Proper 23

October 10, 2004
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Reading 2: 
Psalm 66:1-12 or Psalm 111
Reading 3: 
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Reading 4: 
Luke 17:11-19
Alt Reading 1: 
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
By Rick Marshall

Three of the assigned texts for this week (Jeremiah, 2 Kings and Luke) focus on the important biblical theme of the permeable boundaries between those who are considered insiders and those who are considered outsiders regarding God’s grace. Against those who would like to maintain strict separations and divisions between people based on economics, ethnic identity, social position, religious commitments, God’s involvement in the world is not simply focused on the socially acceptable people, but on all people. This theme calls to mind other texts, especially those of the Apostle Paul’s that clearly state that before God there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female...and the list of divisions could go on: straight nor gay, Democrat nor Republican, rich nor poor, Christian nor Muslim.

The 2 Kings text makes this point (along with several other points as well).  Naaman is obviously not a Jew; he is a Gentile and one from the enemy camp, a commander of the Army, no less, in the court of the king of Syria, and well regarded by the king. The list of disqualifications (to separatists) piles up. It’s difficult to imagine a person lesser qualified to experience God’s attention. “But” (and this is a great narrative turn)--the word “but” spins the story into a different direction. But Naaman has leprosy, a liability even in the eyes of his supporters. The story continues with a rumor (from a slave) that there is a prophet in Israel that can cure even this problem. The Syrian King sends a letter, along with may gifts, to the King of Israel vouching for the commander and asking that the King of Israel cure him. But the King of Israel is shocked to be asked to cure someone of a disease and thinks it’s a set up, a pretext for a fight. He rips his clothes in exasperation: he can’t heal. “Who does this King think I am?” Elisha, the prophet, gets wind of this situation and sends word for Naaman to come to him. Elisha, without seeing him, instructs Naaman to wash in the Jordan river seven times, with an air of vagueness that gets under the famous Naaman’s skin. Naaman was expecting more personal and dramatic treatment, some direct display of divine power on his behalf. After all, he’s a commander of a superpower army and knows how power works. Elisha simply does not meet with Naaman’s expectations of either a prophet or of God. The Commander’s servants implore him to take the prophet’s remedy. He does and is healed and makes the parting claim: ”I know there is no God in all the earth but in Israel ” v15. It’s fair to say that Naaman learned a lesson about the nature of God’s healing power--and the reader, too, learns the same lesson and more. The reader (presumably Jewish and now Christian, too) learns that God’s healing power recognizes no boundaries. It extends even to such a person as Naaman. The reader also learns something about  the nature of God’s power--Naaman expected courtly, regal power to intervene on his behalf. But his healing came by way of a different kind of power, a power he disregarded. But what kind of power is this? That’s the question he carried with him back to Syria , and we, the reader, carry away with us  What is the nature of God’s power? It’s not coercive, but persuasive, a prime process category. It’s not controlling or manipulative or forced, but is freely given out of a divine desire toward well being for all. It would be easy to extrapolate these narrative dynamics to our own current political context.

The Jeremiah text is addressed to those who are in exile in Babylon . Again, the problem of divine power is lurking in the narrative background. “How did the divine power fail to protect us from being over run by the Babylonian’s? And now, here we are, captive in a strange land without hope.” The point being, do well where you find yourself. The logic of the point is simple: your welfare depends upon the welfare of the city.  It is easy once again to extrapolate these narrative dynamics to our own situation of feeling stranded in a strange land (life). No matter who we are or where we live, we are dependent upon one another for well being. Even go so far as to pray for the city in which you live.

The Luke story has a foreigner coming back to Jesus to give thanks for being healed. The one, along with nine others, asked Jesus to heal him and he did. They followed his instructions to show themselves to the  priests to confirm the healing, and hence be restored to the community. Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” vs 18.

Preaching the texts
All three texts highlight different aspects of God’s grace extending to “foreigners.” We live in such polarized times with many conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, etc. claiming divine support for their perspective or cause. We are often offended that God’s grace might extend to someone we don’t like or someone we disagree with or don’t respect. That someone might even be an enemy and wish to harm us. The sermon could focus on the nature of God’s grace and how it goes beyond the boundaries we set around ourselves and others. Furthermore, my welfare depends upon the welfare of others. We are all God’s children.

For myself, I would start with the Naaman story as the main part of the sermon, and just tell this powerful story, drawing out the relevant points along the way. Then I would bring in the Jeremiah text and the Luke text to further extend the basic points of the 2 Kings text.


Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.