sermons by ian banks

The servant girl and Naaman

‘The servant girl and Naaman’ started and finished with a reading of the reflection by Katherine HawkerSelf which is at the foot of this post.

I have psoriasis quite badly on my legs. I used to have it on my arms and face too but it went after a long course of acupuncture and by drinking a tea made of some pretty disgusting Chinese herbs which stank the house out. Normal creams didn’t work.

My grandson has it much worse than me. It’s everywhere. No lotion, potion or diet seems to shift it. Not great when you’re a teenager, which is a tough enough time as it is.

Leprosy

But of course psoriasis is nothing compared to leprosy, a disease still widespread in Africa, SE Asia and South America (1). So, my grandson and I have some sympathy for Naaman, whilst not really comprehending how truly awful it must have been. Or my grandson would if he ever got off his Xbox! Naaman was a powerful, successful man. He was used to getting his own way and people doing what he told them. But leprosy didn’t obey orders. On the face of it he was willing to do anything. But he was a man who had his pride.

Other narratives

Presumably he was at the very early stages with the disease but it must have been noticeable to others. Naaman obviously felt able to talk about it and I think it’s a huge credit to all the other characters in the story that they seemed to interact normally with Naaman and didn’t place either him or themselves at a distance.

Naaman wasn’t an Israelite. He was from Aram, what we now call Syria. We too often think of the Hebrew Scripture as God looking after Israel and doing everyone else down. But this is one of those passages which show us that there were also stories to be told of God at work in other nations, that there are other narratives that we don’t read. God, Yahweh, had given Aram victory – and on at least one occasion that had been against Israel itself. So, Naaman was the enemy and from a more powerful nation.

Truth to power

Into the story comes a tiny, unnamed, Israelite slave girl (2). She would have been on the bottom rung of society, if she was on the ladder at all. A slave, female, foreign and young. In modern parlance we’d say she’d been trafficked. And that should bring us up short. It’s too easy to dismiss slavery as something which happened hundreds or thousands of years ago. Another time, another place. But this still happens today. This reading should still make us uncomfortable.

Yet the girl was obviously brave enough and utterly convincing enough that Naaman’s wife listened intently to what she had to say and relayed that to her husband. The girl took a risk and spoke up. We’d call that speaking truth to power. Someone of seemingly no importance in society was being used by God.

Our reading today then oddly chops some important verses out. But in the missing bit, Naaman goes to his master and word-for-word he says what the slave girl has told his wife – and he asks permission to visit the prophet in Israel. I wonder if the press at the time would call him a ‘wealthy foreign health tourist’. His master agrees to the trip and writes a letter to the King of Israel telling him, not asking him mind, but telling him to cure Naaman of his disease! Naaman leaves for Israel with the letter plus silver, gold and (fortuitously) some sets of clothing.

Economical with the truth

It’s just as well there were spare clothes because when we pick the story up the King of Israel is shredding the ones that he has! Unlike politicians today of course, Naaman’s master was economical with the truth. Perhaps just a little mischievously, the letter simply ordered the King to cure Naaman. It left out a crucial detail and didn’t say anything about the help of prophet! Elisha can’t have been top of mind for the King of Israel since the King was clearly in a panic and thought he was being set up.

Thankfully Elisha hears about it and messages the King to tell him that he’ll handle this one. Next, we have this comic picture of Naaman, the mighty warrior, and all his entourage, with all the treasure, all his horses and chariots, surrounding Elisha’s little house in the country… and Elisha won’t come out! It’s as if Naaman turned up whilst Homes under the Hammer or The Repair Shop was on – and Elisha chooses to text Naaman in case he misses a good bit on TV, rather than just stepping out of his door to meet him in person.

Worse, the message tells Naaman to go wash in a dirty river, the Jordan. And not once, not twice but seven times. You can almost hear as well as see the hackles rise. Naaman is not best pleased. He was expecting a big show, some razzamatazz and plenty of respect. He’s all for stomping off, probably to cause very serious damage to the King of Israel.

What have I done?

Is Elisha just sat there in his living room unconcerned, flicking through the TV channels? Or is he peaking round the net curtains seriously questioning the wisdom of what he’s just done?

And again, it’s the bravery and conviction of Naaman’s servants which convinces him to do as he’s been asked. It wasn’t a fellow officer or his master. It was his servants. We don’t know what nationality they were but they were used by God to bring a healing. And they were taking a huge personal risk. If Naaman hadn’t been healed, you can’t imagine that they’d be around for very long.

