6th week of Epiphany
Feb. 12, 2012
Eighteen years ago, the Mississippi Annual Conference planted the next “mega church” in a small but rapidly growing community just outside of the state capital of Jackson. The congregation started with an average worship attendance of around 90, a number that has dropped slowly but consistently over the years. When I was appointed there 4 years ago we averaged about 35 on a Sunday morning. This past Sunday we had eight. As a worshiping community, it is getting harder and harder for us to have hope for our future, not to mention paying our utility bills.
In an effort to encourage our struggling church our District Superintendent assured us that if there was even one family who could say that they were genuinely called by God to continue to worship and witness as New Covenant UMC then he would do everything he could to help us stay open and pursue that calling. So it is that in the last few weeks, we have begun to ask each other very seriously and very concretely “What is God calling you to do? What is God calling us to do as a Church body? Who is God calling us to be?”
“Now Naaman was a commander…” The text of 2 Kings goes to great lengths to help us see Naaman as a man of power and prestige. The text stacks markers of his identity as a powerful man one on top of the other. He was a commander, a great man, highly regarded, victorious, a valiant solider, he traveled in horses and chariots, and he had no problem getting a letter of recommendation from the King of Aram. Last week, in all the preparations for Super Bowl XLVI, I heard an NPR commentator recount meeting the New England Patriots quarter back Tom Brady. He said that it was just impossible to stand next to Tom Brady and feel good about yourself. Speaking of Brady he said ‘he has rugged good looks, he’s chiseled, he looks like a male model, he’s married to a super-model, he lives in a 200 million dollar mansion, he’s been incredibly successful in his chosen career. You just can’t stand next to the guy and feel good about who you are.’ We may think of Naaman along these lines. He was a great man, highly regarded, successful, rich, and well connected.
“But he had leprosy.” All of Naaman’s money and power, all of his social capital was worthless in the face of his disease. He was mighty warrior. Or at least he used to be. When we meet Naaman he is dying both physically and socially. Through the course of the story we come to see that Naaman’s power cannot heal him. For from it, his power and might are the most significant barrier to his healing. Though he has saved many and enslaved others, Naaman cannot save himself.
Naaman’s healing will not come by his own power but by the power of God. That truth turns out to be a hard pill to swallow for man who is accustomed to saving himself as well as those around him. Our first indication that Naaman’s healing will come by way of the God who “has brought down the rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble” (Lk. 1.52) comes through the testimony of a young girl, enslaved by one of Naaman’s great military victories. “If only my master would go to Samaria to see the prophet there….” Her act of witness set off a chain of events in which the desperate Naaman acquires a personal recommendation letter from the King of Aram, loads his chariots up with silver and gold and heads straight to the throne room of the King of Israel. Even though the young girl directed Naaman to the prophet, he has not yet realized that his salvation will not come through the normal channel of powers afforded to him by his status. Naaman is more comfortable with Kings than he is prophets. However, in the face of leprosy, the King of Israel is as helpless as Naaman.
We quickly see why Naaman prefers Kings to prophets. Naaman’s visit to the prophet leaves him outraged. The prophet sends a messenger (once more a word of salvation coming to the powerful through a servant) and instructs Naaman to “Go wash yourself seven times in the Jordan and your flesh will be restored and you will be clean.” With his pride mortally wounded, Naaman storms away in a rage.
For a third time, a servant intervenes to save this “mighty man.” In vs. 13 Naaman’s servants speak to him saying “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’.” The servants speak with the voice of reason urging Naaman to heed the prophet’s command. After all, they suggest, it’s not like Naaman was asked to do something difficult. The servants are wise and committed to their master but we have to wonder if they truly understood the prophet’s command. Naaman recognizes that the prophet has indeed told him to something very difficult. Naaman has been instructed to humble himself, to leave behind his identity as a mighty commander of the armies of Aram, and become a servant himself as he responds to the commands of the living God.
This is a story of healing and transition, a story about a man who leaves behind who he was and in that self-emptying, he finds new life. Naaman wades into the water and in that act of humility and obedience “his flesh was restored and he became clean like that of a young boy.”Over the course of the story Naaman comes to terms with who he is, leaves behind who he once was, and becomes someone new as his humility and obedience leads to startling cry of faith “Now I know!”
In my small church we have been struggling to answer some hard questions about who God is calling us to be. As I have listened with my small church for the call of God an even greater struggle has been the temptation to wield what power we can to save ourselves. Conversations about who God is calling us to be often drift into conversations about raising more money, reaching new members, and re-branding within the local community. As it turns out this is not just a struggle for my small church but a very real temptation for the larger The United Methodist Church. In the face of institutional decline we are hesitant to wrestle with the question of who God is calling us to be. We seem unable to fathom that perhaps God is calling us to leave behind the days of our youth when we were “mighty” and exercised a “commanding” presence in U.S. culture. And so we call ourselves to action, strengthen our social media presence and let the marketers and advertisers tell us how we might yet save ourselves.
Naaman could not save himself then and my church cannot save itself now. We will either come to terms with the fact that we have already been humbled by disease, listen for the voice of the prophets, and obey the word God has for us, or we will die struggling against the God of life, and health and new creation. Jesus Christ humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Eventually Naaman humbled himself and became obedient to the point of life, even life in the dirty waters of the Jordan. Perhaps the text this week will help our churches face the question ‘ will we die as commanders or be reborn as servants? ‘
“If only my master would see the prophet…..”