Happy Fourth of July! Today we celebrate the independence of our country and we remember what it means to be American. For me, these are the most important words in our Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident; that all men are created equal.’
In our first reading today, we get a close look at a world where people were not at all equal, a world with kings, prophets, warriors, servants and slaves. There is a clear place for each of these people in the power structure, from the top to the bottom. One would assume that those at the top will have the most power but listen carefully. You may be surprised to hear who the real movers and shakers are in this old story! I was inspired by a great sermon written by Barbara Brown Taylor.
This story takes place about 900 years before Christ when Israel and her neighbor Aram (which is now Syria), were often at war. These two countries were in a peaceful lull at the time of this story. Naaman is a powerful Aramean commander, a warrior with a good track record of winning battles. He had a big problem though, he had a nasty skin disease, probably leprosy. He had tried every cure he could and nothing had worked. He was probably feeling quite desperate and mortified by his unsightly appearance.
Now the Arameans had stolen a young girl from Israel during a raid and taken her as a slave. This Jewish child was serving Naaman’s wife and she must have been a kind girl because she felt sorry for her master. She went to her mistress and quietly suggested that she knew where he could be healed. She knew a prophet in her land, a Samarian who could do great things.
Naaman had tried everything, every cure, gone to every healer and had no luck at all. So, when his wife shared the slave girl’s suggestion, Naaman said; “what have I got to lose?” Now powerful people assume that they’ve got to go through powerful people to get things done. Naaman went to his king to ask for help with this. The king of Aram said “Sure, Naaman, I’ll write to the king of Israel about this.”
Naaman went home to get ready for his journey. He figured the cure for this dreadful disease was going to be terribly expensive so he packed seven hundred fifty pounds of silver and one hundred fifty pounds of gold, and ten of his fanciest outfits! He traveled to Israel and presented his letter to the king. Here’s what the king of Israel read: “When this letter reaches you, you know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of leprosy.”
Oh, these kings! Didn’t anyone listen to the little servant girl? She said there was a prophet who could heal, not a king. But the king of Aram just assumed that he had to go to the top to get things done. These kings were thinking about power, not about God. The Israeli king just freaked out! He was so upset he ripped his robe and cried out “Oh No! Am I God, to give death or life? This king tells me to cure leprosy! I can’t do that! He is trying to pick a fight with me!”
The powerless little Jewish slave girl knew about Elisha, the prophet who could heal, but this powerful king did not. When Elisha, the man of God heard about this, he told the king to calm down and send Naaman to his house so that Naaman would know that there was a true prophet in Israel.
Naaman was sent off to Elisha with his hopes of a cure rising. He traveled the short distance with his horses and chariots, gold and silver, fine clothes and servants. He nervously waited for Elisha, and waited some more. This was not what he was expecting.
Finally, a servant, a lowly, unimportant person came out of Elisha’s house with simple instructions: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”
What? Naaman couldn’t believe this! He had travelled all this way and he wasn’t even going to see the prophet Elisha? How rude of him! What kind of treatment was this, sending out a common servant with this silly message? Go swim in that muddy Jordan? I don’t think so! He was livid. If all he needed to do was swim in some river why he could go home to Damascus and swim in the rivers Abana and Pharpar. Those are better than the dirty old Jordan River! Hmmph! He stomped off in a rage.
Now look who steps up to save the day. Once again it’s servants, this time Naaman’s servants who calmly and logically reason with this powerful general. “If Elisha had asked you to do something really hard, you would have done it right? If he had asked you for all of your money you would have given it to him, right? So he just wants you to do something simple. Why not try it?”
Naaman is at his wits end. This is not at all what he had expected. This whole thing was too simple. Maybe Naaman was beginning to see that this Elisha, this man of God spoke through simple people and simple gestures. Maybe his God wasn’t impressed by money and power.
Humbled, Naaman made his way to the Jordan and stripped off his clothes, exposed all of his poor diseased body to the air, and stepped into that river. Once, twice, seven times he dunked down, immersing his whole body. He kept his eyes tightly shut, hardly daring to hope that this simple, simple cure might work. He stopped, stood naked in the shallow water and looked down at his body. He saw new skin, pink skin, clean, perfect skin. He was cured of his disease.
Powerful Naaman had wanted to do this his way. He wanted to use his influence and reputation to get his king to write to another king. He wanted to deal with the highest levels of power and he was willing to spend vast sums to get his cure. He could have saved a lot of time and money if he had just listened to the quiet little Jewish slave girl. His cure came about because of the actions of the servants in this story. The people at the lowest levels of his society moved him to his cure in the river Jordan.
This story is such a clear example of the rigid class structures of this ancient time and place. I love how it turns the whole notion of power upside down. The quiet, invisible slaves and servants are the ones who get things done in this story. The rich and powerful look kind of silly.
Most of us here today have immigrant roots. What kinds of countries were our ancestors fleeing? Countries with kings and queens. Countries with vast differences between rich and poor. Countries like Aram and Israel in today’s story. I started out talking today about our Declaration of Independence and that one amazing sentence: ‘All men are created equal.’ This is the main premise of democracy, the main premise on which our government is founded. Each of us has an equal opportunity to vote and my vote counts as much as the vote of a president or the richest man in the country. We are all equal in our ability to run for public office and effect change in our country. This is a wildly radical premise.
It’s no wonder that the United States is such a beacon to people in many other countries. Remember the beautiful poem by Emma Lazarus on our Statue of Liberty? “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Our wonderful nation invites the disempowered of the world to come to us. Guess who else did that? Listen to this verse from Matthew 11:28: “Come to me all you who are weary and heavily burdened and I will give you rest.” Jesus, our savior, our Lord said that.
When I first started attending St. Marks I was so fascinated by how this church worked, how total common ministry worked. I would try to describe to people how there was no one in charge, everyone was equal. Here is a definition of total common ministry: By “total,” we mean this ministry encompasses everything we do in church and in the world. “Common” means that everything we do grows out of a common vision of ministry, and everyone is given an opportunity to respond to God’s call to minister, regardless of age, gender, ability or background”.
In our church, all men and women are truly created equally. We embody the best spirit of democracy, the best spirit of America. We all strive together toward a common goal of loving God and living God’s word in the world. Amen.