A Sermon for Trinity 20
Our Old Testament reading this morning has something of a Hollywood blockbuster about it. You can imagine the trailer: Naaman, commander of the most powerful army in the world, yet afflicted with an incurable disease. How will he rid himself of this dreadful illness? A tale of passion, of strength and of wonder. Naaman, coming to a cinema near you, certificate 15.
So let me ask you to imagine the story we heard this morning as a Hollywood film. It begins with an introduction to Naaman, a great man, a mighty warrior, in high favour with the king, commander of the army. A force to be reckoned with. And then the great tragedy of his life – his leprosy. Cut then to a quiet timid servant girl, the spoils of one of Naaman’s great triumphs. ‘There is a prophet in Israel who could heal you,’ she tells him. Cut again (the bit this morning’s reading cuts out), Naaman rushes in to see the King of Aram, tells him of the servant girl’s revelation and demands to be sent on a quest to Israel to be healed. The King of Aram, knowing when it is not worth fighting the commander of his army, sends him to the King of Israel. Cut again to Naaman riding down the great road – armour glinting in the sun, his band of soldiers behind him. This is a truly heroic quest. Heroic enough to worry the King of Israel, who receives Naaman and quakes with fear. He sends Naaman off to the prophet, and so once again we can see the heroic figure riding down the road, in full armour, surrounded by his men, off on his quest.
But then it begins to fall apart. Naaman arrives at the prophet’s house and we’ve been set up to expect a big welcome, perhaps a heroic trial, fetching the final ingredients of the cure which can only be found in a far off place, dangerous to reach, and guarded by a fearsome foe. And that’s not what happens. Instead, Elisha doesn’t even get out of his armchair, but sends a message to Naaman. And the message is this – go and take a running jump … into the river.
Well, no wonder Naaman is furious. Not only has Elisha been rude, but he has failed to meet the expectations that Naaman brought. Most of all, in one moment he has destroyed the image of Naaman the great hero that our blockbuster had been creating up until that point. It takes another brave servant to make this point to Naaman – why not try what the prophet says, just because it sounds too easy is not a reason not to do it. Naaman is humbled, he is brought to the realisation that he is not playing the lead in this movie.
How many of us go about our lives as if we were the lead characters in the film of our lives? Do we see ourselves as heroic actors, taking the lead in fighting wrongs and doing right? Or tragic figures, assailed on every side by the forces of the modern world, finding that even our refuges are threatened? Both are wrong. Worse, they are distorting and damaging lies that we tell ourselves. We are not the central figures in any great story that is being told. We are characters in a greater story that tells of the presence of God in the whole of life. A story of healing and making whole, through simple acts of touch and bathing. A story in which rudeness and impertinence can bring us up short against the God who shatters our illusions and in doing so heals us.
If the story of Naaman shakes us from centre stage, then the rather strange story of Jesus and the ten lepers gives us a new stage on which to move. When I was in Sunday School, I remember being told this story as an illustration that we should all say ‘thank you’. Now, saying ‘thank you’ is an important thing. But this story is not as simple as that. After all, the nine lepers who Jesus criticises were only doing what he told them to do. Jesus said to them, ‘go and show yourselves to the priests’, and that’s what they did. What is significant is that the one who came back was a Samaritan. If the Samaritan showed himself to the priest, the priest would not have pronounced him clean, but would have thrown him out for being a Samaritan, regardless of his being healed. The ten lepers, when they were lepers, had formed a little community that crossed ethnic boundaries. When they were healed, the old ethnic barriers reasserted themselves. The tenth leper returns to Jesus because he has nowhere else to go. The tragedy is that he returns alone. So when Jesus says ‘Were not ten made clean? Where are the other nine?’ he is not complaining about their lack of gratitude, but that they have allowed themselves to reject the tenth cleansed man because he is a Samaritan.
This is a story about solidarity, about sticking together and remembering that we are all unclean people who have been made clean. That is why it is important that we are involved in the church and the world beyond the doors of this church. Whether this is through the Padley Centre and their work with people in Derby; or through the solidarity that the Archbishop of Canterbury has called for with those suffering for their faith in Syria, Pakistan and elsewhere in the world. This involvement with our fellow Christians is essential to our Christian calling.
But it is not just our fellow Christians with whom we stand. Naaman the Syrian and the Samaritan who Jesus healed warn us about placing too close a limit on this. No one is beyond the care and attention of God, and therefore no one is beyond the care and attention of God’s people. But nor do we have to go far to find those in need of such care. When we hear of a cyclone battering the coast of India, or people drowning in the Mediterranean as they flee from war in Syria, or the needs of the homeless in this city, it isn’t very difficult to find those in need.
But we are not just engaged in standing with people by simply sending money and giving advice – that would be Naaman’s approach before he met the prophet. Rather we stand with others because we recognise in them a contribution to our own wholeness. We are involved with people across Derby and across the world, and look to them to give things to us that we can receive in no other way. We find ourselves alongside those who are in need, because we recognise that we too are in need. If nothing else this is what our meeting with Jesus should teach us. Both of our readings this morning seek to shake us out of placing our selves at the centre of our stories; and both seek to remind us that we are people in need. Namaan ignored by the prophet has travelled to an enemy country because his illness makes him a man in need of help. The mistake of the nine lepers is to think that they are no longer people in need, and so can dispense with the Samaritan in their midst.
We too are needy people, that is why this morning we come to the altar to receive. We do not come to the eucharist because we can or should, but because we recognise that we need to receive from God in Christ. The poet R.S. Thomas put it this way: “present yourself with your need only, and your faith, green as a leaf”. In our need the false images of ourselves that we erect, even to God and to ourselves are stripped away. In our need, it is truly we ourselves who encounter God. “Present yourself with your need only”.
Like Naaman, we are brought by our need to encounter God. We are shaken from centre stage and come to meet with those who are strange and different to us. It is only from there that we will find healing, only with these people that we will be made whole.
Given at All Saint's, Breadsall and Derby Cathedral 13.10.13.