We have two stories of healing this morning and both involve foreigners – people from nearby countries, viewed at best with suspicion and often with open hostility. Both, though, turn out to play key roles in the unfolding events and are the ones who bring or show the flourishing of grace.
In our first reading (2 Kings 5:1-13), the commander of the King of Aram’s army, Naaman, suffers from leprosy. On a raid into Israel, a young girl was taken captive and she ended up in the service of Naaman’s wife, as her slave-girl. It is she who suggests that Naaman consults the prophet Elisha, back in her home land. Given that they are from a foreign power, diplomatic channels swing into operation and the King of Aram writes a letter to the King of Israel – this bit was cut out of the passage for this morning, so I asked for it to be read so that it makes more sense. The request for the King of Israel to heal Naaman doesn’t land well and the King of Israel assumes that the King of Aram is picking a fight, asking him to do what he has no power to do, trying to show him up. It’s only when Elisha hears about this that he says ‘pass it to me and I’ll deal with it’.
So Naaman goes on a long journey to find healing at the hands of Elisha. When he gets there Elisha doesn’t even bother coming out to meet him, he just sends a message – a bit like being treated over the phone rather than actually seeing the doctor, except in this case he’s had to travel a long way to get to the phone. The prescription is to take a dip in the River Jordan and this doesn’t land well either. Naaman thinks, ‘we’ve got rivers in Aram, why did I bother making this journey’. It is his servants who bring wisdom into this tangled web of confusion. They tell him that if he’d been asked to do something difficult he’d have done it, so why not do something simple. So, he goes for the dip and is healed. In gratitude for this Naaman offers a great reward. If we were to read on we’d learn that the gift is declined by the prophet Elisha – he knows the rules against simony, selling the gifts and graces of God. Naaman goes away a happy man, with two mule-loads of soil so that he can capture something of the sacred place, the holy ground by spreading out the soil to pray on (v15-17). It might be he thinks there are magical properties in that there soil, so he’s trying to bottle the power. That, of course, is not how it works.
In the Gospel reading (Luke 17:11-19) there are echoes of this story. This time 10 lepers are healed by Jesus but only one returns to say ‘thank-you’. He turns out to be a Samaritan, another foreigner. He is someone the audience would have prickled at hearing mentioned so favourably – this is not how to win over an audience, rather shock and challenge them. In a story of healing it is the foreign immigrant who turns out to be the good guy. We are not told if the 9 ungrateful lepers find their disease returns, so probably they went away healed too but clearly it is noticed that these others have not bothered to give thanks and so perhaps by implication the grace in them has not been taken by them so deeply.
In these readings we see signs of faith beyond the confines of the tribe – in the faith of Naaman the Aramean and for them in the young slave-girl who was from foreign lands; in the gospel it is the Samaritan who returns to say ‘thank-you’. For those of us who gather to pray, to give thanks, we might identify with these outsiders. There are aspects of our society that can make overt expressions of faith feel like we are outsiders, especially on a Sunday morning when so many are on a fun run and we’ve had to move the service time to take account of that. But the trouble with the gospels is that when we are feeling special and self-righteous this is precisely when God shows up somewhere else and the faith and commitment elsewhere is honoured. The other becomes the foreigner who is praised and we find that it is us who have missed something profound. So, we’ll stick with the thanksgiving and leave God to bless and challenge where he will. The warning is to have open eyes and open hearts, to see grace where it is at work and it is often in surprising places.
This brings a further challenge, especially if a community is heavily dominated by one cultural group and lacks diversity. It is the broadening of horizons to be open to those who are different that brings healing and blessing in these stories. When I was looking at what makes an organization function well, as part of my sabbatical, one of the factors that blinds people to what they might otherwise have been able to see is a lack of diversity. When everyone sees the world the same, we are in danger of groupthink, which is dangerous for critical thinking and observing. A truly diverse group brings different ideas and perspectives to bear and through the eyes of the other we start to see what we might otherwise be blinded to. The world can seem very different from where the other stands. We can assume that everyone is like us and of course they are not. Blessing can come from surprising places.
The third point to note from these readings is that the slave-girl is a witness to her faith. She is in a foreign place, with very different customs and yet the opportunity arises for her to speak of the faith that brings release and healing. She finds herself well placed to attest to the prophet Elisha and the God he serves, the one and only, true and living God. She uses where she is for good and to bring blessing, to bring life to flourish. For us the challenge is to look where we are and how we can do this in the life we are living. Wherever it is, whoever we are among, we can be living witnesses to the faith and hope that inspires and fills us with joy. The slave-girl recognized the treasure she had and was able to offer it with generosity and grace. There are a number of passages the letters to the Ephesians and 1 Peter where the writers recommend something similar in advising slaves to serve Christ where they are (Ephesians 6:5-9; 1 Peter 2:18-20). You might not be able to change where you are but you can change how you are.
Two healing stories in which we see the way to life and blessing coming from surprising places. Who’d expect the slave to have the key to release from such an ailment, but Naaman, or perhaps it was his wife, was prepared to hear what she had to say and that put him in a place to benefit from it. Who’d expect the one to come back and be thankful to be the outsider who no one would give time to and yet that is precisely what happens.
For us, where is the opportunity this week to bless those we encounter, to be a person of blessing and hope and peace? There may be more opportunities than we realise or are alert to. Once we have recognised the great treasure we have in Jesus Christ, how with a bit of generous, thankful and gracious loving it can transform lives in surprising places, we can be agents of it. We can be people who bring or show the flourishing of grace.
Sermon for Trinity 17, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 13th October 2019