Unexpected Mercy was a sermon and blog article from July 2019. I was asked to preach at Sharon Church and decided to write a new sermon instead of pulling out one of my sermons written for Third Church. I am thankful that when I had time to write, I wrote. I don’t usually have a “back up sermon” but I’m glad that I had this one from July when it came to be my turn to preach (September 22) at Third Church while in the middle of the refugee project for Days for Girls. I’ve been devoting every spare minute to getting the components checked (and repaired) and kits packed. Today, out of the 6,000+ kits we have received we have been able to pack 4,054 quality kits. The entire Pittsburgh chapter is tired but determined to get as much done as we can. While we are excited about having a meaningful project, we are all getting a little tired too. Being able to up-date an existing sermon helped me to get some much needed rest.
The first time I gave this sermon at Sharon Church it was a communion Sunday, but Third Church was not having common the week I was to preach so I’ve added a little to the sermon and after the storm I’ve included a longer pastoral payer. I hope you like the up-date.
Isaiah 66:10-14a New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
2 Kings 5:1-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
This is the story of a high ranking official on the victorious side of a war, coming to those whom have been beaten in battle not to make peace but to get help for his skin rash. And he expects to be treated like a hero. He rides in with horses and chariots and servants. He expects a grand greeting from this healer, this man of God, this Elisha. Maybe Naaman expects that his healing will be miraculous: a big shinnying miracle, the best display of the prophet’s skills and of his God’s awesome power. Maybe Naaman expects that in order to be healed, he must do an epic task; that he will need to show his worth, his skills, and face a difficult sacrifice, like having his men, his protectors, his servants die while aiding him in his heroic odyssey to be well.
But instead, he gets a message to go take a bath.
His response is rage.
His servants, probably out of fear of what he will do, work to calm him down. Perhaps they were captured and enslaved Israelites too. Perhaps they believed in Elisha’s God. Perhaps they couldn’t see any harm coming from taking a bath.
Naaman eventually goes and immerses himself in the Jordan like Elisha told him to do and he is healed.
And the only person Naaman thanks is Elisha.
After he is healed, Naaman converts (sort of) to believe in Israel’s God. He’s not willing to let go of all of his old ways. His conversion is incomplete. There is a bit after the scripture we read today where he tells Elisha he is still going to go to worship with his master. I guess he has to keep up appearances. Elisha tells him to go in peace.
I guess if that’s enough for Elisha, then that should be enough for me. Sometimes faith conversions are dramatic and sometimes they are done a little bit at a time. And not in the ways we expect. Maybe there is still hope for Naaman and those like him.
At the beginning of this passage we learn that God gave the victory to Aram, not Israel. And I wonder, if the story of Naaman’s healing is why God gave victory to Aram. But I’m not sure why it would matter so much that Naaman was healed. His sort-of conversion didn’t lead to his changed behavior or changed life. Or at least not that we know of. But I think we have reason to hope that faith can change lives. I think that there is hope for Israel and for all of those who find themselves in the margins of society.
In the lectionary, this story is paired with what _________ read from Isaiah 66:10-14. This text reminds us that all of those who mourned with Israel will get to rejoice with Israel. That we will all be spiritually fed by Jerusalem, and by the God worshiped in Jerusalem, who will comfort us as a mother comforts her children.
If I was to go back and look at where Israelites are featured in this story we will find them in the margins. They are the defeated people in a time where being defeated meant you were hardly people but plunder. Anyone treated like an object instead of a child of God, is in the margins.
Our story features a young girl who had been taken captive from Israel and serves in the house of an enemy of Israel. It is her unexpected mercy on her captor that allows for Naaman’s journey towards healing. And there are Naaman’s other servants who made the journey with him. They are not identified as Israelites, but they seem to believe that Elisha is a prophet, and that they bath he suggests will heal Naaman. All of the servants are in the margins of the society of those that they serve.
Israel’s king is grieving. He has lost and now thinks the enemy is trying to pick a fight with him over healing a man he knew he couldn’t heal. The king isn’t feeling so king-ly, more like a dog that has been kicked when he was already down. It’s hard to imagine a king in the margins of the society he rules, but he is grieving. And those who mourn often feel empty, alone, and marginalized.
Then there is Elisha, the prophet. Prophets have complicated relationships, with kings, with their own protégés, and with other people. Prophets speak (almost) exclusively from the margins. Although, I wonder if Elisha sees Naaman, the Aramean, as an outsider, as a wounded one in the margins; and he heals him.
And I think that is the key. The people of God are called to the margins to bring healing and restoration. To uplift the downtrodden. To bring comfort to the sorrowful. And to set the captives free. The people of God are not called to only believe, but to but their faith into action. To love God and to love neighbor.
I wish Naaman understood that. He did listen to the voices of those in the margins, but only for his own benefit. If he had really listened to them, if he had treated them as children of God, deserving dignity and respect, this story would have been much different. Naaman had the power to free captives, to help others, and to work for peace. So do we.
I don’t know why God gave the victory to Aram but what I do is that God works in the margins. God is biased towards the poor, the sorrowful, the oppressed, the captives, the suffering, and anyone who finds themselves marginalized by mainstream society. I wonder if God gave the victory to Aram so that we could see God’s love more clearly. In this story, servants have voices. They are the ones who are bringing healing. In this story, the losing side still understands God’s presence among them. In this story, the enemy is not turned away, but instead he is healed, not because he deserves it, not because he believes or comes to believe in Israel’s’ God, but because he is hurting.
I believe that faith in God calls us into a new way of living. God’s call to love others as ourselves includes everyone, especially those in the margins of our society. The way we are to put our faith into action is to be among the marginalized, listen to them, have compassion for them, have mercy on them, and bring them back into the center of our community. Then to go back into the margins and do it all again.
From “Prayers for the Lord’s Day: Hope for the Exiles” by James S. Lowery: