SERMON FOR 13.10.13
I love the story of Naaman. There is something so instantly recognizable about him. His amour propre is deeply offended by the way the prophet Elisha fails to be impressed by his hugely important client. “I thought that for me he would surely come out and call on God and wave his hand over the spot and cure the leprosy,” he fumes. “But instead, without coming out to see me at all, he sends a message to wash in the local river – we’ve got much better rivers back home!” You can hear the undercurrent: “Doesn’t this unmannerly prophet character realize who he is dealing with? I am after all the captain of the king of Syria’s army and a great military hero. I may be a leper, but I am a hugely important leper.”
The healing Naaman needs is so simple that it takes him a mighty effort to bend down and receive it. Notice the details of the story: it is a “little maid” of Israel, a girl captured in warfare, who points him in the direction of being healed by suggesting that he go to Elisha. She doesn’t speak to her lord herself, of course; she is far too lowly for that. But the message somehow makes it way from her to her mistress and so on up the hierarchy to the point where the king of Syria writes a letter of introduction to the king of Israel. Interestingly, the king of Israel immediately recognizes how presumptuous it would be for him to claim any healing power and tears his clothes to disown this prideful notion. The action slides back down the ladder of importance when the prophet doesn’t bother to step outside to see Naaman but sends a message by his servant, and then when Naaman throws a temper tantrum it is his own servants who make him see sense. Wouldn’t you have done a hard thing if it was required? They ask, reasonably enough. So why not do this simple thing? Just wash and be clean.
Somehow that is a very hard thing for us to hear. Naturally we each like to feel that we are a special case, requiring the best consultants and the wisest spiritual directors to cope with our very complex requirements. Nobody likes to feel like a common leper, a very ordinary sinner, who needs the same remedy as everyone else.
And so we look for exotic spiritual paths, Buddhist chanting, Eastern mysticism, New Age this and that, or we decide to jettison thousands of years of Godseeking and declare ourselves secular materialists who need nothing intangible to give meaning to our lives. The last thing we want to do is eat the food of our great-grandparents, as I was saying last week at Harvest Festival. Just wash in the fountain of living water, eat the bread of life, and be healed. It seems so unoriginal. It’s beneath us as sophisticated, complicated, educated, post-modern people.
We can all relate to Naaman. And who was it who spoke the words of wisdom he needed to hear? First a young girl war captive, and then his servants. When he finally listened to these lowly voices, he was instantly healed. He didn’t need the king of Israel to do anything. He didn’t need a face-to-face interview and a personalized care plan from the man of God Elisha. He just needed to wash in the river where others had gone before him in faith.
We are not the important individuals that we think we are. I love the old academic joke about the philosopher Descartes walking into a bar. The bartender says, “The usual, Rene?” Descartes pauses for a moment, says, “I think not” – and instantly disappears.
Descartes, of course, famously believed that he could prove his existence by the fact that he could think. I think, therefore I am. It was his individual ability to be conscious and self-aware that convinced him that the world was not an illusion.
But the Christian faith stands this proposition on its head. Because God is, we are. Because God holds us in being, we are able to think and act, love and hate, choose right or wrong. When I was doing my MA in theology at King’s ten years ago, I learned a very useful concept. Creation is contingent. We are not necessary beings. Only God actually IS. We all exist by the mercy of God, by God’s free and loving choice, and God holds us in being through loving us at every moment. If God chose to stop holding us we would cease to exist.
You may remember one of the most famous visions that the 14th century English saint Julian of Norwich described in her Revelations. She was shown, in her hand, a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, and it was round as a ball. When she asked God what it was, the answer was, It is all that is made. Julian marvelled at how little and fragile it was. And the words came to her: It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it. I keep a hazelnut in my cassock pocket to remind me of this profound truth.
We are contingent beings. We don’t have to exist. A friend of mine recently had a serious health scare. He collapsed and thought he might be dying. And he said to me that what came into his mind at that moment was a realization that the world would go on without him. We are not, after all, the centre of the universe, as we all believe we are when we are toddlers. In adult life it is only monomaniacs like Louis XIV who can cheerfully say, Apres moi le deluge, or psychopaths like Hitler who are happy to bring their whole world and everyone in it down, destroying everything sooner than admit that they have done wrong.
We don’t have to exist. We do exist because we are loved by God. None of us needs special treatment and yet every single one of us is loved infinitely. All we need to do is bend down humbly and receive that love. Just wash and be clean.
We have another story of leprosy being healed today, and in this case not even washing was required – just simple faith and the free action of God in Jesus. The story of the ten lepers in Luke’s gospel is usually read as if it is part of a handbook of good manners on the importance of saying thank you, like a child at a birthday party who remembers to say what a nice time she had. I don’t think God needs to be thanked for creating us and keeping us in existence. But we need to give thanks in order to remember who we are.
The rest of creation doesn’t have the same need to make a conscious act of thanksgiving. A mountain, a waterfall, a forest, a bird, a cat, a whale, a chimpanzee glorifies God simply be being what they were created to be. But we are not fully human, as God intended us to be, when we shut our eyes to our condition and pretend to be what we are not, and as part of fallen humanity we do that all the time.
When we pose as self-sufficient individuals, autonomous masters of our fate, we simply make ourselves ridiculous. God created us to be not individuals but persons. A person is a being in relationship with another being. We all need relationships of many kinds, and most of us hope for at least one special relationship of great intimacy with another person. But every one of us, whether we recognize it our not, needs and thirsts for a relationship with the ultimate ground of our being. The question of why we exist needs the answer Julian received, because God loves us.
So we learn from the readings today two things, two sides of one coin as it were. We need humility and simplicity, recognising that we are contingent and not necessary beings, that the world can do very well without us, and that our needs are no different from anyone else’s. Be we are also reminded of the wonderful truth that we are held in being by divine love at every moment. God longs to be in relationship with us; all we have to do is accept the offer of love.
I want to end by quoting some words of the 17th century Metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne that you may have heard me use before. “You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars, and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.” That for me is the gospel in a nutshell – in a hazelnutshell perhaps. You are loved uniquely and infinitely – and so is every child of God. The world was made for you – and for every other creature. When we truly begin to believe that, we will live in simplicity, humility and thankfulness.