Sunday, July 7, 2019

Nameless Prophets

July 7, 2019 – The 4th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 9C

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.

She didn’t have a name—at least not one worth mentioning—but she did have the answer. She was young when the invading army destroyed her village and took her captive but not so young than she didn’t know about her people and their God. She also knew that her mistress’ husband was a powerful man, a mighty general, who, despite all his authority, carried in his body a terrible weakness. An entire army did whatever he asked, and neighboring kings cowered in fear when they heard his name, but that same warrior was utterly powerless over his leprosy, and everyone knew it. An ironic blemish on his otherwise invulnerable image, the skin condition was a silent enemy that could not be defeated. But the Israelite slave girl knew better.

We are not told why she spoke to her mistress. Maybe she hoped for something in return, or maybe she acted out of compassion, but, whatever her reason, the nameless slave girl took a risk and explained to the general’s wife that there was a prophet in Israel who could cure her husband. It was a bold, even brazen, statement—one that a slave girl had no business making, one that must have stemmed from genuine faith. Who did this captive servant think that she was, suggesting that her native people had access to a curative power that their Syrian counterparts could only dream of? And yet there was something so reckless about her offer that made the general’s wife believe that it might just be possible.

The general’s wife didn’t have a name either—at least not one that is told to us—but she knew how to get a man whose life depended upon an unwavering display of power to attend to his hidden weakness. She knew how important the possibility of healing was to her husband, and she also knew how hard it would be to convince him to go to Israel—to the land of their sworn enemies—in search of it. Only when the time was right, when she knew that he would be receptive, did she mention what her slave girl had told her. She didn’t oversell it for fear of putting him off but deftly hinted at it, planting a seed and allowing the mighty general to imagine what his life would be life if he were freed from his terrible disease. In the end, her hints were enough. Unable to get the fantasy of healing out of his mind, the warrior approached his own master in order to get permission to leave the country in search of a cure.

The king of Aram also didn’t have a name—at least not one that the narrator bothers to record for us in this passage—but he did have plenty of money, and he was willing to give a considerable amount of it to his favorite general if it would help. As a man of unrivaled power, the king did what he knew how to do in order to get his warrior the cure he was after. Assuming that such miraculous power would be found in the courts of a king, he wrote a letter to his counterpart in Israel, introducing his general with confidence that the Israelite king would give him what he sought. But the king of Israel, who also didn’t have a name worth mentioning, panicked when he read the Aramean king’s letter. “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” he screamed in fear, ripping his clothes apart. The king was the most powerful man in Israel, yet there was nothing he could do to meet his rival’s demand. “It must be a ruse—a plot to pick a quarrel with me!” the king exclaimed, unable to see beyond his own impotence.

For generations, the prophets had tried to show the people of God that God’s power had deserted the palace of Israel’s faithless kings, so it shouldn’t surprise us that the king didn’t have a clue how to respond. But, when word came to the prophet Elisha that the king had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Let [the man] come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” He didn’t need to say it, but the message made it clear that the Israelite king needed to learn that same lesson. When the general left the palace, it must have been a ridiculous sight to see him with all of his horses and chariots and silver and gold and festal garments go parading away from the palace and down the neighborhood streets until the whole company came to the prophet’s house. Surely the prophet heard them coming, yet, when they approached, the prophet didn’t even bother to go outside to meet them. Instead, he sent a messenger—another nameless individual—with instructions that the leprous warrior should go and dip himself seven times in the River Jordan.

When he heard it, the general was filled with rage. He had never been treated so dismissively. “Doesn’t he know who I am? Doesn’t he know the power that I have? Doesn’t he know that I could flatten his little domicile as if it were made of straw?” the Aramean warrior yelled, cursing the arrogant prophet. “I thought that for me he would surely come out and call upon the name of his God and wave his hand over the spot, yet all he did was send me a messenger with a ‘folk remedy’ I could have gotten back at home. [1]  I could have saved myself the time and trouble and dipped myself in one of the rivers of Damascus.” But, as the angry man stormed away, a few of his servants, none of whom had a name worth writing down but who were brave and skilled enough to speak to their enraged master, approached him and said, “If the prophet had asked you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it without question? Why, then, won’t you do this thing that is simple? Don’t you want to be healed?”

We live in a world in which people hunger and thirst for power. The currency of our lives is strength and wealth and control. Weakness and vulnerability are anathema. Yet our God is the God of the poor and the oppressed. Our God has always been on the side of the weak and the destitute. God’s salvation comes not to the invincible but to the defenseless, not to the self-reliant but to the completely dependent. In the story of Naaman the leper, it is the nameless slave girl, the nameless wife, the nameless messenger, and the nameless servants who point the afflicted warrior toward the power of God. Their emptiness becomes a vessel for God’s action. The nameless kings of Aram and Israel remind us that those who think that power is something to be grasped have failed to understand the true nature of power. We learn an important lesson from their ironic powerlessness. And, in the end, we see that only when Naaman empties himself, admits his need, and accepts the prophet’s menial instructions does God’s salvation come to him.

In a world that is infatuated with its own power, we must become empty and broken vessels for God’s salvation. The threat of war is real. Hostilities mount all around us. Our nation’s military might is on full display. But God’s reign of peace comes through empty, vulnerable, powerless people like us. If the power-drunk world is going to discover the way of God, we must become like nameless prophets, who give up the identities that we have earned for ourselves or that have been given to us by our ancestors in order to point people to God. We must be stripped of all earthly power. We must let our vulnerability stand in stark contrast to the powers and principalities around us. Then, God’s might will be revealed to them in us. Then, in our weakness, they will know the saving power of God.

[1] For the reference to a "folk remedy," see Walter Brueggemann's 1 & 2 Kings, copyright 2000.

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