Sunday, August 25, 2019

Thoughts and Prayers—a sermon on 2 Kings 5 and the spiritual gifts of compassion & service

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Thoughts and Prayers
2 Kings 5.1-19, Mark 1.30-31
25 August 2019, spiritual gifts 11 (Compassion and Servanthood)

Call to Worship: Romans 12.3-8

with children, Mark 1.30-31
Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.


2 Kings 5:
Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.
Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’
Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said. ‘By all means, go,’ the king of Aram replied. ‘I will send a letter to the king of Israel.’ So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: ‘With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.’
As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, ‘Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!’
When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: ‘Why have you torn your robes? Make the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.’ So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, ‘Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.’
But Naaman went away angry and said, ‘I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?’ So he turned and went off in a rage.
Naaman’s servants went to him and said, ‘My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, “Wash and be cleansed”!’ So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant.’
The prophet answered, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.’ And even though Naaman urged him, he refused.


Sometimes when I’m reading, it’s hard to tell what is a contemporary news story about world leaders posturing and provoking, and what story is thousands of years old. I don’t know about you, but it’s actually a little concerning to me that I can just picture these two kings and generals, conducting diplomacy by way of tweets and extravagant gifts and deals that aren’t good for anyone besides them. And then one makes assumptions about how the government of the other one works, thinking their prophets will work for the king like his do, rather than for God...and the other wilfully misunderstands the communication, and the whole thing falls apart in a temper tantrum involving torn clothes and accusations, and yet another insists on being treated like royalty and throws his own tantrum when he can’t just buy what he wants with all the money he is flashing around—money he didn’t exactly earn honestly. Meanwhile, behind the scenes the underlings are trying to smooth things over, gently making suggestions and trying not to anger the great men, cleaning up messes and keeping the place running.

You see what I mean? So often the Bible is far more contemporary than we realise.

In this story of the people who think more highly of themselves than they ought to think, there is also a subplot about people who look past barriers of status, ethnicity, religion, politics, and even personal gain, and choose to offer compassion. The way they do that is perhaps the part of the story that feels most foreign, most removed from our contemporary reality.

Today, I think we would find plenty of tweets about “thoughts and prayers.” Imagine if the little girl, kidnapped from her home, enslaved in Naaman’s house in a foreign land, had just said “it breaks my heart to see him ill. I feel terrible for him.” At first glance, that seems like we would still call her compassionate. She feels empathy for a person who is suffering. But when that empathy only goes as far as thoughts and prayers, it’s not the spiritual gift of compassion. This is a gift that moves from feelings to actions. She offers an idea, a potential route to healing, not just her own feelings on behalf of the other person. 

Or imagine if she had empathised, expressing her feelings of sorrow and her thoughts and prayers, but going no further because after all this person had led the army that defeated her people, kidnapped her and her neighbours, and was enslaving her. They were different nationalities, different religions, and he was her oppressor. He didn’t deserve her help, and if she offered it to him she’d get no thanks, no recognition, no freedom. 

Again, that wouldn’t be the spiritual gifts of compassion or service either, because the Spirit gives these gifts so we can help others even across these lines, and without regard to whether the person or group will have the response we want them to have, or whether we think they deserve the help. 

Naaman seems to have no difficulty accepting the compassion of this girl he has enslaved. He does have some difficulty accepting that of the prophet. When he arrives at Elisha’s house, ready to pay a literal king’s ransom, he finds instead that he is freely given instructions...but not instructions he wanted to hear. He wanted a song and dance, a performance that matched his status and his situation, and instead he was offered a simple solution, but one that would require humbling himself in order to receive it. He had already seen the king crumble under his gaze, so I’m sure he felt very powerful, and expected that this prophet would bow down and be subservient too. He was a man used to getting his own way. 

It’s only after he storms away in a rage, and then is talked down by his servants—who risk their own lives and livelihoods to approach him and suggest he do what the prophet told him, finding ways to speak to him that will reach past his ego and convince him to accept the compassion and service being offered to him in ways he didn’t expect—only after that does he experience healing and then comes to make a profession of faith. It took three different encounters with people who extended him compassion before he truly experienced it as the grace that it was. And then the story says that when he came out of the river, his flesh was restored and he was like a young the young girl who had started this whole story. Like a child, he was able to receive and understand.

Though he didn’t fully understand just yet. He returned to the prophet’s house and try to pay for the gift. But you can’t buy compassion. Which is not to say there is no cost to serving others with compassion...but it can’t be purchased. Like all the gifts of the Spirit, it is outside of our human economy. 

I wonder if that is part of why sometimes compassion and service seem to be in short supply. We have an abundance of thoughts and prayers, but not so much of the action that those thoughts and prayers are meant to become. If there was a monetary value placed on helping others, would it suddenly be more valuable? Or would we go even farther down the road that we’re already on?Where it’s illegal to save someone drowning in the Mediterranean in case they are a refugee, where people are not being allowed off of boats they used to escape war and famine because they might be a burden, where corporations can set the Amazon on fire with the government’s blessing because indigenous people refused to give up their homes for the expansion of cattle farms, where peace is expendable in pursuit of the illusion of returning to an imperial other words, where the profits of the few are the only thing that matters, and the poverty and suffering of our neighbours can be met with nothing more than tearful emojis or a hashtag.

To be willing to actually expend our own energy or resources to help others in a tangible way, to make their lives better both immediately and systemically—including those who are unworthy for some reason, including those who are different from us, including those who will never turn back and say thank you, including those who will use our gift to them in a way we would not have chosen—and to do all that with no reward, no payment, and possibly no recognition...that’s a tall order. And yet it is what the Spirit asks of us, it’s what the gifts of compassion and service are for. 

When our empathy becomes action, the world starts to look a little more like the kingdom of God—where we bear each other’s burdens, share resources, and lift each other up so that the lowly and the mighty can come together, because the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ erases the boundaries we have put up, and calls us together. And if doing those tangible things feels somehow unspiritual, remember that it took three encounters with compassion in action before Naaman came to faith...we never know when we might be the one whose generosity and graciousness in offering aid might just be the tipping point. And, like Peter’s mother-in-law, those who are helped up may then turn and serve others, spreading the kingdom even further, like ripples on the water. 

Jesus said that when we feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, bring the homeless into our houses, visit the sick and imprisoned, we are actually serving him. Giving tangible help to the least of these who are members of Christ’s family is a way of turning thoughts and prayers into the love-in-action that God calls us to share. When we put into practice the gifts of compassion and servanthood, we remind ourselves and others that each person is made in the image of God, each person is loved, each person is worthy of care, and indeed we see Christ in them. And that is a reminder the world needs.

May it be so. Amen.

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