Worship ~ 6 November

The united  kingdom of Israel lasted only through kings David and Solomon.  After Solomon’s death the kingdom split North and South. The southern kingdom was called Judah and the northern was Israel. Today’s reading takes place about 75 years after Solomon’s death – around the year 850 BC – in the northern kingdom. As we read the interchanges, we can hear familiar political undertones of anxiety and see a readiness to mis-interpret innocent intentions. What begins as a letter of introduction and a courteous request (with gifts), escalates in the mind of the king of Israel to an incitement for war, and you might think, as I did, that there’s nothing new under the sun. It comes across as a sadly pertinent accompaniment to our lives, our world, and our current election cycle.

It’s also a tale of hubris played against humility. It’s an interesting choice of readings for All Saints Sunday.

A reading from 2 Kings, chapter 5                               5:1-14

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given him victory. Naaman, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy.  

Now, his armies, on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife.  She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”  

So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said.  And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” Naaman went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.  He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”  

When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”  

But when Elisha, the man of God, heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”  

So 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 became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!  Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” 

He turned and went away in a rage.  But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more then, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean’?” 

So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

The word of life, the word of God….     thanks be to God.

November is a great time for the festival of All Saints – it is the emotional balance to Easter. Even a cold March Easter is a sign that we’ve made it through the winter – buds swell and sap runs, dandelions bloom next the foundation of the house, lambs are born.  At Easter, we know that soon all will be bursting into full bloom. The promise of new life and new creation through Christ’s resurrection seems incarnate in Spring itself. Butterflies flit around, symbolizing the spirit of God breaking out of the hard chrysalis of our hearts and stubborn wills. Growth and grace abound!

Across the circle of the year, however, we come to November and dormancy – shortened days, resting earth, hardened soil, lakes and ponds rimming with ice – all becomes plain and bare and quiet. 

And beautiful. November is good time to look inwardly with the clarity of open woods, with the scrutiny of prophets, though the lens of memory and its inevitable mix of comfort and regret.     

    November is a good time to remember and celebrate the saints of faith – those from long ago and those living with us now who teach us something about God’s love and forbearance and mystery and light coming through the darkness.

Tuesday I went to the cemetery to look around, to commemorate All Saint’s Day properly. It was a beautiful day. Looking at the generations of those gone too soon, or gone gently into the splendor of time, the names that are best known to me each evoke a face, a memory. The cemetery is a sad and comforting place. It’s thick with souls. 

The leaves that were gathered in small drifts against headstones, stood as forerunners for the snow drifts that will soon cover the ground in holy, glittering white – like the vanguard of heavenly hosts, rank upon rank. But Tuesday, nothing glittered and only the geese were flying, announcing their comings and goings. They evoke a very different mood than Easter’s butterflies. 

November is the proper time for All Saint’s Day. In the cemetery in November, it’s easy to imagine the cloud of witnesses, the encircling presence of holy ghosts – a place both of emptiness and the perceived presence of loved ones snuggling in closer to God, into the downy warmth under those protective wings.

I wasn’t this poetic on Wednesday when I was stumbling around trying to define a saint to my confirmation class girls, Johanna and Mercy. As in most things Lutheran, it’s layered, there isn’t a clear definition. 

I remember from church history class in seminary that the veneration of saints and the business of attaining ‘bones and bits’ – the ancient relics of saints – and then charging pilgrims to see them had developed into a major fundraising scheme for the medieval Catholic church. They literally banked on the ignorance of peasants and the threat of the Black Death to boost their sales. This was one of the abuses Martin Luther hoped to correct when he posted the 95 discussion points on All Hallows Eve in 1517.

Saint as a word, isn’t used in the Old Testament. But the whole nation of Israel was chosen and set aside to show forth God’s love and glory and mercy. As a people, they were consecrated as the particular, beloved possession of God, “You shall be Qadash (the holy ones); for I the Lord your God am Qadash (the holy one).” 

In New Testament Greek, the holy ones are hagios –  which is translated as saints and refers to any believer who is “in Christ” and in whom Christ dwells, whether in heaven or in earth. As used by the gospel authors and Paul, the word saint referred to living people who had dedicated themselves to God.  So, Paul begins his letters, “To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ,” or in Romans he writes, “I implore you to contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers,” etc.

According to the Augsburg Confession – the Lutheran  handbook written in 1530 – the term “saint” is used to denote a person, living or dead, who received exceptional grace, was sustained by faith, and whose good works are to be an example to any Christian. Modern Lutheran usage is looser.   I had mentor who said, “You’re a saint if it matters to you.” I kind of like that definition. If it’s something you wonder about and want to be counted among the number of saints, you are probably are by the very nature of your hope and intention.

