Tuesday, November 15, 2022
Thursday, November 10, 2022
It’s easy for us, when we read First and Second Kings, to think of this as a history of Israel. And while these books do tell the story of Israel and the succession of its kings, the author isn’t writing just for the sake of history. The author is as much a theologian (trying to understand things) as he is a historian. He’s writing a prophetic history of how the word of God in the Torah and the prophets was the true story of Israel’s God. So, Kings is written from the perspective of someone living long after the exile of the northern kingdom, the destruction of Jerusalem in the south, and the exile to Babylonian. This theological history seeks to explain why Israel and Judah are in exile - because their kings and their people have resisted the word of God and persisted in their rebellion. Leading all the way up to exile.
It’s the story we have heard from the beginning of our readings this fall. God creates a world of beauty and shalom for all of God’s creation. Humanity strays and resists God. Then God works to bring us back into relationship. Over and over and over again. This is the story of the Bible. The narrative arc of scripture.
Today, we read a story about Elisha. Elisha, not Elijah. Elisha was the successor prophet to Elijah. This is a hinge text - helping us make our shift from the monarchy - the reign of Israel’s kings - to the prophets, sent by God to confront and correct Israel’s leaders. They were unsuccessful. Israel’s leaders continued to persist in patterns of idolatry, injustice, and rebellion until finally they were completely wiped out. The kings were wiped out. A remnant of the people would continue. A people who would ache for something or someone better.
But, today and for the next two Sundays, we hear stories of the prophets.
Naaman, a general for the king of Aram, was a great man and highly regarded by his master, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. This man was a mighty warrior, but he had a skin disease. Now Aramean raiding parties had gone out and captured a young girl from the land of Israel. She served Naaman’s wife.
She said to her mistress, “I wish that my master could come before the prophet who lives in Samaria. He would cure him of his skin disease.” So Naaman went and told his master what the young girl from the land of Israel had said.
Then Aram’s king said, “Go ahead. I will send a letter to Israel’s king.”
So Naaman left. He took along ten kikkars of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. He brought the letter to Israel’s king. It read, “Along with this letter I’m sending you my servant Naaman so you can cure him of his skin disease.”
When the king of Israel read the letter, he ripped his clothes. He said, “What? Am I God to hand out death and life? But this king writes me, asking me to cure someone of his skin disease! You must realize that he wants to start a fight with me.”
When Elisha the man of God heard that Israel’s king had ripped his clothes, he sent word to the king: “Why did you rip your clothes? Let the man come to me. Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel.”
Naaman arrived with his horses and chariots. He stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent out a messenger who said, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored and become clean.”
But Naaman went away in anger. He said, “I thought for sure that he’d come out, stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the bad spot, and cure the skin disease. Aren’t the rivers in Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all Israel’s waters? Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean?” So he turned away and proceeded to leave in anger.
Naaman’s servants came up to him and spoke to him: “Our father, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? All he said to you was, ‘Wash and become clean.’” So Naaman went down and bathed in the Jordan seven times, just as the man of God had said. His skin was restored like that of a young boy, and he became clean.
He returned to the man of God with all his attendants. He came and stood before Elisha, saying, “Now I know for certain that there’s no God anywhere on earth except in Israel. Please accept a gift from your servant.”
But Elisha said, “I swear by the life of the Lord I serve that I won’t accept anything.”
Naaman urged Elisha to accept something, but he still refused. Then Naaman said, “If not, then let me, your servant, have two mule loads of earth. Your servant will never again offer entirely burned offerings or sacrifices to any other gods except the Lord. But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master comes into Rimmon’s temple to bow down there and is leaning on my arm, I must also bow down in Rimmon’s temple. When I bow down in Rimmon’s temple, may the Lord forgive your servant for doing that.” (2 Kings 5:1-18 CEB)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God, our Creator, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Ever heard that rhyming phrase before? I heard it for the first time when I was living in Minnesota. Let me tell you - you’ve never really heard it until you’ve listened to someone with a nasally, Midwestern accent say it. You know that “Minnesota friendly accent.” Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
Speaking of easy. Do you remember the marketing campaign by Staples office supply store several years ago that had “Easy” as its tag line? I had one of those “easy” buttons on my desk at work. And whenever someone would come into my office and ask me an easy question or for something that was easy for me to do, I would punch the button and say, Easy peasy, lemon squeezy!
