Sermon preached for the Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
2 Kings 5:1-16
Naaman, a general for the king of Aram, was a great man and highly regarded by his master, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. This man was a mighty warrior, but he had a skin disease. Now Aramean raiding parties had gone out and captured a young girl from the land of Israel. She served Naaman’s wife.
She said to her mistress, “I wish that my master could come before the prophet who lives in Samaria. He would cure him of his skin disease.” So Naaman went and told his master what the young girl from the land of Israel had said.
Then Aram’s king said, “Go ahead. I will send a letter to Israel’s king.”
So Naaman left. He took along ten kikkars of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. He brought the letter to Israel’s king. It read, “Along with this letter I’m sending you my servant Naaman so you can cure him of his skin disease.”
When the king of Israel read the letter, he ripped his clothes. He said, “What? Am I God to hand out death and life? But this king writes me, asking me to cure someone of his skin disease! You must realize that he wants to start a fight with me.”
When Elisha the man of God heard that Israel’s king had ripped his clothes, he sent word to the king: “Why did you rip your clothes? Let the man come to me. Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel.”
Naaman arrived with his horses and chariots. He stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent out a messenger who said, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored and become clean.”
But Naaman went away in anger. He said, “I thought for sure that he’d come out, stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the bad spot, and cure the skin disease. Aren’t the rivers in Damascus, the Abana[b] and the Pharpar, better than all Israel’s waters? Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean?” So he turned away and proceeded to leave in anger.
Naaman’s servants came up to him and spoke to him: “Our father, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? All he said to you was, ‘Wash and become clean.’” So Naaman went down and bathed in the Jordan seven times, just as the man of God had said. His skin was restored like that of a young boy, and he became clean.
He returned to the man of God with all his attendants. He came and stood before Elisha, saying, “Now I know for certain that there’s no God anywhere on earth except in Israel. Please accept a gift from your servant.”
But Elisha said, “I swear by the life of the Lord I serve that I won’t accept anything.”
On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten men with skin diseases approached him. Keeping their distance from him, they raised their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, show us mercy!”
When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they left, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw that he had been healed, returned and praised God with a loud voice. He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus replied, “Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude lately. I’m sure the children’s sermon tipped you off, if you haven’t gotten around to looking at the title of this sermon—not my most creative effort. I’ve been thinking about gratitude mainly because I have been feeling very, very grateful—grateful to be where I am.
Last weekend I was officially installed here at Crescent Springs, and it was a weekend full of reasons to be grateful—grateful for work that I feel called to, grateful for friends and family who travelled to be with me, grateful for the support of the presbytery, grateful for this church, and most of all, grateful for each of you, the way you have welcomed me into your midst, for your kindness and patience and friendship.
In fact, I was using the word grateful so much that it started not to sound like a real word anymore. Have you ever done that—used a word so much that it starts to lose its meaning? And so I was trying to figure out what feeling grateful actually meant—what it is that I feel when I say I’m grateful.
For me, I think, it’s a mix of surprise and joy—surprise and joy over gifts in my life I have not earned but enjoy greatly. My gratitude always comes tinged with a bit of shock—you mean I get to just enjoy this thing? I don’t have to earn it?
Like when I say I am grateful for this church—I wake up every morning just a little bit shocked that God has placed me here, among such wonderful people and with such meaningful work to do, and a lot joyful that I am gifted another day with you.
Okay, that’s a bit of a lie. I am not a morning person. I am usually grumpy when my alarm first goes off. But the gratitude does usually set in fairly quickly once I’m really awake.
You’d think, as the days and months go by, that I’d stop being surprised. I haven’t yet. I pray I never do.
Our gospel story today has a lot to say about joy and surprise—and gratitude. It is a fairly simple story—Jesus meets ten lepers, people who lived with a double-whammy of pain: a difficult physical disease, and the social isolation of being considered “unclean.” They keep their distance from Jesus, but they also cry out for mercy. Without much fanfare, Jesus sends them to the priests. I imagine they are disappointed—the priests will only send them away again. But they troop away, and as they go, they are healed. Talk about surprise! I imagine the ten of them on the road, pointing at each other, wondering whether this is Jesus’ doing, or something else all together. Nine of them keep on their way—perhaps to go see the priests, who can declare them clean—perhaps to reunite with family and friends they have long been separated from. Perhaps they were very grateful, in their hearts—but they do not turn around to share that gratitude with the one who inspired it. Of the ten lepers, only one turns around to thank Jesus. Only one lets his surprise and joy burst out of him in grateful praise. Luke makes it clear that of the ten lepers, it’s the one who gives thanks that we are supposed to emulate.
It’s a simple enough story, with a simple enough moral: showing God our gratitude is part of a healthy faith. But I find it fascinating, though, that it’s paired in our lectionary this morning with the story of the healing of Namaan from the book of Kings. In a way, the two together make up a sort of parable of the two lepers: one a model for God’s economics, one a model for our own.
Namaan’s story is as complicated as Luke’s is simple. It’s filled with details, people, places, plot twists. There’s a lot to be said about it, but for now I’m going to focus on Namaan himself. Namaan is a general under the king of Aram, one of Israel’s neighbors—and enemies. He wields all the power people at the top can have—the power of force, the power of political influence, the power of wealth. He soon discovers, however, that none of those things matter, when he falls ill. Soon, he finds himself turning to the lowliest, least powerful person in his household—a captured Israelite slave girl. She tells him about a prophet in her homeland who could help.
