Monday, November 3, 2014

The Girl or the King?

It’s been about two hundred years in ancient Israel’s history since this royal experiment began with the anointing of Saul. Not long after the Israelites entered the Promised Land with Joshua as their leader they began begging for a king like all of their neighbors had. Yahweh, the God of Israel, was suspicious of the idea and put them off as long as possible – raising up judges to settle disputes and lead in times of crisis. But judges weren’t good enough for the people of Israel. They wanted a king.

God obliged and gave them King Saul. After Saul came David. After David came Solomon, and after that the names get harder and harder to recite, not just because of the phonetic gymnastics one has to do to differentiate between Rehoboam and Jeroboam, but because the details of their reigns are less and less exemplary the longer the monarchy continues. The quality of leadership in Israel goes downhill quickly, eventually even causing a split among the twelve tribes into two different kingdoms, with two different capitals and two different temples. The people are breaking the covenant God so graciously gave them left and right, up and down. Worship is happening at the wrong places and in wrong ways. The people are turning to idols and abandoning worship of Yahweh and Yahweh alone. Simply put, God’s people are falling apart at the seams.

Which is how a young girl ends up in service to the enemy’s wife.

Naaman is the commander of the army of the king of Aram, or Syria. It seems a little odd that a foreigner is recognized as having been given a victory by the Lord, as Naaman is, but not too odd in the book of 2 Kings. 2 Kings is all about how God tries to send warnings to Israel and Judah, how God tries to get their attention and bring them back to faithfulness. Often this happens by foreign armies over-powering God’s chosen people. The political nation is weak because of the weak spiritual condition of the people. The Arameans are just one in a string of foreign nations who are used by God to try to warn the Israelites their lack of faithfulness to the covenant is going to be their downfall.

In another battle of another war this young girl, we don’t even have her name, is taken into captivity and enslaved in the commander’s household. She had to have been terrified, absolutely terrified - - taken from her home, her family, the only world she knew - - taken by these new people, to this new household, in this new city for who. knows. what. purposes. She ends up a gift to Naaman’s wife, another girl to wait on her, a token of his appreciation, a sign of his success and importance, another slaved added to his list of property.

A fictionalized novel of this story for young readers (Adara by Beatrice Gormley) imagines the young girl becomes her mistress’s story-teller, masterfully weaving tales about her beloved Israel for the double purpose of entertaining and keeping her memories alive. One day, having noticed Naaman’s increasing discomfort with a chronic skin condition, she spins in a tale about the prophet Elisha back in Israel, the successor to the great prophet Elijah, carrying his mantle and his reputation as he healed in the name of Yahweh and called the people away from the worship of Baal. Certain of his ability to heal, she plants the seed of an idea in her mistress’s mind. “Take Naaman to Elisha, and he will be healed.”

She would be an easy player to overlook in this story, as she likely was in Naaman’s household. She’s a child. She’s a girl-child. She has no name, no family. She is an Israelite; the Arameans just showed how insignificant Israelites are by defeating them in battle. She is very literally a nobody in the middle of a whole story of power players, and still she speaks up. Still she finds a way, she finds the courage to tell what she knows to be true, what she has either experienced herself or what she has heard about others experiencing at the hand of Elisha. This young girl, putting her fear aside, looking with compassion on her enemy, desiring wholeness for one who is broken, points with confidence to the one who can heal, and it is because of her word, her courage, her testimony that healing eventually comes.

She stands in stark contrast to the king of Israel to whom Naaman, his entourage, and his riches go with a letter from the king of Aram. Remember, the girl told Naaman to seek a prophet, but Naaman’s boss, the king of Aram, seems a bit skeptical. Some little known prophet seems an unlikely source of healing, so the king tells Naaman to go instead to the king of Israel. Certainly another king must have the power, the resources, the influence to find the right source of healing.

