October 13, 2013

Proper 23, Year C

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

2 Timothy 2:8-15

Luke 17:11-10

Our Supporting Cast

Back in 2008, I went to see what was then the latest Batman movie: "The Dark Knight."  It was filmed in Chicago, where I lived at the time, so it was exciting to see my familiar streets turned into Gotham City on screen.  

The movie stars Christian Bale as Batman and the late Heath Ledger as the Joker.  There's a scene in the movie when the Joker disguises himself as an armed guard.  In this scene, he's standing next to an actor whose face looked familiar to me.  I thought to myself, "This is a very small part for an actor that famous."  The guy didn't even have a speaking role, but his facial expressions were great—he looked a little crazed and desperate for his life when he has a brief confrontation with the Joker.

Then, it suddenly hit me: This wasn't a famous actor at all.  He was a guy from the church I went to!  I didn't know his name, but I turned to my husband and said, "Hey, that guy goes to All Saints'!"  The next time I saw him at church, he told me that he'd just shown up to be an extra, and the director liked his look and gave him a slightly bigger part.  So, there's my brush with fame.

What I remember most about that moment is how someone from the supporting cast—someone who was just an extra—jumped right off the screen for me.  And it wasn't because of his big name, but because he was connected to me through the community of faith.

I had the same feeling when I looked closely at today's first Scripture passage.  At first, I noticed only the lead characters: Naaman the powerful army commander and Elisha the famous prophet. But then other characters started to dominate the scene and the story: the female servant who directs Naaman to Elisha in the first place, and the other servants who finally convince Naaman to submit to Elisha's instructions and be cured.  

Naaman and Elisha have star power, but the servants in the story—the supporting cast, the extras—are the people we should recognize as fellow members in the community of faith.  They have the courage and the humility to open their world to unexpected encounters and opportunities for healing.  Understanding the characters in this story might help us to navigate a world that uses big, powerful personalities to distract us from the crucial extras who bring the kingdom of God near.

So let's first look again at Naaman and Elisha.  Like high-maintenance Hollywood stars, both of these men seem to have big, fragile egos.  As the Scripture tells us, Naaman is "a great man" and "a mighty warrior."  Some of the most powerful forces in Naaman's world appear to be on his side: He is "in high favor with his master," and "by him the Lord had given victory to Aram."  So, if military victories were evidence of divine favor, it would seem that Naaman had God's full support.  

The only thing going wrong in Naaman's life is that he has leprosy.  Naaman's king sends him all the way to Israel with a letter of introduction and with gifts: "ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments."  (Our reading this morning leaves out these details, but there they are.)  The king of Israel assumes that the king of Aram is just trying to pick some kind of fight with him by asking him to do the impossible: to cure a man—and an enemy—of leprosy.  

The prophet Elisha sees this as an opportunity to prove the strength of God's presence in Israel.  Even if the Israelites don't win every battle against Aram, they can still show those Arameans that God is with them.  Elisha says, "Let [Naaman] come to me, so that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel."  

The nationalistic struggle over God's healing power continues when Elisha prescribes a cure for Naaman's leprosy.  Instead of respectfully coming to Naaman himself, Elisha sends a messenger to tell Naaman to wash himself in the Jordan river seven times.  But Naaman is insulted, because he thought that Elisha would come to him in person and make a big fuss, calling on the Lord and waving his hand over Naaman's spot.  Naaman is also offended at the claim that the waters of Israel are somehow better than the rivers of Damascus, in Naaman's homeland.  The Scripture tells us that Naaman "went away in a rage."

So there we have it.  We have the prophet Elisha with something to prove, who snubs a military commander.  And we have the mighty Naaman who needs his ego stroked as well as his skin healed.  But these two would never have met, let alone experienced healing, if it weren't for the intervention of servants.

The characters in this story who really make connections and who make healing possible are the servants.  The first could hardly be any less powerful than Naaman.  In one of their raids on Israel, the Arameans had brought back this young girl as a captive, and she became the servant of Naaman's wife.  We don't know her name or her full back story—only that she tells her mistress the good news that there's a healer back in her homeland who she's sure could cure Naaman.  The words of this servant set the journey to Israel in motion.

And then, when Naaman is raging at Elisha's perceived insults, it's Naaman's servants who know how to get through to him.  They know to approach Naaman not with commands but with questions.  (I imagine that they used that strategy a lot when trying to work with a difficult leader.)  The servants ask, "if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?  How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?"  The servants exercise a persuasive power with Naaman that Elisha never could.

Without these servants, the relationship between Naaman and Elisha would consist only of nationalistic conflicts and displays of power.  But the servants make a more humane encounter between Naaman and Elisha possible: Through the encouragement of a female servant, Naaman approaches the Israelite prophet in weakness, in need of healing.  And, through the ministry of servants, Elisha's subtle healing technique can actually touch the skin of Naaman.

And the effects of this unlikely encounter between a military commander and a healing prophet from two antagonistic nations has a transforming effect.  Naaman's flesh becomes like that of a young boy.  In the next section of this story, which we don't get to hear in our reading, Elisha refuses to accept any gifts from Naaman in exchange for this healing.  Ultimately, his only motive is to serve the Lord of all the earth.

In God's story, the characters who bring the reign of God into our world are often not the biggest stars.  They are the people whose courage and humility bring a message of hope, and make real healing possible.  They are the people who learn to navigate a world populated by big and fragile egos—including our own.  They serve a Lord who crosses borders and who reaches us where we need it most.  They are the people who jump out of the anonymity of our own landscape.  They are people we sometimes recognize in magical moments when we can say to ourselves: "Hey, they go to my church!"

Amen.