Sunday, October 10, 2010

Dirts Works

2 Kings 5:1-17

The story of the healing of Naaman has lots of interesting details. The first is that God had given victory to him, as a leader of the Aramean army. It’s important to understand that victory for Naaman would have meant defeating Israel, God’s chosen people. At this time, it would have been understood that the victors of a battle had God’s favor and the losers did not.

Other important details:

- 1. If Aram had not defeated Israel, it is likely that Naaman would never have heard of Elisha. (One possible interpretation of this is that God was always, even prior to Jesus, trying to bring people into the fold of grace.)

- 2. The king of Israel believes the king of Aram is setting him to fail with an impossible task. If he does fail, he would expect the king of Aram to attack.

- 3. The Jordan was muddy river, barely a trickle in some areas, but the rivers of Damascus were faster, flowing clear streams. The idea of bathing in the Jordan seemed abhorrent and counterintuitive.

- 4. Having been warned often about the “easy” way, we often make things much harder for ourselves then they need to be. We often avoid conversations and tasks that aren’t that difficult precisely because we’re afraid of how easy they seem.


Why does Naaman want to take two wagonloads of dirt back to Aram with him? What’s he going to do with two loads of dirt? The belief of most people during this time, around the Mediterranean region, was that the spirit of a region’s god rested in the soil there. Naaman is going to devote himself to the God of Elisha, the God of the Israelites, so he believes he needs enough of the soil to be able to have a hefty amount of the Spirit available to him and enough land on which to put a small altar or shrine.

In his eagerness to worship the God who cured him, Naaman is going with what he knows, which is that the dirt must house the God. The idea of a God who is bigger than the land, bigger than the sea, a God of all- that is beyond Naaman’s imagination. So he reduces, so that he can understand.

We often do the same thing. Because we are descendants of Naaman, we are a visual people, a tactile people. We need things to cling to, concrete items. The church, the stained glass, the paraments, the printed Bibles, all things to help us with our faith- to connect us to God. In fact, the reason we have water at baptism and bread and wine at communion is precisely because we need earthly elements. We need those concrete things and the concrete images of washing and nourishment, so that we have something to which we can attach God’s promises. Otherwise our best intentions go floating off into the ether.

Naaman could have left after Elisha refused any payment. He could have left with the best intentions of continuing to worship the God of Israel. But what would have happened a week later, when he slept in? Or a month later, when he was on troop maneuvers again? He would have forgotten, told himself that he would do it later, felt guilty and then gotten into that bad cycle of “Now I am so far behind, it would be embarrassing to try to correct it.”

So he takes the soil. But it will be work not to worship that soil, but to worship God.

In the same way, it’s the work of our faith, and I mean the labor of our faith, not to make the objects that inspire our faith what we are worshipping. Not the dirt, or the water, or the bread, or the peace and quiet or the rush of wind, not the healing or the peaceful death, but God and God alone deserves our thanks and our praise.

That’s the function of the Creed and the Prayers in worship. Words that do not come from us, but are familiar. Words that speak to our faith, draw us out of our own understanding, push us to the limits of what we believe could be true and then we dare to ask for more.

The depth of the Creed, the heartfelt nature of prayers, help us to realize that we believe in a God who cannot be contained in earth. A God who forgives us when our best intentions fall short. A God who commands us to pray, helps us with that prayer and takes those prayers to heart.

Naaman took two carts of dirt back to Aram, to remember his gratitude and to worship God. We use earthly elements and ancient words to do the same thing. To help us to stop, to thank God and to remember that the faithfulness of Christ has made us whole.


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