Pentecost 4 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 3rd July

2 Kings 5.1-14; Psalm 30; Galatians 6.7-16; Luke 10.1-11, 16-20

Preaching is an odd occupation. The opportunity to hold forth for 10, maybe 15 minutes, uninterrupted; quite literally, here, 10 feet above contradiction, as the old saying puts it. That’s an odd, and perhaps rare thing. Any preacher worth their salt is bound to like the sound of their own voice, or at least think they have something to say, but the opportunity to talk, uninterrupted and without immediate reply, is unusual, especially in our own times of instant social media interaction, and a knee-jerk suspicion of authority.

Of course, the pulpit is placed high not just to give you all a good view of the preacher, but because my job is to expound the Word of God; to make sense of the bible passages given to us today, so that the Word might speak to us. But, for me, that simply reinforces the slight strangeness of the form – for is it from on high, above contradiction and the messiness of human interaction, that God speaks, and acts, and saves and heals?

I found myself thinking about this as I contemplated the wonderful story of Naaman from the 2nd Book of Kings that was our first reading this morning. It’s a wonderfully recognisable story about how we complicate our human interactions by our posturing and our need to prove ourselves. And how that posturing, which is really just a way of covering up our wounds, the bits of ourselves we don’t like, gets in the way of our healing, our wholeness.

For most of us our wounds are hidden, often well hidden. For Naaman his wounds are present for all to see – for he suffers from leprosy. He is a mighty warrior and yet his skin is deformed and potentially contagious: he cannot hide his leprosy. By an accident of fate he learns where healing might be found – his wife’s servant girl, a captive from one of his military raids, informs him of a prophet in Samaria who could cure him. And so the first irony and reversal of the story is presented to us: it is the people who this mighty warrior has recently conquered and subdued, whose girls he has carried off to be slaves, it is this people who might be the source of his healing.

The king of Aram is delighted that his general might be cured, and he lends all the help his power and prestige can muster – plenty of silver and gold is given to accompany Naaman on his search for healing. But now things begin to get complicated, and the healing of Naaman becomes embroiled in the politics of conquest. The king’s way of aiding the healing – piling on the silver and gold – is interpreted by the conquered king of Israel to whom he sends Naaman, as a threat. The King of Aram is asking more than the King of Israel is capable of, he reasons. He must be deliberately picking a fight. After all that’s the usual relationship between conquerors and conquered – squaring up to each other, the familiar pattern is simply being repeated. The king of Israel doesn’t recognise that in seeking the healing of his wounds Naaman is after something very different.

But Elisha responds. Responds, not like the king, out of fear; nor as we might imagine, out of revenge. The conquering army chief has leprosy? Well good! Might be an understandable response. But instead, Elisha recognises that another possibility is opening up; that this man’s wounds might be the place where God’s power is demonstrated. Here is an opportunity to change the relationship between conquered and conquerors; to turn the story from being about victory and defeat, to healing and salvation.

But to reach healing there is a little more posturing to overcome first: Elisha sends a message to the King, and, we’re told, ‘Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.’’

But Naaman refuses to dismount and scorns such simple sounding advice – he wants a big show as befits a mighty warrior. He leaves in a huff when his prestige is not acknowledged and ministered to. What he’s been offered appears demeaning, insulting, humbling. It takes his servant running after him to manage to get him to see sense: that for his wounds to be healed, his prestige needs to be laid aside. He climbs off his high horse, and bathes and is made clean.

Naaman’s healing occurs when he allows his wounds to be ministered to; not his ego, the ego that demanded the signs and wonders befitting to him, a mighty warrior. That takes humility, a move beyond posturing. Humility is there too in the response to Naaman’s wounds, of the servant girl, far from her home land, and then Elisha, to bring healing to more than just Naaman, but to the whole distorted and broken relationship between conquering Arameans and conquered Israelites.  Unlike the King of Israel, Elisha moves beyond fear of the oppressor, and beyond the mentality that insists on an eye for an eye. He recognizes his calling to bring healing. Both Naaman and Elisha have to move beyond easy pride, have to stoop low, and then healing is found.

In our gospel, Jesus sends his followers out two by two. Each has someone else for company, but otherwise they are unprotected – no purse, bag or sandals. Luke’s account of this sending out has seventy being sent out; seventy being the number of the nations of the earth in Genesis, and therefore an indication that this is how the Gospel will reach every nation, every corner of the earth: in two’s, travelling light, and seeking in peace the hospitality of others.

They are instructed to seek and enjoy the hospitality of others. We are so used to thinking of the church, of discipleship, in terms of what we do for others. We are sent out from here to dispense peace and joy, we like to think. But often it is how we allow ourselves to be helped that matters as much, if not more, as how we help others. In following Naaman off our moral high horses, and knowing ourselves as wounded, in need, the recipients of other’s kindness and hospitality – it is there that the kingdom is known, salvation glimpsed. Naaman’s healing is a story about humility; not the false humility that is actually pride masquerading as self-abasement, but the humility that acknowledges our need, our woundedness, as the place of healing. We talk and acknowledging our need of God, but the practice of that is about knowing our need of others. To be open to God means to be open to the gifts and healing others bring us. When we allow others to minister to us, barriers are broken down, the usual hierarchies are overturned; we relinquish control of the situation, and meet the other as equal, not merely as the recipient of our charity.

Father Damien, a famous 19th century priest who worked among lepers – and who is depicted on the walls of our choir Song School; Father Damian, when he himself contracted leprosy after working among lepers for years, is reputed to have responded by saying: “I thank God that now when I preach I shall be able to say instead of ‘dear brethren’, ‘my fellow lepers’.”

And so I am pleased that when I have finished preaching, I climb down from this particular high horse, and gather with you around the same table, to share in the same bread that is our healing and salvation; in my woundedness and yours, all of us in need of the healing body of Christ that is our communion. Amen.