Saying “thank you”

But remarkably Naaman does what he’s told. Through the testimony of a little girl his skin becomes like that of a little boy. And quite honestly I think it’s not so much through Naaman’s faith but that of his servants and a young slave girl; through a rude prophet who lived out in the country and the help of a muddy river.

This time Elisha, the prophet of Yahweh, and Naaman do meet. Naaman comes back to say: “thank you”. He acknowledges Yahweh as his God too. That’s where the real power lies, not in government or military prowess but with the God of Elisha.

And in our Gospel reading today from Luke, 10 people with leprosy were healed by Jesus. Only one came back to thank him: the Samaritan, a people with whom the Jews were in ongoing conflict. There was hostility & prejudice. He was doubly marginalised by who he was and what he had. Yet he alone turned round and said: ‘Thank You’.

Taking risks

So, our amazing God turns things upside down, again. He uses those on the edges. He uses the lowest and the least. The young and the old. He uses the unprepossessing and the feared. And that should be both a lesson and a huge encouragement for all of us, wherever it is we live or whatever it is we do. He can use every single one of us.

It took courage from those people to enable this to happen – and if we learn anything it’s that we have to do our bit too. To step beyond our comfort zones and take risks.

Who are you?

But perhaps we’re not the servants in this story. Are we the wife of Naaman, who recognises a truth from a most unlikely source but needs to pass it on? Or are we Naaman himself? Ultimately, despite his arrogance, he was humble enough to take advice from those way below his status. Is our pride in danger of getting in the way of a blessing?

Are we the mischievous master of Naaman (3), who recognises the ability of his man and is prepared to help but puts others under needless pressure by withholding part of the truth? Or maybe we’re the King of Israel who knows that he’s not up to the job and panics – but doesn’t think to ask for assistance?

Step aside

Or maybe we’re Elisha? It wouldn’t have been at all surprising if he’d refused to help. After all, Naaman was an enemy commander. And it must have been hugely tempting to do exactly what Naaman wanted just to get him off his doorstep. To wave his arms around, say a few magic words and for the healing to be performed. But that would have put the glory on Elisha and required nothing from Naaman. Instead Elisha stepped-back and the focus was shifted onto God and his willingness to heal someone who had previously caused hurt to Israel – and onto Naaman who had to put his pride to one side.

Perhaps we too sometimes need to move aside to let others experience God directly? Those others might seem like the most unlikely candidates, we may even fear or dislike them. But we should allow them to say, along with Naaman, “now we know that there is no other God in all the world”.

Prepared for anything

And from our Gospel reading, we saw how important it can be just to say ‘thank you’! The word the Samaritan used was the same as that used by Jesus when he thanked God for the bread and the wine at the Last Supper. A sermon for another time perhaps?

But what of my grandson and me, or anyone else with a persistent condition? Should we go dipping in the River Roch or the Irwell 7 times? Possibly not. But maybe there is something to learn about not ruling anything out in search for a cure – and being prepared to look anywhere to find it.

We may need to bring a change of clothing though for any distressed Kings that we meet along the way… Amen

Prayer reflection by Katherine HawkerSelf (4)

a little girl
an army commander
a religious zealot

for one brief moment
difference suspended
doubt superseded

ordinary water
simple ritual
extraordinary presence

May we have the courage of the child
to reach out to even the powerful.

May we have the wisdom of Naaman
to ask for help when we are lost.

May we have the faithfulness of Elisha
to love outside the lines. Amen

‘The servant girl and Naaman’ was delivered by Ian Banks at St James Heywood and later at Four Lanes End Congregational on Sunday 13th October 2019. It’s based on 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15 and Luke 17: 11-19. For a previous talk by Ian, delivered jointly with Nigel Silvester (which was based on the parable of Lazarus and the Rich man) please press here. For more by Ian please follow this link.

References and further thoughts:

  1. For facts on leprosy go to https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/326775/WER9435-36-en-fr.pdf But remember too all those who, for whatever reason, are made to feel like lepers.
  2. Think about the other unnamed characters in the Bible – and the importance they play. For instance the unnamed man who points Joseph in the direction of his brothers in verses 15-17 of Genesis 37. What would have happened if he’d not been there? Or the unnamed Samaritan woman at the well in John 4.
  3. This isn’t the last time that Aram sends gifts to Elisha. However, Naamans’s master, the King of Aram comes to an unfortunate end shortly afterwards in 2 Kings 8.
  4. This poem was from Katherine HawkerSelf’s site: Liturgy Outside https://liturgyoutside.net/cpr9/ . Katherine also takes a very different perspective with a post which focuses more on the little girl https://liturgyoutside.net/about-the-little-girl-naaman-elisha-and-the-child/

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