But, seriously, we do like things easy peasy, lemon squeezy. In fact, our society is driven by ease and convenience. From fast food. To online banking. To Amazon orders. We want things to be quick and easy. If something is too cumbersome or time-consuming, we shy away from it. And try to find alternatives. Easier alternatives.
Yet, at the same time, if something is too easy, what do we do? Well, we don’t trust it. Ever heard a conversation like this? Well, that was easy. Yeah, a little too easy if you ask me. Don’t get your hopes up. Haven’t you ever heard the phrase that if something is really worth having, it’s worth waiting for. Or worth the extra effort. Parents, how often have you said that to your kids?
That paradox is what we find in today’s story from Second Kings.
Naaman is introduced to us as a “great man” and “highly regarded” by his master, King Aram. He is a warrior. A mighty warrior. Who has brought great success to this king of Aramea, one of Israel’s fiercest enemies. He is successful, respected, victorious in battle. If we look closely at these introductory verses we see that, in fact, he has won these battles because the LORD has given victory to him and to the Arameans. The LORD. Immediately we get a sense of the universality of this story - of how God acts not just through God’s own people, but through other nations, as well. And their leaders. Even when they are not aware that God is working through them.
But, Naaman has a nagging problem. He has a skin disease. Robert Alter calls it “skin blanch,” meaning he lacks pigmentation in his skin.
Because of his “success” on the battlefield, Naaman has a very close relationship with his king. It is also because of one of those same “successes” that Naaman has captured a young Israelite girl who has been brought into his household as a slave to his wife.
The young woman, unnamed and unnoticed, makes a comment to his wife: “I wish that my master could come before the prophet who lives in Samaria. He would cure him of his skin disease.” The word gets to Naaman, who hears the suggestion, but doesn’t really listen to it. Because, rather than go to the prophet, as she suggests, he goes to his king. Which is how the trouble begins.The king agrees to send a letter to Israel’s king. Along with it he prepares an incentive. Ten kikkars of silver - worth $252,565 as of yesterday. And 6,000 shekels of gold - at yesterday’s value of $3,530,100. Plus ten changes of clothing. I have no number on that today, but, trust me, they were valuable in that time! So, here’s this huge incentive for Israel’s king to help Naaman be cured. And what happens? The king - interestingly unnamed here - misconstrues King Aram’s action. There’s no love lost between these two nations. Immediately, he suspects a trap. That, when he fails to heal Naaman, the Arameans will attack.
Enter Elisha. He intervenes to suggest that Naaman come directly to him. And he does. Our text says that Naaman - with his horses and chariots, a full military contingent. (Was it any wonder that Israel’s king was afraid?) - Naaman goes to Elisha’s house and waits outside.
Rather than come out and prescribe healing directly to Naaman, Elisha sends a messenger with a cure. Go wash in the Jordan seven times. Easy peasy lemon squeezy! Naaman is angry. “Couldn’t this cure be a little grander?” he wonders. Why not wash in the rivers in Damascus, which are so much better than the little, muddy Jordan? But, his servants - his servants - talk him down. He goes. And is healed. And converted. “Now I know for certain that there’s no God anywhere on earth except in Israel.”
Do you notice that conversion isn’t required for healing? In fact, the healing comes first. With no demand from Elisha that Naaman worship God. His worship of God comes from his being healed. His being made whole.
Do you also notice the unexpected voices in this story? Those small, seemingly insignificant players? The slave girl. Naaman’s servants. They are ones - rather than those with power and wealth - through whom God seems to be working most fully to ensure Naaman’s healing. How many times do we see this in scripture? How God works through the most powerless to move God’s reign forward.
