In the center of Queen’s Park in Toronto Canada there is a grand equestrian statute of Edward VII, “the uncle of Europe.” Typical of these monuments he is larger in proportion to the horse he rides to emphasize his great power. It was placed in its present spot in 1969, having been transferred from Delhi India after the title ‘emperor of India’ no longer had such a jolly appeal. Edward had in fact dedicated the same park to his mother in 1860 on a celebrated tour of NA, during that long leisurely wait before he finally took the throne at Victoria’s death in 1901.
Naman the Syrian would have deserved a similar tribute. He was a great warrior in fact and not just in style. We hear of him riding to meet Elisha this morning with his great chariot and horses, pulling up to the modest dwelling of the man of God. But more like George VI than his grandfather Edward, Naaman had a terrible affliction. Not stammering, but leprosy.
The movie “The King’s Speech” captures the anguish of Edward’s affliction. We watch helplessly as he struggles through a half sentence, stammering before the nervous radio audience and the vast public stretched out before him. Knowing how much worse it must have been for him, we cringe. At one point Winston Churchill tries to console him. “Terrible affliction. Had it once myself, you know. Made an asset out of it.” And of course George VI will conquer the stammer with the help of his own strange Elisha in the person of an Australian speech coach.
Namaan’s leprosy was surely a terrible affliction. He did not let it get in his way, and rose to great power. Overcompensation comes to mind. But this was not a disease one could “make an asset out of.” It marked him. Military metals could not cover it over.
So one day a servant girl captured in battle tells her mistress that there is a man who can take the affliction away, far more unlikely than the Australian in The King’s Speech. Elisha. The King of Aram agrees to let his commander go, and even sends a letter of introduction with him. As befits a man of high renown, Naaman loads up his chariot with a king’s ransom in silver and gold and finery. The King of Israel received the letter and judges it an effort to ridicule and corner him.
But Elisha immediately takes charge. Who thought the answer would come in the form of kingly deals? I am the man of God. “Let him come to me, that he may learn there is a prophet in Israel.” The chariot screeches to a halt, and Elisha, we are to note, doesn’t even bother to leave his house. He sends a messenger with a simple message. Bathe in the Jordan seven times and you’ll be fine.
If you have seen The King’s Speech you will recall all the labored and complicated treatments poor Bertie had to endure, partly on the theory that for a serious problem there needed an equally serious solution. Tongue twisters, marbles in the mouth, cigarette smoking, bizarre breathing exercises. In the end, Bertie needed just one thing. A friend.
Naaman insists the treatment is not sophisticated enough. He’s a man of great power. He wants a powerful treatment. No wiser line has been delivered than the one his servants offered to him in his rage and embarrassment. “If the prophet had asked a difficult thing, you would have complied. Why not try the simple one, then.”
And so he did. The great man dismounted from his monumental perch and lowered himself like a little boy into the waters that would bring him his heart’s desire. Greater than any battlefield accomplishment, because so deeply personal and so deeply painful. Now healed by God.
Greatness is such a tricky thing. We may pursue it to inoculate us from pain or to cover over a liability we fear may get the better of us. But it does not work. Greatness and success may be important for all kinds of credible reasons, but they cannot heal us or prevent pain in our lives. Or give us the peace that God gives. If the impulse for greatness is not familiar to you, or has not tempted you, you are cut out for monastic life. Leprosy is simply an external marker of something afflicts us inside and outside as well.
Our Gospel lesson on the face of it has little to do with Elisha, until we come to the final line. Let’s set the scene.
Last Sunday Jesus set his face to Jerusalem. He will go up to Passover and meet his destined end there. He does not want anything to distract him or the disciples on this sacred pilgrimage. “Leave the dead to bury the dead.” There is limited time. The Kingdom needs proclaiming. Rob preached to us on this last Sunday.
So today we hear of his sending out seventy to prepare for his own personal presence. Nothing is to take priority over him and his kingdom. No social niceties. Get on with it. No salutes. Say “Peace be with you” and if a peaceable person responds, stay there, and otherwise press on. It’s like a harvest where everything focuses on getting in the crop, to the exclusion of all. Elizabeth and I were once in lower Saxony—the breadbasket of Germany—during harvest time and the massive harvesters were working day and night until the crop is in. Humming through the night, lights on, 24/7.
We expect Jesus to file in behind them once they have reconnoitered and prepared the ground, as he presses on through Samaria to Jerusalem. But Luke reports the action going a different direction. The seventy return. They are thrilled to death. It’s working. What Jesus has done so well, they are able to do as well. Maybe even calling down satan himself and doing dramatic things. The religious success story. Tot up the conversions. Get out the spreadsheets. All good things, unless one loses track of Jesus and his voice and his Lord of the Harvest person.
So he says, “rejoice not that the spirits are subject to you, but that your names are written in heaven.” At the end of the day, what matters is being rooted in Jesus. If one wants to be a religious success story, do it because we know whose we are. Then we will be able to give him the glory when marvelous things happen, knowing that the only harvest in the kingdom happens because he is plowing 24/7 ahead of us. He told the seventy to go ahead of him, but in fact he was ahead of them. He always is. Are we looking for him and his growth? That is our # 1 vocation at St Luke’s. Looking for where he is, already out in front of us. Not looking behind but looking for him.
If we are fortunate in life we will be given things to do that are too hard for us. George VI wanted a quiet military life, and he got a microphone of fear unlike any fear one could imagine. Because of that he faced demons inside himself and found a friend who lifted him into a kingdom on the back of his love. Naaman trounced every foe, but was powerless before the one thing he could do nothing about. He surrendered himself, to the point of humiliation, and found peace and riches beyond the bars of silver and gold in his shiny chariot. Because he was brave enough to reach out for help. Sometimes the hardest things we must face are as close as our own skin.
In the cause of Christ we may do grand things and we may do small things. As the ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky once said, “I missed 100 percent of the shots I never took.” Jesus bids us out onto the water with him. And he does this to set us off on mission, and also to teach us that sinking and fear are always close to hand when we are taking the risk to walk with him and hear his voice. There are no better words than, “your names are written in heaven.” Greater than any legitimate success we may rightly claim in life or in service for him. We don’t hear those words lounging by the pool of ease or shining the name plate on our trophies, or looking inward at this or that issue, but by setting out daily on our walk with him, getting out of comfort zones and risking in his name. Like Naaman, like George VI, and like the seventy, including our family of St Luke’s. When we prepare for the harvest, he will show up. He has promised.