Sermon: “Power, Pride, and Prophets”

July 3, 2016: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Communion Sunday

2 Kings 5:1-14
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

The powerful figures don’t do well in today’s reading. If you’re a general or a king, you probably should have stayed in bed rather than appear in this story. They’re consistently outshone by the people they are theoretically “better than.” Right from the very start.

A young girl taken captive on a raid – a female, a foreigner, a young person, a slave; not a great physician or a well-loved priest – set the events in motion that led to the healing of the victorious general and his adoption of the faith of Israel, despite all the obstacles that cropped up along the way. He placed some of those obstructions himself. This unnamed young woman is, in fact, the first prophet of the story. She was someone who, as Sister John Chittester said, takes life and expands it.

She managed to successfully, convincingly point to a true and effective power for healing, even as others, some intentionally, some accidentally, and a few deliberately, acted to obscure it.

In this story, nearly all that blurred the vision, nearly all that misdirected the route, nearly all that blocked the way, was pride.

Pride is a funny word in English. It has meanings that are nearly directly opposite to each other. Pride can be positive: appreciating your own or someone else’s real worth. “I’m proud of you,” is one of the most powerful things you can say to another person.

But pride can also be, as someone on Wikipedia has put it so well, “a foolishly and irrationally corrupt sense of one’s personal value, status, or accomplishments, used synonymously with hubris.”

In this reading about the healing of Naaman, you’ll find a little bit of the positive side of pride going on – and a whole lot of hubris. Even better for those of us reading it over the centuries, it illustrates different kinds of pride, ones with which we’re quite as familiar as the authors of 2nd Kings and anyone involved at the time.

You may recognize some parts of yourself as we go through this story. I know I did.

At the very beginning of the story, we find a particular kind of pride in both the General, Naaman, and in the King of Aram: the pride of class and power. They had word from the young Israelite woman, the captive and slave, that there was a prophet in Samaria. Somehow they turned this into a letter to the King of Israel, whose capital was in Samaria. They could have, and should have, written directly to the prophet, but their pride told them that the power to heal would be found at the seat of power, the royal court. In reality, the royal family of Israel had been in conflict with the God-empowered prophets of Israel for decades, but the King of Aram couldn’t conceive of power being anywhere else.

If Naaman and his monarch had indulged in the pride of political power and status, the King of Israel went to the pride that sometimes emerges from trial and despair. He believed that the whole situation – the letter, the riches, the visiting general – was about him. He didn’t consider Naaman’s need, the position of Elisha, or the possibility of God’s intervention in human affairs. “He’s picking a fight with me!” he said – and if Elisha’s message hadn’t arrived before he did something rash, he could easily have found himself in a war.

Then there’s the pride of wealth. Naaman came to Israel with a fortune. He came prepared to buy his health care, to outbid any competitors for the prophet/physician’s attention and encourage his best efforts. There are plenty of things that money can’t buy, but there are a lot of things that it can. Health care today, particularly its most difficult interventions, is rationed in different places in different ways: how close is the nearest doctor, or clinic, or hospital? Who is the sickest, in most need of care? Who will do well from treatment?

In America, despite the gains of the Affordable Care Act, a primary difference between those with good access to health care and those with poor access is money. Wealth gets you better care. Naaman would have understood it perfectly.

Finally, with his doctor’s payment in tow, Naaman arrived at Elisha’s clinic. Er, house. Where he received a reception that would have got Elisha very bad comments for his bedside manner. In fact, he didn’t even visit the patient, just sent him a treatment via an assistant. “Take seven baths and don’t call me in the morning” – delivered by the office manager.

That touched Naaman’s personal pride. Simple arrogance is my favorite kind of pride, because I know it well from the inside, and it’s a lifelong struggle. I know perfectly well that I’m not better and that I don’t know better – but that doesn’t stop me from believing it in my gut from time to time. It’s taken me years to learn the discipline to stay silent, and really listen, and learn something. I don’t always know best.

Naaman didn’t know best. “I thought that for me he would come out.”

He had a bit of the “oh, poor me” pride, too, didn’t he? The prophet was supposed to appreciate the gravity of his disease and his suffering. Elisha was supposed to acknowledge both the grandeur of the person and the seriousness of the illness. When the prescription was too easy, Naaman believed it didn’t match the depth of his concern.

Naaman was also misled by pride in his heritage and his country. “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” Mind you, he hadn’t shown any particular regard for their healing powers before. But when confronted with the demand that he treat this foreign river with more respect than the river of his home, his pride erupted.

We should recognize this pride. Americans are not immune to an irrational believe in the exceptional strength and righteousness of our own nation. Even as we celebrate the anniversary of U. S. independence and the ideals upon which this nation and its systems were founded – personal liberty, representative government, equal justice – we should also recognize the places where those ideals failed to guide us. The United States carried out wars of conquest against native Americans and Mexicans, it supported chattel slavery for nearly a hundred years, it fostered racism, sexism, and heterosexism through culture and through law, and it engaged in the same kind of empire building around the world that it had condemned in Europe, including the annexation of the sovereign nation of Hawai’i.

That doesn’t diminish or change the ideals. It challenges us create a society that’s closer to those ideals to hand on to our children and grandchildren.

Finally, I hear in Naaman an echo of pride in faith. He worshiped a god called Hadad, sometimes Rimmon. Elisha didn’t act like one of Hadad’s priests would have, and Naaman knew how a priest, and how a god, is supposed to work. So away he stormed.

It’s a warning to us: God’s blessings and power come as God chooses, not as we choose. They come in God’s way, not our way. They come in God’s time, not our time.

Naaman was more fortunate in his servants than he was in his pride, because the ones with him acted as prophets once again, taking his view of life, so limited by his hubris, and they expanded it. They helped him overcome or avoid the obstacles he himself had so busily created, obstructions that lay between himself and his own healing.

I think that along with his disease, the waters of the Jordan that day carried away his pride.

Adriene Thorne writes: “We need healing for the disfiguring moral leprosy of ‘better than.’ My political viewpoint is right. My faith is true. My country is best… Moral leprosy is blemishing our best ideals, our best faith, our best selves.”

I know it’s hard – from the inside, I know it’s hard – but let the pride go. Let it flow away on the waters of the Jordan. By all means, hold onto what is good, and beautiful, and true about yourself, about your home and your nation, about this precious faith of ours. You are a beloved child of God – but do not mistake yourself for the only beloved child of God.

Without pride to smother it, your mind and heart can open to better receive the unexpected, previously unrecognizable blessings. You can better accept the love that surrounds you in family and friends, community and church, and the presence of Jesus Christ.

Novelist Haruki Murakami put it this way: “What happens when people open their hearts? They get better.”

Naaman opened his heart. He let the pride go. He got better.

May it be so for us.

The photo is by Bill Rice from Flat Rock, MI, USA – Jordan River. Used by permission under Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0),

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on July 3, 2016

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