Complementary Text: Matthew 8:2-3
Preaching Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Today’s text is in many respects well-summarized by the title on our lectionary inserts: “Elisha Heals Naaman”. Elisha was the prophet of the Lord, a task he inherited from his teacher, Elijah. He was called to proclaim the word of the Lord to the king of Israel, which was the nation comprised of the northern ten tribes that broke away from the kingdom of Judah after Solomon died in 922 BCE. The text before us today takes place around 100 years after the division of Israel and Judah, and concerns the great healing miracle that Elisha was able to accomplish for Naaman, a well-known and wildly successful general serving the army of Aram, Israel’s neighbor to the north. Naaman, despite his many great victories, was held back by the fact that he suffered from a debilitating skin disease. Our text calls it leprosy, but in reality it could have been one of any number of other diseases of the skin that often led people to ascribe sinfulness or uncleanness to those who suffered from them. After hearing about the healing power of the prophet Elisha from one of his servants, an Israelite girl captured in a raid, Naaman sent money to Jehoram, the king of Israel, in return for the healing that he expected to receive. Jehoram, of course, had no idea how he was going to be able to heal Naaman, and worried that the whole thing was nothing more than a pretext for the king of Aram to declare war on Israel. Elisha heard about his concern, and summoned Naaman to come to him, rather than to the king. When Naaman arrived, Elisha sent a messenger with his instructions, and the general was furious that he was not accorded the respect he felt he deserved. It wasn’t until Naaman’s servants pointed out how ridiculous his anger was that he followed the prophet’s instructions, washed seven times in the Jordan, and was cured of his leprosy.
I mentioned that the title given to this story is in many ways a good summary of the story, but in one very important aspect, it falls short. While most of the action in this story seems to center on the most powerful and influential figures – Naaman, the famous general; Elisha, the renowned prophet; Jehoram, the king of Israel; and Ben-Hadad, the king of Aram – a closer look at the narrative reveals that it is, in fact, the unnamed servants that move the story forward and help make this miracle possible. Consider this: without the Israelite girl who first told Naaman’s wife about the prophet Elisha, he may very well have suffered from leprosy for the rest of his life. Or consider this: Elisha never speaks directly with Naaman; instead, an unnamed messenger delivers the prophet’s message for him. Or, perhaps most importantly, consider this: when Naaman is ready to pack up in disgust and return to Aram without heeding the prophet’s call to go and wash, his servants dare to speak to him in his anger and give him that sage advice: “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” (2 Kings 5:13).
I think it’s significant that on this All Saints’ Sunday we hear a story of God’s power being displayed to the nations, and that the most compelling testimony to that power is made, not by the powerful and important, but by those who in most circumstances would be overlooked. I’ve mentioned often that I think we are too quick to use the language of saints for people that we regard as extraordinary, and too slow to use it for ourselves, especially when we regard ourselves as being decidedly ordinary. As we contemplate the power of the gospel this day, and as we call to mind the body of Christ that transcends time and space, I’d like to share with you this reflection on the significance of the communion of saints:
To those who know a little of Christian history probably the most moving of all the reflections it brings is not the thought of the great events and the well-remembered saints, but of those innumerable millions of entirely obscure faithful men and women, every one with his or her individual hopes and fears and joys and sorrows and loves – and sins and temptations and prayers – once every whit as vivid and alive as mine are now. They have left no slightest trace in this world, not even a name, but have passed to God utterly forgotten by men [sic]. Yet each of them once believed and prayed as I believe and pray, and found it hard and grew slack and sinned and repented and fell again. Each of them worshipped at the Eucharist, and found their thoughts wandering and tried again, and felt heavy and unresponsive and yet knew – just as really and pathetically as I do these things. There is a little ill-spelled ill-carved rustic epitaph of the fourth century from Asia Minor – ‘Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem for she prayed much.’ Not another word is known of Chione, some peasant woman who lived in that vanished world of Christian Anatolia. But how lovely if all that should survive after sixteen centuries were that one had prayed much, so that the neighbors who saw all one’s life were sure one must have found Jerusalem! What did the Sunday Eucharist in her village church every week for a life-time mean to the blessed Chione – and to the millions like her then, and every year since? The sheer stupendous quantity of the love of God which this ever repeated action has drawn from the obscure Christian multitudes though the centuries is in itself an overwhelming thought.*
Brothers and sisters, today we hear the story of our God acting powerfully in the life of a complete stranger, bringing healing and wholeness where before there had been suffering and shame. We call to mind our kindred throughout time and space who were joined to Christ and freed for lives of loving service as they heeded the call to “wash and be clean.” We rejoice as eight remarkable young men and women prepare to gather with us and all the saints around the Table of our Lord to receive a foretaste of the feast to come. We delight in the Word that sustains us in our time of need, calms our doubts and fears, and gives us the strength to be Christ’s body in the world each new day. Most of all, we celebrate the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, who by the power of his resurrection has won abundant and abiding life for us and for all the saints – past, present, and future. On this all Saints’ Sunday, as we remember those saints who have been so important to us – people who nurtured us and helped us to know and experience the love of God – let us also stand in awe of God’s grace in the lives of all those saints, both known and unknown, who helped the deposit of faith come to us, and let us celebrate the great gift of knowing God’s love through them so that we might pass it on to others. Thanks be to God! Amen.
*Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, Adam and Charles Black (London: 1945), 744-45.