Society tells us a lot about what power and greatness are and who has it. A friend of mine was telling me this week about a book she has been reading during the election season, The Power Broker by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Caro. In the book, Caro tells stories about how power hungry the United States Senators were in the mid-twentieth century. Senator Carl Hayden of Arizona was known to enter the Senate cafeteria and lay his cane on whatever table he chose to sit at for lunch. Often that chosen table would already have a group of secretaries or Senate staffers sitting there eating, but everyone knew that if Hayden laid his cane on your table, you had all better be gone by the time he returned with his lunch a few minutes later.
Most Senators also insisted that when they wanted the elevator in the Senate Office Building, they wanted that elevator immediately! To let elevator operators know that it was a Senator waiting, the Senator would buzz the elevator's call button three times. When that signal was heard, the operator was to skip all other stops (even if others already in the elevator needed a certain floor) and pick up the waiting Senator without delay. Once when Senator McCarran of Nevada heard the car pass him by after he had rung three times, he turned on his heel, stomped back to his office, called the Sergeant-at-Arms, and ordered the poor young elevator operator fired on the spot (which he was).

Kings were supposed to have THIS kind of power and influence in the ancient world, but the king of Israel shows instead how irrelevant he has become. “I’m supposed to heal someone?” he asks incredulously, tearing at his clothes in fear and anger and grief. “You’ve just destroyed my army and taken my people into captivity and now you’re going to taunt me by asking for my help in healing? I don’t know anything about healing!” And he doesn’t! He can’t heal Naaman himself! He doesn’t even know to whom he should send Naaman to find healing in his own nation! Used to his power and privilege, used to being the center of the world around him, he displays instead how disengaged, how out of touch he is with the world around him, with the places where life is really being lived and healing is really taking place right in his own nation.

A young girl points to the place of healing, but the very king of Israel is downright useless at leading others to new life.

Sometimes it feels like the church in the 21st century is a lot more like the king of Israel than the young girl. Sometimes it feels like the church in the 21st century is still relying on some false sense of societal importance and prestige that just isn’t really here. Sometimes it feels like the church in the 21st century is perfectly happy to keep the world at arm’s length, continuing to deal only with people of the right status, right the position, the right honor – exchanging regal letters while hurting and broken people are standing right outside our gates begging for something that will relieve their pain and bring them wholeness. We complain that after school activities are held on Wednesday evenings, sporting tournaments on Sunday morning. We worry that changes in our understanding of tradition might threaten our integrity. We fear that our generosity may be taken advantage of if we give of ourselves and our resources too freely.

But all the while, people who are seeking God’s blessing, seeking God’s healing, seeking a place to belong, to be welcomed, to grow in faith, and to serve others are standing right outside our doors not finding themselves anywhere closer to wholeness and life because we’re too busy clinging to what we once were.

Sometimes it feels like the church in the 21st century is a lot more like the king of Israel than the young girl - - the young girl whose witness leads to healing.

What would it look like if we took on her courage? Speaking not angrily, not in a bullying way, but simply and compassionately. Telling what we know to be true, what we have experienced. We know of a prophet. We have seen a healer. We have heard the good news of God's gift in Jesus our Lord. We have experienced his grace and his truth and his welcome.

What would it look like if we took on her blindness to differences? Inviting not just those who are exactly like us, but those who we would otherwise hold at a distance, even those we might call enemies.

What would it look like if we had her willingness to put her reputation on the line by risking everything she had - - her word and her honor - - to do the right thing? Speaking up for what we believe to be true even if it makes us unpopular, even if it could invite ridicule.

What would it look like to be the church pointing to Jesus for all who come seeking, for all who need healing, for all who desire wholeness and acceptance and peace?

It would look a lot less like a church that waits for newcomers to walk through the door than a church that goes out to serve others in the name of Christ.

As Pope Francis recently said, it would look a lot less like a church that is moralizing and a lot more like a church that is merciful.

It would look a lot less like a church that worries it’s actions will offend and a lot more like the prophets who demand justice and inclusion.

It would look a lot less like a church that hides itself away in four beautiful walls serving itself and a lot more like a the body of Christ entering into the world that is suffering and pointing to the one who can bring peace.

The church of the 21st century, First Presbyterian Church of Hudson, WI has a choice to make. Will we be the girl or the king? May our choice bring glory and honor to God and healing in the world. Amen.

cane photo credit: practicalowl via photopin cc
courage photo credit: Laurensea via photopin cc

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