“Surprise!” Colchester Federated Church, July 7, 2019, (2 Kings 5:1-14) Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Last Sunday we heard the story of the succession of the prophet Elisha.  Elijah and Elisha journeyed to the Jordan River and there a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared to separate the two of them.  Elijah ascended into heaven in a whirlwind, leaving his mantle  behind (the cloak that symbolized his power and authority.)  Even in his mourning, Elisha picked up Elijah’s mantle and used it to separate the waters of the Jordan just as Elijah had done.  He crossed over to the other side to begin his own work as God’s prophet.  That moment represents a both/and moment of both honoring the past and moving into the future, with courage and God’s guidance.

Today the story of the prophet Elisha continues in 2 Kings.  We see a healing miracle that God performed through Elisha—both to glorify God and to help people know something of God’s grace.  Through that healing, we can also see the inclusivity of both Elisha and God.  This story from 2 Kings is so important that Jesus himself references the healing of Naaman in the first sermon he ever preached.  A sermon that evoked so much rage that some people tried to throw him off a cliff because Jesus dared to assert that his healing ministry extended to Gentiles as well as Jews like him and the folks of his hometown in Nazareth.

There’s some aspects of the historical context that we need to understand to grasp the significance of this healing (and why it made such an impression on Jesus.)  The narrator of 2 Kings tells us that Naaman is an Army Commander, commanding the army of King Aram.  He’s a great man and high in favor with the king, a mighty warrior.  And he suffered from leprosy.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Naaman—a respected and strong Army Commander—also happens to be a Gentile and a leper.  Now the Hebrew word used in this context was utilized for various diseases affecting the skin.  So he may not have suffered from Hansen’s Disease (as we call the rare infection of leprosy today.)  Or he may have had Hansen’s Disease, though one can imagine that the disease hadn’t advanced so far as to render Naaman physically weakened to such an extent that he needed to retire from the army.  Though his physical appearance reflected a skin disease that must have been difficult to bear physically, but also emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  Moreover, Naaman is a Gentile—he’s not one of God’s chosen people.  He doesn’t even seem to know who God is.

His Aramean army had been on a raid and taken a young girl captive from Israel and she was serving as a slave in Naaman’s own household.  And it’s this young slave girl from Israel who tells Naaman’s wife about Elisha and that Elisha could cure her husband of leprosy.  That revelation from the young slave girl (whose name is lost to history as is all too common for women in the Bible) sets the story into motion for the miraculous healing that is to come.  If she didn’t alert her mistress to Elisha and his work as God’s prophet, none of this would have taken place and been passed down to us.

Naaman speaks to the king of Aram and the king encourages his Army Commander to go to Israel for a potential cure.  Naaman makes the journey—carrying with him silver, gold, garments, and the all-important letter from his king to the king of Israel.  The king of Israel receives the letter and immediately despairs, tearing his clothes because he thinks that he needs to be the one to cure Naaman of his leprosy.  And of course, he can’t do that.  Meanwhile, Elisha hears that the king is despairing and sends word that Naaman should come to see him, to understand that there is a prophet in Israel.  Naaman continues his journey, showing up at Elisha’s house with horses and chariots in all his military glory.  Though Elisha won’t even come out of the house to greet him.  Instead, Elisha sends a messenger out to tell Naaman to wash in the Jordan River seven times “and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”[1]

Naaman is angry.  He expected that Elisha would come out to greet him, stand and call on God’s name, wave his hands over the spot of his affliction, and cure his leprosy.  Instead he gets told to wash in the dirty old River Jordan?  Why can’t be go back to Damascus and wash there?  His pride is wounded.  A mighty warrior like him isn’t used to being treated this way, especially not when he shows up with his horses and chariots at someone’s door.  Again it’s his servants who have Naaman’s back, carefully approaching him and telling him to maybe give it a try because Elisha didn’t give him a hard thing to do.  And they’ve come all this way.  Naaman goes down to the waters of the Jordan River, immerses himself seven times, and “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”[2]  Praise God.  The story goes on from here and conveys that this very day Naaman came to believe in God and goes back to meet Elisha and tells him so.  Elisha blesses Naaman on his way, with “go in peace.”[3]

It’s a great story.  Full of twists and turns, unexpected endings and beginnings.  A story about how God’s love is more expansive than we can possibly imagine.  Surprise!  God loves that person who you could swear is your enemy.  God loves that person who isn’t anything like me.  God loves that person who has different beliefs and values than we may have.  God loves Yankees fans and Red Sox fans, and though it pains me so deeply to say—God even loves Steelers fans.  Yikes, this is an inconvenient story if we want to have hardened hearts and carry around prejudice against people who aren’t like us.  Because God’s not having it.

