“All Naaman, the great Syrian general, had to do to be cured of leprosy was listen to a little girl who was a captive; realize that two kings could not help him; lose face in front of a prophet; listen to his servants; forget about his dignity; and give up his position of national pride,” said the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor at the 10:45 a.m. July 3 morning worship in the Amphitheater. Taylor is the Week Two chaplain at Chautauqua. Her sermon title was “The Cheap Cure,” and the Scripture was II Kings 5:1-14.
Naaman was a Syrian who was an outsider to the covenant, and he had been decorated for defeating Israel. Yet in the Gospel of Luke, he gets a starring role in Jesus’ first sermon, said Taylor.
“This story is a reminder that God is free to help whomever God will help,” Taylor said. “No one people, nation or religion owns God; God alone is wholly free and God will trespass on our laws, heal whomever and confound our morals until we truly understand that.”
That story focuses on God’s agents, she said. God is the director and although we might think the big people drive the story, the little people are God’s operatives as well. Kings and prophets as well as little girls and servants are all God’s operatives.
“The first surprise is that a general of the Syrian army gets good press in Jewish scripture. Naaman is powerful, but he is not a villain,” she said. “His name means ‘pleasant.’ Think Colin Powell who doesn’t photograph well.”
Naaman was a national hero who had leprosy. He wondered why he was sick if he was so favored and he could not find anyone in his own country to heal him.
“It was a little, tiny Jewish girl, the least of the least, a child, slave, foreigner and a girl, who set Naaman on the path to a cure,” Taylor said.
The second surprise is that he listened to her.
“Since when do great commanders take cues from little girls? When nothing has changed,” Taylor said. “Incurable illness has a leveling effect.”
But he did not ask the girl for directions; Naaman went to the king of Syria for help.
The king was happy to help and wrote a letter to the king of Israel asking him to heal Naaman. Naaman “emptied his bank account and took half a ton of currency with him,” she said. When he presented his letter to the king of Israel, the king misread it; he thought Naaman wanted him to perform the healing.
“Kings have political and military power, but not healing power. The kings fumbled the pass and dropped Naaman and the little girl was not there,” she said. “But even without Twitter, Elisha heard about Naaman and sent a message to the king to tell Naaman to come to him, so that he would know there is a prophet in Israel.”
Naaman went to Elisha’s sanctuary and waited. He might have composed a speech to greet the prophet, but while he was rehearing it a servant came out and told him to wash seven times in the Jordan.
“Naaman thought this was a pretty shabby welcome. What kind of cheap, demeaning greeting was that?” Taylor said.
Naaman expected Elisha to come out crackling with divine energy, to call down God’s thunder. The Big Man wanted the Big Cure and he was sent away by a servant to go splash in a little river like a 5-year-old.
“Freud would have called this ‘significant narcissistic injury to the self-worth’ and bill him to his full insurance coverage,” Taylor said.
But Naaman’s servants knew he was more hurt than mad and knew him well enough to speak up. Why not do what the prophet’s servant said even if it was simple?
“The third surprise is that he listened to his servants. He had nothing left to lose. Military prowess, royal help and bags of money got him nowhere. Elisha had given him an extremely stupid thing to do in a river that barely came to his knees,” she said.
Letting go of his pride, Naaman undressed before his servants and got into the river and found a place where he could sink and rise seven times. By the seventh time he was very clean; he was well. And when he tried to pay Elisha, the prophet told him, “Your money is no good here; God works for free.”
“Naaman really wanted to get well and there is so much to love in this story. The good news is this story does not depend on good people defeating evil people. The operative categories in the story of Naaman are big and little, and they share the common denominator of being willing to act redemptively,” Taylor said. “They listen to each other through the static of wealth and power and the little heard better because they had nothing to lose sooner. Of course, there is a casting bias — God has a soft spot for the little.”
The next time you are saying your prayers on a national holiday, remember that for all our wealth and power, we can be surprised with the cheap cure that made us truly free, she said.
Before the morning worship service began, Thomas M. Becker, president of Chautauqua Institution, presented the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor with the Chautauqua President’s Medal. The medal, Becker said, is presented “from time time” to people whose life and work reflects the values that Chautauqua holds. Taylor, who has been called the finest preacher in the English language, received the award to a standing ovation from the congregation.
The Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr. presided. The Hon. Judith Claire read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the Chautauqua Choir. The hymn-anthem was “America, the Beautiful,” arranged by Mark Hayes. The Rev. J. Paul Burkhart served as narrator. The anthem was “Give Me Jesus,” an African-American spiritual arranged by Mark Patterson. The offertory anthem was “The Greatest of These is Love,” by Stephen Crosby. This piece was commissioned by Deacon Rebecca Spanos for her husband, Tasso, on their 50th wedding anniversary, Nov. 11, 2011. The organ postlude was “Variations of ‘America’ for Organ,” by Charles Edward Ives. The Jackson-Carnahan Memorial Chaplaincy provides support for this week’s services
(Photo by Carolyn Brown.)