04 July 2010

Pentecost VI

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 9

The Lectionary

Collect of the Day: God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Today’s reading from the Second Book of Kings presents us with a strange and complex story. The main characters are the Aramean warrior Naaman, who has what our ancestors called “leprosy”; and the prophet Elisha of Israel, chosen successor to Elijah, who eventually heals Naaman.

The King of Aram and the King of Israel both appear as characters, but they do not drive the plot; the plot is driven by nameless servants, who matter a good deal more in the story than do the pair of kings.

First we are told that Naaman’s wife has a servant girl from the land of Israel. There would be no story if this nameless servant had not suggested that her master really ought to go see the prophet in Samaria who could cure him of his disease.

When Naaman arrives in Samaria, the chief city in the northern kingdom of Israel, he has brought with him all his horses and chariots, a quantity of gold and silver, and “ten changes of clothing.” Clearly he expects that healing his skin disease will be an expensive and elaborate production.

Again we have a nameless servant: a messenger from Elisha meets Naaman and instructs the warrior to bathe seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman is quite offended by this message; he thinks there are rivers back home in Aram that are better than the Jordan. Then we have more nameless servants. Indeed, if it were not for the courage and persuasive abilities of Naaman’s servants, the story would have ended right there, with Naaman “stalking off in a rage.”

The proud warrior listens to his servants, however, and immerses himself seven times in the Jordan, and just as the servant girl had indicated, Naaman is cured. The manner of the healing turns Naaman’s expectations inside out and upside down; the prophet Elisha is not even present, and there are no prayers, incantations, no laying on of hands, nothing one would have associated with healing at that time. But there is a powerful subtext to this story: the God of Israel has very strong powers indeed and can act directly and immediately without power brokers or mediators. Equally clear in this story, as in several instances with Elijah before this, is that God brings healing to foreigners as well as to the people of Israel. As St. Paul says several hundred years later, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!”

The scope and reach of God’s authority and healing action is a theme echoed in today’s gospel reading from Luke. Having previously sent “the twelve” out on an exploratory journey, here Jesus sends out seventy of his disciples “to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” The seventy go out as the bearers of God’s power in much the same way that Jesus did. Just as Elisha did not need to be present with Naaman, Jesus does not have to be physically present with his followers when they go out in mission. In both stories, the mighty power of God to heal and save undergirds all the human activities involved.

This immediate presence of God’s power is what Jesus was referring to when he said, “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”
Through the disciples’ activities, God proclaimed his presence and power. And this direct, immediate, self-proclaiming presence of God amazed and excited Jesus’ disciples. They came back from their missionary journeys “full of joy,” and chattering “Lord! In your name even the demons submit to us!” This reaction betrays the fact that they were taking the success of their healings and exorcisms personally rather than as bearers of God’s presence. Jesus’ response to this inflation of their egos gently brings them down to earth: “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

In the end, these readings are all about the amazing, even shocking capacity of our generous God to hand over holy stuff to human characters while remaining in the background. In the stories of Elijah and Elisha, we begin to understand that prophets do not act according to an instruction manual for blessings, healings, warnings, conversions, or curses. God grants them considerable freedom and initiative. We tend to think of prophets as “great communicators,” but Elijah and Elisha correct our insistent emphasis on the spoken word of God by the way they function as “great connectors.” Prophetic activity breaks through human boundaries, connecting the power of God’s presence to people beyond the land, and outside the covenant, of Israel.
This role of connecting the power of God to the people of the world is supremely and fully embodied in Jesus, but by derivation and gift, the role of connecting is ours as well. We do not all have the gift of being “great communicators,” but we can all be great connectors even if we don’t think of ourselves as prophets. 

Like the nameless servants who drive the story of Naaman, our job is to be the connectors of God’s extraordinary, abundant, and life-giving power to those who need it. For love, peace, and justice, and for the repair of the world’s fabric, may the Lord make it so.

-- The Rev. Angela V. Askew is priest-in-charge of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn, New York.