So, on to the story of Elisha and Naaman. Elisha is a heroic figure – the prophet, the one called by God, empowered by God to get up and do the great things that need to be done. He’s the talking head and the beating heart for God. He reaches out to a foreigner in this story, and changes Naaman’s life, restoring him through the healing power of God, altering the course of his life.  And because Naaman is a prominent person, Elisha influences countless people’s lives – Naaman’s household, his soldiers, his king – perhaps even the course of history. Because in curing this leprosy, Elisha prevented Naaman from being outcast and sent to a leper’s colony. Therefore, in a very real way, he enacted salvation.

As one faithfully working God’s power, spreading God’s grace in exponential circles, Elisha is a  saint.

And then there’s Naaman. He, too, is a powerful man. His glory is won by the strength of his arm, by loyalty to his king. He is accustomed to positions of trust and obedience. But, the most powerful people  – even people who have everything – still have need. Their power doesn’t extend over their own lives, it doesn’t prevent death or disease. There is an equalizing factor in our need, in wounds we can’t heal or fix… as Naaman discovers.

He is given a letter of introduction, and a wagonload of gifts from king to king in payment for this favor. Thus ensconced in his royal entourage with horses and chariots, Naaman arrives expecting something big and grand, some wonderful gesture done on his behalf. What he finds instead, is a messenger trotting out from behind the corner of the house telling him to go to the Jordan river and wash. Seven times. 

Naaman is incensed. 

“I’m an important man, I’m sent here from my king to your king, at the very least I expect an audience with this prophet. Where is the power of your God? What are you playing at? We have better rivers at home!” And he stomps off.    

And it’s true.    The Jordan isn’t impressive as rivers go. It’s slow moving, average, kind of muddy. But his servants say to him, “What do you have to lose? It’s an easy thing to do.”

Naaman  – the mighty warrior – has to learn humility. Like every saint, he has to learn that the grace of God comes in extraordinarily ordinary ways; unexpected ways: take a walk down to the river and bathe, and then do it again and again and again. Seven times. A perfect number, the number of creation and completion and holiness.

God isn’t operating within the realm of Naaman’s power and expectations and knowledge. Instead, God is operating at the level of Naaman’s need, his weakness; and Naaman doesn’t like it. There’s nothing marvelous or holy about the water, it’s not from a special well or a clear mountain spring.  But then again, the power isn’t in the water, it’s in God’s word. 

Probably muttering, Naaman washes in the dingy little river – and he is cleansed. Amazed, he goes back to Elisha to thank him and to offer him the gifts from the king of Aram. But Elisha refuses. Naaman is perplexed by this, and ends up asking for two cartloads of earth to take back home with him. He will no longer offer burnt offerings to the gods of his king, but will instead offer the Lord God thank offerings of earth. 

Naaman has been changed, transformed, converted and healed, and he leaves in peace – just like a saint.

Our third character is the slave girl. There’s not much to say about her – she is unnamed, captured in a military maneuver – probably one of many slaves taken in the raid, and she is a girl of all things, and young – it’s amazing that she even got mentioned in the story. She’s not anyone you’d expect to be used by God to bring about a miracle. She’s only given one line to speak.

And yet she is: She is used by God. She’s the one who has agency in the story. She’s faithful, she knows that God is, she knows that there’s a prophet in Israel, and knows what God is able to do through him. And without her, (and Naaman’s wife) there would be no story. 

She brings word that the God of Israel is the God of transformation and is not a local god. The Lord God has power among nations, among outsiders, on behalf of outsiders and outcasts and nations. 

She is the keystone in the bridge bringing Naaman to Elisha, power to power; they are held together by a young, powerless, nameless girl.

How many of the saints in our lives are just such ordinary people, not known outside of family circles, leading small lives, but trusting in the God of all time and eternity?

God chooses, and loves, and consecrates holy ones giving them eyes to see and ears to hear and minds to ponder and hearts to care, and God feels free to use those who don’t even pay attention to the issues. God doesn’t need our cooperation and attentiveness, nor wait for us to vote on it. The roll call of saints when the trumpets sound and the stars are called home will probably shock us, and leave us wondering what all the fuss was about. I have the feeling it has more to do with the quality of God’s mercy than the candidate’s strength or values; more to do with God’s encompassing love, than the test of our faith, or creedal statements of orthodox belief, or our attempts to control the pearly gate’s polling places with voter ID’s and denominational affiliations; more to do with God … and probably nothing at all to do with the rules of election. 

I have the feeling, really, that sainthood is out of our hands, that it results from some other equation, some other set of important factors – something that starts with – God loves the world and those who dwell therein, and desiring to redeem the world, sent his son, came in person, lives among us in spirit, uses whoever might be willing, and counts among the holy ones, the hagios, the qadash, all who love and serve and hope and pray – all who imitate God’s steadfast lovingkindness. 

William Shakespeare, among countless poets and thinkers who have given it some thought, thought this:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It drops as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. 
It is twice blest;
It blesses him that gives and him that takes:

Maybe that’s the definition of a saint – not what one accomplishes – but one blessed by God’s mercy.