We remember that Naaman is a man who is a military commander for a kingdom that goes raiding into Israel.  He even has a slave in his own household that he took from that holy land.  Yet God (through the prophet Elisha) heals Naaman.  This man who is a Gentile, a leper, and an enemy Army Commander receives health and leaves the land of his enemy whole.  This is a story that made a huge impression on Jesus, enough of an impression for him to talk about the healing of Naaman by Elisha in the first sermon Jesus ever preached.  Because Jesus himself proclaimed good news to those who were outcasts and on the margins, good news to some who were Gentiles.  Jesus even taught us that we are to love our enemies.  The healing of Naaman could have inspired that teaching as well.  Jesus knew this story and knew that it pointed to the inclusivity of God’s saving activity, to the expansive love of God in our world.

Jesus was rooted in the prophetic tradition of his people and followed in the footsteps of prophets like Elijah and Elisha.  Next week we’ll be jumping back to the Gospel texts from Luke in the Lectionary.  But I wanted to preach about Elijah and Elisha three Sundays in a row to help us hopefully understand how Jesus was inspired by the works of these prophets.  Because they are inspiring.

We may be wondering how to apply these lessons to our everyday lives.  And a great example can be found from a news story that came out in May about celebrating people who may be different, a story that touched many folks in the greater Boston area and folks who are fans of classical music.  The Handel and Haydn Society was performing a concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall and were finishing a piece by Mozart called “Masonic Funeral Music.”  As the performers were coming to the end of their piece and in that moment between the silence of the last note played and the applause of the audience a child exclaimed loudly, “Wow!”  That “wow” echoed throughout Symphony Hall as the audience burst into laughter and applause.  It was such a sweet and sincere reaction to spectacular music.  David Snead (the President and CEO of the Handel and Haydn Society) wrote a Facebook post about that moment and said that it was one of the most wonderful moments he’s experienced in the concert hall.  The Society released the audio and asked for the public’s help to identify who the boy who exclaimed in wonder was.

It ends up that his name is Ronan Mattin, a boy from New Hampshire who loves music and he’s on the autism spectrum.  Ronan expresses himself differently and his grandfather (Stephen Mattin) took him to the concert because Ronan loves music.  He was so excited to go and was talking about the concert for weeks before making the trip down to Boston.  Stephen related that he was touched by the audience and performer’s kindness after the “wow” reaction.  The Society has even invited Ronan and his family to come visit again and meet the conductor.  Stephen ended an interview about what happened at the concert by stating, “You know, everybody’s different. Everybody has different ways of expressing themselves . . . I think people in general, society’s becoming more tolerant or understanding of the differences between people.”[4]

Some days we can see that more understanding is present in our society.  Other days it doesn’t seem that way at all.  Though we will have moments where we encounter people who are not exactly the same as we are.  And we always have a choice in how we respond.  The challenge to respond with compassion is one that the prophet Elisha met when Naaman (the Gentile Army Commander who suffered from leprosy) showed up at his home seeking healing.  Because Elisha remembered the inclusivity of God’s saving activity in the world.  Elisha remembered the expansive love of God for all people.  And we will always do well to remember too.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] 2 Kings 5:10, NRSV.
[2] 2 Kings 5:14.
[3] 2 Kings 5:19.
[4] Kaitlyn Locke, “The Kid Who ‘Put Everybody In Stitches’ At Handel and Haydn Society Concert Has Been Found,” WGBH, May 9, 2019, https://www.wgbh.org/news/local-news/2019/05/09/the-kid-who-put-everybody-in-stitches-at-boston-symphony-hall-has-been-found