Wash, and Be Clean

by David Baer, November 2, 2014

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Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14

There was this man who loved the Lord. And science fiction. And space exploration. And renaissance fairs. He introduced me to Buzz Aldrin. He had a wacky sense of humor, and he once asked a minister interviewing with the church if she was down with chicken sacrifices in the sanctuary. (He later explained that he thought she was too stuffy, and he was trying to lighten the mood.) He taught my high school Sunday School class and took us on a thrilling ride through the book of Romans that’s probably still shaping the way I understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. And he also took class time to have us write letters to the editor of some magazine that published something he found offensive. He led all the Sunday School classes in singing every week, and his camp songs still sound in my head. He was quirky, goofy, faithful, flawed. He loved the Lord, and I owe a part of my faith to his witness. So I honor this man, John Darnell, this morning as one of God’s saints.

Every year the kids in our confirmation class get an assignment to interview a saint. And a lot of them beat a path to my office door. I don’t mind that, but I try to emphasize that being a saint isn’t about being a minister or a professional Christian of some kind. It’s not about being a spiritual superstar, or doing more good than other people. The word “saint” comes from a Latin word that means “set apart,” “special,” but what makes a saint, what sets someone apart, is not first of all what they do, but what God has done for them.

Craig Koester, a professor at Luther Seminary, suggests that we can look at our scripture this week and find a few different saints.1 I’d like to do that with you. I’m going to talk about three characters today—Elisha the prophet, Naaman the commander, and the unnamed slave girl. I want you to try to inhabit each of these characters as we talk about what part they played in the revealing of God’s power and grace we heard about. Try to imagine yourself in their place, and ask yourself what part you’re being called to play in making God’s grace real today, in our world.

First, Elisha. Is Elisha a saint? He’s the obvious choice, isn’t he? He’s known as “the man of God,” a prophet. God gives him words to speak, and those promises and threats come true. He works miracles. People seek him out for advice and healing. And yet it’s precisely because he is sought out, precisely because people recognize him as a conduit for God’s power, that Elisha has to be careful. Naaman comes to see Elisha, but Elisha doesn’t receive him into his home, doesn’t even come outside to say hello. All he does is send a messenger out with a promise: wash seven times in the Jordan river and be healed. Elisha recognizes that it’s not about him. It’s not about being able to perform a magic trick. He is God’s spokesperson only. He’s a pipeline that God chooses to use. It’s not that Elisha has the power to speak words that come true—it’s that he speaks the words that were given to him by God. It’s not that Elisha has the power to heal—it’s that he brings God’s healing into the lives of others. It’s not about Elisha and what Elisha can do. It’s about God and what God’s goodness can do. Elisha is a saint. He’s a saint because God has chosen him for a very special job, because God’s power works through him. But he’s embraced that gift in a way that honors God by yielding the spotlight back to his Lord.

You are Elisha when you bring the healing and transforming power of God to others. You don’t need to cure leprosy. All it takes is a hot meal for someone who’s hungry, or an embrace for someone who’s sad or lonely, or a prayer with someone who’s looking for God’s presence. When you embody God’s grace, and when you don’t make it about you, when you allow God to take center stage, you’re a saint like Elisha.

But that’s not the only kind of saint God’s looking for. I say Naaman is a saint too. He’s someone whose body is hurting. He wants to be restored, made whole. This mighty general takes the advice of a nobody, a foreign slave girl, and he goes as a supplicant to the court of a sometimes hostile foreign nation. Let’s give Naaman credit—he humbles himself quite a bit, even on his own. His pride almost gets the better of him, though. When Elisha fails to appear, when he sends word that the way Naaman is going to be healed is by taking a bath in a dirty little stream, he turns away in anger and disgust. His servants prevail on him to do the one simple thing the prophet asked, though, and he washes in the Jordan River and is healed. Naaman is a saint not because he did anything heroic or praiseworthy. He’s a saint because the grace of God which seeks and saves the lost found him.

And you are Naaman when God’s grace surprises you, springing out at you from unexpected hiding places. When you’ve lost someone you deeply loved and you find strength from a new friend who’s also grieving, when you connect with someone who’s homeless over a shared struggle with addiction, when a cold and distant colleague becomes tender and helpful at a time of need, you are a saint like Naaman.

There’s one more saint in this story that we shouldn’t overlook. She’s not named, but without her Elisha wouldn’t have performed his healing miracle, and Naaman would still be suffering from leprosy. The slave girl who saw someone suffering and spoke up, who loved God and knew what God could do for the sick and broken. She’s a saint too. She doesn’t have supernatural powers. She’s just someone who knows where healing is to be found and points others on their way. But it’s through her witness, her testimony, just as much as Elisha’s powerful words that God’s grace comes into the world. And how fitting, how appropriate, how right that it should be a slave, a foreigner, a girl that Naaman needs. Part of what makes God’s grace God’s grace is that it turns the world on its head: the first are last and the last are first. The powerful military commander needs the advice of a household slave. This slave girl is a saint because she helps bring others into the healing presence of God.

And you are that slave girl when you point the way toward God’s grace. Sometimes it means being attentive to those other folks on the soccer sidelines or in the office or in your book group when they show themselves to be wondering, questioning, searching for something. Some of you have sent your friends here, to church—and that’s great! Sometimes an invitation to church is just what’s needed. But other times it’s your story, your experience of God. Where have you found healing and grace? When you bear witness to the ways God’s grace has touched you and send others on their way, you are a saint like the slave girl.

Being a saint is not about heroism. It’s not about being perfect or even extraordinarily good. It’s about being caught up in the movement of God’s Spirit bringing healing, peace, and new life to our world. Sometimes we’re the recipients of grace. Sometimes we have a blessing to share. Sometimes we just point the way. What we share in common is being set apart for participation in God’s active, steadfast love at work. That’s our fellowship, our communion, as God’s saints. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Footnotes

  1. Koester, Craig, Rolf Jacobson, and Caroline Lewis. “Re: #147 - Elisha Heals Naaman.” Audio blog comment. Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 26 Oct. 2014. Web. 28 Oct. 2014. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/?lectionary=nl>.

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