Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on February 12, 2006
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Sermon preached by
The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler
February 12, 2006
Episcopal priest Elizabeth Kaeton tells of an Armenian Orthodox priest who invited her to assist at a funeral. To her surprise, he preached the homily in English, which - thought it had some grammatical errors - was certainly understand-able. He began the homily by saying "There are people in this world who are always making you happy. They are always having a smile, or a kind word to say. They are always doing a nice thing." Walking over to the casket and putting his hand lovingly on the top he said, "This...is not one of those people." He went on to say, "But isn't our God so good, isn't our God so forgiving, that even now, this man is resting in...the loving arms of God, beloved of....Jesus Christ , and blessed by the warmth of the Holy Spirit. This is so," the priest added, "...because people is people, and God is God." (Alling and Schlafer, Preaching Through Holy Days and Holidays, pp. 65-66)
Today's Old Testament story was that great story about Naaman, a story that shows us how people is people and God is God - a God who despite our shaky and questionable behavior, sees the value of all human beings and, as such, acts in ways that, for us, are unexpected.
Naaman was a Syrian general who had fought - and won - battles against the Israelites, God's chosen people. Naaman's interest in the God of Israel didn't grow out of a desire to be in relationship with God; it grew out of his own self-interest: to have his leprosy cured. As an important person, he had certain expectations of how he would be greeted by God's prophet and how God would effect the cure. But there was not the anticipated greeting by the great prophet Elisha, nor was there a flashy cure. Rather, a messenger told Naaman to go bathe himself, not in a nice clean river like he had back home, but in the muddy Jordan. Strutting fuming and complaining, Naaman does as suggested - and is healed.
Afterwards, Naaman declares the God of Israel to be the only God, but
as is clear in a section following today's reading, he still doesn't
quite get it. Predisposed by his previous religion to see gods as tied
to a particular area of land, he carts Israelite soil back to Syria
so he can properly worship this God of Israel. He also tells Elisha
that, in order to keep his king happy, there will be times when he'll
have to worship another god - and he certainly hopes this won't be a
So, we have an arrogant Syrian who has battled God's chosen people, who complains about God's method of healing - and is healed anyway. We have a man who carts off dirt which he believes somehow contains the uncontainable God and asks permission to bow down - on occasion - to another god. And God doesn't even seem to bat an eye.
God is a jealous God - how could he tolerate Naaman's bowing down to another God? God is the God of Israel - why would he heal someone who had battled and killed his chosen people? God is the God of all creation; why would he put up with the suggestion he was tied to a particular pile of dirt? God welcomes those who come to him in faith - why would he welcome one who really had no faith, but was coming simply out of self-interest?
God doesn't behave as we'd expect. We cannot second-guess him. He doesn't act as we think he should act. Within this story is the claim that all people are God's people, even those who don't know his name, even those who come to him for reasons that may not be stellar, even those who never quite get it right. And although we might give up on or cast such people aside, God does not.
And that is very good news for us because we have, no doubt, at times behaved like Naaman. We have suffered from arrogance, gone to God out of self-interest, questioned God's ways of working in our life - not miraculous enough, not what we'd planned or hoped for. We have doubted the presence of God; we have bowed down to other gods in the sense of putting other things before God in our lives. We've asked God's blessing on compromises we've made. We've strutted, fumed and complained. Yet, according to today's story, God stays with us, holding out the possibility of healing, change and growth - always and forever - because we are his.
While that is good news for us, it is hard to hear when we transfer
it to other people, when we are reminded that, as God feels about us,
so he feels about all others. In light of today's story, it is absurd
for anyone, including us, to wrap a cloak of righteousness around ourselves
and assume that we are the ones God loves the most while others who
have hurt us or those we love, others who are not as nice as we are,
others who are not as faithful as we are, are all going to hell in a
handbasket. In the first place, we may not be as nice and as faithful
we like to think. But beyond that, all people are God's people, as much
his children as we are. And this is not only true in our personal lives.
It is true globally.
The preacher Fred Craddock tells a story of how after what we called the Gulf War had begun, Craddock and some other Christian in Atlanta gathered for prayer. Craddock writes "...Seated next to me [was] a young man...about seventeen or eighteen...In the course of [us all offering prayers,] he asked that God be with the women and children in Iraq who would be hurt and killed in the war. When the meeting ended, a man in his mid-fifties went over to that young man and asked "Are you on Saddam's side?" "Well, no," answered the young man. To which the older man replied, "Then you're praying for the wrong people." (Craddock Stories, p. 130)
There can be no wrong people for which to pray because, as the story of Naaman shows us, God cares about all people. Regardless of how we think God ought to behave, he behaves in a way that seeks to draw us all to himself. Regardless of who we think he ought to heal, his desire is to heal us all. Regardless of who we think he ought to love, he loves us all.
When there are people in our lives who have hurt us or those we love, people in our world who want to hurt us and those we love, resentment, fear and anger can cause us to draw battle lines (figuratively and literally), to discount people, to assume that God cannot and does not care about them. But we know that just isn't so. For the story of Naaman, the story of God's love for us in Christ, tell us otherwise. For in Christ, God has shown us the lengths to which he will go to claim us as his own. Despite our sins and failures, despite our arrogance, despite our strutting and fuming and complaining, we are loved - we are all loved - because while "People is people, God is God."
The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler
St Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, Buffalo, New York
Reprinted with permission