You’d think, at this point, that Namaan would go to humbly beg for help—the way the lepers on the side of the road called out for mercy. But Namaan’s not about to let go of all the things that make him feel powerful—and so he gets the approval of the king, along with a letter demanding he be cured (a letter with the force of Aram’s army behind it), and packs up multiple chariots full of servants, trunks of silver, 6000 pieces of gold, and ten changes of clothes. He’s taking the show on the road, quite literally—either to impress or intimidate the Israelite people, whichever works better.
Namaan heads first to Israel’s king, to the center of power, but is soon rerouted to the house of Elisha, the prophet with the power to dole out God’s healing—a different kind of power altogether. There, he gets the shock of his life—here he is, with all the pomp and circumstance he can muster, and Elisha doesn’t even bother to come talk to him directly.
Instead, Elisha sends a messenger, to tell Namaan to go bathe seven times in the Jordan. Just do that, and he’ll be cured.
Well, Namaan flips. He’s furious. This is not what he expected. He is a big deal! He expected the royal treatment! He thought Elisha would come out, say some magic words, wave his hands over Namaan, and bam—insta-cure! Gratitude is the last thing on Namaan’s mind. He’s surprised all right—but surprised and angry.
And so he prepares to leave—to leave without the promised cure—because his pride has been hurt, his power and privilege completely ignored.
It’s his servants who stop him. “You’d have done something grand, something complicated,” they remind him. “You’re really not going to do something this simple?”
And so Namaan, who, for all his flaws, is really good at listening to advice, goes down to the Jordan, washes seven times, and is cured. And he comes back, claiming he now believes in the God of Israel alone, that God’s power is greater than any other.
But almost before his confession of faith is through, another sentence tumbles out of his mouth: “Let me pay you.”
Namaan is not interested in gratitude. Gratitude recognizes that not everything has a monetary value. Not everything can be bought or traded for. Gratitude doesn’t take cash from our wallets; it takes energy from our hearts. Namaan has six thousand pieces of gold. He sees no need to get involved with gratitude.
And so Elisha’s answer must have stopped him short: “I won’t take a penny,” he says.
I chose to end the reading there, but the story goes on, and Namaan keeps trying to pay Elisha, and to weasel out of his commitment to God, and eventually he ends up paying one of Elisha’s servants, who sneaks out after him without Elisha’s approval. After that, Namaan walks out of the story, cured, satisfied, and with nothing to be grateful for. He paid handsomely for his cure. His world can go on as it did before.
It’s worth noting that in both these stories—Namaan and the Samaritan—God’s healing doesn’t change. Jesus heals ten lepers, and while he praises the one who comes back to thank him, he doesn’t revoke the healing of the other nine. Namaan takes his chariot back to Aram with no evident gratitude or faithfulness to God, and still his healing sticks. God’s power in our lives—healing, love, grace, forgiveness—it is not dependent on how good we are at gratitude. Our gratitude is not transactional. We do not earn God’s grace by being grateful. But our gratitude is a response that brings God joy.
Back in college, I spent a summer in England. There was a big flea market near us, and my friend and I went a few times. Nothing had price tags, as I recall; you were supposed to haggle for everything. She loved it; it stressed me out. She is a much more strategic thinker than I am, and she loved the thrill of guessing how much something was really worth, how far she could push the seller, whether or not she could wait and come back later, how valuable her business was. I made her do all my negotiating for me, because I would tend to just plunk down whatever their first offer was. All that guesswork was too complicated for me.
Gratitude cuts through all that complexity. Now, at the flea market, gratitude was not valid currency—euros or dollars, please. That’s how human economies work. But God’s economy is different. In God’s economy, gratitude is golden.
Gratitude says: I am not going to even try to pay you back. I am not going to try and guess at the value of our relationship. I am just going to rejoice in your kindness, and hope that my joy makes you joyful too.
This year the theme for our Stewardship campaign is “Live Simply.” Choosing to be grateful for God’s blessings is one way of doing that. Choosing gratitude means putting aside our pride, putting aside the idea that we can ever earn God’s love, can ever pay God back for our salvation. It means recognizing that any power we have—from wealth, or position, or influence, or possessions—can’t hold a candle to God’s power. Gratitude to God means we stop worrying about whether we’re good enough or pious enough or holy enough—and start enjoying the freedom God has given us.
Namaan thought freedom meant not owing anything to anybody—not even a debt of gratitude—and in the end, while he was cured, he stayed chained to his gold and his chariots and his job as the king’s lackey. The Samaritan leper realized that freedom is found only by being grateful, which clears away the clutter of everything else. To him, Jesus said, “go—your faith has made you well.”
In a few weeks, on commitment Sunday, we will dedicate our pledges to God. I encourage you to give out of gratitude, and not to worry about what you owe God or how you can pay God back in any way. That’s just not possible. But gratitude? That makes God’s heart glad.
I am not always good at gratitude. There are days I wake up grumpy and stay that way. But I try, knowing that when I remember to be grateful, when I remember what God has done for me, for us, my life becomes just a little more joyful—and more importantly, that I get to share in that joy with God.
For love unearned, I am grateful. Grateful, grateful, grateful.