(Sermon for Sunday, July 7, 2013 || Proper 9C || 2 Kings 5:1-14)
Naaman, the central figure of today’s story from the Hebrew Scriptures, has superiority issues. And for good reason. He is, after all, the commander of the army of the King of Aram. He has the resources to travel with an entourage, not to mention bags and bags of precious gold and silver. He has the political clout to rate an audience with Israel’s king. And to top it off, Naaman has chariots! (No, seriously. The mention of chariots is a big deal. My Old Testament professor in seminary used to joke that Israel had “chariot-envy,” because it didn’t have any. So to mention this guy has chariots – watch out, he’s the real deal.)
So this Naaman is a big wig, the alpha dog; he’s large and in charge. And he knows he’s on top. We shouldn’t expect anything less, then, when Naaman explodes in a rage at the way Elisha the prophet treats him. He just saw the king, and now this lowly prophet won’t even come outside, but instead sends a messenger? To add insult to insult, the task Elisha gives him in order to clear up his skin condition is laughably small and easy – too small and easy, of course, for someone of Naaman’s stature.
Where’s the epic quest to pick the first bud of the first flower to bloom on the treacherous mountain peak a year’s journey to the west and then make a tea of its petals and drink and be cleansed? Where’s the command to chase after the last shooting star of the meteor shower and find its resting place far across the sea and melt down the metal to make a set of armor which, when worn, will rid the wearer’s skin of leprosy?
I’m sure Naaman expected this type of challenge when he went to see Elisha the prophet. Naaman’s superiority complex told him he was suited only for the most difficult and heroic of circumstances. His mission would, of course, match his own grandeur.
But he receives something wholly different than he expected. Elisha’s instructions invade the bubble of Naaman’s superiority and remind him he’s not quite as special as he thinks he is. Or perhaps, better yet, he’s not special for the reasons he thinks he is. Elisha gives Naaman quite an ordinary task to do. A small, easy task. Leave the mountaineering and meteor-seeking alone. Just go and wash in the closest river.
Thank God for Naaman’s servants. They have the measure of the situation and enough guts to set their commander straight. In the end, Naaman accomplishes the greatest task of all – he tames his own ego – and then he goes and washes in the Jordan. And he is made clean.
Naaman’s mistake is one of the most common mistakes we can make in our life of faith. It’s so common, in fact, that most of us probably don’t even recognize it as a mistake. Here’s what I mean. Naaman’s delusions of grandeur prompt him to expect an epic quest in order to be healed. Therefore, he is unprepared for the simple steps that will lead to his cleansing.
While Naaman might have been up for whatever challenge Elisha threw at him, when faced with the same prospect, I’d hazard most of us would rather just slink away. Indeed, many of us balk at connecting deeply with our own spiritual journeys because we see them as too difficult or arduous even to begin. We look out at the vast expanses of our lives, and we see the epic quest to follow God from now until eternity. The goal is so lofty, the mission so grand that instead we decide we haven’t faith or stamina enough to see it through. And so we never even try. We just roll over and hit snooze on our relationships with God.
But again, our mistake is the same as Naaman’s. We expect the grand and lofty lifelong challenge of following God, and so that’s what we see. What we miss is our version of Elisha’s instructions. Just go and wash in the river, he tells Naaman. Just take a deep breath and greet me in silent prayer, God whispers to us.
You see, we our mistaken when we look at our spiritual lives and see the whole long, arduous journey at once. Yes, the journey will be long. Yes, the journey will be arduous. Not to mention full of joy. But whatever the case, we don’t experience the journey as a whole. We live the epic quests of our lives with God one moment at a time, one step at a time, one prayer at a time, and that’s what we should concentrate on – the simple things we can commit to today and then commit to again tomorrow and the tomorrow after that. And so our epic quests to follow God grow slowly, imperceptibly, as we, moment by moment, choose our own versions of Elisha’s instructions to Naaman.
The brilliant writer Anne Lamott explains it all this way. (She’s talking about writing, but the point is the same.)
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” (Bird by Bird, p. 19)
The spiritual life is hard. But God doesn’t call us to live the spiritual life. God calls us to live the spiritual moment. Bird by bird, God whispers to us. Just take it bird by bird.