Monday, July 15, 2013

Deacon Rick O'Brien's sermon on July 7, 2013

Naaman was a powerful man.  One did not become commander of armies by accident.  He clearly must have had intelligence to be able to develop the strategies and tactics that enabled his army to win battles.  He must also have had strong political skills to be able to win and hold such a lofty rank.  That he did this while being a leper was nothing short of extraordinary. 

A leper was the most undesirable wretch on the planet.  There was a strong social hierarchy at that time.  Kings and royalty held the highest rung, followed by Priests and scribes, the wealthy, followed by the educated class.  Then came landowners, then merchants, then laborers.  After that were those outside of normal society such as shepherds, and bandits. Finally, after all of the classes had been exhausted came those at the absolute bottom of the barrel; those who were unclean.  The unclean were those who could not come into contact with normal society.  Leprosy was the worst disease that one could have, and put a person completely outside of society.

Leprosy disfigured the face and hands, making the victim less and less recognizable.  As the sores grew larger they began to seep a terrible-smelling liquid.  When someone had developed leprosy they had to leave the society.  They were literally forced out and had to live in caves or in a leper house that was well outside the bounds of the town.  If they did come into town they had to wear black and veil their face to prevent people from seeing the repulsiveness.  As they walked, they had to warn everyone by calling out “Unclean, unclean” as they went so that people could avoid them.  They were literally thought of as dead people walking, as the disease was always fatal.  One simply could not be more of a pariah than a leper.

And yet Naaman was the commander of the armies of Aram.  I would assume that he had attained this rank before contracting leprosy.  It is virtually impossible for him to have done so as a leper, since he would have been ostracized.  No, it seems that he was a man of standing and position who happened to contract the disease.  The king was then conflicted.  He didn’t want to lose the services of such a valuable member of his court, and yet he couldn’t maintain a leper either.  The solution was to find a way for him to be healed.  And thus we have this mornings’ lesson.

Naaman goes to be healed, and ultimately finds himself outside Elisha’s house.  And when presented with the means to cure his condition, what does he do?  Rather than be grateful for a way to maintain his health, his position, and in fact his very life, Naaman gets angry that Elisha didn’t come outside.  He is mad that Elisha didn’t develop an elaborate spectacle of the healing.  He is looking for pomp and circumstance, the type of treatment that someone of his station feels is his right based upon his rank and social standing.  And rather than be healed, he makes to depart in a rage.

Wow.  He is presented with the answer to his prayers, and fails to take advantage of this opportunity simply because it doesn’t measure up to his expectations. Think for a moment about his choice here.  He can either do as Elisha suggests, or he can return home.  If he returns home without being cured, he will be condemned to a life outside of society.  Everything that he holds dear will be taken from him.  He will lose his job, his social position, his household.  He will lose his wife and family, his servants, and he will be forced out of society. Ultimately, the disease will kill him.  Despite all of this, he makes to depart.  Not because he doesn’t want to be healed, but because the healing doesn’t measure up to his expectations.

Remember that Naaman was a powerful general.  His king had sent him to Israel with ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.  That is an absolute fortune for any one of us, but to Naaman, it was just pocket money.  He was accustomed to traveling in the highest circles, where money and prestige were just part of the life. 

Naaman was probably not unlike some of our professional athletes or music stars.  People whose fame and accomplishments can warp their sense of self and change their expectations of the way they should be treated, and in some cases, revered.  Especially living here in Las Vegas, we are used to hearing stories of such people making unreasonable demands or behaving badly.

While it may be tempting to think that this is simply a sign of the decadent times we live in, such behavior and expectations have been with us from the beginning.  In roman times, when a general had performed heroic service to the empire, he was sometimes honored with a Triumph.  A triumph was a magnificent parade and ceremony that celebrated the man, and conferred a near god-like status upon him.  He was essentially thought of as equivalent to the emperor that day, and the entire city turned out to honor him.  He rode in a golden chariot while the whole city bowed down to him and showered him with flowers and adoration.  Legend holds that the only concession to his mortality was a slave who would ride next to him in the chariot whispering in his ear, “Remember that you are merely a mortal”. 

“Remember that you are merely a mortal.”  I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time thinking that the slave was very persuasive given all that was going on.  Naaman seems to fit this mold fairly well.  He is outraged that he has traveled all of this way and Elisha won’t even come outside to attend him.  He seems to have forgotten that he too is merely a mortal, and instead expects God to act in the way Naaman would have him act.   

And then his servants intervene and convince him to at least give it a shot.  It is no accident that his servants get it and he doesn’t.  And then he grudgingly does as they suggest and is restored to health.

Does this lesson speak to you the way it does to me?  I see a lot of myself in Naaman.  He is given a multitude of gifts from God and has everything that he needs or wants.  And then trouble comes into his life and he feels sorry for himself.  And then God offers him a way through it, and he balks because it doesn’t come in the manner that he expects it to come.  How often do we reject blessings from God because they don’t appear the way we expect them to? 

This lesson is an excellent reminder that God does NOT work on our schedule.  God has plans and purposes that we don’t see and sometimes cannot understand.  But just because things don’t work out the way we thought they would, it does not mean that God is not with us.  God answers our prayers in many ways, ways that we often don’t understand.

There is an old story about a man whose home is threatened by a flood.  As the waters advance, a neighbor comes by in a canoe and offers to take the man to safety.  The man refuses saying that he is a Christian with a strong faith and he knows that God will save him.  Later as the waters continue to advance a police boat comes by to help, but the man again refuses saying that he knows God will save him.  Finally the man has to climb onto the roof to escape the waters and a helicopter offers to pick him up from the roof, but he again declines saying that God will save him.  Sadly, the man drowns and when he faces God at the pearly gates he says, “Lord I had faith in you and you let me down.  Why didn’t you save me?  And the Lord says to him, I sent you a canoe, a boat, and a helicopter.  What more did you want from me?”

Admittedly a poor analogy, but I hope you get my point.  This man was not unlike Naaman.  He had a preconceived notion of what God would do and was blinded to any other possibility.  The phrase “the Lord works in mysterious ways” is not simply a trite expression; it is in fact, the truth.  We don’t necessarily know how God will act, but we can be very certain of one thing.  It will not always be the way we expect.  If that were true we would have to consider ourselves to be equal to God, and that is just not the case.  We need to remember that God is God and while we are created in his image, we are decidedly NOT his peers.  “Remember that you are merely a mortal.”

Once we realize that we can’t know how God will act, we are then ready to open ourselves to other possibilities.  If we can get out of our own heads and remember that God can and does use other people, and even sometimes us to further his purposes, then we, like Naaman can be healed.  Healed of our narrow mindedness, healed of thinking that the world revolves around us as individuals, healed of the mistaken notion that God is here for us, rather than we are here for him. 

Once we learn to set aside our preconceived notions of how God should act, we can be open to the idea that God may even chose to act through us.  I have a priest friend who at the end of each service reminds us to “remember the poor in body and the poor in spirit.  For them, the light at the end of the tunnel may just be you.” If we can accept God’s blessings in whatever way they come to us, then perhaps we can also be the instrument of His blessings for other people.