Inside Out and Upside Down
2 Kings 5:1-17
July 4, 2010 by Diana R.G. Trautwein
Independence Day is traditionally a day for family gatherings and for family story-sharing. Well, have I got a story for you today! Oh my, this is a good one – one of the best-crafted of so many well-told tales in the Old Testament. This one takes place in about the 9th century before the birth of Christ – and it’s found in 2 Kings – chapter 5, to be exact. And today, I want to encourage you to have your Bibles open, but to just listen to this story as we read it for you.
Reader 1: Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram.
Reader 2: He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded,
Reader 3: because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier,
Reader 1: but… he had leprosy.
Reader 3: Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress,
Reader 1.“If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
Reader 2: Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said.
Reader 3: “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.”
Reader 2: So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. The letter that he took to the king of Israel read:
Reader 3:“With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
Reader 1: As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said,
Reader 2: “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does his fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”
Reader 1: When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message:
Reader 3:“Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.”
Reader 1:So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to say to him,
Reader 2:“Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”
Reader 1:But Naaman went away angry and said,
Reader 3:“I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?”
Reader 1:So he turned and went off in a rage. Naaman’s servants went to him and said,
Reader 2:“My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!”
Reader 1:So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said,
Reader 3:“Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant.”
Reader 1:The prophet answered,
Reader 2:“As surely as the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.”
Reader 1:And even though Naaman urged him, he refused.
Reader 3:“If you will not,” said Naaman, “please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the LORD.
What’d I tell you? Pretty good story, right? Surprising people in surprising places, doing surprising things with surprising results. A story filled with – the unexpected, the serendipitous, even a bit of the hilarious – curses that become blessings in disguise, important people who act like children, and children and servants who literally save the day. Here in this story, nearly 900 years before Jesus was even born, we have a pretty powerful illustration of the crazy mixed-up nature of the kingdom of God that Jesus taught his disciples about all along the dusty roads of Palestine so many years later. In this story, as in so many of the stories of Jesus, (and in the writings of Paul, as our reading from Galatians reminded us this morning) the outsider is brought in, gentle words are more powerful than anger, the no-named ones make the difference, the high and mighty behave like the wild and wacky, the littlest, least likely one puts the whole thing in motion, and it all comes down to grace – pure and simple, free and fabulous grace.
For that is the center of this story – and any story worthy of telling – it seems to me. Grace is all around us, readily available to us, but …. we must follow Naaman’s lead and step into it. We have to step into the water of grace. What does that look like for you? for me? for us? I think it looks like at least these three important truths:
1. It looks like: Paying attention
2. It looks like: Making space inside
3. It looks like: Following through
Paying attention…to the people and the events and the space around us, and maybe most importantly, the space within us. Paying attention means listening carefully enough to our own hearts to discover the thing we want most in this world – not merely what we think we want (you know, those wishes and dreams that float to the surface pretty fast – like…a new car or a better body or a perfect relationship or admission to just the right school or enough money to have whatever we want whenever we want it.) And not even those things that we think we ought to want (like better habits, or a stronger character, or a more loving personality, or a deeper sense of compassion and a greater desire to help others). No. I’m talking about the thing that’s way the heck down deep in there, the thing that we take great pains to cover up with all kinds of other stuff just to distract us from the deepest yearning of our hearts. And that yearning goes by a lot of different names in our culture – names like…wholeness, fulfillment, completion, connection, even love. These are all fine things, good things – but they are not at the center of our most honest desire. For the very truest thing about us, as human beings, and the truth that is foundational to all those fine things our culture thinks are at the top of the list – the very truest thing about us is that we were made to deeply desire the one true God – the God who made us, who calls us to be our best selves, who loves us even when we’re a long way from those best selves, who sees us and knows us and wants to share life and love and relationship with us. That’s what we want. That’s who we want.
It’s just that we have this bent place in us, a broken bit that pretty consistently calls us away from that deep truth and tells us to just go ahead and fill up that yearning, that space inside, with all kinds of other stuff – like the things I listed out just a couple of minutes ago. We simply move one or more of those perfectly fine things into the space that was created for the one true God. And they do not fit. We work really, really hard to make them fit. We even get addicted to them. We even begin to act as though they are god and we convince ourselves that they can fill up that space just fine, thank you very much. And then we place layer upon layer of almost anything or anyone else we can think of right on top of that God-shaped space until there is no space to be seen. Very soon, our lives have become so filled with distraction that we simply cannot pay attention. We haven’t the time or the energy or finally, even the ability to stop. To slow down. To peel back the layers a bit and look around in there. But…and this is a lovely and grace-filled word for us human creatures. But…we can sometimes find a little help for our distracted busyness, help from people and places that just might surprise us.