How have you experienced God working through the unexpected voices, the small, seemingly insignificant saints in your life? Those offering a well-placed word of hope? Or those who simply modeled faithfulness for you? Those are the ones who, especially today, we are remembering. The quiet voices of those most often insignificant to our world.
But, not to God. Because these are the ones - we heard earlier - these are the ones who made it through the great ordeal. Who now live that promised life of shalom. A life a wholeness. A life of peace and joy. A life in the very presence of God. A life that we will experience one day, too.
Or as St. Paul writes, For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now we know in part; then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known. (1 Cor. 13:12 NRSV)
May God grant it. Amen.
Last week, we heard the story of David and his sin against Bathsheba, her husband, Uriah, and, particularly, about David’s sin before God. We heard him confronted in his sin by the Prophet Nathan. His repentance. And God’s forgiveness.
Yet, as I also mentioned, forgiveness does not always mean escaping the consequences of one’s sin. The dysfunctional aspects of David’s actions led to the death of that first child he had with Bathseba, the sexual assault of a daughter by one of his own sons, the murder of that son by another, and a third son who attempted to overthrow David and who lost his own life in the process.
Today’s reading is about King Solomon. He was the second son of David and Bathsheba. He was not David’s oldest son so, according to tradition, should never have become king. But, unlike last week, when we saw Bathsheba with no agency, by the time a successor to David must be named, she claims her agency to ensure that the line of succession will be turned upside down. And that her son - Solomon - will ascend to the throne. After a great deal of political turmoil, Solomon has taken the reigns of the kingdom - most likely as a teenager. It is here where the reading begins.
The king went to the great shrine at Gibeon in order to sacrifice there. He used to offer a thousand entirely burned offerings on that altar. The Lord appeared to Solomon at Gibeon in a dream at night. God said, “Ask whatever you wish, and I’ll give it to you.”
Solomon responded, “You showed so much kindness to your servant my father David when he walked before you in truth, righteousness, and with a heart true to you. You’ve kept this great loyalty and kindness for him and have now given him a son to sit on his throne. And now, Lord my God, you have made me, your servant, king in my father David’s place. But I’m young and inexperienced. I know next to nothing. But I’m here, your servant, in the middle of the people you have chosen, a large population that can’t be numbered or counted due to its vast size. Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil, because no one is able to govern this important people of yours without your help.”
It pleased the Lord that Solomon had made this request. God said to him, “Because you have asked for this instead of requesting long life, wealth, or victory over your enemies—asking for discernment so as to acquire good judgment— I will now do just what you said. Look, I hereby give you a wise and understanding mind. There has been no one like you before now, nor will there be anyone like you afterward. I now also give you what you didn’t ask for: wealth and fame. There won’t be a king like you as long as you live. And if you walk in my ways and obey my laws and commands, just as your father David did, then I will give you a very long life.”
Solomon awoke and realized it was a dream. He went to Jerusalem and stood before the chest containing the Lord’s covenant. Then he offered entirely burned offerings and well-being sacrifices, and held a celebration for all his servants.
Sometime later, two prostitutes came and stood before the king. One of them said, “Please, Your Majesty, listen: This woman and I have been living in the same house. I gave birth while she was there. This woman gave birth three days after I did. We stayed together. Apart from the two of us, there was no one else in the house. This woman’s son died one night when she rolled over him. She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I was asleep. She laid him on her chest and laid her dead son on mine. When I got up in the morning to nurse my son, he was dead! But when I looked more closely in the daylight, it turned out that it wasn’t my son—not the baby I had birthed.”
The other woman said, “No! My son is alive! Your son is the dead one.”
But the first woman objected, “No! Your son is dead! My son is alive!” In this way they argued back and forth in front of the king.
The king said, “This one says, ‘My son is alive and your son is dead.’ The other one says, ‘No! Your son is dead and my son is alive.’ Get me a sword!” They brought a sword to the king. Then the king said, “Cut the living child in two! Give half to one woman and half to the other woman.”
Then the woman whose son was still alive said to the king, “Please, Your Majesty, give her the living child; please don’t kill him,” for she had great love for her son.
But the other woman said, “If I can’t have him, neither will you. Cut the child in half.”
