Sermon preached July 3, 2016
Texts: II Kings 5:1-14
Manfred Mann, “Blinded By the Light” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqTE1JvI-mE
So in February I preached a sermon with this same title, but played a different version of the song – two versions, two sermons, right?
This version was the more popular song on the radio. It was a #1 song in 1977, the year I graduated from Duluth East High School. This is Manfred Mann, who had an earlier hit song with “Do Wah Diddy Diddy.” The song was written by and originally recorded by Bruce Springsteen. It appeared on his first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park.”
It seems fitting today to play a song written by someone who has become an American classic – on this Independence Day weekend. But what does this have to do with the story Anne read from II Kings, the story of the ruler Naaman and his encounter with the prophet Elisha? And what does this story have to do with us?
The story is a classic. Naaman is powerful, a military hero from Aram. He also suffered from leprosy. Due to a fortuitous set of circumstances, including the capture of an Israelite who became a slave to Naaman’s wife, Naaman travels to Israel/Samaria to see Elisha to see if Elisha might cure his leprosy. He first sees the king of Israel, who is quite distressed. Suddenly a powerful nearby king expects a healing!? He suspects this is just a pretense for a fight. Elisha, however is willing to act on God’s behalf to heal Naaman. With full entourage, he arrives at Elisha’s home, and Elisha sends a messenger out with instructions that Naaman is supposed to wash in the Jordan River.
Naaman’s response is also a classic. He becomes quite angry and upset. “I thought that for me he would surely come out and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” Enraged, Naaman was ready to turn away. Servants, though, brought him to his senses. “Father, 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?’” Naaman decided to give it a try, and it worked!
So here’s one lesson to draw for our lives. Power can blind us, and healing often comes with new vision and new perspective. Naaman is powerful, so powerful that he becomes offended when Elisha does not seem to pay due deference. He is willing to walk away from the possibility for healing because he is so full of himself, so taken with his own superiority and the superiority of his country. Naaman is powerful and pretentious.
We all have the capacity for pretension. The great American theologian and public thinker of the last century, Reinhold Niebuhr, in his book The Irony of American History, wrote about this. “[The human person] is constantly tempted to overestimate the degree of his freedom and forget that he is also a creature” (Reinhold Niebuhr, LOA, 585). “We… are never safe against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire” (589). One of the core convictions of Niebuhr’s theology was that we humans tend to overestimate our own virtue, goodness and wisdom, and underestimate that in others. The Christian virtue of humility has something to do with being open to what others might teach us, and when we are so open, remarkable things might happen.
I recall an episode of the old television program “All in the Family” where a young man, George, who was developmentally disabled, a “slow learner,” encounters Archie Bunker and family (season 4, episode 19, “Gloria’s Boyfriend). Toward the end of the show, the young man brings over a small poster that one of his teacher’s gave him when he was younger. The teacher gave it to George because he cried when other kids called him “stupid.” The poster read, “Every man is my superior in that I may learn from him.” George said it meant that everybody could learn from everybody – a good lesson, a lesson Naaman finally gets. When Naaman lets go of his pretensions, his “blindness,” healing happens.
Naaman’s story adds yet another dimension, power. Naaman is powerful, and the addition of power to the human capacity for pretension strengthens that capacity. We seem even more tempted to overestimate our wisdom and our goodness when we have power. Couldn’t the prophet, at least for me have come out and waved his hands over my skin? Aren’t the rivers of Damascus better than anything that Samaria or Israel has?
Here’s where Independence Day comes into view. The United States is a powerful nation, perhaps the most powerful nation on the planet right now. The United States has in its founding documents and originating dreams profound human values. One question before us as a nation is whether we can celebrate our accomplishments and promise while also acknowledging our shortcomings and failings. Here is Reinhold Niebuhr again. The question for a nation, particularly for a very powerful nation, is whether the necessary exercise of its virtue in meeting ruthlessness and the impressive nature of its power will blind it to the ambiguity of all human virtues and competencies LOA, 585-586)
The United States has wonderful dreams at its core. I think of the words on the Statue of Liberty (Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”):
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
What a beautiful dream. We celebrate that this week. Can we also acknowledge the truth captured by another poet, the African-American poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes?:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)….
Can we honestly look at places where America has not been the dream we were meant to be? As Christians, can we ask such questions, knowing that God in love yearns for human communities to be communities of hope and healing, care and compassion, justice, peace, reconciliation and love? Can we be people who are not afraid of difficult truths, people who understand that the truth sets us free, and that new vision is often a prelude to healing?
In her book about mass incarceration in the United States, an particularly its impact on African-American communities, Michele Alexander writes about “callous colorblindness.” It is not an overstatement to say the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States would not have been possible in the post-civil rights era if the nation had not fallen under the spell of a callous colorblindness…. It is precisely because we, as a nation, have not cared much about African-Americans that we have allowed our criminal justice system to create a new racial undercaste (240-241). Hard words, but is she on to something? Will we have the courage to look, particularly if we have enough power not to worry so much about getting caught up in that system?
We all have our “blind spots.” As human beings we all tend to overestimate our virtue and our wisdom. When we have power, as persons, as a nation, that temptation is even greater. Reinhold Niebuhr put it well. “If men are inclined to deal unjustly with their fellows, the possession of power aggravates this inclination” (LOA, 354) The Naaman story reminds us that God’s healing comes when we are open to new visions, new perspectives. God’s healing comes when we can let go of our blindnesses, let go of our self-importance, not our self-esteem but our self-importance, and wash in the rivers of love and justice and freedom that may be near at hand. When we do that we are a stronger people. When we do that, we are a stronger nation. Amen.