Naaman needed help to pay attention, and it came from the most surprising people: a captured little girl with a message of hope and healing in the beginning of the story; and faithful, humble servants whose calming truth brought a little coolness into the heat of his temper tantrum near the end of the story. Sometimes we need a little help, too. Maybe, just maybe, we can help one another to learn more about paying attention. I know several of you have certainly helped me to do that at various times over the last 13 ½ years. You’ve sent a sweet note, or written a provocative poem, or suggested a thoughtful book or website that helps me find my way back to center. Because it’s at the center where paying attention becomes easier, more natural, more revealing.
And that brings us to the second truth for this morning – the importance of making – or perhaps more accurately – re-discovering that center, that space inside, that space that’s just the right size for grace, just the right size for God.
You know, I think Naaman was probably a pretty good guy. We’re told 3 times in the first verse or two that actually, he was a great man, a recognized and famous man. I imagine his life was full, busy, scheduled up the yin-yang. If he wasn’t in the middle of one military campaign, he was probably at the map tables, busily laying out the next one. We know he had servants and a household to run as well as an army. We know he was part of the royal court of Aram. We know he had immediate access to the king. We can surmise that his servants thought pretty highly of him, which tells us that he probably was a pretty good guy, as well as a great military leader. But all of his fame, and all of his great military prowess, and all of his household possessions could not make up for the fact that he was a sick man. He had a serious skin condition – not serious enough to keep him socially isolated – but serious enough for a little slave girl to be aware of it and concerned about her master’s overall well-being. And that little girl brought something new to the table with her wide-eyed comment to the general’s wife – “Hey, I know a guy who could heal your husband.” This caused the busy, great man to stop. To pay attention. To seek the help he needed. But he still had a lot to learn, and discovering that space inside was at the top of the list. Boy, he loaded up those donkeys, didn’t he? He brought lots and lots of really cool stuff to the King of Israel, things that would look impressive, that would buy good favor, that would grease the wheels in the local power system. Sort of a picture of all the stuff that was likely piled up inside the man, too, don’t you think?
Now the king of Israel wasn’t exactly the sharpest pencil in the box – probably a bit of an editorial comment by the writer to let us know this king was a bad, idolatrous king and that the only help for Naaman, who was – let us not forget to notice this very important point – who was NOT an Israelite,but a Gentile, an outsider, in fact most of the time, an actual enemy of the state. (So perhaps the king’s hissy fit is a little more understandable.) The only help for Naaman was not going to be found within the walls of the royal palace, but in the countryside abode of the man of God, the prophet whose name was Elisha.So…Naaman lugs all his piled up stuff over the hill to the prophet’s house and waits to be greeted with the acclaim and admiration due a man of his stature.
Funny thing, though. There doesn’t seem to be space in Naaman for anything except his aggrieved sense of entitlement and his unholy anger. Wow. What is it in us that makes us so prickly sometimes? Why do we take offense if we feel like we’re not being treated ‘right,’ whatever that is? Why do we so often hurl insults at the very things that will bring us hope and help and wholeness? A lot of the time, I do believe, it’s because we don’t have any room inside us to let the grace flow in. We’re so full of ourselves, so full of self-righteousness, our own agendas, our own ideas of the way things should be done, that we have no space left for God to break through with healing love and help.
Once again, help is on the way, however. This time, it is the faithful servants who have accompanied Naaman on his journey. They step into the heat of his anger, offering good and wise advice. What was it Paul said in our Galatians passage? “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.” Ah yes – his servant-friends helped Naaman to make some room for grace.
But ultimately, the decision to follow through had to be made by Naaman himself. With a little help, he was able to pay attention. With a little more help, he was able to open up some space inside. But all on his own, he went down to that riverside. All on his own, he dipped his fevered skin into the Jordan river. All on his own, he emerged from that seventh dip with the cleansed, restored skin of a young child. And see what happens! This is not just a healed man that emerges from the Jordan. This is a changed man, a converted man, a redeemed man. The angry, entitled man of just moments before is transformed into a humble man, a deeply grateful man, a man filled with grace to the point of overflow. One of the first Gentile conversions recorded in scripture. The only healed leper in all of the Elijah/Elisha sagas in the book of Kings. One of the two Gentile believers noted by Jesus in the very first sermon of his ministry life. Naaman, the over-busy, easily-angered military leader becomes Naaman, the humble recipient of grace, eager to worship the one True God. And he replaces some of his own stuff with Israelite dirt to form the base of an altar dedicated to Yahweh, the God of Israel, now the God of Naaman.
That’s what grace can do. It can wind its way into the tiniest available space and bring about wholesale transformation and change. Grace will always seek us out, but it will not control our choices. It is there for us to receive, if we pay just a little bit of attention, if we open up just the smallest of spaces inside of us, and if we follow through on what we find. For it is the gift of grace that can bring healing and hope into the midst of sickness and despair. It is the gift of grace that can bring us into the inside out, upside down center of real life, where God is God, we are God’s loved children and Jesus is our elder brother and our Redeemer. It is grace that can change a small, torn piece of bread and a wee cup of grape juice into life and hope and promise. It is grace that can turn a roomful of strangers into the family of God. Praises be!