Then the king answered, “Give the first woman the living newborn. Don’t kill him. She is his mother.”
All Israel heard about the judgment that the king made. Their respect for the king grew because they saw that God’s wisdom was in him so he could execute justice. (1 Kings 3:4-28 CEB)
Grace, mercy, and peace to you through God our Father and through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Imagine if Aladdin appeared here today right in our midst. You are offered three wishes. What are your wishes?
There are many tales throughout history of some supernatural power that offers someone a wish. Or two. Or three. I’m a child of the 70’s - remember “I Dream Of Jeannie? Of course, there is also Aladdin, who I just mentioned. Can you think of any others?
Then there's the story about the married couple? Both of them were 60 years old and celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary. During their party, they were given a gift. They opened it and found a lamp. Out popped a genie who congratulated them on their anniversary, then offered each of them one wish. The wife wanted to travel around the world. Poof! Into her hand popped tickets for a world cruise. Then, the genie turned to her husband to ask what he wanted. His response? “I wish I had a wife 30 years younger than me.” The genie picked up his wand and “poof!” The husband was immediately 90 years old. (Sometimes we need to be very careful for what we wish!)
Now God isn’t a magic genie or a magic piggy bank - even though we might like to think so. But, in today’s story, God comes to Solomon - this teenage king - and actually says, “Ask for anything you want. And I’ll give it to you.” I wonder if I, as a teenager, would have had the presence of mind to ask for what Solomon did - a “discerning mind.” More literally in Hebrew - a “listening heart.”
In Hebrew, the heart was not the place of feelings or emotions, as we think today. But the center of understanding and will. It’s the heart that determines what our spiritual direction will be. It’s also the heart where God influences and determines who we will be. So, to ask for a “listening heart,” Solomon is asking for unity between himself and God. And that this unity would influence his own reign as king.
It was a pretty impressive request, coming from one so young. God was pleased by it. And, in addition to giving Solomon that “listening heart” God also gave him other things - things Solomon didn’t ask for. Wealth. Fame. And a promise that, if Solomon would continue in God’s ways, he would life a long life, just like his father, David.
Then, in the second half of today’s story, this listening heart is immediately put to the test with the story of the two sex workers.
It’s important for us to understand that, being a sex worker or a prostitute in ancient Israel did not carry with it the same moral judgment then as it does today. It likely meant that both of these women were widowed, with no family and, thus, no means of support other than prostitution. They lived together. Each with a baby.
We might wonder why Solomon’s first test concerns women, especially women who were single parents and sex workers. Perhaps it’s because, at least for God, justice belongs as much with the wealthy and the powerful as it does with the least in our society. And it is a wise leader who will work to ensure that everyone - rich or poor, powerful or powerless - that everyone experiences justice.
Very soon, we will be casting our votes in an election. If one measure of justice in a society is the well-being of the most vulnerable, might this be something for us to consider as we go about the business of electing leaders? Who is the best choice on the ballot for a leader that will work to ensure that everyone experiences justice? Who should we vote for - the leader that protects only our interests? Or the leader with wisdom who protects the interests of everyone, who works to ensure that social and economic inequities will be addressed and that no one will be ignored?
Or as one theologian writes, “Wisdom arrives when the soul discerns its destiny, when life aligns in sync with the soul. Wisdom pleases the Lord when it is not self serving, but other serving.”
Solomon will make many mistakes in his reign. Yet, he is given the gift of wisdom - a discernment that allows his soul to be in sync with God. But he is not the only one in our story with wisdom. So, too, is the heart of the true mother of the child. And, isn't she, perhaps, the real hero of this story? That she, for the sake of her son, is willing to give up her life with him? This is the same Wisdom - the same, self-sacrificing love - that we experience from God through Christ Jesus. Who came to us, to be with us, to serve us - that we, too, might live lives of service, especially to those most in need.
This year, as we go to the ballot box, may this, like Solomon, be our wish, too - that our hearts might be fully in sync with God. And our actions, as well. May God grant it, through Christ Jesus. Amen.