A sermon preached at St. Andrew's On-the-Sound Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC on
July 7, 2013. The texts were 2 Kings 5:1-14 and Luke 10:1-11, 16-20.
Renowned author Malcom Gladwell once said, “If you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.” I'm willing to bet that quote resonates with all of us, even if just in a small way, because every one of us knows what it means to desire. We burn with the desire for justice, the desire for equality. We burn with desire for someone we love, for friendship or intimacy. We desire rest, relaxation, and knowing us Wilmingtonians, an opportunity to sit on the shore with our toes in the sand and a good book in our laps. We are a people of desire.
And we certainly are a people of imagination. Think about the imagination required to dream up the masterful subway system of New York City, or the glorious Golden Gate Bridge. More locally, think about the mind and the imagination necessary to create this space in which we worship. A tiled roof reminiscent of the Spanish missions of old. The smooth arches outside that, when followed, lead your eyes to gaze upon the cross of Christ. We live in a world of desire and imagination, where anything is possible. And in our world, anything is possible because we are a people of work. Hard work. Back breaking work. As long as there has been an American people, there have been hard workers dedicated to putting in the time required to do what is necessary to provide for families, for communities, for the growth of a business or the advancement of an empire.
In a very real sense, to work is to have power, the power to provide, the power to change, the power to influence. And getting caught up in this world of desire, power, and influence, the world where we celebrate the fact that hard work equals desired results, is quite easy, too easy I fear. And it was very easy to fall into this trap for Naaman, the military commander we met today in 2 Kings. Here is a ‘great man, in high favor' who had been used by the LORD to grant victory to the kingdom of Aram. Certainly a man of influence, of power and desire. But, for all of his accomplishments, and for all of his honor and high favor, Naaman was unlucky enough to have caught leprosy. White, flaky skin and a social stigma that made him unclean, unworthy. . .an outcast. He burned with the desire to be made clean, to leave behind his leprous life and walk into a life of wholeness.
And when he heard tell of a Samarian prophet with the power to heal, his opportunity to walk into that life of wholeness was within his reach. With the permission of his king, Naaman loaded up his caravan with ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. The high cost of securing the prophet’s blessing, I suppose. And though he encountered a bit of confusion and frustration from the king of Israel, he finally found himself at Elisha’s front door, ready to be healed, ready to walk into that life of wholeness. But Elisha was nowhere to be found. Only his messenger appeared. And the message he brought to Naaman wasn’t at all what Naaman hoped, or expected, to hear: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean."
For Naaman, this was an insult. How could this prophet refuse to meet face to face when Naaman had journeyed so far, and brought so much wealth? And to think this prophet would suggest he bathe in the Jordan, when the rivers back home, the Abana and Pharpar rivers, were far superior to those of the river Jordan? His anger fumed, for Naaman was convinced that he deserved something better than the prophet’s words from the mouth of a messenger and the second-rate waters of the river Jordan. I marvel a bit at Naaman’s reaction. Why in the world would someone have been angered by such an effortless solution to his leprous problem? Thankfully. his servants make it clear for us: “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'?" Naaman expected something difficult, something more glorious than bathing in the river Jordan. Naaman had even come prepared to pay several fortunes for the healing hand of the prophet. Naaman, it seems, is a man convinced that hard work, or a high price, brings desired results. Naaman seems to be a man who doesn’t know how to simply accept the goodness offered to him.
In short, Naaman is a man who doesn’t have the slightest clue about grace. Grace comes to Naaman as the simple command to wash himself in the river Jordan. No mountains of gold or buckets of silver are required to receive a blessing. No feats of extreme discipline, or self-denial. Nothing of the sort. All that was required was bathing in the river Jordan, according to the word of the man of God. And when he finally got over his surprise, frustration, and anger, Naaman washed in the river Jordan, and his flesh “was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”
I look around at the world, and I look even into my own heart, and I see more of Naaman than I would like. We are indeed a people of hard work, and that’s something to be admired. But as Christians, we are still called to be something more. . something that is both simple and revolutionary at the same time. We confess that salvation comes to us freely as a gift, given to us in the self-giving of Jesus Christ, but how many of us still struggle with thoughts of unworthiness, or the thought that we must work and toil in the kingdom in order to make ourselves fit for fellowship with God? Grace indeed is simple: no strings attached forgiveness by God through Jesus Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. No strings attached. But for a world built around hard work, around stringent systems of justice, and the persistent reality of warfare and violence, I fear it’s difficult to imagine and accept that grace truly is free. But if we suspend our assumptions that all good things must come with a cost, and allow ourselves to respond to grace, grace transcends its simplicity and become a revolutionary witness to the goodness of a God who loves us. Full stop. God loves us. Why? I’m not really sure some days. But I know this to be true at the deepest part of who I am. To quote St. Paul from the letter to the Romans: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Still sinners. Even in the midst of our brokenness, God loves us beyond our wildest imaginations, and God gives us this love without cost, without requiring work, without expecting us to measure up to a given standard before we can taste and see of the goodness of God.
Elisha witnessed to the grace of God by requiring nothing more of Naaman than taking a dip in the cool, crisp waters of the Jordan. And in his own particular way, Jesus witnessed to this unmerited goodness in our Gospel today. The seventy disciples were commissioned and sent on their way to do the work of Jesus. Miracles abounded. The sick were cured, the kingdom came near to all those who encountered the seventy. And they even waged war on the forces of darkness and cast out demons. Powerful work indeed. Work worthy of proclamation and celebration. But when they returned to Jesus, celebrating their work, Jesus surprised them with another charge: “See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Life, especially baptismal life, is a gift, given freely by God for the sake of the world. All the power in the world shouldn’t strip us of our constant awareness that we are redeemed, set free, having our names written in heaven. For when we begin to celebrate our strength, our works, or our work in the kingdom, things can get a bit twisted. Perhaps we become convinced that kingdom work can’t be done without us. Perhaps we become addicted to the acclaim. Eventually, we may realize that, deep down somewhere within our souls, we are doing kingdom work because we are convinced that what we desire we acquire through hard work. Like Mr. Gladwell said, “If you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.” So, what then? Hard work equals entrance into heaven? Hard work equals more love from God? No. In stark contrast, Jesus’ teaching to the disciples reveals that kingdom work is not even really about the work, or its results. It’s about the grace given by God through Jesus Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. it’s about a redeemed people celebrating their redemption. It’s about the goodness of God that proclaims life in the face of death, hell, and the grave. It’s about the grace that is offered to every human being, regardless of what they have done or will do in the future. It’s about unmerited goodness being showered upon the whole world.
No matter you are dealing with today. No matter what you have brought into this place. If you’re struggling to find your place in the world, or at the table of God, or if you’ve convinced yourself you have to earn God’s love. . .listen to these words: You are loved. You are God’s beloved simply because you are you. So come to this table, the table of the Lord, and feast as one redeemed by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.