouble: the very suggestion that outsiders might have something to say to insiders, and in fact, that they sometimes might become God’s agents where insiders fail. If Jesus were to stand before us and say that Russians and North Koreans are more faithful than Americans, or, that God sometimes chooses Muslims and Jews instead of Christians to accomplish God’s will, might we also be ready to throw him off a cliff?
Being a citizen of a certain nation, or adherent of a particular religion, or a member of a specific race, doesn’t make us Christian. We could be baptized a hundred times and go to church twice every Sunday but it wouldn’t necessarily make us disciples—followers—of the teachings and example of Jesus.
We heard again in last Sunday’s reading the only thing that marks us as followers of Jesus: the extent to which we work to love others as we love ourselves.
In your bulletin this morning, you’ll find reprinted the “self” and “other” categories that appeared last Sunday.
To this is added another insert labeled, “Stages of Moral Development”.
One way of describing moral development is to describe different kinds of love: Childish love, human love, and Christian love. We don’t gather on Sunday morning merely to improve our ability to love our own. We are here week after week for the sake of building our capacity to be the love of Christ in and for the whole world.
The story of Naaman is the amazing story of someone with vast power who actually listened to people with virtually no power. He listens to his slaves! (By the way, based on the story I’m assuming he does so not because he’s a nice guy—he’s not; Naaman is arrogant and self-serving!–but due to considerable pressure from his wife!)
In our own time, we have many poor public examples to follow. There continues to be little interest on the part of many of our most powerful leaders in listening to the stories of the Me Too movement, Black Lives Matter, Muslim & LGBTQ communities, or the poor.
And yet, our capacity to build moral maturity on the big social issues of our day doesn’t depend on the self-serving “childish love” of presidents and politicians. It starts with the very ordinary and everyday. The opportunities for listening to and learning from the “other,” in my experience, are daily and right under our noses!
This past Thursday, for example, I took an Independence Day walk with Amie. Some of you know Amie, who was a neighbor until her family moved up to north Seattle. Since she was in the area she asked if I’d like to take a walk through the neighborhood and catch up on news and life. Amie gave me permission to share this story with you:
It’s a simple thing, really. I asked Amie if she’d found a church home up north. No, she said, and she explained why. But then she said that she’d gotten to know many of her neighbors and one of these neighbors is a Jehovah’s Witness. Amie asked this neighbor if she wanted to do Bible study together. The neighbor said yes, and so they’ve continued to meet. I asked her how they decided which scriptures to study, and Amie said they studied the ones printed in the Jehovah’s Witness flyers.
Now, who does that?! Wouldn’t most folks slam the door, or go hide in the basement?
That much of the story is great on its own, but it gets even better. Yesterday I was working on this sermon at home, when there was a knock at the door. I opened it, and who do you think was there? It was two Jehovah’s Witnesses! Now I was confronted with the challenge of actually practicing what I was preparing to preach: Love others as you love yourself.
Ordinarily, I would be impatient and come up with half a dozen reasons why I didn’t have time to talk to religious folks at the door. Remembering Amie’s example of listening to the Other, however, I took time to listen to them. We found common ground and, at least in that moment, I was a better person than I would have been without her example.
The practice of Christian love in these simple, everyday, relatively easy opportunities makes us better able to practice Christian love when the stakes are much higher.
On the front page of this morning’s paper, for example, is an article once again about our nation’s treatment of fellow human beings at our southern border. Border agents themselves, shocked by our government’s treatment of children and families, are described as “teary-eyed.” One said, ‘We were ringing the alarms, we were ringing the alarms, and nobody was listening to us’.
The Naamans in our world—those powerful folks who are willing to listen to the invisible and the powerless–are few and far between. The worst of our nation’s leaders and their followers are in no mood to listen, in no mood for Christian love. Jesus says to his disciples in today’s reading, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few…Knock the dust off your shoes in protest against those who refuse to listen, and practice Christian love the best you can.”
Early in this season of Pentecost, we remember that Pentecost began with a miracle—a miracle of hearing diverse voices giving glory to God. Today, unexpectedly, we find in Naaman another miracle of listening. Naaman is not the best example of deep moral development. But even those who are devoted primarily to self-interest or human love might find in Naaman an example to follow—because Naaman, the person of power and privilege, discovered in his willingness to listen…healing for himself.